Fighting Nazis in the U.S., Then and Now (Audio & Transcript)
“Don’t let history repeat itself” is an important lesson—one that’s extremely relevant in today’s political climate as white nationalist groups often occupy news headlines.
Steven J. Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, looks to the past to show how activists fought hate groups in the 1930s and ’40s in his new book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.”
Ross sits down with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer to discuss what can be learned from this small group of Americans, led by Jewish attorney Leon Lewis, and their efforts to thwart Nazi schemes in the United States.
Listen to the full interview in the player above or read the full transcript below, and find past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
–Posted by Emma Niles
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Steven J. Ross. We’re at USC, where he has been the chairman of the history department; he’s been a longtime professor, and he’s the head of the Casden Institute for the Study of [the Jewish Role in American Life]. He has written a very important book, before this one, on Hollywood Left and Right. He’s the recipient of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film Scholars Award, been nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. But I think your most recent book is in some way, ironically, the most timely. And it’s called Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. And it’s just come out recently; it’s a Bloomsbury book, you should check it out; read it, actually, would be a good idea. But let’s just begin with the whole presence of Nazis and the contemporary echo of Nazis. Because the key to the Nazi experience really was scapegoating a vulnerable group, or a number of vulnerable groups. And no group more significant than Jews, who were then blamed for all of Germany’s problems coming out of World War I. And we’re at a time where our own president is specializing in scapegoating; scapegoats anyone who criticizes him, but particularly was very prominent in scapegoating Mexican-Americans during the campaign. So let me ask you about why you came to write this particular book, and its relevance at the moment.
Steven J. Ross: Well, those are two very different questions, Bob. Why I came to write this book is my generation of historians are in part responsible for the lack of scholarship on fascism and Nazism in America. It’s a history that has not been adequately covered, mainly because many of use were looking at the 1930s and forties and dealing with communists and anti-communists. And when I was writing Hollywood Left and Right, I did a chapter on Edward G. Robinson, who was one of the leaders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. And I got very interested in the activities of the Anti-Nazi League, ‘cause these were the people who ah, you know, we have this great myth of the “good war,” that Americans recognized Hitler right away, they saw evil immediately; nothing could be further from the truth. In November 1936, according to Gallup Poll, 95 percent of Americans wanted nothing to do with anything going on in Germany or Europe. And even as late as July 1941, two years into the war, almost, Gallup found 79 percent of Americans wanted nothing to do with what was going on in Europe.
RS: Yeah, and you point out in your book, it took the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s alliance with Germany, and then actually Germany declaring war on the United States, to get the Congress to act at that time. And as another footnote that people–I remember as a kid, because my parents would schlep me down to Washington to picket the White House to open the Second Front, meaning that the United States should get involved in fighting in Europe. And you know, everybody forgets that didn’t come until quite late in the war.
SR: These people who were involved in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League were the ones who were trying to raise national consciousness, starting in April 1936. And they would later come under attack from the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of being communists because they were given the label of premature anti-fascists. Let’s talk about the most stupid language possible, and yet that stupid language ruined people’s lives. That Congress, our, you know, our wonderful Congress, as wonderful in the 1930s as they are today, argued–or 1940s, then–were arguing that you could not have been, the only ones who really understood the dangers Hitler imposed to America were communists. So anyone who was opposing Hitler in the thirties, before Pearl Harbor, must have been a communist. Or a fellow traveler. Well, I got interested in trying to understand the history of the anti-Nazi movement. And I started doing some research and discovered the existence of these papers at Cal State Northridge. And when I finished Hollywood Left and Right, I went up there, because they had run an exhibit called “In Our Own Backyard: Nazis and Fascists in Los Angeles.” And I didn’t know anything about that, and there’s very little written, just a few odds and ends, mentions. And when I went in there, there were like two, three hundred boxes. And I started going through them, and I realized, oh my God, this is something before the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Starting in August 1933, Leon Lewis, who’s an attorney who had been one of the founders of the Anti-Defamation League, and had stayed with them from their origins in 1913 ‘til 1925, moves to L.A. in 1931, and Hitler becomes Reichskanzler in January ‘33. And at that point, Jewish groups around the country are debating what to do. And the idea that Jews sat back passively and let the Holocaust happen is totally wrong. Jews actually were protesting, but they had a divided strategy: Should we get in Hitler’s face? Or do we work behind the scenes to try to get him to ease his policy on Jews? But they kept debating what to do. And after the Nazis held their first open meeting–
RS: You didn’t mean get in Hitler’s face.
SR: The American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, the two major groups–the American Jewish Congress led by Stephen Wise, argued that we have to be aggressive with Hitler. And they launched and international boycott of all German products.
