World War II and Hollywood

Figure 1.--Here in "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), a British sdchool boy is in the hands of a NAZI assassain atop a high tower. At the time the film was made, the true horror of the NAZI reginme was not yet known and the extent to which they would target children.

Movie studios and the U.S. Government agencies were involved in propaganda during World War II. The studios were involved before America entered the War. The Government mostly after America entered the War. Quite a few Hollywood films addressed World War II. The most interesting period was before America entered the War after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (December 1941). Before that there were no Government censorship or directives on content. Hollywood avoided attacking the NAZIs for a long time. Hitler took over in 1933, but the first anti-NAZI film did not appear until 1939. Hollywood was concerned about losing the profitable German market. While Hollywood avoided attacking the NAZIs, interesting during the 1930s there were no films made which endorsed the strong isolationist sentiment that was widely held by Americans. The first American anti-NAZI film was "Confessions of a Nazi Spy". NAZI Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels was furious and threatened repercussions. This was Warner Brothers independent decesion, not forced by the Government. After this ground breaking film, Hitler rapidly moved toward war and Hollywood as abecame strongly critical of the NAZIs and Japanese militarists, although the timeline varied from studio to studio. It is also interesting to note how Hollywood ignored the Soviet aggressions. After Pearl Harbor, of course, Hollywood enthusiastically signed up for the war effort. There were also a number of related films made after the War.


Propaganda is information or disinformation purposefully dessiminated carefully selected informarion to affect public opinion concerning a cause, people, country, or relgious faith. Prapaganda may inform, but that is not the primary purpose. Essentially propaganda seeks to convince and control. In many cases informing the public will not convince them of your point of view. Thus to be effective, propaganda has to be selective. It is a term which first appeared in the Catholic Church. Pope Gregory XV created a committe of cardinals to propagate the faith (1622). It is most widely associated with totalitarian countries like NAZI Germany and Soviet Russia because these governments were most involved in manipulating public opinion. Unlike democratic countrues, there were no alternative sources of information. Propagand is not always false. In fact the most effective propaganda selectively uses and manipulates actual facts. he destinguishing feature of propaganda is it tries to influence actions and thoughts by presenting only one side of an issue. Propagand is not intrinisically always evil. Modern commercial advertising is a form of propaganda. Charity appeals are a form of propaganda. But propaganda can be used to do great evil in totalitarian socities, including theocracies, where people do not have access to a range of information sources.

American Movie Industry: European Operations

The American movie industry was dominated by a small number of major studios--the Big Eight. This included MGM, Paramount, Republic, RKO, Twetitieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. This era is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. These studios not only dominated the American film industry, but also many foreign film markets. And Germany was one of the most profitable foreign markets. The studios were at the head of a vertically integrated industry. Two authors tell us, "They controlled the entire process from casting and production through distribution (wholesaling) and exhibition (retailing). The Big Eight reaped 95 per cent of all motion picture rentals in the U.S. in the late 1930's. Their control over theater chains, particularly the all-important first-run urban houses which determined a pictures future, was critical. [Koppes and Black] Some of the men who ean these studios, especially Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and Darryl Zanuck (20th Century-Fox) were of European origins, in some cases Jewish, and had decidedly international outlooks. In this, Hollywood differed from the British film industry. Many Jews were involved in the German film industry, but this had ended with the NAZI seizure of power. The American studio msgnates had different ideas about the events in Germany, an important film market. Propaganda Minister Goebbels was a film buff and believed that movies could be used to influence public opinion. Some of the most influential propaganda movies of all time would be made by the NAZIs. One of the first steps he took in assuming the post of Propaganbda Minister was to limit, but not end the distribution of Hollywood films (June 1933). Harry and Jack Warner were the first to withdraw from Germany (1934). Other studio magnates, even Jewish ones like Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor, were not as pessimistic about Germany under the NAZIs. They continued doing business in Germany, one of the most important European markets. MGM executive Irving Thalberg traveled to Europe to assess the studio's foreign markets (1934). He advised Louis B. Meyer that “a lot of Jews will lose their lives” but that “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass; the Jews will still be there.” That was during the early more moderate NAZI phase. Adolf Zukor at Paramount just before Hitler launched the War, assured a reporter, “I don’t think that Hollywood should deal with anything but entertainment. The newsreels take care of current events.” (August 1939) [Gabler, pp. , 338-40.] Only after the Germans invaded Poland the next month did the American studios besides Warner Brothers pull out of Germany.

