Welcome to Part Two of What If’s look at how Max Schmeling and Joe Louis would have fared against the backdrop of a completely changed World War II. Part 1 is here.
When last we left our scene, Max Schmeling owned two wins over Joe Louis, and at Hitler’s behest had kept the title as an exhibition through Germany over the course of 1939. Meanwhile, Poland allied with the USSR to blunt the German threat over the Danzig corridor, forcing the Nazi war machine to turn southward to slake its lust for blood; Hungary fell to Germany in October of 1939. Meanwhile, in Spain…
March 15, 1940: Joe Louis KO5 Max Schmeling
From the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid, Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain had his prize, a fight grander than any contest between a butcher and steak in potentia normally to be had in the grand capital of a Spanish national tradition. This time it was an open question as to just which of the combatants in the bullring would be the grillmaster and which would be the main dish, although what was certain is that nobody in that metaphor would actually be eaten.
Joe Louis had fallen victim to his own vices in 1936, as his poor training regimen crashed against the rocky shores of a man whose Teutonic efficiency in studying his opponent revealed a weakness to exploit throughout the fight. He had fallen victim to a different sort of hubris in 1938, training like a demon but broadcasting to the world how he intended to end the contest, which spared his opponent the trouble of guessing a strategy and instead handed one to him in an Oktoberfest stein.
The third fight was Joe Louis trying to be Goldilocks, albeit a 215-pound muscled monster rather than a small child in tawny pigtails. President Roosevelt, knowing a propaganda opportunity when he saw one, offered up a few Army privates for sparring, and Louis, seeing his own chance to amp up the patriotic fervor behind the fight, found a drill sergeant to help with his conditioning. World War II may have been stalled out in Europe, but to a certain subset of the American public mind, it was still a powder keg, and anything that showed off the nation’s might was to be celebrated.
When the fight started, Louis boxed as smartly as he did at any point in his career. Working the inside but never providing Schmeling with a chance to anticipate his movement, Louis threw the sorts of jabs that had such bad intentions behind them that his goal seemed to be to knock every tooth out of the German’s mouth with the constant assault. Teddy Atlas speaks of the jab as “putting bugs on the windshield” these days, but on that night, the bugs in question were less gnats and mosquitoes and more Japanese giant hornets and tarantula hawk wasps.
The entire strategy was predicated on never letting the big German get a rhythm going. When Schmeling raised his guard to try and deflect the jab, Louis would feint high and follow it with a vicious hook to the body. As Schmeling began to tire, he leaned forward…directly into an uppercut right between the elbows, splitting the guard and finding the chin of a weakening fighter.
This was the fight that Joe Louis should have fought in 1938. This was the fight where every strength of the great challenger and every weakness of the wrestling heel of a champion met with the advantage going precisely where it ought to have. Referee Juan Casanovas, who had heard of the refereeing performance put forth by Arthur Donovan in the second fight and who had no dog in the fight in the racial or nationalist arguments, made it clear to the press before the fight even began that he would act quickly in the event of either fighter committing fouls, and Schmeling was clearly mindful of the dangers at home of handing the title over on a disqualification. He instead went out on his shield, perhaps his 34 years catching up with him once and for all.
Finally, in the fifth round, an uppercut caught Schmeling leaning in with the full force of momentum like a baseball bat crashing into a batting-practice fastball. Schmeling landed flat on his face in a heap, perhaps fortunate that his defeat came 70 years too soon for the invention of the Internet meme, and the fight was over. Joe Louis, at long last, was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Still, Louis fought a perfect fight against an opponent who had, after all, still beaten him twice, and he had done so without the satisfaction of doing it in front of his fans in his homeland. We can’t very well end our story there, so…
March 16, 1940: Max Schmeling boards a plane in Madrid with his wife, bound for New York.
History does not record what Adolf Hitler said to Max Schmeling in advance of the fighter’s departure for Spain ahead of the Ides of March. Schmeling’s association with Jewish fight promoter Joe Jacobs, along with a burgeoning friendship he had built with Max Baer, may have pushed the Führer toward placing restrictions on Schmeling, and there may even have been threats against his well-being had he been defeated.
Whatever the motivations, Schmeling decamped to the United States, which as a land still not at war with Germany, was ostensibly a destination to which the German fighter could travel freely. Strings at the State Department did not need much more than a gentle tug; Schmeling was quickly granted a residency at Ellis Island so that he could support his family by means boxing or otherwise, and the US news services trumpeted the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” angle.
Hitler…was not pleased.