RS: Oh, oh.
SR: Samuel Untermyer, a lawyer in New York, started that. And the idea is, we’re going to hurt the German economy by boycotting all German goods until they stop persecuting not just Jews, but all minority groups. Well, the other major Jewish group, the American Jewish Committee led by Judge Proskauer of the famous firm Proskauer, Rose, and whatever, argued that if you do this, Hitler’s a bully, and he’s going to double down, and he’s going to persecute the Jews even worse. So the best way to do it is to secretly contact religious leaders in Germany and get them to pressure Hitler to ease his policy on Jews. Well, none of these strategies seemed to be working initially. So Nazis held their first open meeting in L.A. July 26, 1933. Several days later, Leon Lewis, who is a member of the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, goes down not far from where we are now, to Bob–what was then Patriotic Hall, today it’s Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, on Figueroa just below the 10. And he goes and he recruits four World War I veterans and their wives, who agree to go undercover and join every Nazi and fascist group in L.A. and report back to him on a daily basis. And Lewis encourages them to in fact try to rise up into leadership positions, and let me know what they’re up to. And he runs this spy ring basically by himself for several years, and then he gets an assistant, full-time assistant in ‘38, Joe Roos, and they keep running this spy ring ‘til the end of World War II. And they keep turning over different spies, and in the course of those 12 years, while the United States government is closing its eyes to the dangers of Nazis and fascists, this two-man Jewish operation, with the help of Christians–because only one spy was a Jew; everyone else was a Christian–they foil Nazi plots to kill Jews, to kill political leaders, to blow up military and defense installations along the Pacific coast, to foil a plot to drive through, Nazis were going to drive through Boyle Heights with machine guns and kill people. They wanted to open up a false fumigation company that would inject cyanide into the homes of Jews. And we were the leading aircraft manufacturer, and they uncovered all these plots to sabotage aircraft manufacturing in L.A. Two men and their spies.
RS: Yeah, and one of the interesting things in your book is that there was an ambivalent attitude in Los Angeles about Jews. Which was surprising to me. And I want to set a historical stage here, that there’s a class division among Jews. And that people forget, Jews are not strangers to America; they arrived quite early, and certainly for half of the 19th century there was a very large number of well-educated German Jews who came with the general German migration, and they happened to be good at finance, many of them. And they actually helped establish the economy of California. And while I was reading your book, I picked up, just to remind myself of that history, a book called Towers of Gold, which is about, primarily about Isaias Hellman and the Hellman family that started Wells Fargo bank, and was instrumental in financing the wineries and a lot of the industry that happened. And a curious questions comes up, and the book basically deals with that: America’s attitude towards Jews, and Jewish attitude towards Jews. Because we had basically two groups, and you had it in New York back East, and you had it here. You had the early immigrants who were primarily German, well integrated in Germany, hadn’t experienced much antisemitism in Germany, came here and were very successful. I think–I’m not a historian of California, but I think really until 1890 or 1900 they were quite well established and so forth; I don’t know when the main private clubs like the Jonathan Club and California Club started discriminating against–
SR: By the nineteen, early 1920s.
RS: Early 1920s. And actually, I once, when I was writing local columns, found an old menu from the Jonathan Club where they had a German dinner night, and they actually had a Nazi swastika on the menu. But they did exclude Jews, primary. But in the second half of the 19th century, Jews were well established in California, as they were back East. But they were primarily Jews, German Jews. And my question to you is, wasn’t part of the mixed reaction to what was happening in Germany representing a class division between the Eastern European Jews, who were in the midst of fighting there, both in the First and Second World War, the victims of it, poorer, and arriving as refugees, and a certain resentment on the part of the older, established German Jews, that these people were something of an embarrassment, and that maybe they were creating their own problems?
