Emil Jannings (1884-1950) Max Schmeling (1905-2005)
Jannings may be best remembered as the star of the 1930 film, The Blue Angel, opposite Marlene Dietrich. Film buffs may also recall that Jannings was the first to win the Best Actor Oscar in 1929 for two films, The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command.
Another German, Max Schmeling, became an icon and international cynosure after trouncing Joe Louis in a heavyweight title bout in 1936.
Less well known is the answer to the question, “Whatever happened to two of Hitler’s favorite celebrities?” The careers of both men during and after WW II took dramatically different turns. One was still lionized until his death. The other died in Switzerland in disgrace and comfortable exile because of his association with the Third Reich.
Jannings, far right, with Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, far left.
An even more famous German émigré and Jannings’ co-star, Marlene Dietrich, salvaged her career and reputation by remaining in the United States and hosting war bond drives where she reinforced her image as Hitler’s beautiful nemesis.
Schmeling remains enshrined in an imaginary boxing hall of fame he never inhabited in real life. Fight fans of all races and ethnicities also celebrate Schmeling’s career and personal life.
Two Jewish boys the boxer, who was not anti-Semitic despite propaganda disseminated by the American media stashed in his apartment during World War II, honored Schmeling for his courage and life-risking kindness in rescuing two Unchosen Young People.
Honor and recognition later during his boxing career and mid-life eluded him after Hitler came to power in 1933.
Tainted by an unfair association with the Nazi Party, which he never joined to the detriment of his career but not his life, Schmeling became a pariah and popular stalking horse of American Jews and the media as the living embodiment of Nazi ideology’s Aryan Übermensch or superman ideal.
Schmeling first fell out of favor in his native Germany after losing a bout at Yankee Stadium to the half-Jewish champ Max Baer, who won by a technical knockout in the bout in 1933 after pummeling his opponent with backhand and rabbit punches.
To turn the contest into a battle between the darling of the Nazi Party and a (half, non-observant) Jew, Baer wore the Star of David on his boxing trunks.
To Hitler, Schmeling’s 1937 loss to a subhuman like Joe Louis, the African-American heavy-weight champ, made him a pariah in the Third Reich.
The loss of the Nazi propaganda machine that had once lionized the Louis didn’t keep him out of the Wehrmacht, Germany’s army, where he saw action as a paratrooper during the invasion and unsuccessful of Crete in 1941.
Hitler published Schmeling for his tanked boxing career and resistance to the Party by drafting him into the Wehrmacht. The punishment did not turn out to be capital punishment.
My upcoming novel, If Nazi Germany Had Won the War, borrows a page from Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944, which was published in 1953.
The novel, due out in 2012, contains an imaginary transcript of the Fuehrer’s fireside chats with cronies following Schmeling’s loss to Louis:
“Ach, that Schwarz fakir [naked black guy]! It’s déjà vu all over again! As if Owens wasn’t a big enough headache back in ‘36!”
The African American track star Jesse Owens obliterated the Aryan myth of a super race by beating the cream of Nazi German athletes at the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
Schmeling’s life had multiple “second acts,” to use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dismal assessment of his own failed writing career that never duplicated the success in 1925 of The Great Gatsby in his lifetime.
Schmeling regained his boxing reputation by kayoing Europe’s heavyweight champ Adolf Heuser in the first round of their match in 1939.
After the war, increased wealth followed the improvement in his reputation when he became the first European bottler of Coca-Cola.
Schmeling regained his heroic status as an early opponent of Hitler before his death in 2005 shortly before his 100th birthday.
That same year, the ancient athlete saw his courageous rescue of two Jewish teenagers he hid in his palatial Berlin apartment honored by the rescuees.
Schmeling in 1971 with friend and competitor, Joe Louis
A gala event at Caesar’s Palace, hosted by the Jewish youths, by then top executives at the Las Vegas casino and hotel, capped a life and career that was “more honour’d in the breach than the observance,” as Shakespeare said about his depressive Dane.
Jannings also died rich but reviled and unmourned in 1950 after a bout with liver cancer. The taint of his association with Nazism that was more than a flirtation haunted the actor for the few remaining years of his life after the war.
Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power. Penguin Books, 2005.
Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. HarperCollins, 1997.
Rings, Werner. Life With the Enemy: Collaboration and Resistance in Hitler's Europe, 1939-1945. Doubleday and Company, 1982.
Sanello, Frank. If Nazi Germany Had Won the War. Genesee Avenue Books, 2012.
Shirer, William L. The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940. Little, Brown and Company, 1984.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders