When Hitler’s Henchman Called the Shots in Hollywood

Fascinating:

When Germany, Japan, and Italy formed the Axis alliance in November 1937, four months after Japan invaded China, the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo partnership appeared poised to take on the rest of the world.

With the Reich on the move, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels tightened his command over his government’s image at home and abroad. In April 1937, he transferred control of all German film companies to the government and appointed himself as overseer of all productions. Henceforth, the content of domestic films would “fulfill with distinction the National Socialist idea.” As Fritz Wiedemann, now vice president of the Reich Film Chamber, boasted, “There is no such thing as public taste; we can shape that as we will. We have determined political taste; we can do the same with artistic taste.”

Goebbels wanted to keep the United States neutral for as long as possible. That meant stopping Hollywood from producing films intended to sway American public opinion against the Hitler regime. The propaganda chief knew there were many kinds of battles to be fought during the course of war, and he considered the battle to control the mind among the greatest. Goebbels understood a basic truth about the power of cinema: Movies matter the most about the things that people know the least. Many Americans got their first glimpse of what a Nazi rally or storm trooper looked like by watching movies or newsreels. Whether they thought of these people and their ideas as good or bad might well be determined by what they saw and heard on the screen.

By shaping the content of American films, Goebbels hoped to shape the ways in which Americans thought about Hitler and his policies.

With movies being seen by 88 million Americans a week in 1937, and by 150 million people throughout the world, Goebbels feared that a powerful anti-Nazi campaign by Hollywood studios could prove disastrous to German ambitions. Consequently, the propaganda minister turned to Georg Gyssling, German general consul in Los Angeles, for help in manipulating the American psyche. Gyssling cajoled, threatened, and did everything in his power to ensure that the Jewish-dominated studios followed Production Code Administration (PCA) regulations and made no film attacking Hitler or his government.

By 1937 the motion picture business reigned as the nation’s fourth largest industry, with over $2 billion in capital investments. Lavishly paid movie industry leaders accounted for 40 of the 63 Americans earning more than $200,000 in 1937. Topping the list was Louis B. Mayer at $1.3 million, making him the highest paid employee in America. The MGM head earned more in salary that year than the entire U.S. Senate combined. As the number of American films shown in Germany steadily dropped from 61 in 1933–34 to 36 in 1936–37, the moguls were forced to deal with Gyssling if they wanted to protect their studios’ bottom lines and their own high salaries.

During his first three years as consul, Gyssling repeatedly used the threat of imposing Article 15, which refused permits for any film deemed “detrimental to German prestige,” to hammer the moguls into compliance. As German military aggression increased after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Gyssling became even more aggressive with Hollywood, intimidating individual actors and studio employees. When he heard that Malvina Pictures was preparing to release I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany in July 1936, Gyssling contacted the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association and demanded they stop the filming. Based on a true story, the movie recounts the harrowing experience of American journalist Isobel Steele, who was arrested and imprisoned by Nazi authorities on charges of espionage in August 1934. Steele spent four months in solitary confinement at Berlin’s infamous Moabit prison and was deported only after the intervention of the U.S. State Department. Upon her return home, the celebrated journalist wrote numerous stories describing her experiences in Nazi Germany.

via When Hitler’s Henchman Called the Shots in Hollywood

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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