In his new book Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, Steven J. Ross, professor of history at the University of Southern California, uncovers a riveting and terrifying chapter of Nazi American history. According to Ross, the economic effects of the Great Depression played a vital role in solidifying Nazi influence in the United States. The nation was disgruntled. The mass unemployment and deep cuts to Veterans’ benefits created abounding affinities with Nazi and fascist rhetoric. Additionally, the rampant anti-Semitism juxtaposed to the influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee helped incite fear and hatred.
Distracted by the Red Scare, US law enforcement and prominent politicians were more concerned with tracking communists instead of Nazis. This negligence spurred attorney Leon L. Lewis to create a systematic spy ring and proactive resistance effort to quell the Nazi threat. Throughout the text the author is able to weave together dense historical details to create an electrifying tone. Ross has a flair for thriller-writing and this history is a captivating read.
Ross depicts two equally nefarious plots. First, he demonstrates how Nazi and other fascist groups were actively organizing and plotting terrorist attacks against Jews. For example, Lewis received reports that “twenty targeted men — Jews and politicians who support them — would be kidnapped and hanged in a grove…” (152). The second design identified specific organizations, such as the Friends of New Germany (FNG), the Silver Shirts, and the American Nationalist Party, who attempted to integrate National Socialist ideologies into American principles. Ross establishes in the prologue that Los Angeles was an ideal site for Nazi propagation because of Hollywood. Both Hitler and Goebbels understood the power of film to relay messages to a widespread audience. They identified Hollywood as a potential propaganda machine “that was central to their efforts to win over the American public and the world to their cause” (3). Ross relies on his expertise in film history and the Jewish role in American culture to fully unpack the impact these hate groups had on ordinary people.
In this history Ross deftly examines the biographical background for each person, such as Lewis. He and his undercover agents were untrained, severely underfunded, and ignored by almost anyone with political influence. Yet Lewis believed that he and his operatives could vanquish Nazi influence. At one point Lewis knew he needed more money and the support from the apogees of influence. So he assembled “forty of Hollywood’s most powerful studio heads, producers, and directors — men such as Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Jack Warner” (67) and frightened them into supporting the mission.
Another equally interesting player was Georg Gyssling, the German general consul to Los Angeles. His primary occupation was to identify and dissuade Hollywood execs from using implicit and explicit anti-Nazi discourses in films. From his physical appearance to the fact that he was dispatched by Goebbels, Gyssling seemed like the archetypical Nazi. Due to Ross’ deep investigation, readers learn that Gyssling’s motivations were nuanced and complicated. As Ross asks “Who was Georg Gyssling? This was a question that puzzled Lewis and local Nazi’s alike… the consul was a man with secrets — a man who led two lives” (123). Readers cannot trust any of these players; they were duplicitous operatives who had their own secretive aspirations. Their character development makes Hitler in Los Angeles enthralling.
Ross is careful to demonstrate that infiltration by Nazi groups was not just in Los Angeles but rather throughout the country. More so the infiltration efforts were massive to the extent that the FNG recruited “the city’s 150,000 Germans, 17,000 Poles, ad 13,000 Austrians, as well as the area’s tens of thousands of unemployed” (15). As Captain Robert Pape, the local leader of the FNG and active Nazi party member expressed “What ‘Hitler has done for the German nation, he could do for America'” (34). To uncover this harrowing chapter of history, Ross relies on primary sources thereby avoiding speculation or sensationalization.
Although the text is engaging, it’s a dense read. As an academic historian, it’s clear that Ross used a comprehensive research methodology. Frequently these details enrich the text, for example when he uses dialogue acquired from the primary sources. But often the details can be overwhelming. I had trouble remembering which agent’s real name aligned with the correct code name and sometimes I couldn’t decipher the sequence of events. At the end of the book there is a “Guide to Spies, Nazis, and Fascists” (342) but I only found this source once I completed the text. By including an abundance of historical details Ross establishes the context for his audience; such as “American newspapers, however, were more focused on the pending repeal of Prohibition and the hunt to find the kidnappers who had murdered aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s one-year-old son” (47).
Ross demonstrates the definite overlap between Hitler’s rise to power and the disturbing social currents in America that the Nazis contributed to. This is an important and compelling text about American history and provides a general understanding of how global affairs impact domestic culture. Hitler in Los Angeles is crammed with twists and turns involving double-agents, movie stars, and big-time studio moguls. Netflix needs to turn Hitler in Los Angeles into a television series.