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How Hitler's fascism almost took hold in Los Angeles

Hitler didn’t have to set foot out of Germany for his malign plans to be felt beyond the Reich’s borders — even here in Los Angeles. Through the depths of the Depression right into World War II, Nazi Germany was ginning up support in Southern California, where its agents plotted everything from attacks on National Guard armories to murdering Hollywood’s Jewish moguls and filmmakers.

USC history professor Steven J. Ross has unearthed the story of sunshine Nazism, from picnic rallies in a La Crescenta park to a compound planned for Pacific Palisades as Hitler’s White House on the Pacific. Ross’ book, “Hitler in Los Angeles, How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots against Hollywood and America,” is part thriller and all chiller, about how close the California Reich came to succeeding.

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Why was Los Angeles, way out here on the West Coast, so important to the Nazis in the 1930s?

Because everyone sees New York as kind of the center of Jewish activity, and so did the Nazis. But they also understood that the mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, was a very vehement anti-Nazi. As many people may not know, he was half-Jewish. And he had the ports of New York, which the Nazis referred to as “Jew York,” very closely guarded.

In L.A., however, we had a long history of anti-Semitism, racism, Ku Klux Klan activities and right-wing demagogues. And the port was never monitored. And so the Nazis were able to send their ships to L.A., and on every ship there always a Gestapo officer. When they would dock in L.A., the head of the [German-American group] Bund here would go down to the docks and receive money, propaganda and secret orders from Germany.

The hero of your story is a man named Leon Lewis. He was a World War I veteran. He was co-founder of the Anti-Defamation League. Who was he, and how did he fall into this work?

He moved to L.A. around 1931. Hitler becomes chancellor, Reich chancellor of Germany, in January 1933, and this idea that Jews didn’t do anything is totally wrong. What I discovered is that Jews did a lot.

For months they were debating between the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee: wouldn’t we be more effective in getting in Hitler’s face? The other side of the debate argued if you got in Hitler’s face it would only force him to double down, that he was never going to back down, and it would increase the persecution of Jews.

By killing Hollywood Jews...the idea was this news is going to go throughout the world and it’s going to incite pogroms throughout America.

Well, that debate kept going on, back and forth and back and forth. In the meantime, in late July 1933, Nazis hold their first public meeting in Los Angeles, and they’re dressed in brown shirts, swastikas and doing the Hitler salute and openly saying we are here as Hitler’s advocates to America.

At that point, Leon Lewis said enough’s enough. As a World War I veteran, he went right down Figueroa to what’s now called Bob Hope Patriotic Hall. He went and recruited four fellow veterans who were all members of the Disabled American Veterans of World War I — three Christians, one Jew and their wives.

And they agreed to go undercover and join every Nazi and fascist group in L.A. and report back to Leon Lewis. And that started the beginning of a spy operation.

Official New York was on alert. That wasn’t necessarily the case in Southern California, as Leon Lewis found out when he tried to go to the police, when he tried to go to the Sheriff’s Department and say look what’s going on here.

Exactly. What Lewis discovered was the opposite of New York. Not only were the police unconcerned, but they were sympathetic to the Nazi Silver Shirts, who were the American fascists. I have records of Leon Lewis going in to talk to [Los Angeles] Police Chief Jim “Two-Gun” Davis, and telling him, look I’m not just some amateur, I was actually a captain, I did some intelligence in the army, I have these veterans with me. And we have uncovered a plot to seize the armories here, where all the ammunition is, and weapons. We know they are actively buying guns in San Diego. And they are planning to take over the city government and to take over the armory.

And he brought all of this to Police Chief Davis, and Davis cut him off two minutes into Lewis’ spiel and said stop. Hitler was only doing what he had to do to save Germany. And in fact Hitler was right, and the real problem aren’t the Nazis and fascists walking the streets of L.A. The real problem is in Boyle Heights, where all those communists are.

What he didn’t say, but it was clear, is that as far as police chief Davis was concerned, every communist was a Jew and every Jew was a communist.

Who were these people? Some were actual Nazis, some were disaffected soldiers from the first world war. What drew people in Southern California to this movement, and what did they expect of it?

Almost all of them were German emigres who had come over. Many of them had actually fought with the Brownshirts. They were Hitler’s hardcore followers, and they believed in the rise of the Reich with Hitler at their command.

The Nazis in L.A. followed the same strategy that Hitler had used in the 1920s with the Brownshirts, which is to recruit a group of military veterans, men who are already trained in killing, who knew how to use arms, and men who wouldn’t fold under pressure.

The idea is that if I can get these people into the Bund, the Friends of New Germany [group], they in turn could train other Americans who would join their cause.

A number of groups sympathized with or were on the fringes of this pro-Hitler movement. What kind of numbers are we talking about in Southern California?

In my book I have a two-page map of Nazi and fascist L.A. in the 1930s and ’40s. We put in a Magen David [star of David] for Leon Lewis’ spy central, but then for the Nazis we had swastikas, and for the fascist Silver Shirts and their allies, we had an “f” sign, like a serrated “f.” When you look at the map, you see in the middle a Magen David totally surrounded in an ocean of Nazis and fascists.

From the summer of 1938 till the war, at least every month and in many cases every week, some group and some speaker was calling for death to Jews.

In the book title you refer to plots, plural. Over the course of a dozen years, there was a plot to kidnap and hang some 20 men — Jews and politicians, including Busby Berkeley and the district attorney. Someone wanted to drive through Boyle Heights and shoot Jews, hoping to inspire others to do the same. A fake fumigation company wanted to kill Jewish families with poison gas. A plot that would have killed Charlie Chaplin and Jimmy Cagney and Walter Winchell — the ambition of these was extraordinary, and would have been a shock heard round the world.

More than just a shock heard round the world. If you hanged all these Hollywood figures — in one case they would hang them and, just to show their contempt for the Jews and Jew lovers, they would machine-gun them while they were dangling from a rope.

By killing Hollywood Jews and movie stars who were known to be very friendly to Jews, the idea was when you killed these people, this news is going to go throughout the world and it’s going to incite pogroms throughout America, and basically would be death to Jews throughout America.

Were these fanciful plots or did they actually have plans laid? And personnel? Did they get very far? If not, why not?

Some of them, like driving through Boyle Heights with machine guns — that I think was more talk than not. But the two hanging plots I think were very real. And the reason they didn’t happen is because Leon Lewis had an agent; one of his undercover agents had gone in and penetrated to the highest level. He was a right-hand man in both these cases to the leading plotters.

What did Hollywood, with all its power — how did it expend its energy when it came to this threat? You write about Mr. Lewis meeting with MGM executive Irving Thalberg and Rabbi Edgar Magnin, very powerful figures.

Leon Lewis starts his spy operation at beginning of August 1933. He never expects he’s going to be a spymaster. But when he realizes that nobody in authority is following [L.A. Nazis], he feels he has to keep at it, and he does. And he’ll do it until the end of World War II because no one else is willing to step in.

He needed some money because he was paying the spies their expenses and in a few cases, because they were poverty-stricken veterans, he gave them a very small stipend. So that’s why he went to Thalberg and Magnin. He knew that either he had to step up and do it full time, or these Nazis would succeed.

And so they called together the secret meeting of 40 of the most powerful figures in Hollywood at the Hillcrest Country Club. They walk into a private dining room not knowing why the hell they’d been called. And in front of every seat were copies of the “Silver Legion,” which is the American fascist magazine, with articles about the Jews in Hollywood and how they’re seducing women and perverting America.

Then he proceeds to tell them two things: that in fact Nazis have penetrated your studios, none of you are paying attention to your below-the-line employees, and that [Nazis] have been firing Jews for the last nine months. And in some studios, including yours, [MGM’s] Louis B. Mayer, there are almost no Jews at all working in craftsman positions.

Then he tells them about German consul Georg Gyssling, who had been sent by [Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph] Goebbels to stop Hollywood from making any film attacking or mocking Hitler.

Originally, Gyssling comes over in June 1933 and immediately goes to both Columbia Pictures and to Warner Bros.thers and demands changes. And the reason the moguls agree — Columbia is the first one to agree — is because the studios have more theaters in Germany than anywhere else on the Continent. And they didn’t want to lose that market. They thought Hitler would be out of office in a short time, so they played along.

But what happens is in July 1934, [Hollywood] creates the Production Code Administration. Part of the code stipulates that no Hollywood studio can make a movie that defames, mocks or denigrates any foreign country or their leader. And if you don’t agree to that, you will not get a Production Code Administration seal of approval.

You cite some examples — there’s a film called “Three Comrades” which, because of these pressures, went from a movie with political content to a romance. “The Life of Emile Zola,” the defender of Alfred Dreyfus — but the word “Jew” was never spoken in this movie. Finally it was the film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” where you actually had some criticism of what was going on in Germany.

The reason they got that was it was based upon a true story. The FBI broke a spy ring in 1938 and Warner Bros. sent out one of their screenwriters to cover the trial in the fall of 1938. They came in with a guilty verdict by the end of the year, and by January, Warner Bros. had submitted a script to the Production Code.

They opened [the film] in April 1939 with intense security because the Nazis had promised that they would stop this. Imagine — there were cops with machine guns on the roof, there were cops with loaded weapons outside.

As Germany’s actions became more aggressive, how did this affect Leon Lewis’ work in Southern California?

By around 1938, after Kristallnacht, he really picks everything up. That’s the Night of the Broken Glass, when there was a rampage in Austria, parts of Germany, of just killing Jews and then sending thousands of Jews to camps.

And it became very clear that Hitler had war in mind. And at that point Leon Lewis recruited even more spies. Also by the beginning of 1939 he began putting out what they called the “News Research Newsletter” which took some of the spy reports, removed names, and began talking about some of the plotting that was going on.

And people began to take their work seriously.

And people began to notice.

What became of Leon Lewis? He seems like such an unsung hero.

He was an unsung hero. Leon Lewis stayed on for a little bit running the [Jewish] Community Relations Committee, then he went back to doing his law work and also dedicated himself to tikkun olam, making the world whole.

Then he had a heart attack on the Pacific Coast Highway and died — I believe it was around 1954 — still a relatively young man.

The American sense has been, to use the Sinclair Lewis book title, that “it can’t happen here.”

I would say it can happen here; it did happen here. It just didn’t happen as bad as it could have because there were citizens around the country and there were stories like this elsewhere. There were other Leon Lewises who believed vigilance was the word.

What I found so interesting about the story is that all but one of his spies were Christian, and they knew they were working for a Jew. But Lewis never framed it as a Jewish operation. He framed it as an American operation.

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