SR: Well, I think that’s true, but it’s a minor part of the story, and to dwell on that is to miss the bigger picture, and it’s to miss the more important question you had, which is the attitude of L.A. society, in other words the goyim, towards the Jews. Because yes, there was a split between the German Jews, most of whom emigrated after the ‘48 revolutions, tended to be more liberal and did very well, and in fact were part of the group that established many of these clubs at the turn of the century, and many voluntary associations–which they then would be kicked out of starting in the late teens, 1920s. And you know, the irony is, the Jews in L.A. built Hillcrest Country Club because they had been excluded from Los Angeles Country Club and all other country clubs, and of course the irony is once they started digging on the golf course to sort of create a golf course, they hit oil and became very wealthy. So screw you, L.A. Country Club. But yes, while there’s some divisions in the Jewish community, with the German Jews looking down upon Southern, Central and Eastern European Jews, the more important phenomena is the antipathy, anywhere from antipathy to antisemitism in Los Angeles during the twenties and thirties, that gets markedly more intense in the thirties. And it gets intense, and it goes back to the question of, you know, why were Americans not really worried about Germans and Nazis? Because the Nazis in L.A. and their American brethren in hate, the Silver Shirts, which were formed right after Hitler became chancellor, they were all anti-communists. That’s what they had in common. All of them were anti-communists; most of them, but not all of them, were also antisemites. And as far as they were concerned, the real danger–in their first meeting in L.A., when the Nazis held their first meeting, and in fact throughout the 1930s, the Nazis are trying to bring in both German-Americans and Americans to their cause. And their argument is, we are the only group that is going to stand up against the communists. Because there’s going to come a day very soon that the communists are going to rebel, and try to take over the government. And at that point, this is why we’re doing our military drilling, we’re creating–and this is why they wanted to bring in, when Leon Lewis brought in the veterans to try to join them as undercover agents, the Nazis were delighted to get them because they were trying to follow the same strategy that Hitler had used in the 1920s, which is the German economy was in shambles; all these veterans were angry ‘cause they were unemployed, starving, and they were getting no benefits from the government. And in our country, when Roosevelt became president in March 1933, one of the first things he and Congress did was passed the Economy Act, which cut military benefits for veterans from 80, 100 dollars a month to 20 dollars and in some cases zero dollars. And these veterans were angry. They had served their country, they had been patriots, and now they were being thrown on the ash heap of history. And the Nazis thought, this is how Hitler recruited his Brownshirts; this is how, what we’re going to do, and we’re going to get American veterans who in turn will train more Americans, and we will build an army of Brownshirts in America. And the day that the communists revolt, or secretly the day that we decide we want to overthrow the “Jew Deal” and overthrow “President Rosenfelt,” as they referred to him, we’re going to have an army big enough to do this. And they believed that many American troops and military people would join their cause once they started a revolution.
RS: The book is Hitler in Los Angeles. I’m talking to Steven J. Ross, who’s a major historian, is at USC, written some really important books, centered interestingly enough on the entertainment industry and politics. And I want to point out, you have a personal connection to this subject. You dedicate the book to your own parents, who were survivors, as I understand it, of the concentration camp, and your in-laws, or at least your father-in-law–
SR: My, both my in-laws, who fled Germany in the thirties.
RS: But they weren’t in the concentration camp.
SR: No, they got out; my father-in-law, Kurt Kent, had been in medical school in Germany when Hitler kicked all the Jews out of medical school, so he went to Italy to Padua to medical school for a year, until Mussolini kicked all the Jews out. And then he wound up finishing at Northwestern University, where he had the misfortune of having to deal with Loyal Davis, Nancy Davis’s stepfather, who announced very publicly–
RS: Nancy Davis was Ronald Reagan’s wife.
SR: Right, Nancy Davis Reagan–her stepfather announced very publicly that “no Jew will ever get tenure in the Northwestern medical school while he is alive.” My mother-in-law left, she must have got out literally on one of the last boats leaving Germany for Jews, in 1940. And they would eventually meet in Cincinnati, get married. My parents, my mother had been in Lodz, and after the Lodz ghetto was destroyed she was sent to Auschwitz, and from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, and from Bergen-Belsen to a munitions camp in Salzwedel, Germany. And my father had been in the Warsaw ghetto, and after the ghetto was destroyed he was sent to Dachau, where he spent the war. And as I point out, in an irony, it was in Dachau that he learned how to be a baker, and when he came to America he wanted to be an engineer, but his, my mother’s uncle persuaded him that he didn’t understand English, it was going to take him too long, so he should continue being a baker and open his own bakery, which he did, and for over 30 years he had only local bakeries, but he had two wholesale clients. And any ex-New Yorkers will know them, Zabar’s and Balducci’s. So for years, Russian coffee cake and the strudels at Zabar’s came to you compliments of Hitler’s bakers at Dachau.
RS: [omission] So I want to ask you to take it to the current moment, the relevance of Hitler and Los Angeles, your book–I think it’s important, very important history and we should read it for that reason alone, I take your point. But I want to also address the contemporary moment. You have the same scapegoating, the demonization, simplicity. And in a country where people say well, it can’t happen here; we have a constitution, we have decency, we’ve been the melting pot. What is your take on it?
