The Great Black Hope

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 post–World 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 über 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 favor—boxing is also an art!” This probably endeared him to the café crowd of Weimar Berlin, but he also personified a kind of bodily perfectionism which many Germans at the time tried to cultivate—all 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 calisthenics 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 boxing 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…

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