Max Schmeling – a summary

One of most politically-charged sporting events took place in New York’s Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938 – a boxing match between the then heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’, and the German, Max Schmeling, the unwilling darling of the Nazi Party.

Born in 1905, Max Schmeling had advanced through the boxing ranks within Germany and Europe and even impressed Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion, in a friendly fight during the champion’s tour of Europe. But to be a true star of the boxing world, one had to conquer the US. And it was to America, in 1928, the 23–year-old Schmeling travelled.

The Low Blow Champion

It was an astute move, and the young German was soon a sensation winning his initial fights on American soil. In 1930, the reigning heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney, retired and Schmeling was pitted against fellow-contender, Jack Sharkey. Schmeling won the fight but not in a manner that he would have liked – Sharkey had knocked the German to the floor but was disqualified for throwing a punch below the belt, leaving Schmeling floored and clutching his groin. Thus, with Sharkey disqualified, Schmeling had become World Heavyweight champion by default. The press derided Schmeling’s victory, calling him the ‘Low Blow Champion,’ a nickname that must have hurt. Sharkey’s team, feeling grieved, demanded an immediate re-match.

As heavyweight champion, the only German to have been so, Max Schmeling dispatched a boxer called Young Stribling, before facing Sharkey again in 1932. This time the fight went to 15 rounds, and Sharkey, to the astonishment of neutral onlookers, was given the fight on points, stripping Schmeling of his title. ‘We woz robbed,’ screamed Schmeling’s Jewish trainer, Joe ‘Yussel the Muscle’ Jacobs. The newspapers, and even the mayor of New York, agreed.

Hitler’s Boxer

The following year, Hitler came to power as German Chancellor and the persecution against Jews began in earnest. Max Schmeling’s exploits came to the attention of the Nazi Party and they took the young boxer to their breasts as typical of the Aryan ideal. The Nazis enforced a ban on Jews playing any part in boxing, whether as fighter, trainer, promoter or even fan. Schmeling was told to ditch his Jewish trainer, and to Schmeling’s credit, he refused to do so.

New York, with its large Jewish population, associated Schmeling with the new German regime, not helped that Schmeling’s next fight, in June 1933, was against Max Baer. Although himself not a Jew, Baer’s father had been, which, under Nazi classification, made him a Mischlinge. Bauer came into the ring with the Star of David stitched onto his shorts. The fight was seen as good versus evil, with Schmeling cast as Hitler’s representative in the boxing ring. Baer, much to America’s delight, won.

Schmeling v Louis

Despite the loss, Schmeling was offered the chance to fight fellow-contender, Joe Louis (pictured). Louis was not only the role model of African-Americans but of Americans everywhere as the embodiment of a rags to riches tale, a man living the American dream.  Against him, Max Schmeling represented the polar opposite, the land of anti-Semitism and oppression. The Nazis were displeased that Schmeling should deign to fight a Negro but the fight went ahead on 19 June 1936. Schmeling, the underdog, floored Louis twice, knocking him out in the 12th round and winning convincingly. Schmeling was delighted but not overly surprised: ‘I wouldn’t have fought a colored man if I didn’t think I could lick him,’ he told reporters.

Schmeling returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany not by ship but by another symbol of German superiority, the Hindenburg airship. Schmeling’s victory was ‘not only sport’, crowed the Nazi weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), ‘it was a question of prestige for our race.’ A new film was released, Schmeling’s Victory: A German Victory, and shown throughout the country. Schmeling was feted as all that was good in Nazi Germany, appearing smiling at the side of Hitler, a fan of boxing, and Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. (Indeed, Schmeling’s wife, Anny, listened to the fight on the radio in Goebbels’s living room). When later quizzed about his meetings with Hitler, Schmeling responded by saying, ‘I once went to dinner with Franklin Roosevelt; that did not make me a Democrat’. But Schmeling did attend Nazi rallies at Nuremberg and supported Nazi charities.

Schmeling returned to New York in May 1937 and had been booked onto the Hindenburg but a last minute change of plan meant he travelled instead by sea. Thus, by a quirk of fate, Schmeling missed being on the Hindenburg when, arriving in New Jersey, it exploded into flames, claiming the lives of 36.