SR: Of course it can happen here. It’s happened here. It just has, it hasn’t been a Holocaust. But what’s happened here, and has happened from the founding of the nation to this day, is Americans at different points in time, and the 1930s was certainly one of the major points, and today, have found themselves asking: what do we do when hate groups move from the margins to the mainstream? ‘Cause we’ve always had hate groups; we’ve had racism, sexism, antisemitism. You know, and nativist groups. Hate has been as much part of America as love and democracy. And yet most of the time, it’s been kept under wraps, and it’s been kept in control because our leaders understood that as Americans, we are one people. And in fact, I’ve been asked several times: If these spies were Christians, why are they working for the Jews? Why are they doing this? And then I’ll bring this up to today. And the answer is, when Leon Lewis recruited these men in 1933, and these women–and in fact his last set of spies is a mother-daughter spy team–they knew that the Nazis and the fascists hated Jewish-Americans, they hated Catholic-Americans, they hated black Americans. They never saw their campaign, their undercover operation, as working for the Jews; they saw it as an American campaign. And what they argued is, Jewish-American, Catholic-American, black American, all those words before the hyphen are adjectives. And what we all have in common is the noun, American. And they saw this as an American crusade, ‘cause they said, if you attack one–if you allow an outside group and their American allies to attack one group of Americans, you attack all Americans. [omission] …[T]here are no good people on both sides. I’m sorry. if you are a white supremacist, if you are–
RS: You’re talking about–
SR: I’m talking about now. After Charlottesville, right. If you’re a white supremacist, you’re a Klan member, you’re a neo-Nazi, I don’t care if you’re good to your dogs, your cats, your children, and your wife or your husband, you are not a good person and you are not a good American. The difference between then and now is in Charlottesville, they were marching and screaming, “the Jews will not replace us.” In the 1930s, virtually every week if not–if not every week, every month, from 1933 to the end of World War II, through Pearl Harbor and through the war, at least once a week or once a month there was some individual or group calling for death to Jews. Not “Jews won’t replace us,” “death to Jews.”
RS: Here, it was very confusing for America. Because as I said, the German-Americans were the largest immigrant group. I want to stipulate that, overwhelmingly patriotic and not particularly given to antisemitism, and so forth. But, I don’t want to stereotype that group, but the fact is they were white. And the people over in Germany were white, and the languages weren’t that different, the music wasn’t that different, the history wasn’t that different. And I think it was a test that this country failed, and I think they failed because we saw, wait a minute, they’re not Slavic; they’re our kind of people, they can’t possibly be doing these terrible things. And they were doing these terrible things. But wasn’t that sort of a key element in this drama?
SR: Oh, absolutely. Well, here’s what you need to know. The head of the Bund, German-American Bund in Los Angeles, Hermann Schwinn, who had been the head–it was originally called the Friends of New Germany, and then to make it sound more American, they renamed it in 1936, the German-American Bund. He is the second most powerful Nazi in America. He is the Gauleiter, that is, the head of the entire Western region of the United States. The FBI does not put him under surveillance until November 1941, three weeks before Pearl Harbor. Even the local bureau was begging Hoover in 1940 to put him under surveillance. They sent him–and I went through the FBI files, and they sent him a letter saying we want to put him under surveillance, there’s a danger here. Hoover wrote back, he’s broke no laws, and therefore there’s no reason to put him under surveillance. In the meantime, he had his L.A. office putting Hollywood actors, directors, and producers under surveillance. Why? Because they were Jews, and Jews were only one step better than the Japanese. Because as far as many Anglo-Americans were concerned, certainly government authorities, Jews weren’t quite white. They were whiter than the Japanese, but they weren’t quite white, and they weren’t to be trusted. And one of the things that just turned my stomach is within weeks of starting his undercover operation, Leon Lewis discovers a plot by one of the local Nazis to seize the San Francisco armory, the L.A. armory, and the San Diego armory on the same day and start a putsch against all Jews in an attempt to begin to overthrow the American government. And Lewis goes to talk to police chief James Davis to tell him this, and says you know, here’s my credentials, here’s what I’ve done, here’s what’s being plotted right now to seize the armories on the West coast. Two minutes into his talk–at least this is what Lewis writes in the memo–that 80 years, more than 80 years later is steaming when I opened up the box–he says I’m talking to him, two minutes into my talk Davis stops me and says: You don’t get it. Hitler’s only doing what he needs to do in Germany, ‘cause the Jews have ruined the German economy. And that the real danger in Los Angeles is not the Nazis and the fascists, the real dangers are those communists in Boyle Heights. And proceeded to tell–which was the Jewish neighborhood–and proceeded to basically say to him as far as he was concerned, every Jew was a communist and every communist was a Jew. And I think that’s something that J. Edgar Hoover shared, that kind of a sentiment. When Pearl Harbor comes, the FBI has a list of Japanese to arrest, but I was wondering, if they haven’t put Hermann Schwinn under surveillance until three weeks before Pearl Harbor, how do they know which Nazis to arrest? And the answer is, from 1933–1939 on, from the moment World War II started, Leon Lewis and Joe Roos were sending the FBI military intelligence and naval intelligence, lists of all the dangerous Nazis in L.A., and people to be put under suspicion. And they divided it eventually into three lists: the most dangerous, dangerous, and just keep under surveillance. And those names were the names, when I read the list of who was arrested after Pearl Harbor, they were all the names sent by Lewis and Roos. And I went to the National Archives just to check it out, and I found the original document. And what the FBI had done is to simply retype the memos that Roos and Lewis had sent them, claim it as their own, and all the descriptions, the addresses, were all theirs. So the FBI was monitoring some of the Japanese, but they never saw the Germans and Nazis as any problem at all.