HollyWood Anti-Nazi League (1937-41)

The FBI reports, "The Hollywood Anti Nazi League was founded in 1937, in an effort to unite Jewish people and others in the Hollywood movie colony into organizing to combat Naziism on a local scale. In 1939, the Hollywood Anti Nazi League changed its name to Hollywood League for Democratic Action. They printed a newsletter under the name of "Hollywood Now" which was discontinued in 1940. The organization was financed by membership dues, contributions, motion picture producers, and prominent stage and screen stars. By 1942, this organization was no longer in existence." Of course by 1942 with America in the War, it was no longer needed. All of America was throughly anti-NAZI.

Isolationist Sentiment in America

Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. After the rise of the NAZIs in the 1930s and Germany's rearmament, it became increasingly clear that Europe was moving toward another war. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were detrmined that America should avoid war at any cost. This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the country's focus was on domestic issues. The anti-war sentiment in America and the memories of the men lost convinced many Americans that America must not get involved in any future European war. These sentiments combined with long-standing American isolationism resulted in the passage of a sries of Neutrality Acts. These Acts prohibited for United States companies to trade with belligerents. As a result, while the Fascist powers aided Franco's Falange in Spain, the Spanis Republic could not even buy arms in America. The show of German arms in Spain, especially Luftwaffe bombings of Spanish cities terrified many. With the growing military might of a rearmed Germany, war talk in Europe began. This fueled rge desire of many Americans to remain neutral. Isolationist leaders opposed any involvement in a European war and clashed with President Roosevelt who increasingly saw the need to confront the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. Some like Charles Lindburg, thought that America could not win a war against Germany's vaunted Luftwaffe. Many not only opposed American envolvement, but even military preparadness and military expenditures were strongly oppossed in the Congress.

Pre-War Films (1933-39)

Hitler and the NAZIs seized power in Germany in 1933. Mussolini had seized power in Itlaly about a decade earlier, but it is with the NAZI seizure of poower that the Fascist peril can be dated. The Japanese agressions in China began a few years earlier with the invasion of Manchuria (1931). I'm not sure at this time just how Hollywood dealt with the German and Japanese threat before the outbreak of War in Europe (September 1939). As best we can determine, there was relatively little reaction from Hollywood to totalitarianism, includng the Soviets, Italian Fascists, NAZiS, and Japanese miitarists. It is interesting to note that stridently anti-NAZI films, with few exceptions, only began after Hitler had lunched the War. There were no films addressing what the MAZIs were doing for several years in Germant itself (control of the press, book burnings, boycott of Jewish buiness, Nuremberg race laws, pollitical murders, concentration camps, Kristalnacht, ect). We begin seeing a few films with internationist overtones and depicting European Fascists as villians only as Europe moved toward war. United Artists released "Blockade" (1938). This was a overtly pro-Loyalist film about the Spanish Civil War starring Henry Fonda. It was anti-DFascist, but not did not specifically attack the NAZIs. The first American studio to take on the NAZIs was Warner Brothers which released "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939). The premise of the film was that NAZI Germany sought to conquer the world. It targeted the German-American Bund as agents of the NAZI Government attempting to undermine American democracy. (Another film was "Beasts of Berlin" (1939). (A World War I film, "The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin" (1917) caused anti-German riots in American cities.) It is not entirely clear why Hollywood was so reluctant to take on the NAZIs and other totalitarians. Left-wing sentiment in Hollywood may have been a factor in failing to criticize the Soviet Union. The income from European releases seems to have been a factor explaing the reluctance to confront the NAZIs. Another factor may have been the South. Until Kristalncht (November 1938), NAZI policies toward the Jews were not unlike policies toward Afro-Americans in the South. The Conservative Catholic Church may have been another factor. This is a subject that has not been well addressed.

Catholic Church

Catholic organizations were apauled at "Blockade". They saw the pro-Loyalist film as Communist propaganda. (The Republic by 1938 proably was dominated by the Communists. They noted Republican atrocities against priests and nuns. (Franco's attrocities against civilians and workers did not seem to bother Catholic spokesmen as much.) The Church also opposed efforts to help Spnish refugee children. I think this reponse was basically from the U.S. Church heirarchy and not from the Vatican. The Fascists in Italy did not attack the Church. The NAZIs signed a Concordot with the Vatican whic protected the Church to a degree, including schools and youth groups (1933). By 1938 the NAZIs felt secure enought move against Catholics and large numbers of German and foreign priests would die in NAZI concentration camps. This was not yet apparent to Catholic churchmen in America, many who saw Jews a greater threat ghan NAZIs. And of course Franco was a frvnt supporter of the Church. Joseph Breen, a conservative Catholic journalist, led the Catholic criticism of Hollywood. He headed the Production Code Administration and accused Hollywood , especilly, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League of trying to "capture the screen of the United States for Communistic propaganda purposes." He inisted that the League was "conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews." [Koppes and Black] Leading figures in the Isolationist movement, especially Charles Lindberg, picked up on this charge that the Jews were at the root of the problem.

German American Bund

The Warner Brother film about the German American Bund, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy, was not precisely accurate. Certain Bund head Friyz Kuhn desired nothing more than to condust SA-type operations to undermine the U.S. Government. It was not, however, what Hitler wanted. He did not want the Bund stirring up American opinion. He was quite happy with the prevailing isolationism. Kuhn was so incensed with the Warner Brothers film that he sued the studio for $5 million. Kuhn was, however, indicted and convicted for stealing Bund funds and the Warner Brothers suit was dropped. The Bund continued, however, to support Kuhn. [Peel]

War in Asia (1937)

Japan's invasion of Mamchuria did not result in hostilities with China. China simply did not have the forces needed to oppose the Japanese. Japan invaded China proper in 1937 which did result in open hostilities. Although China could not match the Japanese, they had no choice, but to resist. The result was the fall of major Chinese cities to Japan. This culminated in the seizure of the Chinese capital, Namking. The Japanes "Rape of Nanking" srands as one of the great attrocities of World war II, although the beginning of the Japanese-Chinese war occurred before the advenbt oif war in Europe. I recall several films dealing with China and Japan, but detaild do not come to mind at this time.

War in Europe (1939-41)

NAZI Germany initiated World War II with the invasion of Poland (September 1939). This is an interesting period in Hollywood because it was before America entered the War aftervthe Japanese attack on Pear Harbor. (December 1941). Before that there were no Government censorship or directiveds on content. Even so the films made were strongly critical of the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. One of the most prominant was Charlie Chaplin's classic burlesque of Hitler and Mussolini, "The Great Dictator". German refuge Fritz Lang directed "Man Hunt". Other films included "The Mortal Storm", "A Yank in the RAF", "Sergeant York" (a World War I film), and "I Married a Nazi". These films were certainly propaganda films, although not government-sponsored films. Rather they were studio films. The most interesting fact is that during this period, there were no films made which endorsed the strong isolatiionist sentiment that was widely held by Americans. Support for resisting the NAZIs grew as the War progressed, but at the time of Pearl Harbor, most Americans still were opposed to entering the War. It is difficult to know just what impact the films had on public opinion. Certainly the newspapers, newsreels, and radio news spoke eloquently enough.

British Films

Hollywood films of course dominated the American film market. British films were also widely circulated in America. It is interesting, that British studios also refrained from attacking the NAZIs. This of course reflected the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain Government. We do not know if the British Government actively tried to influence studio productions. Earnings from runs in German theaters may have been another factor. The best know British anti-NAZI films are all war-tume films. The best known is probably "Mrs. Minerva" (England, 1942). Another war-time film was "The Pied Piper (England (1942).

