Welcome to another edition of What If? This week, the first part of a trilogy set against the backdrop of an alt-history World War II:
When Joe Louis and Max Schmeling met at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936, the world was only beginning to get familiar with the ambitions of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Mussolini’s Fascist Italy had just avenged its humiliation by Ethiopia 40 years prior by winning the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The Spanish Civil War was still a month away from its outbreak, and Germany had only just begun its abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles with its occupation of the Rhineland on the seventh of March.
All the same, the political implications of a black American fighting an “Aryan” German who had once been heavyweight champion of the world were beneath the surface. When Schmeling won the first fight by twelfth-round knockout, Adolf Hitler had the perfect propaganda victory ahead of the Berlin “Nazi Olympics” in August.
Meanwhile, in proof that even with a single lineage awarding one title per weight class, boxing can still make a complete mess of itself, Joe Louis beat champion Jim Braddock in June of 1937 after negotiations for a Schmeling-Braddock fight fell through over concerns that if Schmeling won the fight, Hitler would essentially hold the heavyweight boxing title hostage and make it a German-only event. Louis, for his part, said that he would not consider himself to be the champion until he got a rematch with Max Schmeling.
In the prime timeline, what happened next was academic. Louis, who had trained for the first fight mainly by taking up the game of golf while his opponent studied his tendencies and weaknesses and exploited them to his advantage on fight night, instead trained like he was fighting for his soul in front of the gods themselves. On fight night, June 22, 1938, in front of 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, Joe Louis attacked like a pissed-off swarm of hornets, assaulting Schmeling first to the body and then to the head, making good on his promise to sportswriter Jimmy Cannon that he would knock Schmeling out in one round. The title belonged to Joe Louis beyond all dispute, prelude to a lengthy run as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Meanwhile, World War II kept Max Schmeling busy as a paratrooper in the German Luftwaffe; Schmeling was a member of the Fallschirmjäger parachute corps nicknamed the “Green Devils” by the Allies.
But what if not only the course of boxing history, but the course of world history itself, were altered? After all, if the question at issue here were purely “what if Max Schmeling won the rematch?”, the answer would be obvious—Schmeling reigns as champion for a little over a year, Germany invades Poland, history goes the way history goes, and Schmeling comes out the other end of the war too old (he was 39 on V-E Day) to stage a serious comeback attempt, while the title itself would probably have ended up back in the US due to Europe being in no position to put on boxing exhibitions.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll be looking further afield for answers while still trying to keep this no softer than a Type II work on the Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility. Please do call out any Alien Space Bats you see in the comments. Now then:
June 22, 1938: Max Schmeling KO7 Joe Louis
Everyone and their sister knew coming into the second fight that Joe Louis had as his strategy a battle plan that would be very familiar to the German general staff as “blitzkrieg”. Louis mentioned to his trainer before the fight that he planned an all-out attack for the first three rounds, and he even told Jimmy Cannon that he expected to finish the fight in one.
Someone must have gotten word to Max Schmeling, because he knew what he had to do to blunt Louis’ advance. Using good old-fashioned dirty fighting, Schmeling turned the crowd into a frenzy of hatred against him as he clinched, grabbed, and threw a no-apologies low blow that landed right on the forbidden speedbag of Joe Louis and took a good bit of the air out of his otherwise constant barrage. Many years later, referee Arthur Donovan would be accused of everything from racism against Louis to outright Nazi sympathies as Schmeling was given leniency on just about anything that would have been called a strike in baseball.
As well-conditioned as Joe Louis was, his strategy was unsound; he had very obviously punched himself out by the end of the fourth round, and it was here that Max Schmeling took the fight to the enemy. With Louis becoming increasingly convinced that the referee was against him, he lowered his guard more than would normally be necessary to protect against body blows, which left his head completely exposed, a fact Schmeling exploited with abandon. The American went down twice in fifth, twice in the sixth, and at forty-six seconds of the seventh round, the fight was over; Max Schmeling was undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
This was no propaganda victory for the Germans, however, at least not stateside. The following day, the New York Post ran a photo of the low blow in the first round with the headline “Cheap Shot: How Max Schmeling Stole the Heavyweight Championship of the World.” The German Völkischer Beobachter, however, saw it differently; they accused the soft American press of denying the “great Aryan hero” his due and trumpeted “the Negro” as the weakness of the American state, a theme that would continue throughout the reign of the Third Reich.
September 29, 1938: The Munich Conference: Germany Occupies Sudetenland
The sport of boxing may have dominated the public discourse in the summer, as the far-reaching implications of a controversial finish to a politically charged sporting event inflamed public sentiment and racial and international tensions.
