- Max Schmeling and the Making of a National Hero in Twentieth-Century Germany by Jon Hughes
The representation of German boxer Max Schmeling through various media across the twentieth century is the focus of this book, rather than Schmeling himself. Jon Hughes aims to meet four distinct readerships: those with interests in sport and sporting cultures, the history of twentieth-century Germany, questions of memory and national identity, and the cultural construction of hero figures. Some depth may be sacrificed for this breadth, but the book ultimately offers something to each audience. Of the four aims, the cultural construction of Schmeling as a hero figure through journalism, film, biographies, and autobiographies receives the most comprehensive treatment. “Sport, and its potential meanings, lie at the heart of this study” (3), with the psychological and philosophical models presented in the first two chapters joined by later discussions of standardization, professionalization, and mass mediation. Strengths include an extensive citation of primary sources, the integration of several aspects of sport theory, and the contextualization of Schmeling in the broader trajectory of boxing’s historical development as an internationally professionalized, politicized, and mass-mediated enterprise. While historical in character, this is a work of cultural studies insofar as the analysis is focused on representations of Schmeling produced by journalists for newspapers and magazines, by broadcasters during his fights and interviews, by photographers and fine artists, and by film makers, casting the boxer both as a subject and as an occasional actor. Other aspects of the historical record appear occasionally in notes, but the substance of the work is devoted to analyzing these public representations of a sports celebrity who emerged in the early days of mass media.
A weakness is the absence of a theoretical framework to support the discussion of nationalism. Without a clear statement of what Hughes intends by nation, people, volk, and the government of the day (whether before, during, or after the Nazi era), some slippage between the meanings of these categories is inevitable. For example, he renders volk as people when discussing Hitler’s vision of the Nation (125), but in the same sentence leaves the term Nation untranslated; the implied equivalence with an English word used interchangeably to refer to sovereign states, stateless ethnolinguistic groups, and the linguistic and cultural identities enforced by states on populations within their borders confuses more than it clarifies. Elsewhere, menschen is also translated as “people” (101), in a passage quoted from a sociological work addressing the relationship between sport and political conditions from the 1920s. Needless to say, these shades of meaning are particularly important because of the Nazi preoccupation with racial superiority, the natural symbolism of athletes as such, and the ghastly campaigns undertaken to force conformity between the population and the avowed characteristics of the Reich. Hughes’s explanations make clear that Hitler envisioned a country in which the government and the people were synonymous, but some consideration of the mechanisms by which national communities are imagined or national traditions invented could help explain how Schmeling, like so many others, chose to remain associated with the Nazi regime. [End Page 376]
Hughes gives ample attention to the U.S. society and culture that, especially in respect to boxing, played a major role in the public representation of Schmeling throughout his life. This is partly because of the centrality of the United States to twentieth-century boxing and partly because of the role the United States played in Schmeling’s career, both during and after his active years in the sport. Defeating the legendary U.S. boxer Joe Louis was a defining moment in Schmeling’s career, and Hughes dedicates nine pages to an engaging account of Louis’s multiple, conflicting significances in the United States, where many white fans were forced to choose between racism and patriotism when Louis fought Primo Carnera from Fascist Italy and Max Schmeling from Nazi Germany. While Hughes is clear that his intentions are not biographical, his chronological...