“I don’t want anyone to say I was a good athlete,
but worth nothing as a human being.”
When the death of German boxing great Max Schmeling was announced many of us realized that the sports world had lost another hero. One would immediately reflect on his 12th round knockout of the legendary Joe Louis in 1936 in front of 60,000 astonished onlookers in New York. Boxing historians will also point out his 56 wins, 39 knockouts, and how he once held the heavyweight championship of the world–the greatest prize in all of sports. But after his recent passing at the age of 99, one thing is certainly cemented regarding his overall legacy: His greatness involved more than knockouts and the pursuit of championship belts.
It surely seemed as if Max Schmeling would fit perfectly into the Nazi propaganda efforts in 1936 after his upset victory over American Joe Louis; a man by the name of Adolf Hitler and his racist Nazi regime would feel comfortable referring to Schmeling’s triumph as a further sign of “Aryan supremacy.” He was mistakenly viewed by many Americans as a puppet of Hitler and the total personification of Nazism when he met Louis during their rematch in 1938–a match won by Louis on a memorable first round, devastating knockout. But for all the immense revelry that accompanied the second fight’s desired result, few Americans knew that the “hated” German ex-champion was a true hero of a different sort: He had refused to join the Nazi party back in 1935 and had remained adamant about keeping his Jewish trainer, Joe Jacobs, on board. But that’s only the beginning.
Max Schmeling is a hero due to a selfless stance he took prior to the 1936 Berlin Olympics–defiantly confronting Hitler with the protection concerns of United States athletes who were anxiously waiting to compete. Was it the respect he had gained for one Joe Louis in their recent fight–and/or his loyalty to his Jewish-American manager that had made him do this? Or could it be that one Max Schmeling was both a humanitarian AND a talented sportsman? For whatever reason, athletes like Jesse Owens DID compete at the ’36 Games–due in no small part to the intervention of the courageous German boxer.
Max Schmeling is a hero for harboring two Jewish boys in his Berlin apartment in 1938–putting his own safety/life at risk as Nazi storm troopers spewed hate and burned synagogues right outside his door. Yeah, I guess a hard right hook didn’t seem quite as devastating anymore to Max Schmeling on that fateful night–a rampage-filled evening that became known as Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass). Schmeling was special because, on a continual basis, he used any influence he DID have in Germany to spare Jewish friends from the impending doom of concentration camps. His valiant nature also manifested itself when he DID NOT stop mingling with those same Jewish friends–as Hitler had advised; yes, principles were important to Max.
Schmeling remains a hero today because he survived Hitler’s banishment/punishment of him to the German army; he emerged injured (hospitalized for months) and broke, but somehow still rich in spirit. He’s heroic for continuing to box until age 43 in order to get back on his feet financially–then using the money to invest sensibly/successfully in a Coca-Cola franchise in his country. We are also alerted to his greatness by these words he uttered in 1975 about the second Louis fight: “Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight. 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.” Again, PRINCIPLES meant a helluva lot to a man named Max Schmeling.
Over the years, Schmeling used his rebuilt fortune to provide tremendous help to the elderly and poor through the efforts of his Max Schmeling Foundation–another heroic effort. And, in 1975, he was reunited in Las Vegas with a destitute man he had crossed paths with so many years before–Joe Louis. Ironically, the two men who had once (although unwillingly) represented an international “us against them” propaganda war developed a terrific bond and became the closest of friends; Schmeling would often provide the downtrodden Louis with financial assistance and would graciously pay for his funeral in 1981–with little fanfare.
Max Schmeling was recently voted one of the top German sportsmen of the last 100 years; as a humanitarian, he finishes second to few in ANY country–for his courage and good works seemed infinite. As per his wishes (and reflective of the modest way he went about his amazing life), he was buried last week in a small, private ceremony next to his wife of 54 years, Anny. He has remained popular in Germany over the years despite his anti-Nazi stance; perhaps his countrymen had ultimately come to respect a man who always remained steadfast to his moral convictions and continually defended his past actions–deeds that had once personified/tested bravery at its highest peak.
Few athletes (if any) have attained what Max Schmeling did in his life; his athletic excellence in the boxing ring pales when compared to the humongous valor he demonstrated during some very trying times. Mr. Schmeling was (and remains today) a hero to the “max,”–if you will; he saved lives and enriched so many others. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently relayed the following words to Reuters about this very special, yet humble, human being: “Max Schmeling was an idol for generations. He has remained one of the most popular and beloved sportsmen in Germany–and not only because of his boxing accomplishments. He was a great star but it never went to his head. We will never forget him.”