Nazis make the perfect Hollywood villains – instantly recognisable, obviously deplorable and easy to recreate. So why were there no anti-Nazi films until 1939, on the eve of World War 2? This week I explore the history of Nazis in Hollywood in the 1930s, how the German government influenced American film-making, and the Jewish intelligence organisation who did what the FBI wouldn’t – infiltrated and helped prosecute the Nazis. I also reflect on how similar the 1930s American Nazi movement was to today’s hard Right culture, and explain why the anti-Jewish conspiracy theory about Hollywood simply isn’t true.
I recently happened upon a book – Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America by Steven J Ross, a professor of history in the US. It tells the story of various Los Angeles-based Nazi organisations in the 1930s and into the 1940s, and how it wasn’t the LAPD, military intelligence or the FBI who gathered intelligence on them, but an ad hoc Jewish organisation. I can thoroughly recommend this book, it’s a highly readable work of history that tells a story I had never heard before. I’ll come back to that at the end of this episode.
Without getting into all the details, LA was flooded with Nazi organisations and German-American clubs with fascist leanings throughout the 1930s. They acted as a de facto fifth column for the German government, gathering information on targets, recruiting new members and generally trying to develop and grow a pro-Hitler movement in the US. They stockpiled weapons, spread anti-semitic propaganda, and recruited ordinary German-Americans and others to their cause.
As with all ideological groups, we shouldn’t tar all these people with the same brush. Some were merely patriotic Germans who for one reason or another joined organisations that were rapidly taken over by fascists following the 1933 German election. Others were patriotic Christian Americans, though most seem to have believed that Jews were taking over the world and that Hitler was some kind of noble bulwark against this. For most, anti-Jewish prejudices seem to have played a bigger role than nationalism (either German or American), from what I can tell.
Nonetheless, the names of some of these organisations – the American Labor Party, the American Freedom Association, America First, the American Nationalist Party – are quite recognisable for their similarity to the modern neo-Nazi movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Fascism has always been more successful at recruiting working class people than middle class people, mostly because working class people have been screwed over more than middle class people, so it’s easier to stir up their emotions and tell them you have the answer to their problems. As stupid as it may be that Nigel Farage, a banker who is the son of a banker, is seen as some kind of anti-globalist working class hero it shows how fucking stupid people can be.
Likewise, the appeal of nationalism, and that we should put our country first ahead of others, has quite a widespread appeal. But before you know it, those who professed love for their country are trying to persuade you that ethnic minorities are the real cause of the problems and solutions range from expulsion to forced sterilisation to genocide. Finally, the notion of fascism as a liberation ideology, that somehow makes us more free, is fairly widespread but obviously untrue. Nonetheless, most political ideologies, not least capitalism and communism, also promise some kind of liberation that never actually manifests.
One element of the story in Hitler in Los Angeles that particularly interested me is how these various Silver Shirt, German-American and explicitly fascist organisations recruited heavily from veterans of the Great War, WW1. Following the market crash in the late 20s, the US in particular was hit with a deep economic depression and in order to provide for the increasing numbers of unemployed one of the groups that saw their benefits cut was disabled veterans. As you can imagine, this caused quite a lot of resentment so the Nazis found considerable success in recruiting men in that situation.
The plots and plans explored by these various Nazi gangs included overthrowing President Roosevelt and replacing the government with an American fascist government. There was actually a fairly high-ranking coup attempt in 1933 which is known as the Business Plot, but it doesn’t seem there was much connection between that and the plotters in Los Angeles. The LA gangs also planned to round up all the Jews in the city and either kill them or imprison them. They even discussed – at some length and in detail – killing a whole string of major Jewish figures in Hollywood including Sam Goldwyn, Louis B Mayer, James Cagney, Gloria Stewart, William Wyler and the most famous man in the world, Charlie Chaplin.
