- - Sunday, February 11, 2018


By Steven J. Ross

Bloomsbury, $30, 415 pages

As Adolph Hitler tried to spread his Nazi tentacles beyond Germany in the 1930s, he benefited from a so-called “fifth column” of ideological supporters in several nations, notably France.

But many of his henchmen — formal or free-lance — also had their eyes on the movie capital of the world: Hollywood. An estimated 150 million persons worldwide saw at least one movie weekly, most of them produced by Hollywood studies with Jewish owners.

So Germany launched a two-pronged attack on the industry. The first goal was to prevent the studios from producing films attacking Hitler or his government, a chore eagerly pursued by Georg Gyssling, the German consul in Los Angeles.

Hitler was well-aware of the propaganda value of movies. As he wrote in “Mein Kampf,” movies had greater propaganda value than the written word because people “will more readily accept a pictorial representation than read an article of any length.”

The second target was the movie mogul themselves, and the major stars of their films, who were targeted for assassination by ad hoc bands of Nazi sympathizers. One plot discussed was to have machine-gun squads drive through the Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights, murdering anyone in sight.

These odious anti-Semites made no attempt to conceal their hatred of Jews. They staged mass meetings and marches. Speakers in German-owned beer gardens spewed hatred to sizable crowds.

Berlin even dispatched a propaganda specialist named Capt. Robert Pape to Los Angeles. “My mission here is like a priest,” he said. “It is my job to teach the Nazi system.” He set up an Aryan Book Store to circulate Nazi propaganda, and he found a ready audience among members of the Ku Klux Klan and dozens of other hate groups in Southern California.

Newspaper photos of a pro-German rally showed uniformed men giving the Nazi salute. Leaders even set up barracks for sympathizers of the Nazi ideology.

And they operated with official impunity. Both the Los Angeles chief of police and the head of the police “red squad,” responsible for monitoring extremists, expressed sympathy for the Nazi cause. And the local FBI office was more interested in chasing communists than Nazis.

Enter Leon Lewis, a Jewish lawyer who served as a battlefield captain during World War I, and who was an early leader of the Anti-Defamation League. With authorities ignoring the Nazis, Mr. Lewis created a spy network to infiltrate the fascist groups and gather hard information on their activities and plans.

For operatives, he relied heavily upon patriotic former servicemen, many recruited through the Disabled American Veterans. A prize operative was John Schmidt, a native of Germany and the son of a general in Bavarian artillery, who had migrated to the U.S. in 1902. He detested what Hitler was doing to his native land.

Mr. Schmidt was among the first of scores of men (and several women) who joined the melange of Nazi groups as undercover agents. They took notes, and they flooded Mr. Lewis with reports. An exceptionally brave woman agent volunteered to serve as recording secretary for meetings, which ensured the authenticity of the reports. (Their reports are the core of Steven Ross’ book.)

One discovery was that the Nazis planned massive sabotage of the aircraft plants being constructed throughout lower California. The tip was passed on to the Office of Naval Intelligence, which moved in and made arrests.

But the FBI concentrated on sabotage threats on the East Coast. Whereupon Mr. Lewis moved to jar the FBI into action. He compiled a report listing 2,500 “loyal Nazis” In the Los Angeles area — per a secret mailing list — 800 of whom worked in aviation plants and other defense industries.

Mr. Lewis gave the report to Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen for their “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column. An irate J. Edgar Hoover saw to it that the lead Nazi lost his citizenship, the Supreme Court ruling that it was “illegally procured.” He was deported.

Some of the Nazi plots, to be sure, contained a whiff of fantasy. For instance, one group compiled a list of more than 100 movie stars — many of them Jewish — targeted for murder. Charlie Chaplin topped the list.

Mr. Lewis had less success in working against the movie veto power claimed by Mr. Gyssling, the German consul. He relied upon an industry code that directed that “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.”

Actors in any movie that violated the rule could be permanently barred from German movie houses. “Despite their bitterness,” Mr. Ross writes, “most movie executives just shrugged and chalked it up to the cost of doing business.”

To his lasting credit, Mr. Lewis won the Nazi accolade of “the most dangerous Jew is Los Angeles.” And Mr. Ross concludes that Mr. Lewis and associates “managed to keep Los Angeles and its citizens safe.”

Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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