Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Myth of the Good War and Film's Collusion with Fascism

A shameful chapter of modern American history is almost never discussed: the collusion between American corporate and state elites and rising fascist powers, particularly in Spain, Italy and Germany. This even extended to the post-war period, with programs like Operation Paperclip, a CIA initiative that set up Nazis to crush partisans and engage in manuevers against the Soviets, as well as secret war criminals like Japanese chemical scientists, Reinhard Gehlen and Klaus “The Butcher of Lyon” Barbie to safe zones where they could help in the growing US counter-insurgency campaign. The counter-insurgency campaigns also took the form of blocking Greek and Italian elections. Film and media are powerful instruments of propaganda, as all sides in World War II showed.1 With the US as a leading cinematic production and research powerhouse, one would inquire into the degree of film industry collusion with fascism. The responses of the film industry and the film community to fascism can be correlated to changing American elite opinions of fascism.

There are at least a few reasons to expect the attitudes of film and media to follow American corporate opinion in general. Film companies have essentially the same interests as other corporations: profits and control, meaning reduced wages and working class bargaining power. History teaches us that totalitarian regimes are often capable of supplying these necessary things. As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman demonstrate in Manufacturing Consent, the media (including film) conforms quite closely to a “propaganda model” in which the needs and interests of powerful state-corporate elites are transmitted as the basis for rational discussion and assumed to be right and correct. While it may be sometimes in the tendencies of capitalism to liberalize governments (something that is a contested point at best), it is quite clear that capitalism and corporations can co-exist with totalitarian states.

What was the general state-corporate consensus on fascism in its early years? As Noam Chomsky argues in Deterring Democracy (available online on Z Magazine's website),

"Fascist Italy received mounting praise as a bastion of order and stability, free of class struggle and challenges from labor and the left. 'The wops are unwopping themselves,' Fortune magazine wrote with awe in a special issue devoted to Fascist Italy in 1934. Others agreed. State Department roving Ambassador Norman Davis praised the successes of Italy in remarks before the Council of Foreign Relations in 1933, speaking after the Italian Ambassador had drawn applause from his distinguished audience for his description of how Italy had put its 'own house in order... A class war was put down' -- by means that were apparently regarded as appropriate. Roosevelt's Ambassador to Italy, Breckenridge Long, was also full of enthusiasm for the 'new experiment in government' under Fascism, which 'works most successfully in Italy.' After World War II, Henry Stimson (Secretary of State under Hoover, Secretary of War under Roosevelt) recalled that he and Hoover had found Mussolini to be 'a sound and useful leader.'"2

Even Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia aroused no consternation among these apologists: Breckenridge Long and others defended Mussolini because, ostensibly, without him Italy would fall into leftist disarray and opportunities for profit may be harmed. Roosevelt even called Mussolini “that admirable Italian gentleman.” The rights of Ethiopians were, of course, secondary to the Bottom Line. 3

Mussolini was not the only individual blessed in the dewey eyes of American intellectuals; Hitler and the Japanese fascists also attracted the adoration of the state-corporate elite. Again from Deterring Democracy, Chomsky, citing David Schmitz, the author of the major academic study on the topic of US-German ties in the pre-war period, argues the following:

"The American chargé d'affaires in Berlin wrote Washington in 1933 that the hope for Germany lay in "the more moderate section of the [Nazi] party, headed by Hitler himself...which appeal[s] to all civilized and reasonable people," and seems to have "the upper hand" over the violent fringe. In 1937, the State Department saw Fascism as compatible with U.S. economic interests. A report of the European Division explained its rise as the natural reaction of "the rich and middle classes, in self-defense" when the "dissatisfied masses, with the example of the Russian revolution before them, swing to the Left." Fascism therefore "must succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle classes, will again turn to the left." Not until European Fascism attacked U.S. interests directly did it become an avowed enemy." [my emphasis] 4.

The fundamental attitude can be expressed succinctly: the U.S. Embassy's observation that “there has not been a single strike in the whole of Italy” during Mussolini's rule. In fact, Michael Parenti in his “Real History: The Functions of Fascism” piece demonstrates that fascism was essentially a natural outgrowth of capitalist bourgeois interests: use proletarian and ethnic rhetoric to coopt the working class while creating a new corporatism (Mussolini himself declared fascism to be corporatism5) of state-subsidized industries with the public bearing the cost and the private sector reaping the benefits6. Even American labor supported Mussolini: Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFL, argued that the new “collaborating units of usefulness” (read: state-subsidized corporations) were apt replacements for the old “Bolshevik-infected” labor unions (in fact, drawing on a mix of progressivism, leftism and conservativism)7."

