Culture

How Private Citizens Beat the Nazis in Hollywood

The story of a Jewish lawyer and his volunteers who undermined an anti-Semitic, white supremacist plot to infiltrate the movie industry has obvious echoes for today.

By Crawford Kilian 31 Oct 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

This remarkable book throws a new light on 1930s U.S. history, not to mention current events, and it even illuminates part of my own family history during that time in Los Angeles.

Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, has studied the political culture of Hollywood in earlier books. In this one, he looks at how Hitler deliberately targeted the U.S. movie industry as part of his long-term plan for war — and how one man’s private spy ring helped thwart that plan.

Ross shows that Hitler went after Hollywood almost from the moment he became German chancellor in 1933. Since New York City already distrusted the Nazis and closely inspected incoming German ships, Hitler sent agents, print propaganda and money to the U.S. via Los Angeles. Not only was inspection more relaxed, but L.A. was also the world capital of movies, an industry largely controlled by Jews.

Like Lenin, Hitler admired film as an ideal propaganda medium, and he moved quickly to take control of the German movie industry. But the Americans were far and away the leaders, powerfully promoting ideas and values to the whole world. Hitler planned to subvert that industry, especially to keep it from making anti-Nazi movies. He was already planning another war in Europe and he wanted the U.S. to remain neutral as long as possible.

American Jews had been watching Hitler since the 1920s, few more closely than a Los Angeles lawyer named Leon Lewis. He had served in U.S. military intelligence during the First World War and was a co-founder of the Anti-Defamation League — an association that battled widespread American anti-Semitism.

By 1933, the Depression had staggered the country. Not only capitalism but democracy itself came under question. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed. War veterans were denied a bonus they’d been promised; when they marched on Washington in 1932, they were violently dispersed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur (aided by Col. Dwight Eisenhower).

“Friends of the New Germany” formed in Los Angeles in 1933, looking for such disgruntled veterans. Its core membership was German immigrants, some of whom had been Nazis before immigrating, and the FNG wanted white, native-born Americans as well.

Where the chief of police was a fascist

But the Nazis had to compete. Southern California was the home of the fascist Silver Shirts, and the Ku Klux Klan was still very active. Both organizations had a remarkable number of members in Los Angeles police departments — right up to the chief of police. Other groups would pop up throughout the 1930s.

Lewis saw the Nazis as the greatest threat and quietly began to build a ring of agents to infiltrate and disrupt the FNG. His intent was to accumulate so much evidence that the government and the courts would have to take action against them. Equipped with skills gained in military intelligence during the war, he began to recruit people who could go undercover, be accepted by the Nazis, and then report back.

Those reports showed the FNG was dangerous indeed. It was trying to unify (and Nazify) the dozens of German-American organizations in Southern California. It was recruiting storm troopers and training them both in their big headquarters building, Deutsches Haus, and up in the Hollywood Hills.

The FNG was also forming alliances with the Silver Shirts, the KKK and other anti-Semitic groups — not just in L.A., but up and down the West Coast. (The FNG in 1934 claimed to have 450 members in Vancouver.)

Bugged with a Dictaphone

A constant theme of the FNG was the violent uprising that would trigger a national revolt against President Roosevelt and his “Jew Deal” government. The Nazis seriously discussed taking over National Guard armouries, hanging Jews and Communists from lamp poles, and simply shooting up Jewish neighbourhoods. Leon Lewis tracked them closely (he even bugged one meeting with a Dictaphone) to build up a case he could take to the Justice Department.

But it was a matter of two steps forward, one step back. He interested one of the few Jews in Congress with his evidence, and one result was the foundation of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But HUAC turned out to be far more interested in chasing Communists. The Nazis continued their work.

Using Lewis’s own notes and a mass of other documentation, Ross describes in fascinating detail the self-effacing spy’s efforts over years. He also describes the complex cultural history of 1930s Hollywood, when movies had the political clout of Facebook and might be written by rich young Reds or by William Dudley Pelley, the founder of the Silver Shirts.

Those were the days when the local German consul kept the studios from making movies that might be at all critical of Nazi Germany — even though he despised the Nazis. The movie moguls, almost all Jewish, were among the best-paid executives in the country. They had no idea that the foremen in their studios were systematically firing Jewish employees and replacing them with “Aryans.” When Lewis broke that news to them in a secret meeting, they helped fund his operation.

Doxxing, 1930s style

Patiently, Lewis kept recruiting new spies and retiring those who’d be exposed. Remarkably, though the Nazis knew who he was (“the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles”) and repeatedly “doxxed” him by publishing his office address, he and his family were never directly attacked. But two of his spies died of mysterious skull fractures attributed to accidental falls, and a third was likely poisoned.

By the mid-1930s, Hollywood was alarmed by the Nazi involvement in the Spanish Civil War and their persistent persecution of Jews. Lewis found an ally in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and here my family enters his story.

My father was an early member of HANL and was also a licensed pilot. One day in September 1937, he phoned the Federal Aviation Administration’s office in L.A. to ask if it was legal to drop anything out of an airplane. Absolutely not, he was told.

“That’s too bad,” my father said. “We were planning to drop anti-Nazi leaflets on the Nazi picnic in Hindenburg Park.”

“Oh. Well, that’s a problem because there won’t be anyone in the office then. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

So, my father bombed the Nazis’ picnic with leaflets (in German, written by his father, the actor Victor Kilian) that said: “Visit Germany!” On the inside, the pitch continued: “…and see all the concentration camps.”

Ross describes how the plane made two runs on its bombing raid; according to my father, he misjudged the wind and the first batch landed across the street, provoking Nazi speaker Fritz Kuhn to scream, “Jude! Jude!” at the plane while his listeners flocked across the street to pick up leaflets. The FBI would later tag my father as a “premature antifascist” and blacklist him for years.

America First: Following Hitler’s plan

The closer war became, the more spies Lewis poured into the Nazi and fascist organizations. One mother-daughter team became invaluable: they were welcomed into many groups, largely because the daughter was a skilled stenographer. She took detailed minutes of meetings and transcripts of speeches, which went straight to Lewis. She fully documented the Nazis’ close ties with the America First movement that was trying to keep the U.S. neutral as long as possible — just as Hitler had intended in 1933.

The FBI had always been interested in Communists, not Nazis. The day after Pearl Harbor, when J. Edgar Hoover demanded immediate arrests of Nazis, Japanese agents, and other subversives, the L.A. FBI office had almost nothing. It had to rely on what Lewis’s spies had provided: a superb database of hundreds of names, with details and relationships to various groups. Hoover gained a lot of undeserved glory, but some very serious terrorists spent the duration in jail.

Lewis and his people kept going through the war, but now they tracked growing numbers of anti-Semites who blamed the Jews for getting the U.S. into the conflict. If anything, by war’s end they were more numerous than before Pearl Harbor.

Lewis then retired from espionage and spent the last decade of his life quietly in Pacific Palisades — not far from the strange enclave built by millionaire Nazi sympathizers, intended to serve as Hitler’s West Coast headquarters after the U.S. had been defeated.

Apart from throwing new light on a forgotten aspect of American history, Ross fills his narrative with vivid characters and startling events. Leon Lewis himself remains enigmatic, a kind of Le Carré spymaster suffering more defeats from his own side than from his enemies, but persisting to a mixed victory.

Ross’s readers will not have to make much of a leap to see how anti-Semitism and white supremacy have erupted again in 21st-century America, dreaming of violence in the streets. It certainly makes me hope that many modern Leon Lewises are quietly at work underground in the alt-right, documenting the crimes at length and presenting their evidence to agencies and courts that will thwart fascism yet again.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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