This was all rendered rather irrelevant, however, when Germany, with the full cooperation of Czechoslovakia’s alleged allies, shamelessly grabbed ethnic German territories of that sovereign entity. The Anschluss of Austria may have been inevitable given the regional political situation, doing little more in the grand scheme than chasing a bunch of singers of “do-re-mi” to Switzerland, but a Great War had started scarcely a quarter-century prior over less of a testing of the alliance system than occurred at the expense of a government in Prague that had its independence guaranteed by the Anglo-French alliance.
Meanwhile, Max Schmeling was in America watching from the sidelines and keeping busy against the occasional freight train bouncer as the time drew closer to settle accounts with sporting history.
October 8, 1938: Max Schmeling KO5 Jim Braddock
“Cinderella Man” may have been semi-retired after his final fight against Tommy Farr in January of 1938 ended with a split decision victory, but a man whose family had so greatly suffered from the Great Depression could always be talked into a chance to cash out a big payday. Schmeling’s camp offered the New Yorker $250,000, sure that they could make at the gate an amount more than sufficient to profit for all involved given the public’s interest in seeing a man they’d come to know as practically a pro wrestling heel step into the ring once more.
The fight itself was proof that perhaps Braddock should have stayed retired. The American offered no threat, and every clean shot landed by Schmeling only contributed further to the crowd’s ire. This ceased to be a sporting contest and felt more like the comic books had their universe warped to a world where the villains were in the ascendant.
William L. Shirer, embedded in Germany as a correspondent for CBS, reported on the public mood as one nation’s villain was another nation’s hero. With nationalism at a frenzy after Hitler’s bloodless conquest bringing ethnic Germans into the Reich’s fold, a boxing victory by their hero in the United States only further contributed to the idea that the Führer was less a Catholic boy from Braunau-am-Inn and more a revival of Germanic gods come to crash like a storm front into all that would oppose the Nazi state.
March 15, 1939: Germany Occupies Czechoslovakia
Not content with the Sudetenland, Nazi forces, claiming that they were merely restoring order to a nation that was descending into anarchy, invaded Czechoslovakia and formed it into the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia, part of the greater Reich, and the ostensibly independent puppet state of Slovakia under the hand of Jozef Tiso. The Western Allies, once again powerless in the face of a fait accompli, simply accepted Hitler’s claim that this would be the last of his territorial ambitions. This would have follow-on diplomatic effects; Britain, having been exposed as a worthless protector and ally, would be rendered impotent on the world stage throughout the remainder of the year.
Meanwhile, in Poland…
The authoritarian government of Ignacy Moscicki was a member of the Socialist International and had the ear of Stalin’s regime in Moscow. When the British came calling, offering a pact of mutual defense against Hitler’s regime and promising to aid Poland were Germany to invade over the question of the Danzig corridor, Moscicki sent the envoy away with a rebuke of “And suffer the fate of Prague? Never!”
Meanwhile, Poland’s foreign ministry sought a greater ally; the Soviet Union. Jozef Beck, Poland’s foreign minister, approached his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov offering to act as a buffer state and early-warning beacon in the event of German invasion; in exchange, Soviet forward troops would be allowed to march freely through Polish territory to counter the Wehrmacht threat. Beck and Moscicki saw this as Poland’s best chance to retain its independence despite being sandwiched between two great powers that would surely jump at the chance to divide it between themselves; better a puppet of Stalin than a slave to Hitler.
Molotov agreed. On April 3, 1939, Poland and the Soviet Union announced that the Anglo-French alliance would not extend to the eastern theater of war; instead, the two nations, under the Molotov-Beck Pact, would stand stronger against German aggression.
Hitler was furious. For the first time, his ambitions had been effectively checked. To fight over the Danzig corridor would be to incur the wrath of a Soviet foe that was fully prepared to meet his advance; at best, the Germans would be victorious in such an effort but at such a tremendous cost of men, materiel, money, and worst of all political security for the Nazi regime that even a man with as poor a gambler’s sense of the odds as Adolf Hitler was forced to acknowledge the futility of pressing the cause. World War II itself had, for the moment, been averted.
April 22, 1939: Max Schmeling KO4 Max Baer
Not that any of that mattered to the boxing world, at least not in the short term. Schmeling had a fight to win, and this time the fight, at the Berlin Sportpalast where Hitler had made so many of his rousing speeches during his rise to power, with all the obvious propaganda value that venue had, would at least give Hitler something to crow about while he tried to find a means to keep the war frenzy alive despite the obvious situation in front of him to the east. A boxing match would distract the public, and Max Baer had not been a major player in the heavyweight boxing scene since his loss to Braddock in 1935.
What’s more, Max Baer was the son of a Jewish father. The US State Department, although unaware of Hitler’s true intentions toward the Jewish population that would culminate in the Holocaust, was damn sure aware of the Nuremberg Laws and of Germany’s hostility to Jews in general; they warned Baer against travel, but were ultimately powerless to stop him.
