The Disney Conspiracy, Part III – Walt Disney and the Nazis

The original Jewish peddler scene in 'Three Little Pigs'

The original Jewish peddler scene in ‘Three Little Pigs’

Let’s settle this once and for all. In 2014, Meryl Streep gave a speech accusing Disney of being a racist and an anti-Semite. I dealt with the racism accusations in The Disney Conspiracy, Part II. Now let’s look at Walt Disney’s feelings towards the Jews, and whether he really was an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathiser.

Disney’s grandniece Abigail Disney supported what Meryl Streep said about Disney being anti-Jew. This is his actual grandniece. So we should believe her, right? She ought to know. Right?

Not necessarily. I demonstrated in my last Disney conspiracy article that Abigail Disney doesn’t really know what she’s talking about when it comes to her great uncle. And she was born in 1960. Walt died in 1966. She cannot claim any first-hand experience of his attitudes, beliefs and work practices.

Still, it seems a lot of young people these days – including a friend of mine – subscribe to the notion that Walt Disney was pro-Nazi and hated the Jews. Where does this come from?

Disney’s affiliations with pro-Nazis

In 1938, Walt Disney welcomed German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood to promote her film, Olympia. Riefenstahl was a friend to Adolf Hitler and known for producing documentaries that glorified the Nazis. When this knowledge reached Hollywood, all the main studios refused to screen her movies – apart from Disney.

Pro-Nazi - Leni Riefenstahl

Pro-Nazi – Leni Riefenstahl

It’s a stretch to say that this is evidence that Disney was pro-Nazi. At most, it’s evidence that he was simply ignorant. Three months after her visit, Disney claimed that he did not know about her Nazi-glorifying works when he issued the invitation. He decided not to work with her again for fear of it damaging his reputation.

Disney animator and Goofy creator Art Babbitt, who was Jewish, accused Walt of being a Nazi follower or sympathiser in the 30s. He claimed to have seen Disney and his lawyer attending meetings of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organisation in the late 30s. However, while nobody knows what these meetings were about, some have theorised that Disney’s interest in the organisation was about forging good business relationships with Germany, i.e. for distributing his films there.

And Disney biographer Neal Gabler, the first writer to be given unrestricted access to the Disney archives, questions Babbitt’s story about these meetings ever having happened. (Babbitt was known for having a deep dislike of Walt Disney and there were a number of feuds and legal disputes between him and the studio.) Gabler said that Disney had no time for political meetings, nor did he have much interest in politics.

So was Disney pro-Nazism? Despite the lack of evidence, a lot of people still think that he was. The rumours have been flying about for a long time and are linked with the accusations that he hated Jewish people (which I’ll come onto in a moment). “Walt Disney Nazi” and “Walt Disney was a Nazi” are among the most searched for Walt Disney-related terms on Google.

But the ‘evidence’ above does not demonstrate that Disney allied himself with the Nazi party. In fact, while there is no concrete evidence that Disney was pro-Nazi, there is evidence that he was anti-Nazi. After all, he made several anti-Nazi propaganda films during World War II, including Education for Death and Donald Duck cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face, both of which criticised and parodied the Nazis and Hitler.

Disney and the Jews

Over the years, unfounded rumours, ignorant animation choices and the odd ill-thought-out remark have been exaggerated and blown out of proportion. They’ve been cultivated into a fully-fledged theory that Walt Disney hated the Jews.

Jewish animator David Swift said that when he told Walt that he was leaving the Disney Studio to go and work for Columbia Pictures, Disney responded, feigning a Yiddish accent, “Okay, Davy boy, off you go to work for those Jews. It’s where you belong, with those Jews.” From what I can tell, this seems to have been nothing more than an inappropriate joke. Swift returned to work for Disney in 1945, and said later that he “owed everything” to Disney. When he left the studio again in the 50s, Disney said to him, “There is still a candle burning in the window if you ever want to come back.”

Animator Ward Kimball also said in a 1986 interview, “Walt was prone to remarks about Jews, I guess like everyone else.” Similarly, Disney was known for using the odd racist slur in story meetings. But as I argued in my previous article, and as pointed out by Kimball, the words Disney used were the same words used by everyone else. Disney was the product of a racially insensitive time, and like many people, he was ignorant of other cultures and belief systems, and naively went along with the stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. Ignorance and hatred are not the same things.

Disney’s association with a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals – an anti-Semitic organisation – is another reason for the allegations levelled at him. This is what Meryl Streep referred to when she accused Disney of being an anti-Semite last year. In his article, Fact Checking Meryl Streep’s Disney-Bashing Speech, Amid Amidi points out that although the group did contain anti-Semites, and did earn itself an anti-Semitic reputation, it did not start out as an inherently anti-Semitic organisation. Rather, its mission statement said that it was dedicated to fighting fascism in Hollywood. Amidi also points out that Walt’s reasons for joining it were nothing to do with anti-Semitism…

“Disney’s actions speak powerfully to the notion that his involvement in the group was to settle personal scores against those whom he felt had wronged him, and never an ideological stance against Jews.”

Finally there’s the issue of the Jewish stereotypes that appeared in a few of Disney’s cartoons. In the original version of Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler, and in The Opry House, Mickey Mouse is dressed as a Hasidic Jew. But these kinds of stereotypes were appearing in all cartoons from all studios at that time. They’re not evidence that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite and hated Jews, just that he was ignorant of Jewish culture – just like everyone else in Hollywood.

The fact is, there is no evidence that Disney ever displayed any animosity towards Jewish people. On the contrary, there is more evidence for the opposite. Disney was known for donating regularly to Jewish charities. Artist Joe Grant noted that “some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish”. In fact, head of marketing Herman Kamen – himself a Jew – joked that Disney’s New York office “had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus”. And among the many Jews who worked for Disney were the Sherman Brothers, who composed the songs for films like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book; Robert B. Sherman said he saw no evidence of any anti-Semitism during the seven years he worked closely with Walt.

Biographers Katherine and Richard Greene said that after a decade of research into Walt Disney, looking carefully at letters and memos and having conversations with reliable sources, they could find no evidence that Disney harboured a dislike of Jews. And they were both Jewish themselves. They pointed out that in 1955, the B’nai B’rith chapter in Beverly Hills – a Jewish organisation committed to protecting the Jewish community and combating anti-Semitism – named Walt Disney their ‘Man of the Year’. The Greenes said it was “hardly an award likely to presented to an anti-Semite.”

Most researchers have concluded that the long-held belief that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite is a myth. Just like the allegations that he was a racist. People simply don’t want to believe that this enormously influential individual, who built the most successful entertainment empire in the world, was actually a nice guy. They’re determined to find Disney’s ‘dark side’. They’re determined to dig up skeletons in his closet.

Sorry folks. There aren’t any.

Next week: the curse of The Omen

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19 thoughts on “The Disney Conspiracy, Part III – Walt Disney and the Nazis

  1. That may indeed all be true. BUT ignorance IS a type of prejudice and racism. So this all sounds like a rationalization for his attitudes, based on ignorance that ARE/WERE actually antisemitic. Just as many today who make jokes, cartoons, of otherwise similar comments about Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese, etc. etc. Just because someone does not HATE another group does not mean they are not racist, prejudiced etc. It’s benevolent racism is still racism, ike the slave owners who were kind to their slaves or the “great white god” who arrives to save (and convert) the natives. Get over it, he was anti-semmitic, just not bull of hate!!

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    • Ignorance and prejudice are not the same things. We’re all ignorant about something. Ignorance is just lack of knowledge or information, and there are lots of cultures across the world that I know nothing about. Prejudice on the other hand is having a pre-conceived notion about someone or something based on ignorance.

      And yes, there is some evidence of some prejudice in the animation choices that Disney made. But you can’t make such a sweeping statement as to call him anti-Semitic. The very nature of the word “anti-Semitic” implies a dislike or hatred of Jews. I guess it depends how you interpret the term, but in my opinion it is far too strong a word to use and the evidence is just not there to support it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow…I guess some people believe that just because Dr.Hucstable played such a beautiful human on tv couldn’t possibly bring truth to he fact hat he raped women. I love Disney, my childhood blessed because of some of his creations. This does not however, make me fall away from the truth that his portrayal of Jews was indeed racist sir. Watch a few ARCHIE bunkers…laugh and chuckle because he truly was funny. Ignorant to the fact that the entire show was racist. “No way that show was so cool” indeed..but racist it was. Just because you enjoy Disneyland doesn’t been you hate Jews. But yes bud…a racist Disney was;)

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      • With all due respect, that was a fairly pointless comment to make. Did you actually read my article?

        If you did you’ll know that I looked objectively at the evidence, and it does not support the allegation that Disney was a racist.

        You present no evidence of your own and without any, your comment is – again respectfully – meaningless.

        Peace and love 😄

        Liked by 1 person

      • Not “bull” of hate, huh? You know, EVERYONE ought to get over their ignorant prejudices–including you. Saying “Great White God” is every bit as bad….and every bit as ignorant. I agree with Mr. Berry. And I also think Walt’s memory should be left in peace, I mean if that’s not too much trouble. Don’t we–as a world full of people–have enough problems to worry about? Why don’t we take some of that energy and focus on making the world a better place while we’re still in it?

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    • But the point is did he hate jews? No. he was just a hillbilly from Alabama in the 20’s so he was racist and inappropriate about things but he didn’t hate anyone

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    • The point of the article was that Disney attitudes were probably based on ignorance rather than blatant racism. You can’t compare social norms of the 1930’s to today.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Not “bull” of hate, huh? You know, EVERYONE ought to get over their ignorant prejudices–including you. Saying “Great White God” is every bit as bad….and every bit as ignorant.

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  2. It seems that the very pro-Semitic publication “Jerusalem Post” concurs with your assessment, Mr. Berry. At this point, anyone in disagreement should stand on better evidence rather than take offense at ages-old racial stupidity. Hitler and his Nazis were anti-Semitic, not Walt Disney… a man that mocked the former for their ideals and behavior in regards to blatant racism and fascism.

    Good write-up and keep up the fantastic blogging 🙂

    http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Culture/No-truth-in-claim-that-Walt-Disney-was-an-anti-Semite-410965

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  3. The one who played Glenda the good witch on the Wizard of Oz which used to be my favorite movie as a child really ruined it for me when I read a biography on Josephine Baker. It said that a lot of people heard of her but did not know she was black, so when they were both on a ship headed for the US Glenda was told that Josephine was aboard and she insisted she sit at her table. When Josephine came to meet her she refused to shake her hand and walked right by her as if she wasn’t there. I told a white woman about this and she said “Oh give her a break, it was just the times” Ok that line bugs me because that means that in those times people just were cruel and heartless? They did not have home training? No that was just plainly hatred. How could it be ignorant to not extend your hand to someone who extended theirs to you? Upon saying that I just saw a 2 part bio on Walt Disney on PBS and it is hard to believe that he like this article said had the time or heart for such matters. He was a man with his head in the clouds. He saw the world as an idealized place and any idealized place has no place for such insanity. In fact I do not remember that part in the 3 pigs. I know I saw it but I was a kid I did not think that anyone was hating anyone. I guess that was why his work was aimed at children, they do not have the minds to see such things.

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    • Karen – the reason you probably don’t remember the Jewish Peddler in The Three Little Pigs is that they changed the scene upon its reissue in 1948 to the Fuller Brush Man without the drawn stereotypes. Basically, by that point – I’m sure in great part to the events of WWII – Disney recognized the insensitivity of the scene, though the new scene was still somewhat insensitive in that the accent was still Yiddish-like. A subsequent reissue redubbed the lines to be without the accent.

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  4. Social norms of the 30’s WERE racist, point blank period, and before anyone goes there, yes, I read the article and I’ve a long history of reading with comprehension. The idea that he only said what others at the time were saying doesn’t make it right. Additionally when there have been repeated instances of ” using the odd racist slur in story meetings” “ignorant animation choices and the odd ill-thought-out remark” that in itself is empirical evidence of at the very least a personal disregard for Jewish people. You can repackage it as simple ignorance but Walt Disney was not an ignorant man by any stretch of the word. In fact he was quite calculated in his business and professional affairs which gained him the notoriety he has today. There were others during his time that did not resort to these tactics an option he also had. We need to stop coddling the legacy of people who do bad things and admit and learn from their mistakes and move on. It takes nothing away from the Disney brand to admit this, as someone pointed out, we all grew up on Disney and anyone with good sense can discern the difference between the man and his work.

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    • No, what we need to stop doing is vilifying Disney when there is no evidence that he was an anti-Semite (and you haven’t presented anything here to be able to argue otherwise). It is wrong to keep labelling him as such, unless you want to label every person on the planet who has ever said something ignorant or stereotypical as a racist or an anti-Semite, historically or otherwise. This is one of the problems with today’s society. Every single word is seized upon and analysed by our ‘culture of being offended by absolutely everything’, and if the remotest flicker of un-PCness is present, that means the person who spoke it is a racist/anti-Semite/sexist/homophobe. NOT so.

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  5. I grew up in a Jewish household and was told that Disney was anti-Semitic. It wasn’t until decades later—thanks to the internet and Google—that I was able to learn that this was a myth.

    With the exception of 20th Century Fox and Disney, the rest of the studios were owned by Jews. They too portrayed Jews (and Blacks and Italians) in very stereotypical manners. It was those times. Times have changed since then.

    For an interesting look into Hollywood in those times, I recommend Neal Gabler’s book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.”

    Gabler—who is himself Jewish—wrote a biography about Walt Disney. He said that in all of his research, he never found one instance of Disney being an anti-Semite, i.e., someone who hates Jews.

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  6. Thank you for posting this. With all the thoughtless junk I’ve found on this subject this was refreshingly informative and clearly written.

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