The Great Black Hope: Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink

Ian Buruma – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
Knopf, 423 pp., $26.95
Sometimes a game is more than a game. In 1969, for example, when Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet Union in the ice hockey finals in Stockholm, less than one year after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. The exhausted Czech players were in tears as the Swedes cheered “Dubcek! Dubcek!” and thousands of Czechs, defying the authorities, danced in the streets. On a night like that, when a humiliated people enjoy a moment of pride, revenge can taste sweet.
Sometimes people can get carried away by the joy of vengeance even if much less is at stake. In the summer of 1988, when the Dutch soccer team became European champions, more people turned out to celebrate in Amsterdam than on the day of liberation in 1945. The point was not the championship itselfówho still remembers the final against the Soviet Union? The real cause for joy was the victory over Germany, in the semifinal, in Munich of all places. Better late than never. During the war the Dutch had little to cheer about.
There are times when the humiliation of defeat runs so deep that a display of valor has to be manufactured, or at least helped along a little. In the 1950s, a wrestler named Riki Dozan brought millions of demoralized Japanese males to their feet by beating much larger, meaner, brawnier foreigners in the ring. That he was actually a Korean was conveniently left unsaid, as was the fixing that made sure these fights, which invariably began with Riki stoically bearing the brunt of dirty foreign tricks, had a happy ending.
In postñWorld War I Germany, as we now know from David Margolick’s absorbing book Beyond Glory, the role of Riki Dozan was played by a handsome, dark-haired boxer named Max Schmeling. Still smarting from defeat, and plagued by political turmoil and economic hardships, the Germans were in need of a hero. Schmeling turned out to be their man. In 1927 he beat the Belgian Fernand Delage for the European light heavyweight championship, and the following year he knocked out the Italian Michele Bonaglia. At that moment of national ecstasy, eight thousand fans in the stadium stood up and sang “Deutschland ¸ber Alles.”
Then more than now, and perhaps in Germany more than anywhere else, boxing was a kind of yardstick for virility, individual but also collective. The cult of Schmeling as the modern German hero went well beyond the proletarian fight fans. George Grosz did an oil painting of him in his Berlin studio, which had a pair of boxing gloves hanging on the wall. Grosz liked to depict himself too, in photographs and drawings, adopting manly boxing poses. Bertolt Brecht was a boxing fan, who made friends with fighters and promoters. It is harder to imagine Thomas Mann leaving his study for a visit to the ring, although he may secretly have fancied the idea, but his brother Heinrich was a friend of Schmeling’s.
Schmeling, always a man to relish adulation, was an extraordinary survivor who changed deftly with the times. In the 1920s and 1930s he frequented a place called the Roxy-Bar, where artists rubbed shoulders with sportsmen, and he wrote in a guest book: “Artists, grant me your favoró boxing is also an art!” This probably endeared him to the cafÈ crowd of Weimar Berlin, but he also personified a kind of bodily perfectionism which many Germans at the time tried to cultivateóall that naked preening on Prussian lakes and Baltic beaches.
Boxing was not a traditionally German sport. Germans in the nineteenth century went in more for calisthen-ics and martial drills. Boxing was an individualistic pursuit par excellence, which fascinated Brecht, despite his leftist politics, and George Grosz, who loved everything American that was fast, jazzy, and urban. Grosz’s box-ing enthusiasm was in tune with his Amerikanismus.
Even after Schmeling was adopted by the new regime after 1933 and turned (with his own cooperation) into a Nazi poster boy, he never lost his glamour for the old Weimar bohemians. One of the fascinating bits of information provided by Margolick’s account of the legendary fights between Schmeling and Joe Louis is the list of people who congratulated him on his first victory against the Brown Bomber in 1936. Even as almost all black people, Jews, white liberals, and also some nonliberals in America were in deep sorrow over Louis’s defeat, even as the Nazi press was crowing over this great racial triumph over the Negro Untermensch, Schmeling received congratulatory telegrams from the F¸hrer himself, naturally, but also from George Grosz, Marlene Dietrich, and Ernst Lubitsch, all of whom were living in the US at the time.
But then Schmeling was a very canny operator. While hobnobbing in Berlin with the Nazi eliteóhe and his wife, Ondra, were frequent guests at the homes of Joseph and Magda Goebbels óSchmeling made sure he retained his Jewish manager in New York, the indefatigable, cigar-chomping Joe “Yussel” Jacobs. As long as Schmeling won his fights and brought in enough foreign currency for the Fatherland, the Nazis were prepared to overlook this indiscretion.
In fact, as Margolick points out, it would have been hard to take part in professional boxing in the US at the time without dealing with Jewsóthey effectively ran the show. “In America,” writes Margolick, “Jews were all over boxing, not just as fighters and fans but as everything in between: promoters, trainers, managers, referees, propagandists, equipment manufacturers, suppliers, chroniclers. No major ethnic group in American history ever so dominated an important sport.” The only thing lacking was Jewish heavyweights. There were flyweights, like Benny Leonard, who was a counterpart of Riki Dozen for Jewish kids tired of getting beaten up by bigger Irish or Italian boys.
