Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles by Laura B. Rosenzweig, New York University Press, US $29.95, Pp 320, September 2017, ISBN 978-1479855179
As early as 1933, many years before World War II started, the Nazis had planned to penetrate the American motion picture industry. The Nazis had planned to use motion pictures to advance their propaganda and use Hollywood and Los Angeles as a springboard to spread their influence all over the world. For Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Los Angeles was more important than any other American city because it was home to what he believed the world’s greatest propaganda machine, Hollywood. For Goebbels, Hollywood was also a dangerous place where Jews ruled over the motion picture industry and transmitted their ideas throughout the world. Hollywood was central to Goebbels’ and Hitler’s efforts to win over the American public and the world to their cause.
In Hollywood’s Spies, Laura Rosenzweig says that Los Angeles Jewish moguls paid private investigators to infiltrate Nazi groups operating in Los Angeles between 1934 and 1941. Joining forces with other Jewish business leaders in the city, the executives of the motion picture industry provided essential funding to establish the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee (LAJCC). The LAJCC was the first American Jewish defense group established in the 1930s especially to combat insurgent Nazism in the United States. Publicly, the LAJCC participated in the interfaith and nonsectarian coalition to fight religious intolerance. Privately, however, the group maintained a covert fact-finding operation, gathering evidence of insurgent Nazism in Los Angeles and beyond.
Laura Rosenzweig says that the problem at that time was that if the evidence of subversive Nazi activity came from Jewish sources, authorities might not have taken that seriously. That is why the LAJCC partnered with civic groups whose Americanism was unimpeachable, such as the American Legion, to channel the information to local and federal authorities. Unbeknownst to the public at the time, the information collected by the LAJCC informed both the McCormack-Dickstein and Dies Committee investigations of un-American activity in Southern California, the Justice Department’s prosecution of twenty-three Nazi activists between 1944 and 1946, and a host of journalists and public opinion makers throughout the period.
The story of LAJCC, however, is not simply an isolated case of one American Jewish community’s response to Nazi-influenced nativism in the United States in the 1930s. Laura Rosenzweig says that it is representative of American Jewish response to domestic Nazism. Between 1933 and 1941, American Jewish organizations and leaders in many American cities, including Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Seattle and Portland, organized similar defense groups to monitor and resist Nazi-influenced rightwing activity in their communities. Publicly, these local Jewish organizations also partnered with civic and interfaith groups in their communities to promote religious tolerance.
It is necessary to appreciate the political context in which LAJCC was born. The 1930s was the most anti-semite period in US history. In the three decades prior to Depression, Laura Rosenzweig says, antisemitism in the United States was rooted in religious, social and economic resentments towards Jews. Antisemite stereotypes were so widespread across American culture that whenever a producer wishes to depict a betrayer of public trust, a hard-boiled uncurious moneylender, a crooked gambler… a depraved firebug, a white slaver or another villain of one kind or another, the actor is directed to represent himself as a Jew. These negative stereotypes nourished anti-Jewish prejudices that justified the discrimination against Jews in employment, housing education, and social clubs. But this did not prevent Jews from achieving economic success or threaten Jews’ physical or political security in the United States.
Hollywood’s Spies is a very insightful book on how Hitler sent Nazi operatives to infiltrate the American cinema industry and how some Jewish cinema moguls thwarted their efforts by employing private investigators. Laura Rosenzweig shows that if the Jewish cinema moguls had not resisted, the Nazi agents would have succeeded in advancing their conspiracy to use Hollywood to advance their plans in North America. The Nazis wanted to use the Hollywood as a Nazi propaganda machine as a lot of Jewish people came to Hollywood and produced movies to highlight the plight of the Jews under the Nazis. Laura Rosenzweig shows that while the US government considered Communists the biggest enemies, a handful of American Jews faced Hitler’s agents and spies. It is a meticulously-researched book that fills several holes in our knowledge of Nazi operations on the US soil and Hollywood.