RS: As someone who was born in 1936 and at a very early age I was down in Washington, as I said, schlepped by my mother and father, my Jewish mother and my German father–and it was, it still rings in my ear, “Open the second front.” Now, you could argue that was supposed to help Russia or what have you. But there was no question, when I was six, seven years old, at the barbarism of what Germany was doing, and the killing of everyone from gypsies to Jews and anyone in between. And the aggressiveness, and the occupation of France and so forth. And the idea that people didn’t want to move, didn’t want to act–this is not isolationism, this is support of an evil regime by inactivity. I mean, that’s really critical. And I do think, if I was to make one criticism–not a criticism of your book, ‘cause your book focuses on what ordinary people, basically, did in the local community of Los Angeles to stop the Nazis. But what I wanted, and maybe it’ll be your next book: what the elite did. Because what you said about the police chief, and about J. Edgar Hoover–that is really shocking. For people not to know, this had nothing to do with adventurism and imperialism and so forth. What this had to do with stopping–the argument we have nowadays, when you see genocide you have to stop it. That’s a human rights concern. That’s not an adventurist, that’s not a big foreign policy debate, it’s a human rights thing; you stop genocide, right? Where it happens, whether it’s happening in Cambodia or it’s happening in Germany. And for people to turn the other way, I think, reflected a feeling on the part of our elite that maybe they were the lesser evil, this Hitler. And I just want to ask one last question. What about the establishment–you know, after all, in Germany Hitler was not just this crazy, lone figure. But he ended up having the support of the business elite, right? Of the major banks–
RS: –and so forth. And those people, and this I think David Talbot’s book is very good on, those people had connections with banking and with law firms and everything in this country.
SR: And automobile manufacturers, and chemical companies.
RS: Yeah, Ford, you mentioned, for instance.
SR: Ford, General Motors, DuPont. These were people selling what could be called war material to the Nazi regime. And as for the elite, what I would say is they were either complacent or complicit. And one of the things I did is, one of the big stories in my book is I discovered that the main villain of decades of Hollywood history, Georg Gyssling, who was the German counsel sent over by Hitler and Goebbels to stop Hollywood from making films denigrating Germany, I wanted to see how elite dealt with him. And so I read the social column of the L.A. Times, which was the elite newspaper, from 1933 when he arrived in June until Roosevelt expelled all German diplomats in the summer of 1941. And the irony is, of course, he is the most popular, sought-after diplomat in the entire city. They are raving about him. People are dying, when his wife leaves and never comes back and they get a divorce, everyone wants to be his hostess. They all want to take him and have parties with them leading those parties. And they consider him sophisticated, charming, intellectual. And he is, by far, the number one diplomat in the city. The only problem is, he wasn’t who he seemed to be. They thought they were supporting this cultured Nazi, but in fact he turns out to be someone who was feeding information to the Jews from the moment he arrived until the moment he left. Because like many people in the German foreign office, he hated Hitler; he thought Hitler was destroying everything that was good about Germany. And while he did his day job preventing Hollywood from making any anti-Nazi films, he was secretly passing the Jews information about the German economy, about the German-American Bund, and about German war plans. And so one of the things that I feel good about in this book is it speaks to today because it asks, how do we resist hate? What do we do? And so I have two real big stories: how Americans are doing it, through this spy operation, and how the most unlikely resister you can imagine–the German counsel to L.A.–is doing what he can to undermine the Hitler regime without losing his life.
RS: I’ve been talking to Stephen J. Ross, a historian, history professor at USC, and the author of Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. My thanks as always to our producers, Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer, our engineers Mario Diaz and Kat Yore, and see you next week.