Review: Hollywood Hates Hitler!

Yogerst, Chris. Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 234pp. $25.00 Paperback.

Chris Yogerst’s Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures examines the 1941 Senate investigation and hearings over alleged warmongering by Hollywood leading up to America’s entrance into World War II.  Studying the political climate leading up to the hearings and surrounding the investigations, Yogerst highlights the role of partisan politics in shaping the debate over entry into the war months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  In particular, the book juxtaposes members of the Senate who were part of the isolationist America First party with leaders of Hollywood studios, many of whom were Jewish and supported the war effort. Yogerst discusses questions of propaganda and belonging which particularly affected Hollywood, where many of the targets were Jewish. Yogerst shows how the investigation and hearings revealed a xenophobic undercurrent in American politics, questioning whether immigrants, particularly Jewish immigrants, could belong in the United States as equal citizens.

Dividing the book into five sections, Yogerst begins with Charles Lindbergh’s infamous 1940 speech in Des Moines, Iowa, for the America First Committee, and his subsequent lesser-known speeches in Hollywood on the same topic. These speeches were part of what led to the 1941 Senate investigation, since the America First Committee included leaders of the investigation. Lindbergh, and other members of America First believed that Jews controlled the media and were dangerous to US society through their ability to manipulate the public. Yogerst explains how Jews and Hollywood, particularly studio heads like Harry Warner of Warner Brothers responded to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, up through the summer of 1941. Their response included the release of movies such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), The Mortal Storm (1940), and The Man I Married (1940).  As a result of the America First Committee’s agitation, the head of the New York branch of America First, journalist John Flynn drafted Senate Resolution 152, sponsored by Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND), calling for an investigation into warmongering by Hollywood. The Interstate Commerce Committee formed a subcommittee to discuss the resolution, which was composed of Gerald Nye, D. Worth Clark (D-ID), Bennet Champ Clark (D-MO), Charles W Tobey (R-NH), C. Wyland Brooks (R-IL), and Ernest W. McFarland (D-AZ), at least two of whom were members of America First (xvii). Yogerst’s review of these discussions is amongst his most significant contributions as he focuses on how the Senate subcommittee and its investigation created a conception of “the American people” that excluded Hollywood, and in particular, Jewish Americans. 

The next section details the call for the Senate investigation and the political moment in which the investigation begins. Here, Yogerst highlights the context of American partisanship in 1941 as between Isolationists and those who wanted to join the war against the Nazis, and the studies of media that contributed to this political environment beginning in 1936. 

The next three sections follow the subcommittee investigation, first examining the evidence presented by the senators at the hearings; then that of the media moguls at the hearings, including, among others, Harry Warner and Jack Warner from Warner Brothers and Darryl Zanuck from Twentieth Century Fox; and finally, the testimony of journalists to the subcommittee and the accounts of those who wrote about the investigation.  The senators’ evidence, Yogerst notes, consisted mostly of summaries of movies based on reviews, without them seeing it themselves, with some letters that supported their conclusions. The moguls, in a rare united front, argued about the value of these movies in encouraging patriotism and awareness of what was going on in Europe. 

Yogerst situates this book into a debate on the question of Hollywood (and Jewish) actions to fight the Nazis in the years before World War II. Historians have explored Hollywood’s contribution to the war effort through its anti-Nazi campaigns in the context of World War II, politics, and anti-Semitism (xx-xxi). Peculiarly, as Yogerst notes, the episode of the 1941 Senate investigation and hearings, though mentioned by historians, such as Larry Ceplair and Steve Englund, Bernard F. Dick, Clayton R. Koppes, Donald T. Critchlow, David Welky, and Steven Carr, is not often explored in any detail (xx-xxi). The resulting question, about historical memory and the perception of Jews in the US through the lens of the debate on Hollywood and propaganda is the central theme of this book, supported by Yogerst’s examination of the way in which propaganda, anti-Semitism, anti-Fascist, American immigrant identity collided in the Senate chamber.

Yogerst concludes the book with an examination of the impact of the hearings and investigation, arguing that despite its overshadowing by the McCarthy hearings, the hearings in 1941 indicate correlations between prejudice and flourishing of national platforms that allow them. A few short years later, Hollywood would once again come under investigation for similar issues during the McCarthy hearings and before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (“HUAC”).  This leads Yogerst to questions of memory, attitudes, and the change in the nation that had occurred with the start of the Cold War. He questions the historical narrative of these investigations, asking why this event has been overlooked by many historians and even by the participants in this drama themselves. Yogerst noted that most of the major players in this drama, including the Warner Brothers, Darryl Zanuck and members of the Senate, chose to ignore this episode when writing their memoirs, though they write about their experience with the HUAC 10 years later. 

Yogerst’s conclusion dwells on continuity and proximity to events, agendas and what people choose to remember, reminding people of the struggles between what actually happened and how those events are remembered. Hollywood and the members of the Senate forget this moment.  Many historians briefly touch upon it. Yogerst chooses to make this moment front and center to emphasize that prejudice reflects questions of identity and to remind the reader that as seen in this episode, prejudice often rises, with some people finding platforms to support it, while others find platforms to combat it – and the media plays an important role in pushing the story forward.  

Nicole Siegel
Fordham University

Nicole Siegel is a PhD Candidate at Fordham University studying American Jewish History.