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Spanish Revolution, where capitalism, fascism and Stalinism colluded to repress anarchist democracy. According to Mickey Z, author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War”, “On the governmental front, US Secretary of State Breckinridge Long curiously gave the Ford Motor Company permission to manufacture Nazi tanks while simultaneously restricting aid to German-Jewish refugees because the Neutrality Act of 1935 barred trade with belligerent countries. Miraculously, this embargo did not include petroleum products and Mussolini's Italy tripled its gasoline and oil imports in order to support its war effort while Texaco exploited this convenient loophole to cozy up to Spain's resident fascist, Generalissimo Francisco Franco.”8 Other companies investing in the fascists were International Telegraph and Telephone, Ford, General Motors, Standard Oil, General Electric, and IBM. In general, “US investment in Germany accelerated rapidly after Hitler came to power." Such investment increased "by some 48.5 percent between 1929 and 1940, while declining sharply everywhere else in continental Europe.”

Was the film industry part of the “clique of US industrialists working closely with the fascist regime in Germany and Italy”, in US-German ambassador William Dodd's turn of phrase?9 A potential answer may come from a Los Angeles Times article of September 8, 1927 entitled “Mussolini Talks Via Movietone.” This article revealed that Mussolini “expresses salient features of the present Italian government under Fascist rule” through the medium of film, recorded by Fox Films. Mussolini also contracted Fox for “special motion pictures... of his army, navy and government” and opened Italian opera houses to select films. An astute observer may note that Mussolini is called a “dictator” in the article, but neither dictatorship nor Fascist was as taboo as it is today. Even in the 1930s, the 99% vote for Mussolini was taken to be something aside from a total fraud (this fact is also described in Deterring Democracy), and Mussolini is called the Premier and “Italy's 'Iron Man'” in the article. This piece has no critical word for Fox's collusion with fascism, simply a tone of wondrous awe for this new technology that allows us to hear the “salient features” of Italian fascist oppression and militarism.

Even predominantly Jewish film companies colluded with fascists. As Pertti Ulander, an expert on Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda system, argues, “ their film relations with Poland, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and France, the Nazis demanded that all Jewish moviemakers be excluded from films designed for export to Germany. At the same time, however, they also co-operated with "Jewish" film companies in Europe and the USA.”10 This was the case even when the rank-and-file of the industry harbored anti-Nazi sentiments. Film companies continued to have fruitful ties with Germany until about the spring of 1941, when Goebbels began to cut off ties to preserve the purity of Nazi propaganda.11

In an April 9, 1933 New York Times article, “Movie Industry Halted in Germany”, it is revealed that the German industry was shut down during the Nazi takeover until protocols of censorship could be established. During that time period, the Times article reported, “American representatives believe this will provide a good chance for increased imports of American films. They also believe the new censorship regulations will be less important than their regulation.”12 Again, we see the film industry opportunistically profiting from fascism, filling the gap for German domestic production during the fascist takeover. Moral considerations of profiting off of an entire society's move to fascism never entered into the calculations of elites.

Though British appeasement of Hitler is well-known in history, what is not often discussed is the degree to which the British government went to defend Hitler. As Greg Palast, investigative journalist for The Guardian who is well-known for his work on the Florida debacle in 2000, points out in his July 10, 2001 article “Kissing the Censor's Whip”, “Most American readers, who still think of Britain as Mother of our democracy, will be surprised to learn that the United Kingdom remains one of the hemisphere's only nations without a written constitutional guarantee of free speech and press.”13 This ability to censor films critical of Chamberlain's appeasement policy was utilized. According to a December 8, 1938 New York Times article, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy played a part in the “deletion of a Paramount newsreel during the crisis last September” . The film contained interviews with newspaper editors who “bitterly attacked the British government over the partitioning of Czecho-Slovakia”14. Thus, even when film attacked Hitler, censorship and pressure on the filmmakers prevented the films from being heard.

Yet there always was some ambivalence. More forward-looking members of the elite community could see that the foot soldiers they were creating to fight the leftists would soon turn against them. Ironically, a modern film, Cabaret, describes this ambivalence. A young Aryan in full Nazi regalia sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” while Maximillian, a German noble playboy, discusses how he and his class allies are cultivating the Nazis to behave as they do. The main male character, an Englishman by origin, asks, “But can you control them?” The question is prophetic, and illustrates clearly the dilemma that cultivating the Nazis to fight the left posed.

This dilemma extended into both the Italian and American film industry. In an introduction to a compilation of essays called “Italian Film” published by Cambridge University Press, Marcia Landy argues that “the regime [Italian fascism] expressed a 'general commitment to private property... there was a rolling back of the state, in other words, in the interests of property and entrepeneurs'. Significantly, these policies, at odds with the statist predilection associated with Italian Fascism, would continue to create tensions between entrepeneurs and Fascist leaders. As in the commercial cinema, contradictions were evident in the pressure on the one hand toward productivity and profit and, on the other, the Fascist insistence of the state and the party”.15 This ambivalence may seem to be an attack on the thesis, but it is in fact its best proof. The ambivalence of corporate-fascist relations stemmed exclusively from internal disagreement in the elite community as to the profitability and utility of fascism for their interests. When the utility changed, the perception changed, and therefore the subjects and assumptions of film changed.

When fascism harmed American interests (for example, during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939), the film industry began to turn against the Nazis. An April 9, 1939 article of the New York Times titled “Nazi Expansions Seen as Curb on U.S. Films” reveals that the gradual closing of Nazi markets to American films in favor of domestic production was slated to expand to Czechoslovakia, meaning losses for American film. However, as noted above, exports continued, though at a slowed pace.

Propaganda films began to be produced at a fever pitch during the post-Pearl Harbor period. However, what is relatively unknown is the degree to which cartoons were made subservient to war time needs. In the 1944 cartoon “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” Bugs becomes trapped on a desert island and is forced to fight vicious caricatures of Japanese soldiers, complete with buck teeth and jaundice-yellow skin. Other racist cartoons include “The Ducktators” (1941), “Herr Meets Hare” (1945), and Disney's “Der Fuehrer's Face” (1943).16 Numerous cartoons advocated buying war bonds and viciously slandered the enemy fascists. As noted earlier, words such as “wops”, “dagos”, “Japs”, and “krauts” were frequently used to dehumanize the Axis. The most vapid racist and political statements were made with virtually no criticism or questioning. The film industry thus contributed to vicious atrocities and horrendous mistreatment. In Secrets, Lies and Democracy, Chomsky notes, “Basically, the Americans ran what were called "re-education camps" for German POWs (the name was ultimately changed to something equally Orwellian). These camps were hailed as a tremendous example of our humanitarianism, because we were teaching the prisoners democratic ways (in other words, we were indoctrinating them into accepting our beliefs). The prisoners were treated very brutally, starved, etc. Since these camps were in gross violation of international conventions, they were kept secret. We were afraid that the Germans might retaliate and treat American prisoners the same way.”17 He also recounts how children would harass prisoners in a POW camp close to his high school. The media and the film industry, largely responsible for the relaying of news, reported the government line to a tee, and only when Peggy Duff and others began a campaign did some recognition of the mistreatment appear. These racist caricatures laid the framework for horrendous atrocities such as the POW camps for German soldiers and thus helped make an isolationist populace highly jingoist and even brutal. It is also interesting to note that these films presented the Italians and Germans in somewhat silly ways, but the Japanese were portrayed as ugly monsters, an indication of domestic racial perceptions.

Non-animated films began to join the anti-Nazi movement roughly around 1941, even when isolationist pressures were still at large. In fact, isolationist Senators pushed for an Investigation into Propaganda in Motion Pictures on September 9, 194118. The isolationist lobby assaulted Warner Brothers as communist, anti-American and spoke of a Jewish conspiracy to incite war with Germany. This description was in response to one of the earliest anti-Nazi films, Confessions of an Anti-Nazi Spy. Even at the late date of 1941, elite support for Germany and the fascist powers continued. Digital History, a respected online teaching resources, comments, “While Hollywood did in fact release a few anti-Nazi films, such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy, what is remarkable in retrospect is how slowly Hollywood awoke to the fascist threat. Heavily dependent on the European market for revenue, Hollywood feared offending foreign audiences. Indeed, at the Nazis' request, Hollywood actually fired 'non-Aryan' employees in its German business offices. Although the industry produced such preparedness films as Sergeant York, anti-fascist movies as The Great Dictator, and pro-British films films as A Yank in the R.A.F. between 1939 and 1941, before Pearl Harbor it did not release a single film advocating immediate American intervention in the war on the allies' [sic] behalf.”19 Further, even these tepid advances suffered from being too little, too late. The fascist threat was already clear far before 1939, with Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia occuring in 1935 and artists such as John Heartfield publishing publicly available and well-researched accounts of Nazi atrocities and militarism as early as 193620.

The Senate investigations were a serious matter. British producer/director Victor Saville, director of Evergreen, First A Girl, and Hindle Wakes, attempted in 1940 to produce The Mortal Storm, an anti-Nazi film that angered Goebbels enough to ban MGM pictures. For his work, he was nearly deported, saved only by Pearl Harbor.21

On the other side, one can see that the film industry appeared to be at the liberal edge of the state-corporate consensus, with Warner releasing Confessions of a Nazi Spy on April 27, 1939, substantially before the isolationist tendencies in America cracked. Steven J. Ross, Professor of History at USC, demonstrates, “Nazi sympathizers in Milwaukee burned down the local Warner Bros. Theater shortly after the movie opened. Angry citizens in other cities picketed theaters, slashed seats and threatened exhibitors.” For his efforts, Harry Warner was attacked by the Senate committee22. The trend towards anti-Nazism continued with the general march to war. As Frederic Krome argues, “The entry of the United States into the Second World War in December 1941 changed the strategic, military, economic, and diplomatic relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Prior to Pearl Harbor, British propaganda in the United States was primarily intended to influence American public opinion toward intervention, sometimes with the tacit consent of an officially neutral United States government. Once America entered the war, however, the U.S. government not only encouraged the work of the British, in particular the Films Division of the Ministry of Information (M.o.I.), but assisted in many of its activities.”23 (Interestingly enough, the British community, much more used to attacks on freedom of the press, censorship and propaganda, looked down upon the relatively crude American tactics). A primary producer of propaganda films, Frank Capra, assisted in the 1944 release of “Tunisian Victory” and created the “Why We Fight” series, considered to be paramount examples of wartime propaganda. As Kenneth W. Rendell, historian and specialist on historical letters, argued, “Until late 1943 the war went very badly for the Allies. American home front morale was protected by censorship of the news as well as propaganda posters and films. During the first two years the news was heavily censored, and there was, in retrospect, such a transparently positive attitude--too strong to be called a slant--to make one wonder why people didn't see through it--until one reflects on much of the news coverage we have seen since September 11th and our desire to believe what we want and need to believe.”24 The film industry ensured that the American public was far more enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospects of success than even American planners.

This pattern of enthusiastic support or at least silence and apologetics for even the most questionable Allied moves continued into the war. An excellent example can be discovered by analyzing media coverage of Dresden during the time period. Bob Zelnick, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, notes in his article “War Reporting” that the death toll in Dresden was over 50,000 and that, “Ironically, the strategic bombing study commissioned at war's end concluded that targeting civilians had the perverse psychological impact of rallying Germans behind their government. In retrospect, the American public might have been better served if reporters had taken a more skeptical look at the deliberate targeting of civilians...”23 Yet a ProQuest search of all relevant databases for “Dresden” from 1945 to 1947 finds a number of articles on “the Reds” getting closer to Dresden and only a few articles describing the death toll. A paragraph-long article on page 2 of the New York Times on February 17, 1945 and other scattered and small references comprise the extent of reporting for an event that is now recognized as a horrible event in human history. Filmmakers did not consider it appropriate to discuss the ramifications of such viciousness, even though Dresden contained American and British prisoners of war. Even now, according to a October 22, 2003 article by Ray Furlong of the BBC, “...the British Public Records Office would not release the kind of horrific images that he [Joerg Friedrich, author of Places of Fire, a picture book of destruction and death in World War II] found of German victims”.25 The veil of silence that made the dead at Dresden non-entities partially continues even to this day. Again, we see filmmakers and journalists, despite liberal tendencies, identifying with wartime propaganda rather than objective interests.

