German boxer Max Schmeling returned to Germany in triumph on the June 23, 1936 voyage of the Hindenburg, after his victory over American boxer Joe Louis.
Schmeling had knocked out Louis, who was known as the “Brown Bomber,” in the 12th round of their famous fight at New York’s Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936, and he was returning to a triumphant welcome in Germany, which would include a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
The victory of the white Schmeling over the black Louis fit perfectly into the racial theories of Germany’s ruling National Socialist party, and Schmeling was treated as a German hero by the Nazi propaganda machine; in fact, Schmeling’s wife, actress Anny Ondra, listened to the fight on the radio in Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ living room. When Schmeling beat Louis, Nazi officials decided that he should return to Germany on the Hindenburg rather than by ship as originally planned; Hindenburg was viewed as a symbol of German technological achievement, and Schmeling’s flight on the airship would not only create a more dramatic arrival in Germany, but further promote the concept of German superiority in all fields, from athletics to technology.
The 1936 fight between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis — and even more so, the 1938 rematch in which Louis defeated Schmeling — was widely viewed in both Germany and America as a contest between Nazism and democracy (and between racism and racial equality).
Schmeling was cast as the ideal Nazi by those on both sides of the political contest, but the reality of Schmeling’s life and political beliefs is much more ambiguous. Schmeling was neither the perfect Nazi, as he was depicted at the time (he hid the teenage sons of a Jewish friend in his hotel room during Kristallnacht), nor was he an opponent of the Nazi regime, as he has been portrayed in more recent years.
(The facts about Schmeling’s ambiguous moral position are intelligently discussed by David Margolick in the New York Times (Selective Memories of Schmeling) and in his book, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink.)
Max Schmeling made one more flight on Hindenburg, returning to New York in August, 1936, along with many fellow passengers returning from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, including movie star Douglas Fairbanks and Philadelphia attorney Clarence Hall, who described the voyage in his diary.
Schmeling needed to be in New York again in May, 1937, for a proposed fight with American boxer James J. Braddock, and he planned to travel once more on the Hindenburg, on the airship’s first transatlantic flight of the 1937 season, scheduled to arrive on May 6, 1937. But Schmeling’s manager insisted that Schmeling travel to New York in time to appear at a meeting of the boxing commission on May 4th, so Schmeling canceled his ticket for the Hindenburg and crossed the Atlantic by ship, just narrowly missing the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey.