Walt Disney and the Jews
By Robert Liftig, EdD
“Saving Mr. Banks” – the newly released film about the making of “Mary Poppins” – paints a warm and fuzzy portrait of the late animation giant Walt Disney. But what the film, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson (a darling of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – BDS – movement, by the way), doesn’t touch on is the lovable “Uncle Walt’s” not so lovable attitude towards the Jewish people. Robert Liftig sets the record straight.
“I once made the mistake of asking Walt a question … and he replied by saying, ‘Let me check that with my Jew.’” Peter Bart (Editor, Variety)
Walt Disney looked just like my Uncle Max, so I never missed his show at 7 p.m. on Sunday evenings. I especially enjoyed the end, when former German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun would make a kindly appearance and take apart a model rocket and put it together again, and then explain how something like this could take “us” to the moon someday. Wernher was the “Friendly Dutch Uncle” I never had: twinkled of eye, deft of hand, and filled with fantastic ideas about “our” fabulous future in the final frontier. Disney, who personally introduced each of his shows, often used my Dutch Uncle to close them. They must be pals, I thought. Maybe Disney was Jewish too.
One Sunday evening my Dad ambled through the living room just as Uncle Wernher was chattering in his heavy Reichish accent: “That guy was a damn Nazi,” Dad said. “His rockets bombed England. He would have bombed us too, if he had the chance. Now he’s on American TV and you’re watching him! Unbelievable! Who’s this Disney guy, really?”
Dad was a World War II veteran, and knew these things before other people knew them.
It wasn’t until Walt Disney died in 1966, that rumors of his antisemitism began to circulate, and they are debated even today all over the Internet. Though it has never been claimed by anyone that Disney was a Nazi, even his acolytes stop short of portraying him as just another pre-War, Midwestern White Bread kid who might – wouldn’t anyone? – feel awkward attending a friend’s bar mitzvah.
Here are some fairly hard facts about the man who invented the “Magic Kingdom.”
In 1938 Disney welcomed German filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood to promote her film “Olympia.” Even after news of Kristallnacht broke, Disney did not cancel his invitation, and met with her.
In the 1940s, Disney joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-Communist and antisemitic organization.
Even the Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges that Disney had “difficult relationships” with Jews, and that ethnic stereotypes can be seen in his early films, including: “Three Little Pigs” (in which the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a Jewish peddler) and “The Opry House” (in which Mickey Mouse is dressed and dances like a Chasidic Jew.)
Many of Disney’s attempts at Jewish stereotyping had to be edited out by more objective minds. (Stephen Propatier says, “In the original short ‘Three Little Pigs’, the Big Bad Wolf is dressed as a Jewish peddler attempting to fool the little pigs. It was excised from the film after its release drew criticism, and was re-animated, so that the Wolf would be a Fuller Brush Man. Albeit one with a Yiddish accent, plus the nose, glasses and beard disguise also remained.”)
Disney associated with pro-Nazi Fritz Kuhn, a leader of the German American Bund prior to World War II, who became a naturalized United States citizen in 1934, but had his citizenship revoked in 1943 and, two years later, was deported, and there are sourced claims that Disney attended German American Bund meetings.
Disney was said to be prone to making antisemitic remarks.
Disney is considered to be among those non-Jewish pioneers of the movie industry – including Edison – who believed that Jews were making big profits from what essentially were their inventions (both Edison and Disney felt they had been undercut by the Jewish movie producer and distributor Carl Laemmel). Disney was considered part of the cult that believed: “The Jews Are Taking Over Hollywood.”
When the U.S. Army contacted Disney early in World War II and asked him to join the wartime propaganda effort, Disney accepted, but said he had been forced to by “that Jew” Morgenthau who wanted Disney to use Mickey Mouse to deliver films that supported the war effort.
Then there is the Disney outreach to Wernher von Braun – at a most important juncture in the ex-Nazi’s resurrection as “All American Hero.” Von Braun, a former SS-Sturmbannführer (Major), was the guy my Dad said created the V-2 rocket – which he did; and which did – Dad was right again – bomb England.
Having surrendered to the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, von Braun was “sanitized” by our grateful government (grateful that the Russians didn’t get him first), then was settled near Fr. Bliss near El Paso, Texas where he lived with his German cousin-wife, began work on American missile systems, and, in 1955, became a U.S. citizen and a consultant to Walt Disney and the Disney Studios as technical director for films about space exploration. Shortly thereafter, my former Dutch Uncle was named the first director of NASA.
In 2014, Walt Disney will be lionized on the silver screen in “Saving Mr. Banks,” a film starring Tom Hanks, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But when you head out the door to your local moving picture emporium, you may want to take along a copy of this article, and post it on the wall beside the ticket booth.
Antisemite Rating: 8 (out of a possible 15)
Dr. Robert A. Liftig is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fairfield University and a freelance writer. He lives in Westport.