Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling: America versus Nazi Germany

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It was only two minutes and four seconds
‘Fore Schmeling was down on his knees
He looked like he was praying to the good Lord
To ‘Have mercy on me, please.’

Bill Gaither, 1938

June 22, 1938 and over 70,000 fans  crammed into Yankee Stadium to see the ‘Brown Bomber’ Jou Louis face off against German boxer Max Schmeling for the second time in two years. Their interest was matched by the 64% of radio-owning Americans who tuned in that night to hear the fight’s broadcast. In 1936 Schmeling had beaten Louis in the very same venue after exploiting a weakness Louis’s boxing style. It was a defeat that sent the black community in America reeling. Joe was the first black boxer to gain acceptance by the American boxing federation since the controversial Jack Johnson and his defeat was met with utter devastation in black communities. At a time when the Ku Klux Klan was enjoying a revival, Joe had been a symbol of hope that blacks could integrate in white society. His loss was about more than sport.

In Germany, Schmeling became a poster boy for the Nazi regime. Hitler’s party had only been in power for three years and quickly latched on to Schmeling’s unexpected win. Schmeling was seen to represent the possibilities and strength of the Aryan race. At the very least he was proof that Germany was stronger than her enemies. Schmeling propaganda by the Nazi party became a regular feature for German citizens despite the fact that Schmeling didn’t agree with the Nazi ideology, had a Jewish trainer and often referred to himself an athlete and nothing more. Nevertheless he became a Nazi celebrity of sorts.

Between the ’36 fight and 1938 fortunes had changed for both men and both countries. In the aftermath of his defeat, Louis had successfully claimed the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship but refused to accept he was champion until he had defeated Schmeling. In contrast Schmeling had missed out on a title fight with James J. Braddock, the man Louis defeated, as it was felt that the fight wouldn’t be profitable enough. Both fighters and the public wanted a Louis-Schmeling re-match and promoters were desperate to deliver.

Matters were more serious outside of the ring. Prior to the ’38 re-match, Germany had annexed Austria in the Anschluss. Anti-German propaganda was at an all time high in much of the West. Fierce Nazi propaganda centring around race and religion was abound. Schmeling by virtue of his citizenship became a hate figure outside of his homeland. Something that was not helped by the Nazi media official who accompanied Schmeling during these years proclaiming the fighter’s superiority.

When it was announced that Louis face off against Schmeling again in 1938, the political propaganda kicked into overdrive. In the United States, Louis was invited to the White House, where US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the fighter,

“Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”

Joe was presented to the US public as some sort of superhuman, clean cut fighter whose sole purpose was to fight for ‘old glory’. Schmeling, on the other hand was presented in the US as a beetle-browed Nazi sympathiser. Photos began to circulate in the US of the fighter having tea with Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler. Similarly photos of Schmeling giving the Nazi salute after defeating the American boxer Steve Hamas in Hamburg in 1935 re-emerged in the press. When Schmeling had visited the US in 1936 he had been met with a warm reception. In 1938 he was a social pariah. People picketed outside his hotel room, he was subjected to threats wherever he went and became a national hate figure for the majority of people.

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The Controversial Schmeling Photograph was published across US media sources

Yet he did have pockets of support in the US in the form of Nazi sympathisers, some of whom regularly visited Jou Louis’s training camp in New Jersey prior to the fight. In his 1976 autobiography Louis wrote about these sympathisers

“Can you believe these were white Americans agreeing with what Hitler was doing? The Bund had a camp up at Speculator, New York, and they’d come to my camp day after day with Swastikas on their arms. They watched me train and sat around laughing like jackasses.”

Joe was unimpressed, a feeling shared by many of his compatriots.

When the two fighters met in the ring for the second time in 1938 the expectation in the US was clear. Louis had to defeat Schmeling to show the Nazis that America wouldn’t be intimidated. It was presented as good versus bad, right versus wrong and of freedom versus fascism. The pressure on the fighters was overwhelming. Reflecting many years later on the bout, Louis wrote

“I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me.”

This time Louis knew how to ‘get Schmeling good’. In 1936, Schmeling had pinpointed Louis’s tendency to drop left hand low after a jab to deliver Louis his first ever professional defeat. In 1938 Louis decided to deny Schmeling a similar opportunity. When the bell rang to begin the fight Schmeling came out of his corner trying to replicate his 1936 tactics. This time however Louis wouldn’t let him. Pushing aside the German heavyweights tentative approach, Louis began to deliver an onslaught of blows to his opponent’s body. Louis’ pre-fight strategy had been to finish Schmeling off early. Prior to the fight, Louis had told his trainer ‘Chappie’ Blackburn that all of his energy would be devoted to the first three rounds. Louis even told Jimmy Cannon, the famed US sports writer, that he would deliver a first round knock-out.

Within a minute and a half of Louis’ assault, Arthur Donovan, the fight’s referee had stopped the fight for the first time. Five left hooks and a shot to the body had wobbled Schmeling. Schmeling continued but his punishment was only beginning. Returning from his corner Louis delivered a right hook that sent the German to the canvass for a count of three. Schmeling rose, only to be returned to the canvass once more. After the third knock down of the fight, Schmeling’s corner threw in the towel.

So fierce had Louis’ attacks been that he had cracked several vertebrae in Schmeling’s back. That hardly mattered to the US fans however. When Louis’ hand was raised, a celebration began. On his way through Harlem to the hospital Schmeling saw

“noisy, dancing crowds. Bands had left the nightclubs and bars and were playing and dancing on the side walks and streets. The whole area was filled with celebration, noise, and saxophones, continuously punctuated by the calling of Joe Louis’ name.”

In Harlem over 500,000 African Americans danced in the streets in jubilation, greeting each other mockingly with Nazi salutes and chanting ‘Heil Louis’. Joe’s victory was seen as a great step towards American race relations. Reflecting on the fight Maya Angelou wrote

“Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Cola like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas.”

For some White social commentators, Louis’ victory was a mixed resulted. It showcased a victory of freedom over fascism but many were uncomfortable with the hero’s race. Whilst newspaper reports waxed lyrical about the ‘Brown Bomber’, praise was often interspersed with racist ideologies. Lewis F. Atchison from The Washington Post began his fight report in less than complimentary terms

“Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy, reverted to his dreaded role of the ‘brown bomber’ tonight.”

Nor was Atchison alone in this respect. Henry McLemore of the United Press likened Joe Louis to “a jungle man, completely primitive as any savage, out to destroy the thing he hates.”

In Germany the Nazi Party slowly began to disassociate themselves with their former hero Schmeling. The final straw in the relationship between the party and the boxer came in 1938 when Schmeling provided sanctuary to two Jewish boys during a series of coordinated attacks against Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria (now known as Kristallnacht). When WW2 broke out the following year, Hitler drafted Schmeling as a paratrooper in the German Luftwaffe as punishment.

The story of Louis and Schmeling is perhaps one of the most interesting cases of how sport is often a mirror for political ideologies. Was 1938 really a battle between the US and Nazi Germany or was it a bout between two athletes swept up in a fight that didn’t concern them? Regardless of interpretations, one thing is clear. When Louis felled Schmeling for the third time in 1938, a country rose in celebration.

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