New Jersey Jewish News
When Jews rejoiced at black boxers knockout of Aryan champion
Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink
by David Margolick, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 423 pages, $26.95
In the months preceding Kristallnacht in 1938, Nazi Germany intensified its anti-Semitic campaign against German and Austrian Jews. Following the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938, Germany immediately applied the Nuremberg Laws to its new territory, followed by vicious assaults against the countrys Jews. Subsequently the Nazi government demanded the registration of all Jewish property, restricted German-Jewish physicians from treating non-Jewish patients, and required that all Jewish men add Israel to their name and all Jewish women Sarah.
It was during this period of exacerbated pressure against the Jews, which climaxed in the Nov. 9-10, 1938, pogrom known as Kristallnacht, that the second Louis-Schmeling fight for the world heavyweight championship was fought in Yankee Stadium on June 22 of that year.
David Margolicks riveting and detailed account places the fight against the background of the mounting persecution of Germanys Jews and the unsuccessful efforts of American-Jewish and anti-Nazi organizations to institute a boycott against the fight. Beyond Glory also describes the important role sports in general, and boxing in particular, played in fostering the Nazi doctrine of racial supremacy. Hitler was an avid boxing fan and promoted the sport among Germanys youth in order to build a physically fit race for the wars that he was preparing the nation to wage. Max Schmeling, who had held the heavyweight championship for a brief time in 1930 before losing it to Jack Sharkey, came to symbolize the superiority of the Aryan race and was lionized by Hitlers entourage.
During the 1930s, the Unites States was the center of the boxing world, and Jews were visible in all aspects of the sport. Jewish boxers excelled in all the weight classes, with the exception of the heavyweight division. They also served as promoters, trainers, managers, referees, and, above all, fans. Margolick notes that Jewish fans could make or break any big-time bout. Thus, in 1938, when Schmeling demanded to fight the then heavyweight champion, Jim Braddock, for the title, it was apparent that the Jews of New York could make such a fight a financial flop should they decide to boycott the contest as a protest of Nazi Germanys treatment of its Jews. It was this fear that eventually sidetracked the match and led to the fight between Braddock and Joe Louis, which the latter won, and set the stage for the rematch between the new champion and Schmeling, who had defeated him two years before.
Joe Louis was only the second African-American heavyweight champion and, unlike his controversial black predecessor, Jack Johnson, was shrewdly managed and thus able to overcome the racism directed at him. Margolick describes in great detail the efforts of the Anti-Nazi League and Jewish organizations to boycott the fight, only to find that a Jewish boxing promoter, Mike Jacobs, was willing to gamble that such a fight would draw a full house. The fight itself aroused great emotions in both the black and Jewish communities. Louis became a surrogate for Jews everywhere, as the contest assumed overtones of ideological significance, pitting the Aryan Schmeling against Louis, viewed by the Nazi press as sub-human.
Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first round. The fight lasted 124 seconds and was hailed by both blacks and Jews as a victory over the doctrine of racial supremacy. The Jewish Times editorialized: If only Schmelings collapse can be taken as a portent of the weakness of Nazism as a whole, our troubles are almost over. A Polish-language Jewish daily, in the fights aftermath, declared that Jews must recognize the symbolic value of sports and stop treating its athletes as stepchildren, and a black writer observed that the happiest people I saw at this fight were not Negroes but the Jews.
Schmeling returned to Germany after the war, subsequently served in the German military, and later became a successful businessman, whereas Louis would eventually lose all that he had earned in the ring. Was Schmeling a Nazi? He never belonged to the Nazi Party, and his longtime manager, Joe Jacobs, was Jewish. Despite Goebbels efforts to divorce the fighter from his manager, Schmeling insisted on retaining him. Because of Schmelings iconic stature in Germany, he was able to prevail, arguing that in Jewish New York, the presence of Jacobs in his corner shielded him from charges of anti-Semitism. Cynicism? During Kristallnacht, when the Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and burned synagogues throughout Germany and sent thousands to concentration camps, Schmeling, at great personal risk, picked up two Jewish teenagers, sons of an old friend, drove them to his hotel in Berlin, and sheltered them in his suite for several days, until the worst excesses has passed. Schmeling the person remains an enigma, but the fight was for a brief moment one that allowed Jews to celebrate a victory over the Nazis.
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