Max and the bomber
Given the circumstances, perhaps not since David and Goliath had two individual combatants so strikingly symbolized the causes of their respective nations.
Max Schmeling was a hero in Germany when he won the heavyweight title from Jack Sharkey in 1930, becoming the first German to hold the crown. In 1932 he lost the title back to Sharkey. In 1933, he lost to Max Baer, causing many to feel that he was past his prime.
In 1936, as Hitler was building his military machine, Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber,” faced Schmeling in a non-title bout at Yankee Stadium. Louis was 24-0 and was the up-and-coming heavyweight contender. He was a heavy favorite and did not take the bout seriously. Schmeling won in a 12th-round knockout.
Schmeling was embraced by the Hitler regime for his publicity value. However, the boxer had many Jewish friends, including his manager. He refused to stop associating with them, even after a visit from the infamous Joseph Goebbels.
In 1937, Louis beat James J. Braddock for the heavyweight title. Since he was past 30, Schmeling knew that if he were going to regain the title, he would have to face Louis again, and soon. Accordingly, on June 27, 1938, he and Joe again met at Yankee Stadium, this time for the crown.
This time the results were very different. Louis trained hard, and knocked out Schmeling in the first round. He injured the German with a blow to the kidney area. The German ambassador visited Schmeling in the hospital to urge him to claim a foul, but he refused. He replied that he had turned into the blow, and thus it was his fault.
Now that he had lost and was out of favor with the Nazis, Schmeling had no political pull. Still he continued to help his Jewish friends.
November 9 was the infamous Night of Broken Glass, a Nazi purge against the Jews. Henri Lewin’s father asked Schmeling to take his two sons into his home and protect them. The boxer did so for three days, even though he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by the action.
In 1950, Schmeling visited the U. S. and called at the Louis home. “Where’s the champ?” he asked. He was told that Joe was playing golf. The family phoned the course and, despite being an avid golfer, he called off the round and went home to see his old foe again.
Schmeling said, “I wanted him to know that there was never any hate toward him. We were both crying when I left, and since then we have been very, very good friends.”
Schmeling invested in one of the major Coca Cola franchises in Germany and became financially prosperous. Not so with Louis. He had signed over to military Relief Funds the purses from his two bouts in 1942, but the IRS inexplicably insisted that he owed taxes on them.
Joe Louis died of a heart attack in Las Vegas in 1981. His coffin was displayed in Caesar’s Palace and viewed by large crowds of people. Schmeling could not make the funeral service, but he called Henri Lewin, the Jewish boy he had helped, who was then a prosperous businessman in the city. Lewin says that Max asked him to put “a large amount of money” in an envelope and give it to Joe’s widow. He handed it to her and said simply, “Here is an envelope from Max Schmeling.”
“Oh, Max Schmeling,” Mrs. Louis exclaimed, “our true friend!”
Joe Louis was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He had held the heavyweight title longer than any other man. Schmeling died in 2005 at age 99.