As the Nazis saw it, Jews controlled Hollywood and were using it to take over the world. In a classic bit of ideological gymnastics their answer to this was to kill the Jews, take control of Hollywood and use it to take over the world. Herein lies a simple truth – the more extreme someone’s political beliefs are, the more prone they are to using ludicrous conspiracy theories to excuse those beliefs. Every megalomaniacal or genocidal ideologue of the last few centuries has used conspiracy theories in this way – weaponising people’s natural capacity for suspicion and turning it into a means of recruitment and rallying support.
In reality, while there were plenty of Jews in Hollywood, and still are, there has never been any evidence of any kind of conspiracy. Just like now, the Nazis in the 1930s equated Judaism with Communism, saying they were one and the same, and referred to ‘Cultural Bolshevism’ which basically equated to anything in a film that they found offensive. The parallels with the alt right and other modern neo-Nazi movements are obvious.
The original Nazis even tried the old ‘accuse your enemy of rape and moral debasement’ tactic, which is prevalent not just in today’s neo-Nazi subculture, but elsewhere too. Again, feeling revulsion towards rape, especially child rape, is perfectly natural and understandable but because it’s such a gutteral emotion it is easy to channel that into targeting, scapegoating, racial hatred and so on. We see this in everything from Mike Cernovitch, who is an out and out neo-Nazi, all the way through to radical feminism. But in the 1930s, it was the preferred propaganda of deluded fascists.
One other point on which history has proven the fascists wrong is that there was any kind of concerted Jewish and/or Communist plot in Hollywood. In reality, and as Ross documents in the book, there were a fair number of Jews in above-the-line jobs (actors, writers, directors and so on) but below-the-line jobs were dominated by Nazis. Jewish craftspeople were actually pushed out of Hollywood during this period, as the Nazis managed to recruit studio lot foremen and others involved in making staffing decisions.
So, just like today, the vast and overwhelming majority of what the Nazis believed was simply untrue. Of course, truth and ideology have little to do with one another, I just wanted to highlight how fascism has barely evolved in a century, and how today’s neo-Nazi movements are based in the same delusions as the original Nazis nearly a hundred years ago.
The Jewish Intelligence Agency
Despite the emergence of a fairly well-funded, organised and widespread fascist movement in the United States, the government wasn’t interested. Ross cites numerous instances of this in the book. Basically, Army and Navy intelligence didn’t especially care, the FBI were much more concerned with Communist infiltration than Nazi infiltration, Congress and the House Un-American Activities Committee were the same, while the LAPD were, if anything, quite sympathetic towards the Nazis. Indeed, at one point it seems both the LAPD and the FBI’s Los Angeles field office were infiltrated by the very organisations they should have been infiltrating.
As a result, no one in government was doing anything to stop the problem, or even to accurately identify it. So a man called Leon Lewis took it upon himself to set up a private intelligence organisation. Lewis was a lawyer, a former Army captain and a former director of the Anti-Defamation League. He was concerned at the growing anti-semitism in America, and identified the emerging Nazi movement in Los Angeles as a critical component.
So, largely working on his own steam and, at least initially, using his own money he recruited German-Americans and disabled veterans who then infiltrated and spied on these various fascist organisations. It seems that Ross found an archive of hundreds, possibly thousands of informant reports and intelligence files put together by Lewis and the others who ran this ad hoc network, and he provides no end of detailed information not just about what Lewis’s network managed to do, but also what the Nazi gangs were up to.
Lewis’s accomplishment should not be underestimated. He had no real training in intelligence, knew nothing about agent-running, had hardly any money and no government support. Yet from 1933 to 1941 his agents successfully infiltrated every Nazi organisation in the city, often getting close to senior figures such as Hans Diebel, Robert Pape and Hermann Schwinn. His spy network successfully interdicted several lethal plots and helped sew the seeds of discord among the American West Coast Nazi leadership. Honestly, this would make a really good spy series.