Soviet Aggressions (1939-41)

It is interesting to note how Hollywood ignored the Soviet aggressions. The beginnings of World War II almost always focus on the NAZI invasion and attrocities. In fact there were two counties that invaded Poland in 1939. Two weeks after the NAZI invasion, the Soviets invaded from the east. Not only did the Soviets invade Poland, but Soviet attriocities in Poland werre also unimanginable. The NAZI invasion was in fact made possible by the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939). This made Hitler and Stalin essentially allies. The Soviets proceeded withj actions against Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania. The strartling fact is that Hollywold compleletly ignored the fact that Stlalin allied himself with Hitler and that the Soviets invaded not only Poland, but other neigboring countries. I am not sure why this was. Of course the Allies (Btitain and France) also ignored the Soviet aggressions. The silence from Hollywood does very strongly suggest a left-wing bias. Of course once the NAZIs invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), Hollywood's attitude is more understandable. But the abject silence during the first phase of the War seems a clear example of bias.

Congressional Hearings

The Isolationists of course noted Hoolywood's internationalist interventionis leanings. Isolationist Senator Senator Gerald P. Nye (Republican, North Dakota) launched a Senate investigation (September 1941). He used a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce. The hearing was on "war propaganda disseminated by the motion picture industry and of any monopoly in the production, distribution, or exhibition of motion pictures." The chief counsel for Hollywood was none other than Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential nominee. Wilkie was a committed internationalist and had helped FDR get Lend Lease through Congress. The isolationists were late in their move against Hollywood. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941) put an end to the hearings. It also put an end to the political careers of most isolationists.

America Enters the War (1941-45)

After Pearl Harbor, of course, Hollywood enthusiastically signed up for the war effort. There were also a number of related films made after the War.

Depictions of Germans

Probably no other country has had so many films made about it by foreign film makers as Germany. Given the importance of Hollywood, popular images of Germans are in large measure influenced by these foreign depictions. This is perhaps difficult for Americans to understans as almost all important American images come from American-made television and movie programing. Many of those film focus on the NAZI and World War II film. HBC is struck by the lack of realism in these films. Many films, especially films made before the end of the War did not begin to display the true horror of what went on in Germany or the occupied countries. Many of the depictions of Germans in these films are perhaps understandably unflatering charactures. Relatively few films have sought to show German characters as real people. HBC has wondered how Germans viewing World War II films view the scenes of American and British tanks entering German towns and villages. Most Germans would today at least intelectually say that they were liberated from the NAZI tyrany as much as the occupied countries. (The experience was different in the areas occupied by the Red Army.) We are curious, however, if the emotional reaction is perhaps not different from the intelectual reaction.

Individual Films

The development of taling pictures more or less coincided with the rise of the NAZIs (1933). Hollywood steered away from addressing the issues of totalitarianism and aggression. It did not address anti-Semitism ir racism directly, but more of the suppression of discent and free expression. We do not see anti-NAZI films until Hitler actually launched the War. Anti-Japanese films did appear earlier. But it was only after Pearl Harbor and American entry into the War that a torrent of anti-NAZI films came from Hollywood. Totally unaddressed were Italian Facists and even more so Soviet Communists. The failure to address the Communists attrocuties can be explained because they were not well known and of course they were critical allies. It often coincided with the ideological outlook of many in Hollywood. We note quite a few films made by Hollywood before and during World War II. There were also a number of related films made after the War. We are especially interested for HBC with the films made that had children involved.

Movie Propaganda

One has to ask a series of questions about Allied movies and propagand. Here we also have to take into account that these films were made both before and after the War began. First are these films propaganda films. I think the answer is clearly that they are. The films clearly portray the NAZIs and Japanese in a bad light. The amazing thing is that after viewing these films I do notice any basic falsehood in the pre-War films. I'm quite willing to add here any falsehoods reades may have noted. After the War began, the films certainly provided a sanitized view of the War. The Axis soldiers were portrayed as monsters. This was untrue, but it was true that many were guilty of terrible attrocities. The only major historical inaccuaracy I have noted in the War-era films concerns the strategic bombing campaign. The films do nit mention the segree to which the target became German cities and civilans. Of course after the War began the Government assumed an important role supervising Hollywood, but this was not really necessary as even before America entered the War, Hollywood was enthusiastically aboard. Thus both movie studios and the U.S. Government were involved in propaganda during the War.


Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 1989).

Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1987), 374 p.

Peel, Peter. "The Great Brown Scare, Journal of Historical Review Vol. VII, no.4, (Winter 1986-87).


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Created: 9:50 PM 12/29/2004
Last updated: 1:57 AM 11/28/2011