In New York, Schmeling became a spokesman for Germany, often quizzed about life under the Nazis. For Schmeling the pressure must have been difficult especially when the pressure came from Hitler himself: ‘When you go to the United States, you’re going to obviously be interviewed by people who are thinking that very bad things are going on in Germany at this moment. And I hope you’ll be able to tell them that the situation isn’t as bleak as they think it is.’ Hence, in one interview, he said, ‘I have seen no Jews suffer… whatever pain they are undergoing they have brought on themselves by circulating anti-Nazi horror stories in New York and elsewhere.’

Schmeling v Louis: the re-match

Having beaten Joe Louis, Schmeling now wanted a chance of regaining the title from the reigning champion James Braddock, but Braddock’s camp feigned injury, not wanting to be involved with the man they considered a Nazi puppet. Instead, Braddock fought Joe Louis and lost. The Brown Bomber was now the heavyweight champion of the world.

The much-anticipated Louis–Schmeling rematch of 22 June 1938 (pictured) was billed as the ‘fight of the century’, with its politically charged rivalry between the land of the free and the land of Aryan racial purity. Among the 70,000 audience were Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. As he approached the ring, Schmeling was greeted with jeers and pelted with rubbish. The fight lasted all of two minutes and four seconds when Schmeling was knocked out. He spent ten days in hospital recovering from his injuries which included a number of broken ribs. Louis had got his revenge and democracy, it seemed, had triumphed over fascism. But ultimately it was about boxing and that on this particular occasion, the American was better than the German.

The German ambassador in America tried to persuade Schmeling to claim foul play against Louis but Schmeling refused. This time, when Schmeling returned to Germany, by humble ship, there was no celebration, no welcome party. Schmeling, now considered a loser, was shunned by the party that had been so keen to embrace him.

Schmeling may have previously appeared as an apologist for the Nazi regime but when faced with its reality, he demonstrated true courage. On the night of 10-11 November 1938, when the Nazis unleashed their battering of Jews and Jewish synagogues and businesses during what became known as Kristallnacht, Schmeling hid two Jewish brothers in his hotel suite for two days, sharing what food he had with them and refusing all visitors, claiming he was ill. Later, Schmeling spirited the boys and family out of Germany. One of them, Henri Lewin, speaking in 1989, paid homage to the boxer, saying that had they been discovered, ‘I would not be here this evening and neither would Max’.

Private Schmeling

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Schmeling was forcibly drafted into the German army as a paratrooper (pictured) and, as a 36-year-old private, saw action during the Battle of Crete in 1941 where he was wounded. Schmeling believed that the particularly perilous assignment had been the Nazi Party’s revenge on him. No doubt they hoped he would be killed and provide them with a new martyr. When ordered by Goebbels to fabricate tales for the press relating to supposed British barbarity against German prisoners, Schmeling refused. He was promptly court-martialed on the personal orders of the Propaganda Minister.

Post-war, Schmeling, living in Germany and in need of money, fought five more matches, his first fights since before the war. He fought and lost his final fight in 1948, as a 43-year-old. He started working for the German branch of Cola-Cola, eventually running his own bottling plant and becoming very rich in the process. Meanwhile, in the US, Joe Louis fell on hard times, unable to pay mounting tax debts. Schmeling visited his former boxing rival in the US and helped him along financially. When Louis died in 1981, Schmeling contributed towards the cost of the funeral.

After 54 years of marriage, Schmeling’s wife, Anny, died in 1987. Anny, a former actress of Polish-Czech descent, had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film, Blackmail, Britain’s first talkie.

Max Schmeling died 2 February 2005, seven months short of his hundredth birthday.

MBtE - NGRupert Colley

Claim your free copy of Rupert’s novel, My Brother the Enemy

 

Max Schmeling – the boxer the Nazis tried to claim as their own

One of most politically-charged sporting events took place in New York’s Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938 – a boxing match between the then heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’, and the German, Max Schmeling, the unwilling darling of the Nazi Party.

Born 28 September 1905, Max Schmeling had advanced through the boxing ranks within Germany and Europe and even impressed Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion, in a friendly fight during the champion’s tour of Europe. But to be a true star of the boxing world, one had to conquer the US. And it was to America, in 1928, the 23–year-old Schmeling travelled.

The Low Blow Champion

It was an astute move, and the young German was soon a sensation, winning his initial fights on American soil. In 1930, the reigning heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney, retired and Schmeling was pitted against fellow-contender, Jack Sharkey. Schmeling won the fight but not in a manner that he would have liked – Sharkey had knocked the German to the floor but was disqualified for throwing a punch below the belt, leaving Schmeling floored and clutching his groin. Thus, with Sharkey disqualified, Schmeling had become World Heavyweight champion by default. The press derided Schmeling’s victory, calling him the ‘Low Blow Champion,’ a nickname that must have hurt. Sharkey’s team, feeling grieved, demanded an immediate re-match.

As heavyweight champion, the only German to have been so, Max Schmeling dispatched a boxer called Young Stribling, before facing Sharkey again in 1932. This time the fight went to 15 rounds, and Sharkey, to the astonishment of neutral onlookers, was given the fight on points, stripping Schmeling of his title. ‘We woz robbed,’ screamed Schmeling’s Jewish trainer, Joe ‘Yussel the Muscle’ Jacobs. The newspapers, and even the mayor of New York, agreed.

Hitler’s Boxer

Continue reading

Ping Pong Diplomacy – a summary

On 10 April 1971, the simple game of table tennis marked the beginning of a thaw in the diplomatic freeze that had existed between the US and China for over 20 years. The occasion became known as ping-pong diplomacy.

The US ping-pong team was in Nagoya, Japan, for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships, and following a team practice 19-year-old Californian student, Glenn Cowan, missed the team bus. Zhuang Zedong, a Chinese player and three times world champion, on seeing Cowan’s plight, offered the American a seat on the Chinese team bus.

“The ping heard round the world”

Mao ZedongAlthough talking to a foreigner was deemed a crime in China, the two men, chatting through an interpreter, found a rapport. Zedong gave the American a silk gown by way of a present, and invited the American team to play a friendly championship in China. This seemingly innocuous invitation has to be seen in the context of the time – no American had stepped on Chinese soil since Chairman Mao (pictured) had come to power 22 years earlier in 1949. Time magazine called it “The ping heard round the world.”

By the time they had got off the bus the Chinese team and their American passenger were surrounded by press. Within hours, Zedong’s informal invitation had been endorsed by Mao and been made official.

Thus, on 10 April 1971 nine US players, four officials, two spouses and five US journalists crossed a bridge from Hong Kong onto Chinese soil,.

‘Friendship First Competition Second’

Under the slogan ‘Friendship First Competition Second’, the Chinese men’s team won 5-3, and the women’s team 5-4; the Chinese politely refraining from inflicting a white-wash on the Americans. Glen Cowan, with this American long hair and red hair band, was clearly the crowd’s favourite.