Further evidence of the absence of a Jewish plot to control the world through Hollywood came in March 1934. This is when Lewis, having been running his spy network for a year, called a meeting of some of the biggest people in Hollywood. He outlined what his spies had discovered, how pro-Nazi foremen had fired so many below-the-line Jewish employees that some of the biggest studios had ‘reached a condition of almost 100 percent [Aryan] purity.’ The network had also uncovered numerous death threats against Jews, including some of movie moguls present at the meeting.
Lewis called the meeting to ask for money to maintain and expand his operation. By the end of the evening the moguls had promised him $24,000, close to half a million in today’s money. But much of the money that was pledged never arrived, and Lewis had to continue his work on a shoestring budget. If there was a Jewish conspiracy in Hollywood then a) it is unlikely they would have been so unaware of what was going on in their own studios and b) they would have followed through with significant funds to support those working against the Nazis.
One of these plots involved hanging dozens of Jewish Hollywood figures in public, which was planned in detail. They even talked about wearing gloves so as to not leave fingerprints, and heavy woollen socks over their shoes to not leave footprints. They had a list of targets, and one of the conspirators – a failed lawyer named Ingram Hughes – assured the others that the LAPD would not interfere. The plot was postponed due to fears that Lewis’s spies had infiltrated the organisation, and that they would end up being tried for murder.
A year or so later a British fascist named Leopold McLaglan revived the plot. Leopold had served in the British army in WW1, fighting against the Germans, and then became a jiu-jitsu expert, apparently winning the world championship in the 1920s. He was also the estranged brother of 1936 Oscar winning actor Victor McLaglen. Oh, and he was a renowned con artist.
Shortly after meeting them at the Nazi-run German Day Celebration in September 1937, Leopold invited several members of these organisations for supper. These included Charles Slocombe, a former KKK member who had been recruited by Lewis. Leopold shared his plan to murder 24 Hollywood Jews, including studio execs and film stars, using pipe bombs. He also wanted to target the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.
This plot unravelled when Slocombe managed to convince two of the conspirators that Leopold was setting them up. He persuaded them to double-cross Leopold, and into giving statements to the DA in return for immunity from prosecution. Leopold was tried and convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison, though this was deferred as long as he left the country immediately. So he went back to England, continued to profess his innocence and by 1940 he was a commissioned officer in the Royal Air Force, fighting against the Germans once more. In 1946 he tried to get his case reopened, claiming he had been spying on the Japanese for British intelligence for the whole time he was in Los Angeles. No one believed him, so the case remained closed.
This is just one strand of this fascinating story about the development of the fascist movement in Los Angeles and how Leon Lewis struggled against them. One final point before we move on – if there was a Jewish conspiracy in Hollywood then this story would have been told, probably multiple times, as an example of how victimised the Jews have been and how adeptly they have fought back. Instead, I’d never heard this story until I stumbled across it while looking for something quite different. Pretty conclusive evidence of that particular conspiracy theory being a load of old bullshit.
How the Nazis Rewrote Hollywood Movies
These days, Nazis are the ideal Hollywood villains. Everyone loves seeing Nazis on screen, and seeing them get their comeuppance. But this is primarily a post-Indiana Jones phenomenon, trying to echo the success of that trilogy of films where a liberal college professor travels round the world fighting Nazis. Looking back, there really aren’t that many films about the Nazis, particularly before or during World War 2. While there were a number of ‘preparedness’ films made in the late 30s and early 40s, mostly with military support, they tended to focus on the Pacific and the fight with Japan, not Europe and the fight with Germany.
‘Why is this?’ I hear you ask. Well, one of the main reasons is that up until 1940 the production code forbade any negative depictions of foreign countries. Hollywood films, even back then, made a lot of money through exports, through selling to foreign markets, including Britain and Germany. So the Production Code Administration and Joseph Breen (who you may remember from the episode on the Bureau of Prisons) didn’t want to upset foreign governments and foreign people who were the customers of the American movie industry.
