Theater of Cruelty

Schmeling vs. Louis

The 1938 World Heavyweight Championship was not only a settlement between a colored and a white man, but between fascism and democracy.


[boxing] A fight for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1938 was a unique event. The newspapers announced on the day of the match that something extraordinary was going to happen. In addition to about 70.000 spectators at Yankee Stadium, approx. 100 million gather around their radios. 20 million Germans and 60 million Americans would listen to the reporters' voices with great excitement.

National prestige. In the summer of 2006, the interest of the sports world was concentrated on the World Cup in Berlin. In addition to the purely sports achievements, this is also a national prestige, both for the participating countries and the organizer. A good effort on the field helped shine the players' home country and could strengthen the self-esteem of many.

70 years ago, Germany also hosted a giant sporting event – the Berlin Olympics in August 1936. The event was to serve as a convincing demonstration. Here the world should see that Germany had regained its power and faith in itself. Through the sports competitions, Hitler also hoped to show the world the strength and will to win of German youth.

Not least, sports heroes such as German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling's major international victories (and a World Cup in 1930-32) had contributed to many positive news in the world press. For a nation traumatized by the chaotic political and economic situation in the country following the defeat of World War I, this could have a good impact on popular opinion.

The German authorities sought to build Schmeling as a bit of an ideal for the youth. Boxing was also introduced as a compulsory subject in the school. When, in a bloody battle in the spring of 1935, Schmeling crushed the opposition of American Steve Hamas in Hamburg, the victory was greeted with hysterical cheer, followed by a loud "Sieg Heil" cry by the thousands of crowds. English and French journalists were almost shocked by the glowing, almost warlike response. It wasn't just an American pugilist who was beaten. Now "New Germany" had also defeated the mighty United States. But it had to be tread carefully.

During his stay in the United States before his June 19, 1936, fight against the colored boxing phenomenon Joe Louis, nicknamed "The Brown Bomber," Schmeling had been given an important mission: to do his best to reduce Americans' fears that colored and Jewish participants in the Berlin Games would be harassed.


Developments in Germany following Hitler's rise to power in 1933 had led to a sharp deterioration in conditions for the German Jews. Their newspapers had been confiscated, businesses boycotted, and anti-Semitic actions were the order of the day. With rising unrest, American Jews and others had noticed this.

The American writer David Margolick – i.a. longtime contributor to the New York Times – portrays in his in-depth book Beyong – Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink (NY2005) the social and political background for the legendary battles between two of the world's most famous fist fighters. In a world on the brink of World War II.

For both Jews and coloreds, Joe Louis had become an important symbol in the fight against racial discrimination and dictatorship. And the interest in the match was great, although in the United States there were few who left Schmeling any chance. Several radio stations would broadcast the match in several languages, English as well as Spanish and German. 60 million Americans would sit at their radio, many more than those who listened to broadcasts from the largest political meetings that year. Speakers were set up in many central locations in several cities.

In Germany it was estimated that approx. 30.000 would listen to the transfer from New York Yankee Stadium, even though it took place at. 03 in the morning. Every XNUMX minutes, the Germans were encouraged to listen on the radio. And not only that: "It is every German's duty to be up tonight," it was reported.

"Max will fight overseas with a Negro for the hegemony of the white race": Scheling's wife, film star Annie Ondra, was a guest of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' family.

Before the match, Schmeling had expressed that he had overserved a mistake Louis used to make: After a right left turn, he was very open. After the first round of the match, he confides in his coach and second McMachon: "He can hit, but he will walk the puppet." And in the 1th round it happens. With a powerful higher cross, he sends Louis down: He who has never in his career been on the floor. He will soon be up again, but must in the following rounds receive many such higher blows. In the 4th round, it's all over, and Schmeling helps the opponent's second to carry the fallen Louis away in his corner.

For Louis`s race friends, the result was a terrible downturn. But not just for them. The Jews took it just as hard. In Germany there was great excitement. Especially with the Nazi leaders, led by the driver. It was decided that the film from the match would be shown in all the country's cinemas – as the main film, and with the title «Max Schmeling's victory – a German victory».


In Germany, the authorities ruled that no athlete could be "apolitical" in the Third Reich. They had to get acquainted with the history of the party and Hitler. But Schmeling was exempt from this rule, says Margolick. He was also never a member of the party. He retained his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, despite critical comments. He also had a number of good friends among German and American Jews.

In the United States, many believed that the German pugilist was being exploited by the Nazis to give a too flattering picture of conditions in his home country. The Jewish Anti-Nazi League decided to include Schmeling on its list of "banned German goods". One would try to prevent him from meeting the world champion (1935-37) Jimmy Braddock in a battle for the title. Hitler was preparing to go to war, and Schmeling's income in the United States contributed greatly to the strengthening of the German economy, it was claimed. A German world champion would lead to a "national hysteria".

It all ended with Joe Louis becoming the new world champion in 1937 and the following year getting the chance to avenge his heinous defeat for Schmeling. The two were to meet in New York on June 22, 1938.

The battle for the world heavyweight championship was a unique event. Unlike basketball, American football, hockey, golf or tennis, interest encompasses all classes. And this match was not just a showdown between a colored and a white man, but equally between fascism and democracy, against racism and terror. It was only five months before Kristallnacht in Germany, the pogrom that announced that all normal life for German Jews was over. That night, Schmeling took care of two Jewish boys.

The newspapers announced on the day of the match that something extraordinary was going to happen, Margolick continues. When the time came, press people from all over the world sat on the sidelines. Among the audience were leading politicians and representatives of all key branches of society, including law, finance, art science etc.

I was 14-15 years old and heard the match on medium wave radio with my brother.

Already two minutes and four seconds after the gong-gong had gone, it was all over. I will never forget the desperate exclamation of the German reporter: «Der Max ist geschlagen. Max has been beaten ». And Schmeling was completely crushed by Joe Louis' murderous attack.

The excitement among the United States of America, especially in Harlem, would never end that night. "It was as if a world war had just ended," it was said. In some places Jews celebrated and colored together with song and dance. A Jewish newspaper emphasized the need to recognize the symbolic value of the sport. A Buenos Aires newspaper reported with its boldest types: "Hitler's racism struck like lightning."

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