Continue reading

Blood in the Water – Cold War Olympics

6 December 1956 saw one of the most violent and politically-charged sporting clashes in history, an event that came to be known as ‘ Blood in the Water ’. The occasion was the Olympic water polo semi-final between Hungary and the USSR. Played against the backdrop of Cold War politics, the game was, from start to finish, fraught with tension.
Water Polo
Hungary was the undoubted superpower of 1950s water polo. They had won gold at three of the four previous Olympic Games, and silver at the London Olympics of 1948; and were firm favourites to triumph again at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the first Olympics to be held in the southern hemisphere. The Soviets, jealous of Hungary’s success in the water, had been training in Hungary in the months leading up to the Olympics, trying to learn what made the Hungarians so good at their game. Since 1949, Hungary had been a Soviet satellite and thus the Soviet team arrived, uninvited, and made use of Hungary’s pool facilities and expertise. A ‘friendly’ match in Moscow earlier in the year had erupted in violence; the Russians having won thanks to some dubious partisan referring.
Hungarian Revolution
Then, in October 1956, came the Hungarian Revolution. The people of Hungary stood up to the oppression of a tyrannical and foreign ruler. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent in the tanks to quell the uprising and restore order. The tanks, having failed, were withdrawn. Khrushchev replaced Hungary’s hard-line communist rulers with the more populist Imre Nagy. Nagy announced his decision to withdraw Hungary from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, introduce much-needed reform and, most alarmingly for Khrushchev, spoke of independence.
A week later, the Soviet tanks re-appeared and, this time, with brutal efficiency, crushed the revolution. Some 3,000 Hungarian citizens were killed. Nagy took sanctuary in the Yugoslav embassy but, a year later, having been lured out, was arrested by the new pro-Soviet regime in Budapest, tried and executed.
Meanwhile, while the Hungarian Revolution played out, the national Olympic water-polo team had been holed up with Russian minders in a hillside hotel in Budapest within earshot of the gun battles raging below. On 1 November they started on their three-week journey to Melbourne not knowing the outcome of the uprising. It was only when they arrived in Australia, they learnt that their oppressive rulers were back in charge (and would remain so for another 33 years). It was at this point that many of the players decided that, once the Olympics were over, they would not be returning to their homeland.
They won their first four games of the tournament against Great Britain, the USA, Italy and Germany. And so they reached the semi-final to face the team that represented their oppressors. The scene was set for a tumultuous confrontation – blood in the water.
Blood in the Water
The game took place on 6 December. The Hungarian team had decided from the off to conduct a psychological battle by needling their opponents. Having been forced to learn the Russian language two hours a day throughout their school years, the Hungarian players could easily make themselves understood as they mocked their opponents’ illegitimacy. Within the first minute of the heavily-charged grudge match, the referee had consigned a Russian player to the penalty box.
Fights continued throughout the game, both above and below the water line. Together with their method of zonal marking, a revolutionary tactic for the time, the Hungarians had the Soviets quickly ruffled.
The Australian crowd’s sympathy clearly lay with the Hungarians, chanting ‘Go Hungary’ throughout the game and waving the Hungarian flag with the Soviet emblem ripped from its centre. (The Australian team had been beaten by the USSR earlier in the tournament).
With the match drawing to its close, the score was 4-0 to Hungary. In the last couple of minutes, Hungary’s star player, the 21-year-old Ervin Zador, was assigned by his captain to mark the Soviet forward, Valentin Prokopov. Zador had already scored two of Hungary’s goals. On hearing the referee blow his whistle, Zador made what he called a ‘horrible mistake’, and momentarily took his eye of the Soviet. He looked back to see Prokopov’s arm windmilling before being thumped a mighty blow that caught him in the eye and cheek. There was, indeed, blood in the water.
The Australian crowd went berserk and surged forward. The police, who had been told to expect trouble, hence their presence at the game, stepped in. The referee blew full time a minute early while the police escorted the Soviet team away from the baying crowd. Ervin Zador was led from the pool with blood pouring from his face. A photograph of the bloodied player has become an iconic image of Cold War-era Olympics.
Thus, having won, the Hungarian team advanced to the final against Yugoslavia. Zedor, although desperate the play, was unable to – his eye was too swollen. He nervously watched the game from the stands as his teammates triumphed, winning the final 2-1. He received his gold medal on the podium dressed in a suit. (The Soviets won their play-off match, beating Germany 6 -4, and hence earned the bronze medal).
San Francisco
Following the Olympics, Zador, along with half his teammates, sought asylum. It was, he said years later, a difficult decision – he was at the peak of his career and could look forward to a bright sporting future in Hungary. But the Soviet oppression was too much. Thus, he moved to the US and settled in San Francisco. Water polo in the US was not the sport it was in Hungary and, reluctantly, Zedor gave it up. Instead, he took up a job as a swimming instructor and trained a young Mark Spitz, who, at the Munich Olympics of 1972, won seven gold medals.
2006, the fiftieth anniversary of the Blood in the Water game, saw two cinematic releases based on the event – a documentary, Freedom’s Fury, executively produced by Quentin Tarantino, no less, and narrated by Zedor’s former protégé, Mark Spitz; and a Hungarian feature film, Children of Glory.
Ervin Zador died 28 April 2012.
The Torn FlagRupert Colley
Rupert’s page-turning novel, The Torn Flag, set during the chaotic days of the 1956 the Hungarian Revolution, is now available.