Another factor was Georg Gyssling, the German consul in Los Angeles. A member of the Nazi Party, Gyssling was the senior German diplomat on the West Coast. The Nazi government in Germany had essentially taken over the domestic movie industry and converted it into a propaganda machine. Goebbels next step was to gain influence in Hollywood. It’s interesting that both the Soviets and the Nazis were so concerned with Hollywood, at a time when the US government wasn’t particularly concerned. It’s ironic that neither the fascists nor the communists made much headway in terms of affecting film content.
Nonetheless, Gyssling’s relationships with studio heads and with Breen and the Production Code Administration did allow him to monitor productions and make changes. By threatening to ban Hollywood films from the lucrative German market, he was able to exert the kind of pressure the Soviets could only dream of. When he heard about the production of I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, based on the real life account of Isobel Steele, he demanded they shut it down. The problem was that the studio making it, Malvina Pictures, was an independent outfit so Breen and the PCA couldn’t do anything.
So Gyssling threatened the lead actress, saying that all of her films would be banned in Germany if she continued. He also summoned the other actors and actresses to the consulate, and sat behind his desk, in front of a massive portrait of Hitler, he warned them that their films would be banned too. When the studio finished production and approached the PCA looking for the seal of approval, Breen agreed with Gyssling and said it violated the code. This was overruled by the PCA’s board of directors and the film was released, but without major studio backing it soon disappeared.
Gyssling had more success with two other films that were critical of the Nazi regime – The Road Back (1937) and Three Comrades (1938). Three Comrades is based on a novel about three disillusioned German veterans of WW1. The story is laden with criticisms of the German government, and ends with our left-wing hero Gottfried being killed by Nazi thugs. Gyssling found out about the film through his spy, Werner Plack, and wrote to Breen at the PCA. Breen met with Louis B Mayer and producer Joseph Manckiewicz, and they agreed to remove any content deemed offensive to the Nazi regime. Reverse snowflakes, 80 years before that was even a phrase.
This included removing any references to the threat to democracy in post-WW1 Germany, any and all swastikas and all references to Brownshirts and Jews. Again, we’re talking about a Jewish studio boss and a Jewish movie producer rewriting their script to remove any reference to the suffering of Jews in post-WW1 Germany. If there was a massive Jewish conspiracy in Hollywood – as the Nazis believed and continue to believe – then this wouldn’t have happened. Mankiewicz did refuse to make one of the requested changes – to turn the film’s Nazi villains into Communists, but they did agree to grant Gyssling a pre-screening of the rough edit of the film. Gyssling insisted they remove three scenes referencing Nazi Germany, and they did.
When he heard about The Road Back, another story of German WW1 veterans struggling in the chaos of post-war Germany, he urged Breen to kill the picture. Breen didn’t do this, but he did arrange for Gyssling to watch an early cut of the film. Gyssling insisted they make changes, Universal Pictures pushed back, so Gyssling sent threatening letters to sixty performers who had worked on the film. This caused outrage in Hollywood, who complained to the State Department and demanded Gyssling be deported. There was a formal complaint, the German ambassador apologised and the scandal went away. But Gyssling got what he wanted – the final version of the film was neutered, devoid of critical or controversial content.
Another film Gyssling influenced was The Life of Emile Zola (1937), about Alfred Dreyfuss, a Jew who was wrongly convicted by anti-semitic officials of being a spy for France in the 1890s. Gyssling leaned on the producers and asked them to remove any reference to Dreyfuss being Jewish, or his conviction being motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice. The final film does not contain the word ‘Jew’ anywhere.
In 1939 Warner Bros released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first major anti-Nazi film. It tells the story of FBI agent Leon Turrou, who investigated Nazi spy rings in the US. It was made with cooperation from the FBI, and while Gyssling complained to the PCA and the PCA urged the film-makers not to produce the film, there was little they could do because it was based on real events. Warner Bros did make one major concession: they could not explicitly mention the plight of German Jews or their suffering at the hands of the Nazis. The movie did quite poorly at the box office, but is now widely recognised for its historical value.
