Max Schmeling on the Hindenburg

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.

Max Schmeling and the Hindenburg

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.

Max Schmeling

Max Schmeling

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.

Passenger list from Max Schmeling's return to Germany

Passenger list from Max Schmeling’s return to Germany

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, with his wife Anny Ondra, after returning to Germany on Hindenburg

Max Schmeling, with his wife Anny Ondra, after returning to Germany on Hindenburg

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.

Max Schmeling aboard Hindenburg, 1936.

Schmeling aboard Hindenburg in 1936, passing over Philadelphia in a wonderful photograph by Max Haas.


17 Comments on "Max Schmeling on the Hindenburg"

  1. The history of Smelling and the airship are something. I am glad he did not take that flight. It is safe to fly in one in Freidrchshaven, Germany nowadays. I have been there– done that.-Wayne Hanson

  2. it has been thrilling researching and collecting information about the hindenburg and other airships over the past 25 years. made some great contacts, been to the crash site and toured the gigantic hanger twice. made contacts with 3 or 4 german crewmen years ago aboard the hindenburg when she crashed. great stuff. corresponded with max schmeling over a period of about 8 years. interviewed a lady in S.C. whose family rode on the hindenburg in 1936. she is now 90 yrs old.

  3. Hindenburg
    A passenger on the June 24-June 26, Lakehurst-Frankfurt flight was Prof. Robert Alexander MacLean of University of Rochester (NY) – the Schmeling trip. He wrote a short account of it while over the Atlantic for publication in his university’s magazine (MacLean, R. A. (1936) “Written in the sky”, Rochester Alumni Review 14.5: 110-111 – available online). Other passengers he mentions include included Dr Eckener and Hugo Stinnes, son of the German industrialist of the same name, and unnamed American millionaires whom he seems not much to admire. I wonder if there is a surviving passenger list for that flight and any photographs or biographical details of the passengers including MacLean. What does it say abut MacLean that he was able to participate in such a flight?

  4. neil H. Wenberg | October 29, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply

    A very intersting article both on Max S. and the Hindenburg Airship

  5. Sounds like Schmeling lead a very interesting life, especially the part about him being torn when it came to being a Nazi. Makes you wonder how many Hitler followers were the same. I haven’t read much about the Hindenburg disaster so I’ll have to read up on that.

  6. Sis and Sophie | May 7, 2010 at 8:42 am | Reply

    A classmate and i are doing a huge college project on the hindenburg disaster. It seems so many of you have sources and references i do not know of. I know how difficult it is to find them, almost impossible. If you have any you would be willing to hand over, we would be very extremely grateful.

    The e-mail is: [email protected]

    Please write us if you have any references regarding the different theories about the disaster, mostly the difference between the american and the german explanation. We would also be very intersted in articles written around the disaster, from both europe (germany in particular) and the US as well. We know the times wrote something, but we cant find it. Links would be helpfull too.

    Please write.
    // Sis and Sophie

  7. have been a hindenburg researcher for 20 years. have letters from german crewmen who survived the disaster of may 6 ,1937 at lakehurst. been to the crash site 2 times and inside the gigantic hanger twice. also corresponded with max schmeling for almost 8 years. have a number of pictures from him. have also spoken to family members of survivors ( joseph spah’s daughter ). interview 2 navy crewmen working at naval base at lakehurst on the day of the disaster. both are deceased. did speak to dr. raymond taylor over the phone. he treated captain ernest lehman for injures. lehman died the next day. dr taylor also deceased. also have info sent to me by werner franz, 14year old cabin boy from germany who survived the disaster.i am very proud of my memorabilia collection.have much more that i did not mention.


    • Mr Helms,
      I would love to hear about your conversations with Max Schmeling. Any info would be greatly appreciated. I am working on a fictional as well as a documentary account of the two years between the Joe Louis fights.
      Please feel free to email or call. My phone number is 703-922 7503.
      Thank you.

    • Hi David…
      Can you drop me an email re: Schmeling? I’m doing some research for a piece on him and I’m curious as to what ‘cha got… will explain more. Thank you!
      G. Bleckman

  8. can you tell me where count von zeppelin and hugo eckener are buried and the year they died? thanks for you help. i really appreciate it.


    • hi peter. i did correspond with max schmeling over a period of 7 years or so. he did write me a short letter in german mentioning his trip back home aboard the hindenburg in 1936 after he defeated joe louis. beyond that he would send me pictures of himself :birthday photos, etc.,which i have framed. i am truly proud and feel privileged to have corresponded with him up until his death.


    • Jasonwallace | July 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply

      Dear Mr Helms Count ferdinand Graf Von Zeppelin died in 1917 and Dr Hugo Eckener died in 1954 as for were they are buried not sure on that! but i wish you all the best in your future endeavours into Airship /Zeppelin History i too have been studying them for 5 yrs or more and it is rather intriguing as i believe that airships will once again grace our skies!

      i would love to see your collection sometime and discuss airships as i am sure you would know a damnsite more than i do im sure what you might have to say will be very interesting!!.

      Regards Jason Wallace

  9. can anyone tell me where max schmeling is buried? i corresponded with him 6 times or more in the 1990’s. thanks for your help.


  10. can anyone assist me in finding the burial sites for 2 very renowed captains with respect to german airships? captain ernst lehmann and captain max pruss. thanks for any way you can help.


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