The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the European Film Fund

Traditionally, Hollywood likes to present itself as a place, where „no war, no politics, no death made any effect.“[1] Yet, in 1933 the formation of the Screen Writers Guild had already politicized Hollywood: Professional writers and actors from Europe and the East Coast – mostly college educated ‘veterans‘ of labour battles on Broadway – had arrived in the late 1920ies and started to fight the injustices of the studio system. Their struggle occurred during the onset of one of the greatest depressions. Poverty and unemployment were highly visible in California. At the same time refugees from Nazi-Germany and its occupied territories started arriving and settled in the Los Angeles area between 1933 and the 1940s. Their fates were tangible manifestations of the ethnical and political conflicts in Europe and together with the already organized writers they called for back-up in the fight again fascim and for aiding the victims.[2]

All this had an impact on turning the film community into a centre of international consciousness and activism. Thousands of motion picture industry people responded to the appeals of the screenwriters and subsequently also to those of the refugees.[3] So especially between 1935 and 1939 „Hollywood […] did more than just worry. They organized and fought back, and the product of their labors […] turned out to be the most successful, most internationally oriented left-wing mobilization ever to occur in the United States […].”[4] This movement became known as the “Hollywood Popular Front”:

“The Popular Front was not a formal organisation to which one could subscribe or adhere […]. Rather it was a loose term applied to a functioning coalition of organisations, all of which had in common four main objectives: to press the Roosevelt administration in the direction of a world anti-fascist alliance, to aid the defenders of democracy and the victims of fascist aggression, to counter the widely perceived threat of domestic fascism, and to defeat the efforts of conservative big business to thwart the trade union movement and block the passage of social reform measures. Very soon a whole host of specific causes (the Loyalists’ struggle in the Spanish Civil War, aid to refugees, etc.) attached themselves to Popular Front organizations […].”[5]

One of the most important organizations in terms of size, activity, and money raised was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League founded in June 1936. It brought together a motley collection of political viewpoints, from Catholic Centrists to Communists. Among the founding members were Prince Hubertus von Löwenstein as well as the professional revolutionary Otto Katz (a.k.a. Rudolf Breda).[6] The league was the brainchild of a handful of leading film talents – Dorothy Parker, Donald Ogden Stewart, Fritz Lang, Frederic March and Oscar Hammerstein – and always appeared to be something of a ‘star-studded affair,’ starting off with a ‘white-tie-and-tails’-dinner at the Victor Hugo Restaurant.[7] This probably induced also conservative and cautious studio bosses like Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, Walter Wanger and even the Los Angeles Archbishop John Cantwell to declare themselves ‘sympathetic’:

„At its peak the organization probably enrolled between four and five thousand members, including, of course, many famous film personalities, but also many more humble show business employees. […] With energy, funds, volunteers, and causes to spare, the League engaged in a bewildering number of activities. […] A newspaper (Hollywood Now) […], two radio shows, […] and endless series of meetings, demonstrations, speeches, banquets, parties, and panels focusing on every conceivable fascist menace to the peace and freedom of the world. […] The league also instituted actions against the evils which their publications and spokespeople were decrying. It joined the nationwide picketing of German consolates […]; it boycotted Japanese goods […]; it picketed the convention of the American Nazi-Party held in Los Angeles; and last but not least it besieged Roosevelt with telegrams calling him to express publicly America’s horror with and its condemnation of German atrocities to sever the nation’s economic ties with the Reich […].”[8]

The Hollywood Popular Front also extended into the family of screenwriter Salka Viertel (1885–1978). She and her husband Bertold Viertel came to Hollywood in 1928 where Viertel started writing screenplays for her friend Greta Garbo and MGM in 1932.[9] She was one of the early and very active members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and friends with Donald Ogden Stewart.[10] She helped many exiled friends and family members in the ‘years of the devil’, as she called it, but she also documented first signs of ‘red-baiting‘ in connection with the league:

„The members paid their dues and very little was going on, until one day Ernst Lubitsch told me that he was withdrawing from the Anti-Nazi League because it was dominated by communists. He advised me to do the same. I begged him to reconsider. After all, the prince was certainly not a socialist, Breda was back in Germany risking his life and the Popular Front was the only way to fight Fascism. – ‘I know from a reliable source that the Reds are controlling the Anti-Nazi League,’ insisted Lubitsch and he mentioned a few names which made me laugh. – ‘But Ernst,’ I said, ‘what all these people do is to sit around their swimming pools and talking about movies, while the wives complain about their Filipino butlers.’ – ‘I am only warning you,’ he said. ‘I’m getting out.’ – ‘And I am staying.’”[11]

Such allegations were nothing new or unique with regard to Popular Front movements, but they gained weight after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, that initiated the decline of the Popular Front in 1939/40, and started having serious consequences in 1947.[12]

Salka Viertel is also one of the few people remembering another organization, founded in 1938 in the spirit of the Hollywood Popular Front as a Non-Profit Organisation with the aim to help exiles from Nazism: The European Film Fund/European Relief Fund.[13]

„All Europeans who had jobs in the studio gave one percent of their weekly salary to the Fund. American writers, among them Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Alan Campell, Samuel Hoffenstein, Sam N. Behrman, Donald Ogden Stewart, Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz, and others contributed. And after the war broke out they were also most generous in giving affidavits.”[14]

The actress Charlotte Dieterle-Hagenbruch, Liesl Frank (daughter of the operetta star Fritzi Massary) and Hollywood agent Paul Kohner came up with the idea and organized the escape and admission of quite a few European artists and members of the film community. The Fund collected and distributed money (for affidavits etc.) and tried to provide refugees with jobs in the film industry that were not well paid but preconditions for getting visa in the first place. People like Heinrich Mann, Leonhard Frank, Alfred Döblin, Ludwig Marcuse, Walter Mehring and Ernst Lothar benefited from the European Film Fund, but also less well-known persons such as Wilhelm Speyer or Hans G. Lustig. Michael Curtiz und William Wyler are often named as especially generous donators. Such was Ernst Lubitsch who additionally acted as president of the still widely unknown European Film Fund.[15]

[1] Hugh Walpole in: John Baxter, The Hollywood Exiles, London 1976, 160,172.
[2] Larry Ceplair/Steven Englund: The Inquisition in Hollywood. Politics in the Film Community, 1930–60, Chicago 2003, pp. 16–46.
[3] Ib.
[4] Ib., p. 98.
[5] Ib., pp. 99–100.
[6] ErikaMann/Klaus Mann: Escape to Life. Deutsche Kultur im Exil, München 1991, pp. 331–347.
[7] Ceplair/Englund: Inquisition (footnote 2), pp. 104–105.
[8] Larry Ceplair / Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood. Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60, Chicago 2003, pp. 108–109.
[9] Salka Viertel: The Kindness of Strangers, New York u. a. 1969, p. 211; Katharina Prager, „Ich bin nicht gone Hollywood!“ Salka Viertel – ein Leben in Theater und Film, Wien 2007.
[10] Donald Ogden Stewart, By a Stroke of Luck!, London 1975, p. 227.
[11] Viertel: Kindness (footnote 9), p. 211.
[12] Already in the summer 1938 the Texan politician Martin Dies came to Hollywood to look into the „Un-American Activities“ of the Anti-Nazi League.
[13] See: http://kuenste-im-exil.de/KIE/Content/DE/Themen/european-film-fund.html and https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Film_Fund, accessed August 16th, 2015.
[14] Salka Viertel, The Kindness of Strangers, New York u. a. 1969, 217.
[15] Martin Sauter, Liesl Frank, Charlotte Dieterle and the European Film Fund, Doctoral Dissertation, German Department, Warwick University, 2010. Helmut G. Asper: Etwas besseres als den Tod… – Filmexil in Hollywood, Marburg 2002, 236–249; Cornelius Schnauber, Spaziergänge durch das Hollywood der Emigranten, Zürich 1992, pp. 47–48; Gundolf S. Freyermuth, Reise in die Verlorengegangenheit. Auf den Spuren deutscher Emigranten (1933-1940), Hamburg 1990.

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Zeithistorikerin und Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaftlerin. Forschungsbereiche: Biographie (Online); Wien 1900 (Karl Kraus, Berthold Viertel); Exil in Hollywood (Salka Viertel); Rewriting History Projects (Geschlechtergeschichte, Gerda Lerner).

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