The Nazis and Walt Disney were friends

Adolf Hitler admired films like “Snow White” or “Bambi” by Walt Disney. Anyone who knows the reason for this fascination understands more of our reactionary present

The German mass murderer had a weakness for kitschy American films. What sounds absurd at first, has its plausibility. An attempt on ambivalences and abysses of a bizarre sympathy.

For Christmas 1937, Dr. Joseph Goebbels thought up a very special present for "his Führer". He surprised the grateful Adolf Hitler with thirty American entertainment films of various lengths that had been made in the four years since the National Socialist "seizure of power" but were not allowed to be shown in Germany.

Eighteen Mickey Mouse films made up a major part of the collection. The media historian Volker Koop recently came back to this breathtaking and marginal-looking detail, which appeared twenty years ago thanks to the monumental Hitler monograph by Ian Kershaw (and then also disappeared from historical memory). His book about the “secret favorite films of the Nazi elite” arouses historical shudders with the description of endless film nights in the Berlin Reich Chancellery and at Hitler's vacation home “Berghof” on the German-Austrian border. Now we can also imagine Hitler's, Himmler's and Göring's feelings about "Bambi" or "Dumbo" as part of the program.

Cartoons, the production of which had just started at the time, especially in the United States (1928 was the year Mickey Mouse was born), were part of the National Socialists' repertoire at an early stage. In 1938, on his visit to Germany, Walt Disney's brother Roy sold a single copy of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, the first feature-length Disney production that had celebrated its American premiere a few months earlier.

Of all things, the Snow White legend is said to have been the hot and cold heart of Adolf Hitler - and this was confirmed by the chance discovery of the Norwegian museum director William Hakwaag, who behind a painting with the signature “A. Hitler discovered "colored hand drawings of several dwarfs from the" Snow White "film, in addition to an (unsigned) drawing of the same hand by Pinocchio, the hero of the Disney production from 1940. According to the expert judgment, it is clear that the former was admitted to the Wiener Academy failed art student Hitler actually at the beginning of the Second World War as Chancellor - and not without technical competence - had drawn the soft contours of the Disney characters.

Riefenstahl at Disney

The sympathy was not one-sided, which makes the bizarre discoveries of the past few years an abysmal symptom of history. When Leni Riefenstahl, who had become a star courted by the Nazis with her documentary about the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 at the latest, came to California in December 1938, Walt Disney personally guided her through his studios. And this despite the fact that the previous month the crimes of the “Reichskristallnacht” had also made headlines in the United States.

Disney's gesture doesn't seem to have been routine politeness or ideological exception. Many of his employees have publicly distanced themselves from racist remarks by their boss and assumed that he was close to or even a member of the "German American Volksbund" sponsored by the NSDAP. On the other hand, there was the assertion of other employees, including some Afro-Americans, that Disney had impressed them as a superior who was always attentive and keen to encourage them. The apologists could point to the propaganda film "Education for Death" that their company had produced for the American government during the Battle of Stalingrad. In ten minutes of moving drawings, he told the journey of the ideologically blinded Hitler Youth, Hans, into a frenzy of destruction - and into his own death, which left no traces, no souvenirs and no relatives.

Ambiguous paternalism

After the war, Walt Disney joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, denounced colleagues before the Senate committee for "un-American activities" and impressed hardliner friends with his irreconcilable reactions to strikes in his own company, which he saw as a sign of Understood ingratitude. Because Disney wanted to be loved by his subordinates and to support them caringly in return. This fragile paternalism explains its political ambivalence between active concern for the workforce and aggressive resistance to their political actions - but also a particular vulnerability. In Hollywood, Disney was known as a shy man who hid his fears behind the friendly facade of entrepreneurial optimism typical of the time.

Under completely different, always fateful and dramatic omens, there was also a deep ambivalence through Adolf Hitler's reactions to the Disney world. While critical remarks or mild jokes about the Führer were occasionally to be tolerated in the first few years of the reign, as instructed, he imposed a strict ban on the genre of caricature and on the showing of cartoons in German cinemas. He officially disgraced the Mickey Mouse figure as a "degenerate dancing idiot". At the same time, the Ministry of Propaganda was under pressure from orders from the Reich Chancellery to establish a separate German genre of animated film. Goebbels did not succeed in this until the end of his life.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in Zurich

rs. · The Romance scholar and philosopher Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has been teaching at Stanford University since 1989. What did the professor who introduced the tech students Diderot and Heidegger learn himself? And how are these students changing the world right now? His new book will be published soon, in which he describes and reflects on his experiences in California: «The world spirit in Silicon Valley. Living and thinking in the future mode »(NZZ Libro, 2018).

