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.