In 1940 the PCA amended the code to remove the prohibitions about foreign countries and foreign governments. This saw a brief flurry of anti-Nazi films including I Married a Nazi, Mortal Storm and The Great Dictator. Some high-profile isolationists, who were just Nazi sympathisers using isolationism, objected, saying the films were trying to whip up a war frenzy. In reality, The Great Dictator is one of the most profoundly anti-war films ever made. Once again, closet Nazis are reverse snowflakes, trying to rouse people’s emotions and deceive them about the true nature of things. It’s curious how little has changed.
The DOD, Nazis and Hollywood
This story would not be complete without looking at the military angle, and how they relate to Nazis in Hollywood. To my knowledge the US military did not help make any anti-Nazi films before the war. They did help make some after the war, but generally they focused on films about the Pacific. This isn’t particularly surprising – it was Pearl Harbor that brought the US into the war (or gave them the excuse, depending on how you interpret things) and Los Angeles is right next to the Pacific Ocean.
One can debate exactly why this is, but one factor is Project Paperclip, when the US co-opted parts of the Nazi military and intelligence apparatus, smuggling spies and experts into America to help fight the Cold War. One film that’s worth mentioning here is 1960’s I Aim at the Stars, on which the DOD’s database comments:
Army wanted film made to show how it was developing its missiles and how it had put the first satellite into orbit. Film becomes a biography of Wernher von Braun, showing his Nazi origins and rehabilitation as American hero. Much controversy. NASA refused to cooperate because it did not want to be associated with man who built rockets which hit London – uncharitably subtitled by some critics: “but sometimes I hit London.” Army gave full assistance.
Then there’s 1957’s Enemy Below, about which the database records:
Full cooperation at Pearl Harbor from Navy. Portrays duel between an American destroyer and German submarine. German and American are brothers in arms with no mention of nature of regime for which the German is fighting.
Similarly, 1958’s The Young Lions had to be rewritten to suit the Pentagon’s political agenda. The database says:
Pentagon and State Department went through long period of negotiations before agreeing to cooperation. Part of problem was portrayal of German officer portrayed by Marlon Brando. In Irwin Shaw’s book, he was a cruel Nazi. Given rehabilitation of German image due to Cold War alliances, Brando becomes a guilt-struck, good German. Anti-Semitism within Army also played down.
So, what Georg Gyssling was doing in the 1930s, the Pentagon and State Department were doing in the 1950s – removing negative portraits of Nazis and glossing over anti-semitism. Completely contrary to the conspiracy theories, this is the real Hollywood conspiracy regarding Nazism and Jews.
I asked at the start of this episode why I hadn’t heard this story before. Some little pieces of it I did know about, but most of this was new information to me. So why? Why haven’t we heard this story before?
One reason is that this is something Hollywood doesn’t want people to know about. When the revelations about Georg Gyssling were first published in 2014 there was a lot of opposition, accusations against the author and so on. It’s one of those dirty secrets Hollywood would prefer was not widely known.
Indeed, the only reference I can find to any of this is in the series The Last Tycoon, set in Hollywood in the 1930s. It was produced by Amazon – again, an example of a streaming service producing more controversial material than their network TV rivals. Sadly it was cancelled after one season.
Another reason is the prevalence of anti-semitic conspiracy theories. People love to blame the Jews for anything and everything, and the tolerance of anti-semitism in so-called left wing and so-called alternative scenes is pretty hypocritical. Coming from the hard right at least it’s consistent with their worldview, but left liberals especially seem to be trying to prove how woke they are by going on about Israel being an ‘illegal state’ that shouldn’t be allowed to exist. As though the answer to militant Zionism is to treat Jews how the Israeli state treats Palestinians.
When it comes to Hollywood, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are pretty much omnipresent. But actual history shows them to be a pack of lies, and that even Jewish-owned, Jewish-run studios were cow-towing to the Nazis in the run up to WW2. Naturally, this is something that many Jews would find uncomfortable, or even be ashamed of, but I think they should embrace this story because a) some Jews fought back and b) the facts completely dispel the Nazi claim about a Jewish conspiracy/agenda in Hollywood.