What makes the mutual fascination of Disney and Hitler so surprising has to do with our own standard premises. We associate the visual, narrative and, of course, musical tonality of the Disney films with a golden-pedagogical gaze in which even adults like to sunbathe, while the historical memory of National Socialism stands for the highest consequence in the industrialization of killing. It is not easy to find a common matrix between such extremes that helps to understand the sympathy between National Socialism and the Disney world.

The unsaved characters

For most of his films, Walt Disney chose specifications that Adolf Hitler liked - or would have liked. The fairy tale of Snow White came from the “Folk and Household Tales” collection of the Brothers Grimm, published in 1812, which, as an alleged mirror of the German soul, was high in the Nazis' canons. But other fabrics, which they found no less liking, had no German origin. Instead, the decisive factor was their convergence in the mood that is called “bittersweet” in English. We experience their protagonists as marked by a difficult fate - but also as unable to free themselves from it. Therefore, they awaken in the imagination of the reader or viewer the impulse of acts of redemption, through which one can bind the victims of fate to oneself in gratitude and submission. Snow White is a princess who lives in the black shadow of the lust for murder of a stepmother who is as jealous as she is overpowering.

The ore-digging dwarfs, with whom the beautiful girl finds protection and affection, are vertically defeated by fate - but without any hope to redemption through a belated growth spurt. It was precisely on these that Hitler concentrated in the rediscovered drawings - and this could have reflected his dominant relationship to the social environment. Because much of the socialism of the National Socialist German Workers' Party lay in a fatherly friendliness towards loyal supporters and admirers who (like the dwarfs from "Snow White") no longer had any chance of advancement and therefore could never again become rivals for power: especially towards them World war veterans, but also to mothers whose lives had been consumed in pregnancies (and who were decorated with gold maternity badges), or to men and women who had bypassed all opportunities for education and training.

The motive of fascism

Myths of redemption were at the beginning of all European fascisms. For example the myth of the unredeemed, supposedly Italian regions ("terre irredente"), which were "occupied" by the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire and later by Yugoslavia, founded after 1918 and protected by the Western Allies, first to be recognized by the writer Gabriele D. 'Annunzio and soon to be reclaimed by Benito Mussolini; and above all the legend of the conspiratorial "stab in the dagger" against the "undefeated" German army in the world war, whose revenge the former corporal Adolf Hitler promised to carry out in a new world war.

The motif recurs in all Disney films that have become classic: in “Pinocchio” with the wooden marionette who wants to be a real boy - and in the end it will (1940); in “Dumbo” and the story of the little elephant with the big big ears who lost his mother at an early age (1941); or in “Bambi” (1942), the fawn threatened by hunters, who will also soon become an orphan and yet will succeed his father as “King of the Forests”. Ultimately, Adolf Hitler died too early to take in "Peter Pan" (1954) - and to feel an impulse of sympathy for the "lost boys" who were living without redemption.

Dreamers like him and Disney have envisioned collective happiness after salvation as a hierarchical paradise. Beautiful Snow White had to and could rely on the prince, who kissed her awake and led her back into the world of palaces. But the cute dwarfs would remain dwarfs forever and therefore deserve a - risk-free, condescending - sympathy; just as the Disney employees should always be employees that Walt wanted to make a living; and just as the Germans would have lived on after a victory in World War II with gratitude looking up to Hitler. The line of the Disney characters hugs this view of the others who are in need of protection and support even after an event of redemption.

Neither Geli Raubal nor Eva Braun, the two - much younger - women in Adolf Hitler's life, he loved with as much affection as the shepherd Blondi, to whose "loyalty" there was no alternative because she could not go from animal to human . He named one of Blondi's puppies Wolf, which he used to address himself to his friends.

On April 29, 1945, the day of Hitler's wedding to Eva Braun, he had Blondi killed with a cyanide capsule - and was "inconsolable" for the remaining forty hours of his life. To this day, the nation, to which Adolf Hitler believed himself bound as savior, decorates its sunny front gardens with garden gnomes, cousins ​​of the dwarfs from "Snow White". The Disney dwarfs, however, are less embarrassing because we only like to have them in the dark of the cinema and for an hour and a half.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is professor emeritus for literary studies at Stanford University and author of numerous books, his latest being “Weltgeist in Silicon Valley” (NZZ Libro, 2018).