There was one apparently Jewish heavyweight, Max Baer, who wore the Star of David on his trunks. But in fact he wasn’t Jewish at all. His pretense was a clever marketing ploy to bring in the crowds. Baer sometimes claimed that his father was Jewish, but as Margolick says, “reports that the old man raised pigs in California did not bolster his case.”
At any event, the fact that Schmeling and Louis were brought together at all, for two legendary fights at Yankee Stadium, was owing to the tireless efforts of two Jewish promoters, Joe Jacobs and Mike Jacobs. They were unrelated and very different kinds of men. Yussel was loud, a snappy dresser, a ladies’ man, a charming Broadway rogue, who remained entirely loyal to his man, even though Schmeling sometimes treated him quite shabbily, while Mike Jacobs was a dour businessman who barely bothered to come and see the fights he had set up. His only fit of passion described in Margolick’s book came just before the second SchmelingñLouis bout, in 1938, which went ahead even though many Jews had opposed it, as an unseemly contest that would enrich a Nazi. Mike dropped into Louis’s dressing room and, according to one account, told the Brown Bomber to “murder that bum and don’t make an asshole out of me.”
Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis: it had everything to make it one of those games that was more than a game. It was promoted as a fight between the United States, the world’s biggest democracy, and Nazi Germany. But above all it was seen as a racial contest, described in the German papers as a battle between superior Aryan will and brute Negro force. And not just in the German papers. One of the best things about Margolick’s book is the rich variety of quotes and an-ecdotes he has culled from the Amer-ican press, which was often no less prejudiced. Even articles that praised Louis, such as one published in the Herald Tribune in 1935, mentioned that there was “something of the jungle in the way Louis fights….”
Anti-Americanism, in Nazi Germany, was mixed up with racism anyway. Even some common anti-Semitic slurs were aimed at Louis. According to one journal, Louis only cared about money, unlike the noble Schmeling. Louis was shallow and materialistic, like all Americans. Honor, patriotism, heroism, these were German quali-ties which the “primitive nature-boy” could never hope to understand. The Nazi press, sometimes deftly egged on by Schmeling, who was neither a party member nor unusually racist, made it seem as though Schmeling represented the great white hope for Americans as well.
A writer in the German boxing journal Box-Sport reported that Schmeling had become the “knight in shining armor” for white Americans, “the bulwark against the black danger.” And so he was, at least for a number of Americans, particularly in the Southern states, but also in Yorkville, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where German-Americans toasted their hero with foaming steins. When Louis walked toward the ring on those two feverish nights in the Bronx, in 1936 and 1938, wrapped in his blue and red silk gown, to face Hitler’s favorite boxer, he bore the hopes of millions on his shoulders but also the contempt of bigots from Berlin all the way to the heartland of the US.
Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were probably the greatest boxers of the twentieth century, but in public image and temperament they could not have been more different. Where Ali was deliberately outrageous and provocative, Louis was quiet and self-effacing to a fault. Not, apparently, a very demonstrative man by temperament, Louis also had a counter-model he was told never to emulate: Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, whose victory, in 1910, against “The Great White Hope” James Jeffries set off nationwide race riots and lynchings. Johnson was a raffish figure, who liked to flaunt his relations with white women, and got into all kinds of trouble. But his behavior made life more difficult for talented young black boxers.
Born as Joe Louis Barrow in rural Alabama, the son of a sharecropper, Louis moved with his family to Detroit in 1926. When his father, who ended up in a mental asylum back in Alabama, lost his job, the family often went hungry. Joe did not shine at school and had a speech impediment that made him sound like a bumbler. But he had huge hands, quick reflexes, and plenty of ambition. And in the early 1930s he began to make a name for himself on the amateur circuit, winning Golden Gloves tournaments and getting into the papers as a strong, poker-faced puncher. His first mentor was a Detroit racketeer named John Roxborough, who dressed Louis in fine suits and taught him table manners. When Louis decided to go professional, he was introduced to another tough manager, Jack Blackburn, who had once been a first-rate black boxer.
But Blackburn knew the odds against a black fighter. He had seen too many hopefuls come and go, used as fodder for inferior white contenders in matches that had been fixed. Drawing on many interviews with Blackburn in newspapers and magazines such as Liberty and The Ring, Margolick retells the story of Blackburn’s first encounter with Louis. “You were born with two strikes on you,” Blackburn recalled telling Lewis. “That’s why I don’t fool with colored boys! They’re too hard to sell since Jack Johnson went and acted like he did. I can make more sugar training white fighters, even if they’re only half as good.”
