Pawns In The Ring

Louis and Schmeling embodied the hopes of blacks and Nazis


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

By David Margolick

Knopf -- 423pp -- $26.95

( below)

Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good An illuminating volume of a storied fight, highlighting the political context.

The Bad Was Schmeling a schmuck? There's too little detail here.

The Bottom Line A worthy addition to the literature on a much-studied contest.

Almost seven decades after the last punch flew, the ring encounters between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling still hold an exalted place in boxing lore, on a par with the heavyweight classics of the modern era: Ali-Frazier I and Ali-Foreman. Unlike those celebrated prize fights, though, the Schmeling-Louis battle of 1936 and the 1938 rematch hold an enduring fascination only partly explained by what went on in the ring. What made those fights matter at the time, and for generations after, were the events unfolding in a world far beyond the ring.

In Nazi Germany, Hitler's hate machine was isolating Jews from the mainstream, stripping them of jobs, wealth, and, when possible, dignity. In fact, after the Nazi takeover, amateur boxing associations were among the first organizations to be purged of Jews. On Mar. 31, 1933, the holder of both the German light-heavyweight and middleweight titles, a Jew named Erich Seelig, was set to defend one of his crowns when Nazis barged into his dressing room and threatened to murder his family unless he fled the country. (He did.)

That is but one of the chilling stories recounted by David Margolick in Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, an illuminating study of the period as well as the match. Schmeling and Louis, their boxing careers forever linked, are hardly a new subject. Their fights -- Schmeling's 12-round knockout of Louis in the first meeting and Louis' stunning first-round TKO of Schmeling in rematch -- have been picked apart almost ceaselessly since Schmeling hit the canvas on a cool June night at Yankee Stadium.

What Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and former legal affairs editor at The New York Times (NYT ), adds to the discussion is a meticulous account of how the boxers' lives were buffeted by the political chaos and racial segregation of their age. Just as interesting, he tells how others molded the pugilists' celebrity to promote ideas and agendas -- Schmeling represented Nazi Germany's new social order; Louis stood for the aspirations and struggle for justice of U.S. blacks.

As Margolick paints him, Louis was a humble, uneducated child of the Deep South who moved to Detroit at age 12 with his mother. One of his first paying jobs was at a Ford (F ) plant, where he assembled cars even as he took apart amateur opponents in the ring by night.

From his earliest days as a pro, Louis' black financial backers aggressively sought to create a public image of him that diverged in every way from Jack Johnson, the only previous black heavyweight boxing champ. Johnson had been the ultimate provocateur -- one whose rabble-rousing offered cover to whites who clung to their racial intolerance. By contrast, Margolick writes, Louis was schooled by his handlers to be "soft-spoken, understated, and polite, no matter what he accomplished."

But Louis' even-tempered personality made things hard for the storyteller. "When you stripped away all the layers of mythology and idealization, it was hard to say very much about the Louis who remained," Margolick writes. Not that it mattered to his fans, black or white. As the first black hero embraced by American whites, Margolick writes, Louis achieved much in lowering the social barriers between the races.

How did Schmeling regard Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that held him up as a symbol of Aryan supremacy? The question is largely unanswered in the book, but it seems clear that his guiding philosophy was self-preservation. Margolick exhaustively recounts the boxer's chummy meetings with Hitler and quotes liberally from the diary of Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, who listened to radio broadcasts of at least one fight with Schmeling's wife at his side.

Then again, Schmeling hardly acted like a true believer in Hitler's cause. For most of his career, his manager was a Jew from New York, Joe Jacobs. And Margolick recounts how, on Kristallnacht, the infamous night Jewish homes and stores were ransacked throughout Germany, Schmeling picked up a friend's two Jewish teenage children and hid them for several days in his Berlin hotel suite.

Also missing from the book is any testimony from Schmeling himself. While Louis died at age 66, in 1981, Schmeling passed away just last February, at the age of 99. But in his final years, the author says, he refused to speak to reporters. Too bad for Margolick. For readers, it feels like the old champ slipped one final punch.

By Mark Hyman

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.