Even though Max Baer had defeated Max Schmeling in 1934, this was not 1934. Schmeling fell upon his opponent like a lion on a wounded gazelle in the African veldt. It was less a fight and more a public execution, made all the more self-evident by Hitler himself giving a speech at his favorite venue the following day about how “We have conquered the American Negro; we have conquered the American Jew. So shall we conquer all who stand against us, from the treacherous Pole to the Russian Bolshevik to their cowardly so-called friends in London and Paris. No matter the direction, the Reich shall have its lebensraum, and victory will be ours.”
Raucous cheers followed, and not long thereafter, Schmeling spent the summer of 1939 on an exhibition tour of Germany, fighting regional “champions” set up in such a way mainly to allow Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl to create a sequel to “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” to show the rest of the world and to keep nationalist sentiment high as the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe continued to take steps toward a war that had, in Hitler’s mind, merely been postponed.
July 15, 1939: Joe Louis KO13 Bob Pastor
Meanwhile, it’s not as though Joe Louis retired. With the champion off in Europe making his Führer look good, Joe Louis fought a combination of the bum-of-the-month club guys that would keep him busy in the prime timeline and fighters who would garner him the credibility required to earn a third fight with Schmeling for the title. Even though it looked as though initial fears that Hitler would turn the lineal championship into a German-only affair would come true, it was only a matter of time before worldwide boxing sentiment itself would strip Schmeling of his legitimacy as the true king of boxing’s greatest division. Joe Louis knew it, Max Schmeling knew it…and Adolf Hitler knew it. Negotiations were initially about as worthwhile as the ones over the Danzig Corridor had been, but the more time passed, the more the public the world over demanded a fair contest between the American and the man for whom Riefenstahl’s propaganda film had only further established him as the villain.
October 7, 1939: Joe Louis KO7 Tony Galento
Schmeling kept stalling: Louis kept winning. Now 11-0 in the 16 months since the second fight against his German bugbear, the American press and the New York State Athletic Commission declared that Joe Louis would herefore be known as the heavyweight champion of the world, Schmeling having been considered to have vacated his title when he went to Germany to fight significantly non-world-class-quality opponents. The reasoning went that the men Joe Louis had fought were men he would have fought as legitimate challengers had he been the champion, and that “given the behavior of the government in Germany in forbidding the champion an opportunity to fight the best challengers, we must withdraw our recognition of Max Schmeling as the man atop the sport.”
October 15, 1939: Germany completes the conquest of Hungary
Remember the mention of Slovakia earlier? Most of southern Slovakia had a significant population of ethnic Hungarians, and the former junior partner of the land responsible for starting the Great War wanted to pull a Sudetenland of its own, trying to fortify its own interests in the region as tensions rose between Hungary and both Romania to its east and Yugoslavia to its south. With Italy having conquered Albania during this time as well, the time seemed opportune for a Hungarian bloodless occupation.
Where the problem arises is that Hitler had other ideas. Denied his chance to carve out a Greater Germany in the east, and still hopping mad from having been diplomatically outmaneuvered by Beck and Molotov (Joachim von Ribbentrop, for his part, decamped to Geneva, exiled from his homeland in the scandal that followed), Hitler decided to make an example of someone, and Germany’s pledge of protection over Slovakia made all the pretext the Nazis needed for a swift, vicious conquest of the land of the Magyars.
In addition, this gave Germany undisputed control not only of a nation on Poland’s southern flank in Slovakia, but now on the southwestern border of the USSR itself, with Ukraine now accessible, albeit only through a combination of a short land crossing from the Reich and a longer stretch from German-sympathizing Romania.
November 14, 1939: Max Schmeling-Joe Louis III gets date, site: Fight Scheduled for Spring 1940
So the headline ran in the press of the day. Hitler did not want Schmeling fighting in the United States; Joe Louis did not want to fight in Germany. With that seemingly unresolvable stalemate a constant thorn in the side of those who wanted to see the fight happen, a surprising neutral third party emerged.
Francisco Franco, newly-minted dictator in nationalist Spain, wanted to establish his nation as a place above the fray of the politics happening to the east, an Iberian playground where Brit and American and German and Russian alike could come to play.
The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, capital of Spanish bullfighting, would play host to a different sort of combates, and the event would be promoted not by American mafiosi or petty grifters, not by Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl, but by the nation of Spain as a showcase following the bloody civil war that had ended successfully for the Franco government in April and which indeed had been overshadowed by the events in Poland that same week. Holding 25,000 local spectators, and with a worldwide radio audience sure to be listening, the fight the world had been waiting for was set; on March 15, 1940, the world heavyweight championship lineage would resume on a single course.
March 15, 1940: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling…
Not this week. You’re going to have to wait for Part II.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series for The Boxing Tribune. He’s also a hell of a history buff. Fan mail, hate mail, and alien space bats can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.