Born on 28 September 1905, Max Schmeling became a professional boxer in Berlin at the age of 19. He enjoyed a rise to fame during the late twenties, which were a golden era in Berlin. Schmeling held the World Heavyweight Championship title from 1930-1932 and, in 1933; he married the popular actress Anny Ondra from Prague.
Critics have it that Schmeling then became a willing model for Nazi propagandists: the “Superman” of the Third Reich. Indeed, Schmeling’s own reflections on the outcome of his most famous match show how much his image had come to represent in the Germany of the Third Reich.
The match took place on 22 June 1938 between Schmeling and the African American boxer, Joe Louis. It was a rematch. Louis had already defeated Schmeling two years early, but all the pomp and propaganda around the match turned it into an ideological battle of white versus black, good and evil, the Nazis against the Americans. In 1975, Schmeling reflected that he was glad he had lost the match: “Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal.” However, Schmeling’s public association with Nazis before and during the Second World War was enough to give him a bad name, one that he did not necessarily deserve.
Schmeling’s actions speak louder than his image. After the match, he and Louis developed a lifelong friendship, with Schmeling giving Louis gifts of money during hard times and even paying for his funeral. During the 1936 Olympics in Germany, Schmeling used his connections to Hitler to extract a promise that all American athletes would be safe from discriminatory policies in Germany. Although Hitler, himself, pressured Schmeling to join the Nazis, Schmeling never did. During the horrible Krystalnacht of November 1938, Schmeling hid two young Jewish boys in his hotel room and helped secure the pair safe passage to the United States.
The boys, Henry and Werner Lewin, never forgot him, but Schmeling’s heroism remained a secret until 1989, when Henry Lewin, by this point an American hotel tycoon, invited Schmeling to Vegas, where he showered thanks upon him for having risked his own life to save him and his brother.
Schmeling was drafted as a paratrooper, during the war, and some say that, to spite him for snubbing the Third Reich, he was sent on the most dangerous of suicide missions. Schmeling survived. Fell on economic hard times after the war, but bought up the stock for the German branch of Coca Cola. More than getting Schmeling back on his feet again, Germany’s branch of the Coca Cola Co. enabled Schmeling to earn a reputation as a philanthropist. He died on 2 February 2005 at the age of 99, having survived his wife by eighteen years.
Short Biography, with emphasis on Schmeling’s heroism
The Life of Max Schmeling: a timeline
The Fight: a PBS documentary on the life of Max Schmeling
Audio Clip of Schmeling's famous rematch with Louis
Hitler and Schmeling
Schmeling and Ondra
Louis versus Schmeling poster