Hol­ly­wood’s Spies: The Under­cov­er Sur­veil­lance of Nazis in Los Angeles

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

Lau­ra B. Rosen­zweig, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has trans­formed her doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion into an impor­tant mono­graph. Her well-writ­ten and copi­ous­ly doc­u­ment­ed vol­ume, based on pre­vi­ous­ly untapped pri­ma­ry sources, is a revi­sion­ist study in at least two respects. First­ly, pre­vi­ous stud­ies exam­in­ing the threat posed by Amer­i­can Nazis dur­ing the 1930s have focused on New York City, Boston, Chica­go, and oth­er major cities in the East and Mid­west. Rosen­zweig makes a con­vinc­ing case that the most effec­tive cam­paign waged by Amer­i­can Jews against the Nazis, either local­ly or nation­al­ly, actu­al­ly occurred in Los Ange­les. This cam­paign also helped estab­lish the city as a new site of Jew­ish polit­i­cal influ­ence in the Unit­ed States.” Today met­ro­pol­i­tan Los Ange­les has more Jews than any­where else in the Unit­ed States, with the excep­tion of New York City, and Rosenzweig’s book is anoth­er indi­ca­tion that writ­ing the his­to­ry of the Jews of Los Ange­les has come of age.

Sec­ond­ly, while sev­er­al schol­ars have recent­ly accused the Hol­ly­wood moguls of appeas­ing Nazi Ger­many due to fears of an eco­nom­ic boy­cott of their films, Rosen­zweig bal­ances the pic­ture by show­ing that, at least when it came to home­grown Nazis, the Hol­ly­wood movie world was not pas­sive. Instead it exhib­it­ed an instance of Amer­i­can Jew­ish polit­i­cal agency in the 1930s that was shaped not by fear but by courage.” The moguls, along with actors, direc­tors, pro­duc­ers, screen­writ­ers, and oth­ers involved in the enter­tain­ment indus­try fund­ed the anti-Nazi cam­paign in Los Ange­les, includ­ing such lumi­nar­ies as Pan­dro Berman, George Cukor, Sam Jaffe, Ernst Lubitsch, Joseph Mankiewicz, Louis B. May­er, Leo Ros­ten, David Selznick, Dore Schary, Irv­ing Thal­berg, Wal­ter Wanger, Jack Warn­er, and Eugene Zukor.

Lead­ers in the film indus­try were active mem­bers of the Los Ange­les Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Com­mit­tee. The LAJCC, found­ed in 1934, was the first Amer­i­can anti-Nazi Jew­ish resis­tance orga­ni­za­tion. Its activ­i­ties includ­ed infil­trat­ing pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tors into the local Nazi groups, and then com­mu­ni­cat­ing their find­ings to Con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees and the Los Ange­les police. Accord­ing to Rosen­zweig, the LAJCC – not the Anti-Defama­tion League of B’nai B’rith, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress, or local Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions – was the most impor­tant source of infor­ma­tion for oth­er Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, church­es, the press, vet­er­ans’ groups, the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion, and the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary on the insur­gent Nazi threat. Par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant in this respect was the newslet­ter of the LAJCC’s News Research Ser­vice. The NRS, Rosen­zweig notes, ele­vat­ed the LAJCC to a lev­el of nation­al polit­i­cal influ­ence unmatched by any of the oth­er com­mu­ni­ty-based Amer­i­can resis­tance orga­ni­za­tions in the 1930s.”

Hollywood’s Spies would have been an even bet­ter book had the sto­ry of the LAJCC been put into a broad­er con­text. While it is under­stand­able that Los Ange­les Jews were hor­ri­fied by the local Nazis, how impor­tant were they in the great scheme of things? They were a noisy and loath­some group, but there is no evi­dence, except in their own eyes, that they were sig­nif­i­cant, either in Los Ange­les or else­where. The Nazis had only a cou­ple of hun­dred fol­low­ers in Los Ange­les, they nev­er won any elec­tions, they failed to attract any sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial sup­port, and they had no pres­ence with­in the city’s polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic elite. Despite their anti-Semit­ic threats, the local Nazis, as Rosen­zweig notes, these nev­er amount­ed to any­thing more than bois­ter­ous dis­rup­tions of antifas­cist polit­i­cal meet­ings and iso­lat­ed inci­dents of van­dal­ism”. They were even dis­dained by the local Ku Klux Klan chap­ter for being an un-Amer­i­can instru­ment of a for­eign coun­try. It was a kiss of death for any Amer­i­can politi­cian dur­ing the 1930s to be asso­ci­at­ed with pro-Nazi Amer­i­cans, and even Berlin real­ized that they were an embar­rass­ment. The febrile response of Los Ange­les Jew­ry to the local Nazi men­ace was, in fact, more indica­tive of their own inse­cu­ri­ty than of any hero­ism” or courage.”

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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