March 31, 1940: Germany Invades Romania, Quickly Conquers It
In the prime timeline, Hungary, fresh off its gaining concessions in Slovakia from the puppet regime there, began to press Romania for concessions of territory in Transylvania, and the countries nearly went to war over it before Romania was convinced by the Second Vienna Award and the treaty therein signed to cede the territory, a roughly even mix of ethnic Hungarians and Romanians, to Hungary.
In our timeline here, there is no Hungary; it is German territory, and Hitler’s caprices are very much at their height after the embarrassment on the world stage of his nation’s most high-profile athlete defecting to the United States after a humiliating defeat to an American black fighter. The national mood had to be placated, and only war would do.
Storming out of the mountains of eastern Hungary onto Romania’s open plain, the initial shock of storm infantry followed as soon as terrain became favorable by a tank blitz clear to the Black Sea, meant that Germany had mopped the floor with Romanian resistance before the Soviet Union had a chance to react. Rather than deal with a fully mobilized German force on its southern flank, the Russians instead pressed for a diplomatic concession; if the Germans would cede to them the territory of Bessarabia, which had been a point of dispute between Romania and the USSR prior to the war, and which the Russians saw as having been stolen from them in the chaos following the Great War, then Soviet forces would not press the matter any further.
In light of the speed with which Germany accepted this proposition, alarm bells probably should have sounded in Moscow, but Franz von Papen, who had succeeded Ribbentrop as foreign minister after the diplomatic failures in Poland a year prior, was successfully able to convince his Soviet counterpart Molotov that all was well and that the Germans merely wished to eliminate a hostile player from the game when the Romanians agitated over the Transylvanian question. Operation Dracula, as history would know it, was a success.
Spring-Summer 1940: Joe Louis Fights The Bum of the Month Club, Max Schmeling Sells Sausage in New York
Back in the United States, Max Schmeling, who was still very much recovering from the beating he had taken in March, was still in New York City. A stipend, which nobody quite knew where it had come from but which all accounts pointed to its having come from the State Department as part of Schmeling’s debriefing about his knowledge of the activities of the Nazi regime, was enough for Schmeling to open up a little meat shop on the Lower East Side, which he called “Boxwurst”, and which catered in equal measure to wealthy New Yorkers from further up Manhattan and to some of the less blatantly down-and-out sorts coming up from the Bowery. To the former, it was the chance to hobnob with something of a moderate celebrity, whose image that had been so tarnished by his foul-filled victory in 1938 was rehabilitated by his snub of the Hitler regime in 1940. To the latter, it was a chance to get much higher-quality food than the fare normally available to them that was still priced reasonably because of Schmeling’s experience in Weimar Germany with the ill effects that national economic disruption could have on those in need. Indeed, the German was well on his way to becoming a bit of a folk hero in that part of Manhattan.
Meanwhile, Joe Louis, having conquered his greatest foe, went on a bit of a tour of celebrity himself, fighting the assortment of no-hopers that would come to be dubbed the Bum of the Month Club by the newsmen of the day. The heavyweight division simply did not have much in it besides the two men who so frequently crossed paths in New York (Louis, it was said, was a regular at Schmeling’s meat shop), so the champion fought the guys who were put in front of him.
Even Max Schmeling’s wife, Anny Ondra, while a far way from her minor-nobility upbringing as the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian officer, and still out of the acting game after the advent of the “talkies” made her thick accent unpalatable to English-language film audiences, did well by herself. While far from a society girl, those Upper East Side clients of the shop gave her opportunity enough to mingle with the names of New York. Life, as life tends to, went on.
November 5, 1940: Thomas Dewey Elected United States President, Defeats FDR
President Roosevelt indicated fairly early on that he wanted to run for a third term in office; his claim rested on the idea that the storm clouds over Europe would surely erupt into full-scale war sooner or later, and his positioning of America as the “arsenal of democracy” was, to his mind, the reason that Hitler had turned to the southeast instead of to the west.
While this was faint comfort for Hungary and Romania, the fact remained that Roosevelt was treading on constitutionally legal yet tremendously publicly unpopular ground, and the outcry that the man was trying to get himself elected as a king and thought himself greater than George Washington was such powerful slander that even the Democratic Party apparatchiks were hesitant to float him in a national election. Everyone from John Nance Garner to Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana (who had considered a challenge to Roosevelt in 1936 over questions of the New Deal) to a young up-and-coming politician from Missouri by the name of Harry Truman stepped up to challenge the authority of the President, creating a fractious political climate and a raucous Democratic National Convention in Chicago from which Roosevelt barely emerged with his political hide.
The knock against Thomas Dewey was that he did not have the foreign policy experience required to check German ambitions in Europe or handle the increasingly belligerent Japanese in the Pacific theater. Dewey had earned his stripes as the Manhattan district attorney; the Gangbuster who had broken so many of the figures of the Mafia throughout his term as prosecutor, it was Dewey who was responsible for Lucky Luciano ending up behind bars.
Dewey, however, knew the art of politics, and he cast himself as in the same mold as a certain other New York prosecutor who had gone on to great things on the national stage, and who happened to share a surname with the man he was to oppose in the general election.
Once Dewey had secured not only the endorsement from his own party, but also managed to convince the boxers who lived in his attorney’s jurisdiction, he was off to the races. Joe Louis endorsed Dewey on the grounds that he would be a cautious isolationist, moving only when provoked rather than poking the Nazi regime with a stick and committing acts of war by other means by arming Germany’s enemies.
Max Schmeling was a more interesting case. Dewey was able to convince the former subject of Hitler’s regime to speak out on behalf of America’s own constitutional tradition. Hearing a German warning them against the dangers of a man that would subvert a democratic tradition to consolidate his own power did the trick for a lot of otherwise undecided voters. The brush was used with a heavy hand; Roosevelt was Hitler by another name.
When the time came to vote, a tradition in George Washington’s name led the victor to hold up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune bearing the headline: “DEWEY DEFEATS FDR!”
March 5, 1941: The Scandinavian Concordat and Operation Mousetrap
With the battlefront in the east locked in a “where will the Nazis strike next?” turn of mind and with Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia at each other’s throats over territorial disputes following on from the Italian seizure of Albania in 1939, and with Germany looking for resources beyond the Ploesti oilfields in Romania in order to meet any threats to the growing Wehrmacht, clearly on the cusp on a major invasion somewhere if only because Hitler’s entire power base rested upon constant battle rather than a restive population trying to hold itself in check in a nation devoid of sufficient power to break free of its own war economy without serious social disruption, the newly inaugurated President Dewey had the first rebuke of his foreign-policy abilities set to go.
The conference in Copenhagen between the President-elect and the foreign ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden pointed out that Hitler’s ambitions could not be delayed forever, and the boys in Britain had shared with the Norwegians the outline of something the Germans were calling Weserubung, “Weser Exercise”, that seemed to hint at an invasion across the straits between the northern end of Denmark, which would be either conquered or secured via diplomatic threat, and the southern tip of Norway, whence could be gained access to Norway’s North Sea oil wells.
Finland had made its own peace with the Soviets after the Winter War, which went as it did in the prime timeline; the USSR gained territorial concessions from the Finns involving areas north of Leningrad and east of what had been Finnish claims to that point in the Karelia region. The Finns lost enough of their economic muscle that to be stuck with hostiles on both sides would assuredly keep them away from Nazi dominion in any event.
Also as part of the Scandinavian Concordat, as the treaty would come to be known, was permission by Belgium to the French and British to use their own forward bases near the border with Germany, which were in the process of fortification, including irregulars deployed into the Ardennes forest in case the Germans got any ideas about trying to hack their way through there on their way to France. More forward-thinking and flexible than their counterparts in Paris, the Belgians remembered all too well the lessons of the Great War, and sought to blunt a German advance before the battles of Ypres could be repeated in a thirty-years-distant refrain of times gone by.
Collectively, it became known as Operation Mousetrap. If Germany tried to push forward on any territorial front, whether it was north into Scandinavia or west through the Low Countries into France itself, the Western Concorde, as the Allies would be known to this form of history, would be ready for them.
As well, no stranger to the benefits of a war economy himself, Dewey began to pursue a policy of “to secure peace is to prepare for war”, extending Roosevelt’s controversial Lend-Lease Act to actively arm the Concorde against German aggression. Dewey may not have been able to send troops on the ground without raising the ire of his own electorate, but people who have jobs tend to be politically pacified, and the expansion of the American armaments industry meant that plenty of previously-unemployed Americans now had jobs in the same vein by which Hitler had rescued the German economy several years prior.
April 6, 1941: Germany invades, conquers Yugoslavia
The Yugoslav coup d’etat on March 27, 1941 gave Hitler all the impetus he needed to push southward. With the Bulgarian government cowed into submission after the Romanian invasion and the Italians bogged down in Greece, the Balkan campaign went exactly the way it had gone in the prime timeline, with a German victory that would have follow-on effects as it delayed Hitler’s true ambitions. With nothing left to conquer in southeastern Europe, something had to give, and…
June 22, 1941: Germany invades Poland en route to the USSR
…the game was on.
Tune in next week…
for our exciting conclusion, in which we draw both World War II and the saga of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling (you didn’t think that bit at the beginning was the end of the story, did you?) to a close.
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 email@example.com.