Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink

David Margolick

Knopf. 423 pp. $26.96

Television, videogames, DVDs and the movies haven't utterly doomed prizefighting the way they did vaudeville, roller derbies, six-day bicycle races and other mass-market spectacles of the early 20th century, but they have come close. Violence as a diversion is common now and far less circumscribed than it used to be. Why bother to watch boxers feint, jab and clinch for three-minute rounds when you can blow away ninja street fighters on a video screen?

The sport still has a following, but nothing like the one it had in the 1930s, the era of David Margolick's compelling new book about the legendary heavyweights Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. In those days, everyone knew the heavyweight champion in the way that he or she knew the president, and a knockout punch could resonate deep into society at large.

Indeed, few sporting events were ever freighted with as much meaning as the 1936 match and 1938 rematch between the black sharecropper's son from Alabama and the former heavyweight-title holder from Brandenburg. Schmeling won the first bout, leading Nazi Germany to embrace him as the embodiment of Aryan supremacy despite his dark hair and Asiatic features. But then, with the largest worldwide radio audience to date listening in, Louis stopped Schmeling inside of one round in their Yankee Stadium rematch, which has been called the undercard for World War II. By defending the heavyweight title he'd taken from James Braddock in the interim, Louis struck a symbolic blow for both freedom and his various cheering constituencies. "The happiest people I saw at this fight," one black writer observed, "were not the Negroes but the Jews."

A contributing editor for Vanity Fair and the author of three previous books, Margolick has brought these events to life. He deftly moves his characters on and off stage against a backdrop of increasing tension. The more repressive the Nazi regime became, the more the Nazis wanted Schmeling to succeed. One American writer described him as "the first nationally sponsored heavyweight." Hitler sent congratulatory telegrams, fixed Schmeling's currency violations and rewarded him with special hunting privileges. Schmeling's wife waited out the first Louis fight in the home of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, and the German newspapers imbued the hesitant Nazi slugger with all the supposed virtues of the fascist state.

In fact, Schmeling had a Jewish manager named Joe Jacobs and a fondness for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He seemed far more interested in money than in politics, but too many powerful people had a stake in his success for him to remain apolitical for long. "Every punch in the eye I give Schmeling is one for Adolf Hitler," said the American heavyweight Max Baer.

Although Schmeling served as a Nazi paratrooper and undertook secret missions at Hitler's behest, after the war the fighter's image was rehabilitated, thanks to public meetings with a forgiving Louis as well as three published autobiographies that were often more fiction than fact. Awarded a Coca-Cola dealership in northern Germany by former boxing commissioner (and Roosevelt confidant) James Farley, Schmeling died wealthy, with a burnished reputation as a free thinker and overall good fellow.

Margolick rejects such revisionism in favor of a more nuanced portrait. His Schmeling was an opportunist from the start. "On the one hand, many of Schmeling's artist and intellectual friends were enemies of the new Reich, or Jews, or both," Margolick writes. "On the other hand, Hitler, unlike prior German leaders, loved boxing."

So Schmeling buttered his bread on both sides. He used the compliant Jacobs as a shield against criticism that he was anti-Semitic but gave Nazi salutes and offered up the occasional pro-Nazi statement at home. "Whenever the Nazis asked him to pitch in, he obliged," Margolick writes. When another high-profile German athlete, tennis star Gottfried von Cramm, was arrested as a homosexual after speaking out against Hitler, Schmeling shrugged, saying the police had no choice. Yet Schmeling kept two young Jewish boys safe from harm in his Berlin hotel room during the 1938 anti-Semitic rampage of Kristallnacht.

It is one of the story's more delicious ironies that Schmeling's career was managed by an observant Jew, who claimed to have carried a mezuzah (the small case affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes, containing a scroll with verses from the Torah) in his mouth during the first Louis fight. Though the German press excised mentions of Jacobs out of nearly all its reports on Schmeling's successes, he was seen by Hitler and Schmeling as "the cost of doing business in New York." Caught between his financial interests and a genuine affection for Schmeling on one side and the increasingly inhumane treatment of German Jews on the other, Jacobs tried to manage one of the more skillful tightrope walks in sports history. When he traveled to Europe to talk up Schmeling's cause, he became, in Margolick's words, "Nazi Germany's most improbable propagandist." Returning home to New York, Jacobs gave his de facto sanction to the Reich, claiming that reports of Nazi anti-Semitism were overblown. If that didn't add weeks or months to America's appeasement of Hitler, it undoubtedly helped empower his many sympathizers.

Into this unsettled situation stepped Joe Louis. If Schmeling is the book's protagonist, Louis is its hero. When Louis lost his first bout with Schmeling, Margolick notes, many blacks saw their parents cry for the first time -- such was the effect that Louis had in the black community before Brown v. Board of Education, before Jackie Robinson, before the first stirrings of the civil rights movement. Louis embodied the achievement that an entire race was striving for: to compete on equal terms with whites and to succeed. And unlike Jack Johnson, his precursor as heavyweight champion, he managed to do it with dignity and grace.

As Louis's rematch with Schmeling nears, the alignment of the various camps -- blacks and Jews for Louis; Germans, some German-Americans and most anti-Semites for Schmeling -- makes for absorbing reading. Margolick's extensive research gives us a keen sense of what ordinary citizens were being told on both sides of the Atlantic. The claim made by the German magazine Box-Sport that American Southerners were refusing to recognize a black heavyweight champion, for example, is countered by a New York Daily News report. "For the first time in the history of the old South," the newspaper wrote, "a colored boy has become the fair-haired child of the masses."

Margolick provides a sense that by managing to unite disparate American interests behind a common cause and undermining the Aryan illusion of racial supremacy, Louis helped inspire a nation for the fight ahead "One hundred years from now," he quotes the sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun, "some historian may theorize . . . that the decline of Nazi prestige began with a left hook delivered by a former unskilled automobile worker who had never studied the policies of Neville Chamberlain and had no opinion whatsoever in regard to the situation in Czechoslovakia." That's a lot to put on the shoulders of an athlete, to be certain. But such was the weight that boxers were capable of carrying then. *

Bruce Schoenfeld is the author of "The Match: Althea Gibson and a Portrait of a Friendship."

Max Schmeling counts out Joe Louis in the 12th round (1936).In their 1938 rematch, Joe Louis finishes Max Schmeling in 124 seconds.