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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Lam­beth Walk—Nazi Style: The Ear­ly Pro­pa­gan­da Mash Up That Enraged Joseph Goebbels

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

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

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Comments (13)
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  • PacRim Jim says:

    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.

  • PapayaSF says:

    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.

  • Patrick Carroll says:

    Some­where in hell, Wal­ter Duran­ty is smil­ing.

  • Bill Peschel says:

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

  • Gilligan says:

    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.

  • 5ftflirt says:

    “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.

  • sorb says:

    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.

  • Fred Z says:

    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.

  • Dan Colman says:

    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.


  • Ed says:

    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?

  • Josh Jones says:

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

  • James Solbakken says:

    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.

  • Matt Moore says:

    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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