The author: David Margolick
In June 1935, Joe Lewis became a hero among blacks when he knocked out the former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera. Lewis was 21 and undefeated in more than twenty fights since he turned pro the year before – his wins mostly by knockouts. Germany had its own famous boxer, Max Schmeling, world champion from 1930-32, and he was looking forward to fighting Lewis. Responding to President Roosevelt honoring Joe Lewis with a personal get-together, a German newspaper wrote it would be for Germany to uphold the honor of the white race.
In September, Lewis defeated another former champion, Max Baer, in four rounds. Japanese papers offered a blow by blow description of the fight. South African blacks were jubilant, the Bantu World putting Lewis on their front page and commenting that "the Coloured races of the world" were proud of him. In Paris, Josephine Baker had predicted Lewis would win, and she was thrilled.
Schmeling's manager commented that there was more gold in fighting Lewis than in fighting the champion, Jim Braddock. The German magazine Box-Sport wrote that, by fighting Schmeling, Lewis would be meeting a "true, class boxer" for the first time in his life. Schmeling boarded the German liner Bremen for New York – the fight capital of the world. The ship arrived on April 21, a swastika hanging from the ship's mast and a crowd of reporters boarding the ship to interview Schmeling.
The Schmeling-Lewis fight was scheduled for June in Yankee Stadium. Schmeling toured with his look-alike Jack Dempsey at his side. In Pittsburg some 5,000 people came to see him. In Montreal, 4,000. Schmeling's Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, set up Schmeling's training at a Jewish resort in the Catskills, hoping it would help mollify Jewish fight fans. Jews were more upset than most people over events in Germany, and newsmen were interested in asking Schmeling about developments in Germany. Schmeling did not want to talk politics and in Magolick's words "distanced himself from Nazi racial attitudes." But when asked whether there would be war he answered that there will be no war, "not in this generation." He spoke of a million Germans dying in the war that was eighteen years before and of the United States having lost "maybe 100,000 dead." He spoke of the expense of big shells and that it was better to spend that money on building homes.
The Olympic Games were to be held in Germany that year, and Germany's propaganda ministry had written instructions to the German press that racial questions were "absolutely not to be broached " in fight coverage. Germany, including Nazis, were enthusiastically supporting Schmeling, and the government was ignoring the fact that Schmeling's manager was Jewish. Meanwhile, Jews in New York were fragmented on whether to boycott the fight, some complaining that they did not want Jewish money taken back to Nazi Germany as prize money. In Harlem, the Amsterdam News was opposed to a boycott. Margolick quotes the paper:
While condemning Hitler ... Let's remember that there is nothing that he is now doing to the Jews that has not been done by the United States on a longer, vaster and more brutal scale to its black citizens.
Blacks believed Lewis could not be beaten, and much of the black community, including maids, were betting for him. The betting odds were ten to one on the side of Lewis. Marlene Dietrich and George Raft were going for the better odds and betting on Schmeling. The New York sportswriter Grantland Rice, according to Margolick, thought Lewis was due for a bad fight. Clark Gable said, "This guy Schmeling is no chump." The black former champion Jack Johnson had his doubts about Lewis and had "a nice piece of dough" on Schmeling.
Schmeling's wife, Anny, listened to the fight in the early morning hours in Germany, as guest of the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda.
Schmeling knocked out Lewis in the 12th round. In his dressing room, an ecstatic and exultant Schmeling told a German reporter,
At this moment I have to tell Germany, I have to report to the Fuehrer in particular, that the thoughts of all my countrymen were with me in this fight; that the Fuehrer and his faithful people were thinking of me. This thought gave me the strength to succeed in this fight. It gave me the courage and the endurance to win this victory for Germany's colors.
By radio Schmeling greeted his mother and his wife, and then, writes Margolich, "in a lower voice, as if self-conscious in the crowded dressing room – he appended a Heil Hitler."
Goebbels cabled Schmeling, with the words, "We are proud of you. With best wishes and Heil Hitler." Hitler contacted Anny Schmeling, sending her flowers and a message: "For the wonderful victory of your husband, our greatest German boxer, I must congratulate you with all my heart." Germany's most serious newspapers gave the story only a few lines. But other papers sold out quickly. A Frenchman reported that all Berlin was joyful and that "Nobody is talking about the Olympic Games and politics anymore. That is all secondary..."
People in Harlem were stunned. People were crying. There was displaced aggression and danger, blacks attacking blacks and whites. Writes Margolich: "All night long, doctors in Harlem hospitals were sewing people back together."
A lot of New York's Germans celebrated. "Up and down and East Eighty-sixth Street," writes Margolich, "people marched arm in arm, singing and shouting. Business boomed in Cafe Hindenburg, the Vaterland, and Jaegers, with buxom frauleins and waiters in Bavarian outfits carrying overflowing steins through the crowds."
South Africa's whites also celebrated. And the sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote that Lewis' "jungle cunning" was no match for Schmeling's superior intelligence.
The South had not allowed newsreels of a black boxer beating a white boxer in its theaters. They allowed the showing of Lewis being beaten by Schmeling.
Four days after the fight, Schmeling boarded the blimp Hindenburg on the night of June 23, after paying taxes owed the U.S. government and settling some old debts. The Hindenburg took three days to reach Europe, passing over Doorn, Holland, and the residence of the former Kaiser in exile, Wilhelm II, who waved his hat. When the Hindenburg approached the city of Cologne it picked up five escort fighter planes. In Frankfurt, Schmeling was greeted by a brown-shirt band that could not be heard because of the roar of the crowd. And Schmeling was rushed to a meeting with Hitler.
Lewis went on to become world Heavyweight the following year, 1937, knocking out James J. Braddock in eight rounds at Chicago. But Lewis publicly announced after that fight that he would not recognize himself as champion until he beat Schmeling.
The second Lewis-Schmeling fight, a title fight, also at Yankee Stadium, was preceded by more emotional intensity than had preceded the 1936 fight. By 1938 there was a little more hostility toward Germany in the United States. Impassioned Jews demonstrated against Schmeling, calling him a Nazi. The Nazi Party was loud in proclaiming the superiority of Schmeling over any black fighter and that Schmeling was sure to win. Passions were high in Germany, but, despite all the racist propaganda, in Nuremburg 150 persons out of 6,000 bettors put their money on Lewis. Passions were high too in New York's German district, Yorkville, where Americans in Nazi uniforms clashed with Jewish veterans of World War I. Two weeks later, writes Margolich, "two thousand people in Yorkville heard the German consul praise Hitler, then watched Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will."
A personal note: Some Americans were not yet revolted by Hitler's Germany. Some were still saying that Hitler was not such a bad guy – my thoughts from personal knowledge gathered from childhood, not, however, from my third-generation German mother, born in California in 1907, who disliked Hitler.
Before the fight, Lewis said,
I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me.
Lewis dropped Schmeling in the first round. Margolich describes the fight and response to the fight in detail, including that of celebrities. He covers the life of Lewis to his death in 1981 and the rest of Schmeling's life – Schmeling dying in February 2005 at the age of 99.
Margolich writes of Schmeling picking up two Jewish boys, sons of an old friend, and sheltering them in his hotel suite in Berlin for several days, protecting them from the anti-Jew hostility that raged in Germany beginning on Kristallnacht, in November, 1938. The two boys, Henri and Werner Lewin, are said to have been smuggled out of Germany with Schmeling's help, Henri Lewin becoming an owner of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Like many other German men he was drafted into the military. He is reported to have been out of favor with Hitler for not having joined the National Socialist Party. Rather than favorable treatment, he fought as an ordinary soldier on the Eastern Front.
Copyright © 2006-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.