The World’s Second-Most-Infamous Nazi Was a French-Canadian Wrestler

The stadium scene.
Nov. 18 2013 12:54 PM

Heil Schmidt!

The world’s second-most-infamous Nazi was a French-Canadian wrestler.

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On Jan. 16, 1953, six months before that fateful Brickhouse interview, Schmidt fought Lou Thesz, who would go on to be a legendary champion of the sport. The cover of that month's issue of the magazine Wrestling As You Like It had a photo of Schmidt advancing, a menacing look on his face. The understated cover line: "Hans Schmidt—He Can Annoy You."

The accompanying article has the same purple earnestness of a boxing magazine of the day, but there are hints at the menacing nature of "the unruly German”: "The German heavyweight may be unethical but it must be admitted that there is plenty of turmoil when he wrestles. ... If he defeats Thesz he will be one of the most colorful heavyweights in the history of the mat sport." (Though most wrestling magazines were reluctant to use the term “Nazi,” the New Yorker’s Liebling referred to Schmidt straightforwardly as “a horrid Nazi villain.”)

Jack Dempsey was imported as special guest referee to keep Schmidt's rule-breaking tendencies in check. Retired boxers would often work as wrestling refs—like Brickhouse and his ilk, the boxers traded sports legitimacy for cash. "Legitimacy" should be used loosely, as the boxers’ typical role would be to slug the villain (or feign to) when he broke one too many rules, allowing the hero to win. Dempsey’s role in that brawl wasn’t central—it ended with the two “huggers” brawling into the crowd—but in September of the following year, Schmidt lost (separately) to Vern Gagne in Denver and Antonino “Argentine” Rocca in Chicago. The former match ended when two jabs from referee Joe Louis helped fell the German; in the latter, Louis only needed to threaten the punch.

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After that the Gagne match, Schmidt was suspended by the Colorado State Athletic Commission for 60 days. Outrageous acts, followed by routine spankings from state athletic commissions, were a staple of the German’s wrestling reign. In 1953 Chicago’s Arena-Auditorium Board threatened to cancel future wrestling shows after Schmidt hit Gagne (a frequent adversary, plainly) over the head with a chair and fans overwhelmed security and rioted. Later that year, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Schmidt had again "been ordered to appear at the Illinois Athletic Commission’s next meeting on Monday to show cause why he shouldn’t be suspended for violation of rules." This time, though, the commission had a new twist: Schmidt had "been identifying himself as a German citizen, whereas he is a French Canadian. The commission has ordered him to refrain from doing it in the future." Thereafter, Schmidt stopped claiming Germany as his home, though he didn't switch to Quebec. He opted instead for his new home: Chicago, Ill. The enemy had arrived, and he was us.

These sports commissions played the same role as reputable men like Brickhouse and Louis. They happily took promoters' money in exchange for “regulating” wrestling matches just as they would any other sport—thus the threat of suspensions to a bad guy like Schmidt.

Schmidt reveled in the infamy, and his transgressions only multiplied. In May 1954 Gagne again beat Schmidt—“one of the mat’s more prosperous villains," the local paper called him—but chaos broke out toward the start of the match when "Schmidt, after knocking Gagne out of the ring four times, leaped from the ring himself and resumed the attack. Several score of ringside spectators swarmed to the rescue, pummeling Schmidt with pocketbooks and hands. Order was restored by the special Hans Schmidt squad of 12 policemen, who bivouac in the Auditorium when the villain appears there."

Many such incidents followed. A 1956 piece in the Milwaukee Sentinel recounts a near-riot, with the implication that the whole thing was a setup by the promoter: “But when Schmidt, who spun Gagne from the ring, wouldn’t allow him to return, the ‘chorus’ was brought to fore. The lawmen ran hither and yon, but in vain. The spokesman shoved the announcer, the announcer yelled to the time-keeper, the time-keeper tussled with the spokesman, the damsel argued with the other lawman and Schmidt tasted a stiff punch to the chops by a fan that sent him scurrying for cover.”

Following a bout between Schmidt and Tarzan Kowalski, that same Milwaukee paper called for his ban from Wisconsin:

The alleged wrestling match ... has been a matter of history for more than a week, but the memory lingers on. Letters of protest are still coming in. ... Their underlying theme: "We want no more of Schmidt. He should be barred forever.” As one disgusted spectator put it: “I realize there must be some dirty work in wrestling to make it interesting, but when one man tries to choke another with a microphone cord, as Schmidt did, it’s time to kick him out as other states have done. He’s a dangerous person. I wonder why the immigration service ever let him into our country.” Everybody must realize by now that the lifeblood of modern wrestling is the knack of coming up with something new and different. Yet it’s quite apparent there’s a limit to how much dirtiness, real or phony, the customers will take. So let that be the end of Schmidt-ism. It isn’t even good entertainment.

The distaste for Schmidt wasn't limited to op-eds and arena riots. He was constantly tormented in public, cursed at and slugged everywhere he went, and in the arena on the way down the aisle, he was regularly stabbed with hat pins and burnt with lighters. According to former wrestling manager Percival Friend, Schmidt had three cars destroyed on separate nights in Canada before the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could contain rioting fans. In Chicago the police sometimes drove him to the arena themselves after fans took to throwing bricks at his car. Friend says that on nights when Schmidt was particularly nasty, they'd try to set his car on fire. All of these were indelible signs of success.

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