As part of our redesign in 2014, the hotel’s architect Jan Kleihues, designed the ‘Faces of Berlin’. This concept celebrates some of Berlin’s most beloved personalities in feature walls through the hotel and every month we present the background on some of these personalities. The first in this series profiled Marlene Dietrich and for our second feature we talk about the life of German boxer, and former heavyweight champion of the world Max Schmeling.
Born Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling in Northern Germany in 1905, Schmeling’s first taste of boxing was as a teenager. After seeing footage of the heavyweight championship match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, he did the rounds of amateur boxing for many years. He won his first national title in 1924 and with a strong career established in Germany, decided to move to the states in 1928 where he quickly became a success. In 1930, after a low blow from his opponent Jack Sharkey, Schmeling was awarded title of heavyweight champion. He was the first European to win this title, which also came with the dubious honour of being the first won due to disqualification. He held the tile for 2 years until Sharkey won it back from him in 1932.
Schmeling’s most widely publicized fights however were in 1936 and 1938 with Joe Louis – which became political platforms for growing tensions between America and Germany. The fight scene in Rocky IV between the American and the Russian is said to have been inspired by this historic bout between Schmeling and Louis, with Balboa and Drago also dragged into international politics as unwilling participants. The Nazi party had recognized the propaganda value of Schmeling’s successes in America and despite his lack of engagement, promoted him as a poster boy for aryan ideals. However he lost the 1938 bout and was quickly dropped from Nazi party favour.
Despite having meetings with Hitler and appearing to have good relations with Nazi party members, his refusal to sever ties with his Jewish trainer Joe Jacobs, along with his marriage to Jewish Austrian film star Anny Ondra – led to further tensions. Additionally, it was revealed in the late ‘80s by Henri Lewin that Schmeling had hidden him and his brother Werner in his apartment in Berlin to save them during the devastation that was Kristallnacht in November 1938. He was honoured for this some years later.
Schmeling was forcibly conscripted during World War Two and served as a paratrooper during the invasion of Crete, where he was injured. He returned to boxing, performing exhibition matches throughout Europe for soldiers as well as winning a few fights in the late ‘40s. However in 1948 he finally retired and went on to earn considerable wealth as a Coca Cola franchisee. During this time Schmeling was know for his generosity and philanthropy. He also was able to cultivate a strong friendship with former opponent Joe Louis. Those close to Schmeling say he took care of Louis in his later years, even paying for Louis’ funeral in 1981.
Max Schmeling was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992 and attended the opening ceremony of the Max Schmeling Halle in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin in 1996 – a multipurpose hall named in his honour. Max Schmeling died on February 2, 2005, at age 99 and a memorial statue to him was erected in his hometown of Coquille in Lower Saxony, where he lived for more than 55 years. He was highly regarded there as an active member and generous contributor to the community. Max Schmeling is remembered as a sporting icon for his athletic achievements but also as a human being for his generosity, his humility and his unwavering strength of character.