Still, Louis had a mighty punch, and he promised he wouldn’t act like Jack Johnson. “I ain’t goner waste any of your time,” he told Blackburn, and he didn’t. Blackburn relented and taught Louis what he needed to know, except for one thing which was difficult to impart. Louis, apparently, was just too nice, or as Blackburn put it to a reporter, “he didn’t have any blood in his eye.” He lacked the killer instinct. Blackburn said that he’d told Louis: “You just gotta throw away your heart when you pull on those gloves, or the other fella’ll knock it out of you.” Joe Louis, Blackburn said, “ain’t no natural killer. He’s a manufactured killer.”
Manufactured or not, Louis cultivated the public image that would allow him to succeed. Always polite, soft-spoken, friendly, and dignified, he wasn’t tempted to go out with white women, was chivalrous in victory, and never drawn to the taunting of opponents that was part of Johnson’s and later Muhammad Ali’s style. Margolick observes that Louis outside the ring seemed a passive man, even a bit dull. He speculates that Louis “had few deep feelings of his own, but… had an ability to generate intense passions in others. He was the perfect vehicle for everyone else’s dreams; he could be, and was, whatever someone wanted him to be.”
The truth is that we really don’t know what was going on inside Joe Louis’s mind. Perhaps he disguised his feelings. His placid imageóthe Germans called him “Loamface”óand soft, halting speech made it easy for people to dismiss him as a stupid man. This is normally what people think of dominated races anyway, partly because the colonized and downtrodden often feign stupidity as a form of silent defense and protest against being bossed around. When you are under the thumb of people who think they are better than you, it rarely pays to display cleverness; it will usually be held against you.
It is therefore not surprising that even among his admirers there was a consensus that Joe, in the words of the Atlanta Journal, was “not constructed for thinking.” Lest one think that this kind of comment was confined to Southerners, Margolick also quotes a reporter from Boston who likened dinners at Joe Louis’s training camp to “feeding time at the zoo.” While Blackburn, “the simian-faced Negro with a knife scar along one cheek,” was happy to talk about boxing, Joe just “made guttural grunts which filtered through his food in thick blurbs, and focused the full beam of his attention to chewing.” These were reporters who presumably wanted the Brown Bomber to win.
It took the black writer Richard Wright to see just how important Joe Louis was to black people. This is what he wrote about the celebrations on the South Side of Chicago, after Louis defeated Max Baer in 1935 to become the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson:
They seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the streets: a fluid mass of joy…. Four centuries of oppression, of frustrated hopes, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously, they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation, AND HE HAD WON! Good Gawd Almighty! Yes, by Jesus, it could be done! Didn’t Joe do it?… Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white. And it came so seldom, so seldom. And what could be sweeter than long nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned.
The fact that Joe Louis was not an intellectual and was not taken up by artistic Bohemia may actually have been an advantage. As Samuel Chotzinoff, the music critic of The New York Post, put it, when he described Louis’s feats as “sweet recompense” for past wrongs and a bleak future: “Booker T. Washington and Duke Ellington are all right in their way, but they do not represent Might.”
It is a sad reflection on the relations between white and black people that ethnic pride was so predicated on physical prowess. The stress on brawn rather than brains did nothing to break down the old stereotypes of blacks as jungle people. It would be odd to pretend that physical strength is not a vital aspect of any sporting contest, but the source of national pride, even in sports, is subject to change. When the French soccer team became world champions in 1998, the “multi-ethnic” complexion of the French team, led by Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, was hailed by many in France as a sign of national superiorityóa note of triumph that looks sadly ephemeral now.
The ideal of ethnic or national virility had been in the air at least since the end of the nineteenth century. Fascism was obsessed with racial virility, and this obsession was exported and taken up by Hindu chauvinists in India, militarists in Japan, nationalists in China. Cleverness, as in “the clever Jew,” was rarely meant as a compliment. German “racial hygiene,” developed by Nazi doctors and other murderous theorists, was not aimed at creating a race of brilliant thinkers but of heroic supermenóthe type represented by the outsized musclemen sculpted by Arno Breker. That few of the Nazi leaders came anywhere near this physical ideal was evident. But Schmeling, despite his dark hair, did.
This made his victory over the younger Joe Louis in 1936 all the more galling. Margolick retells the story of this sorry affair very well, again through a variety of contemporary voices. Louis seemed listless in his training camp, sometimes barely bothering to go through his paces. Perhaps the adulation following his victory over Max Baer had gone to his head. He often slipped away from the training camp to play golf. Whenever he appeared in public, he was surrounded by crowds that treated him like a god. Thousands of worshipers came to his training camp in New Jersey, from Harlem, Atlantic City, and farther afield, just to see their man dodging and jabbing to the music of a live ringside band, which played such numbers as “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry.” Joe Louis keys, statues, and flashlights were on sale. Ralph Matthews, of the Baltimore Afro-American, joked that “an enterprising salesman could catch Joe Louis’s perspiration in cologne bottles and peddle it at two bucks an ounce.” All this was not good for the champ’s concentration.
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