Thus, one can see a move in the film community in attitudes towards fascism that followed the bounds of the state-corporate consensus, though perhaps on the liberal edge. The film industry viewed Mussolini and Hitler as either irritations to their foreign markets or as possibilities for further expansion. Some companies, such as the Warner Brothers, made thoroughgoing efforts to describe Hitler's menace, but faced Senate inquiries, ethnic violence and accusations of anti-Americanism as a result. When American elites turned against fascism in self-defense, film followed in lockstep, never criticizing actions such as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the firebombing of Dresden. Even now, recognition of facts such as Operation Paperclip elude the public. A film history of the true pre-and-post-war period could make a tremendous difference, but due to the supposedly “liberal” Hollywood's commitment to state power, this is unlikely. Yet the World War II illusion of a “good war” in which America played a saintly role (and was surely not implicated in violence) or at worst was delinquent in preemptively stopping Hitler and allowing the French and British to rob Germany dry is used to justify violence: the Rendell quote and Mickey Z's “The A Word” clearly show how the World War II myth is used to condone violence such as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The national psyche will not be clean until this myth is excised and purged from our memory, and proper analysis of film and recommendations for its behavior can assist in this process.


1. On Operation Paperclip, see Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power, The New Press, New York 2002, pg. 162; Michael McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft, New York: Pantheon 1992, particularly the third chapter; Christopher Simpson's Blowback: America's Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War, New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, pp. 40-72, 92-94, 185-195 248-263, 279-283. Information on efforts to block Greek and Italian democracy can be found at Pg. 160-162 of Understanding Power.

2. Chomsky, Noam. Deterring Democracy, South End Press, 1992. Available online at,

3. See footnote 2.

4. See footnote 2.

5. Mickey Z, Z Magazine, “The A Word” [appeasement],

6. Michael Parenti, Z Magazine, “Real History: The Functions of Fascism.”, 1990.

7. See footnote 2.

8. See footnote 4. Supplementary material on Texaco's support for Spanish fascism: Pg. 159, Understanding Power, and pg. 222-223 for the cooperation between the US, fascism and Stalinism in backing Franco.

9. See footnote 2.

10. Ulander, Pertti. “Det stora filmkriget.”
See footnote 10.

11. New York Times, April 9, 1933 (pg. 15), “Movie Industry Halted in Germany”,

12. Greg Palast. “Kissing the Censor's Whip.”

13. New York Times December 8, 1938 (pg. 23), “Commons Debates Kennedy As Censor”, by correspondent Ferdinand Kuhn, Jr.

14. Marcia Landy of University of Pittsburgh. Italian Film. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

15. Big Cartoon Database.

16. Noam Chomsky. Secrets, Lies and Democracy. Odonian Press 1994. See the chapter entitled “World War II POWs.”

17. Steven J. Ross. Warner's War: Politics, Pop Culture & Propaganda in War-Time Hollywood. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy: Warner Bros., Anti-Fascism and the Politicization of Hollywood.” A New York Times article of September 10, 1941 (pg. 22), “The Movies and Free Speech”, also discusses the attempts to censor anti-Nazi films.
Digital History.
For a helpful timeline of World War II and a clear indication of the mounting fascist threat, see For a discussion of John Heartfield's war against fascism and his early attempts to warn the world of the danger through photomontage and journalism, see both and

18. Screen Online article, “Saville, Victor”.

19. Steven J. Ross. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy: Warner Bros, Anti-Fascism and the Politicization of Hollywood”. Published in Lear Center's Warner's War: Politics, Pop Culture and Propaganda in Wartime Hollywood, the title being an excellent indication of how Warner's crusade was largely a lone one.

20. Frederic Krome.“Tunisian Victory and Anglo-American film propaganda in World War II”.

21. Kenneth W. Rendell. From his speech, “The Real World War II: Fear on the Home Front, Terror on the Front Lines .”, delivered to the American Enterprise Institute in May 2002.

22. Bob Zelnick. From Coverage of War, a 2003 Nieman report. “War Reporting: How Should War Casualties Be Reported?”

23. Ray Furlong, BBC News. Wednesday, October 22, 2003.


Post a Comment

<< Home