Rediscovered: The First American Anti-Nazi Film, Banned by U.S. Censors and Forgotten for 80 Years

On March 5, 1933, Germany held its last democratic elections until the end of WWII, and the National Socialists gained a plurality in the Reichstag, with 43.9% of the vote and 288 seats. This event paved the way for the Enabling Act later that month, which effectively empowered Hitler as dictator. It would seem in hindsight that this turn—with all its attendant violence, coercion, and hysterical nationalist rhetoric—might have alarmed the Western powers. And yet the opposite was true.

At least one newsman was alarmed, however. And on the day of the 1933 elections, he gained a brief audience with the future Fuhrer. That man was Cornelius “Neil” Vanderbilt IV, great-great-grandson of the railroad tycoon. Fed up with the malaise of his privileged peers, Vanderbilt had moved to journalism from his position as a driver during the First World War. His name gave him access to Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler, whose impending Reich became the subject of Vanderbilt’s documentary film, called Hitler’s Reign of Terror, released on April 30, 1934, a short portion of which you can see above.

The New Yorker obtained the clip from Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty, who rediscovered the film in a Belgian archive while researching a recent book. Vanderbilt’s documentary might well be the first American anti-Nazi film, but its contemporary reception speaks volumes about how criticism of the new Nazi regime was suppressed in the mid-thirties; the film was censored across the U.S., denied a license, and banned.

What Vanderbilt saw first-hand and chronicled in his film is mild in comparison to what was to come. Nevertheless, his take was prescient. He describes his anxious but partially successful endeavor to smuggle footage across the German border, prefacing the story by saying “there isn’t money enough in Hollywood to get me to go through it again.” (The scene above is a reenactment, as is, quite obviously, the scene of Vanderbilt’s meeting with Hitler.) Asked about his impressions of Hitler, Vanderbilt has this to say:

Unquestionably he is a man of real ability, of force. But the way I sized him up after interviewing him is that he is a strange combination of Huey Long, Billy Sunday, and Al Capone…. I had never heard a man so able to sway people…. In the hour and a half that Hitler talked to that packed audience that night, he was as effective as a barker in a sideshow traveling with a circus.

Vanderbilt says above that the rising Nazi tide, “demanded revenge” and would not rest until they had it, to which his interviewer responds, “It all seems a ghastly, incredible nightmare.” Vanderbilt’s vision seemed like a sensationalistic fever dream to his critics as well.

Read the full story of the film over at The New Yorker’s Culture Desk.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness



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  1. PacRim Jim says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 12:05 pm

    The context was that the largest ethnic group in America was and is Germans, and however execrable the pro-Hitler sentiment, Hitler made most Germans proud again, and American politicians needed their votes.
    American principles are one thing, but American politicians care more about American votes.

  2. PapayaSF says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 12:30 pm

    The German-American vote may have been part of it, but don’t forget the larger political context. The US and much of the world was in a depression, capitalism and even democracy were often seen to be outmoded and inefficient, and the Soviet Union was frightening to many (with good reason). The dangers of communism were already known, and at the time the dangers of fascism seemed comparatively minor, being largely in the future. A “modern” anti-communist dictator in Germany didn’t seem like the worst possible thing at the time.

  3. Patrick Carroll says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 12:56 pm

    Somewhere in hell, Walter Duranty is smiling.

  4. Bill Peschel says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 12:58 pm

    Fascism also had the reputation of making the trains run on time and rebuilding the economy. Hence the love for them.

  5. Gilligan says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 2:42 pm

    There is also the fact that FDR was first elected not that long before and he had spoken rather approvingly of Mussolini. FDR was a script consultant for the movie “Gabriel over the White House” which pretty openly advocates fascism.

  6. 5ftflirt says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 3:56 pm

    “Unquestionably he is a man of real ability, of force. But the way I sized him up after interviewing him is that he is a strange combination of Huey Long, Billy Sunday, and Al Capone…. I had never heard a man so able to sway people…. In the hour and a half that Hitler talked to that packed audience that night, he was as effective as a barker in a sideshow traveling with a circus.”

    At the risk of invoking a reverse Godwin ….. that sounds like the guy in the White House now. In fact when I first saw him speak I thought Huey Long, and I thought Americans would never go for that kind of charismatic demagoguery on a national scale.

  7. sorb says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 4:25 pm

    Did Vanderbilt ever do a film on the Soviet reign of terror? They had killed many millions before AH was appointed chancellor. The Holodomor, for example, took place in 1932-33.

  8. Fred Z says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 5:13 pm

    Are we yet able to admit that FDR was himself a fascist? As fascistic as possible for the America of the day. He was as much a command and control freak as Hitler and Stalin, he just couldn’t acquire the same power, though he certainly tried.

  9. Dan Colman says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 8:12 pm

    Just a heads up, if you’re going to compare American presidents, whether Democrat or Republican to Hitler, I’m going to delete the comment. This is an educational website; it’s not a site that’s interested in being a platform for ill-informed partisan rants. So if that’s what you’re interested in, take your act elsewhere. And don’t waste minutes writing something that I will delete in a second.

    Thanks,
    Dan

  10. Ed says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 9:25 pm

    Should we be surprised that a progressive US government suppressed any information about a movement that was obviously the opposite of what the Founders proposed? Look at how they treat any accurate description of things like communism and fascism even today. And don’t even try to accurately describe what the radical Islamic movements are about today, you may end up facing charges.
    What ever happened to the guy who made the video that didn’t cause Benghazi?

  11. Josh Jones says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 10:28 pm

    I find the political paranoia this post has provoked quite alarming. Too many shades of Hofstadter.

  12. James Solbakken says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 9:51 am

    The thing about modern tyrants seems to be that, whereas the ambitious used to murder in order to obtain power, commies and fascists seek power so that they can murder en masse and get away with it.

  13. Matt Moore says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 9:42 pm

    So that’s Anderson Coopers Grandfather? Granduncle? Very Cool. Good Stuff! Down with Nazism! Down with Fascism! Down with Communism! Down with Theocracies! Down with Tyranny!

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