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  • Hollywood's Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles by Laura B. Rosenzweig
  • Clayton Koppes (bio)
Hollywood's Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles. By Laura B. Rosenzweig. New York: New York University Press, 2017. xiii + 283 pp.

Hollywood's role in confronting anti-Semitism and the Nazi menace in the 1930s has been fraught with controversy. Despite Jewish prominence in the movie industry, the major studios mostly evaded these issues on the screen. Warner Brothers' Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released in 1939, was the first dramatic feature devoted to Nazism. As Groucho Marx famously said, Warners was "the only studio with any guts." Ben Urwand in The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler (2013) even charges movie moguls were complicit with Hitler's Germany. Thomas Doherty counters in Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939 (2013) that Hollywood displayed resistance.

Laura B. Rosenzweig makes an important intervention in this controversy. She contends that anti-Nazi work by American Jews was not absent, merely hidden. Jews in nine cities "took the bold step to combat Nazism in their communities by going undercover" (199). Many Jews believed caution and discretion were essential in the anti-Semitic 1930s and believed treating Jewish issues on the screen invited retaliation. Rosenzweig contends that, in this context, Jews acted not with fear but with courage.

Relying heavily on the extensive archives of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee (LAJCC), Rosenzweig presents the LAJCC as Exhibit A. Leon Lewis, a Los Angeles attorney, spearheaded LAJCC's anti-Nazi activities from 1934 until 1947. He masterminded a sensational lawsuit that brought the Friends of New Germany, which promoted support for the Nazis, to public attention in 1934. Awakened to the Nazi menace, prominent Los Angeles Jews, including many movie moguls, clandestinely supported LAJCC. Lewis fed information to the McCormack-Dickstein [End Page 455] Committee, whose 1935 report presciently outlined the Nazi menace. LAJCC planted secret informants in Southern California organizations that were sympathetic to Nazi ideology and documented how the German government supported these activities. LAJCC provided an invaluable source on activities sympathetic to Nazism from 1939 to 1942 with its News Letter, a widely circulated weekly sheet edited by Joe Roos, a former screenwriter.

Lewis found a surprisingly receptive audience with the House Committee on Un-American Activities chaired by Congressman Martin Dies of Texas. The committee's 1940 report blasted groups such as the German American Bund as agents of a foreign government. Lewis felt vindicated: everyone could now understand that anti-Semitism "spelled disaster for the fundamental liberties and civic rights of our citizenry as a whole" (169). Dies, who had met with Hollywood moguls, undercut Lewis's optimism, however, when he perversely and irresponsibly claimed the movie colony channeled large sums to the Communist Party and subtly laced films with Communist propaganda. To Dies and his sympathizers, concern about communism trumped fear of fascism.

The Hollywood branch of LAJCC, chaired by producer Walter Wanger, moved beyond its clandestine activities to use its media power in a few cases. America Marches On!, a series of radio programs in the late 1930s, highlighted the country's defenses against foreign threats, and broadcast a thirteen-part radio serial, Airing the Fifth Column. In 1940 the Hollywood LAJCC produced a fifteen-minute short, The Flag Speaks, calling out "intolerance, violence, [and] persecution of minorities" (142). Wanger coordinated some of these activities with the American Legion, of which he was a member. Not only did LAJCC believe its activities had more credibility if couched in terms of "Americanism," but the group also proved willing to collaborate with organizations whose politics tended towards the right. During and after World War II, LAJCC pivoted to "civic cooperation" and played a role in "moderate civil rights reform" (196).

Clandestine operations often have the allure of a spy novel, and Rosenzweig tells her illuminating story with verve. She might have enhanced her analysis by probing more fully the demands–psychological, cultural, economic, or whatever--that colored leaders' responses. A fuller attention to context and some comparison with other social movements would have enriched her interpretation. All minority groups, whether African Americans in the civil rights struggle...


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pp. 455-457
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