This blog post is a revision of a July 2013 post. The original was quickly written and it showed. The US movie Saving Mr. Banks was released December 13, 2013. The movie which portrays Walt Disney has greatly increased the interest in the subject. I decided to update and improve the original post. The update turned into a complete re-write.
Popular culture in the united states promotes the idea that Walt Disney hated Jews. American comedies like Seth MacFarlane‘s Family Guy , Saturday Night Live, and Robot Chicken have all prominently parodied Walt Disney by focusing on his supposed antisemitism. Recently Meryl Streep made public comments that Disney was a sexist and a racist in addition to being anti-Semitic. The most common accusation is antisemitism. Was Disney corporation founder Walt Disney Anti-Semitic? Was the creator of theme parks like Disneyland, and iconic characters like Mickey Mouse prejudiced and discriminatory against Jewish persons? What is the evidence for these claims? “Pop Culture” wants us to believe that Mr. Disney hated Jewish people. Claims about Disney’s antisemitism is all the rage now almost 30 years after his death. Popular knowledge does not mean accurate so I decided to see if there was any truth to the rumors.
Walt Disney’s name is synonymous with entertainment. He was the face of a corporation, that grew into a multi-national entertainment and media conglomerate. He was instrumental in producing cultural icons such as Mickey Mouse, Pixar, and Walt Disney World. Disney innovated the film and entertainment business to such a degree that his films became a style of films. By his own self promotion, his films, and theme parks he has become an almost mythological figure. Deceased public figures of great note are often plagued with myths. In Walt Disney’s case some of these myths are decidedly not true. Examples include “Mickey Mouse was a stolen concept/picture”, or “that Walt Disney’s head was cryogenic frozen after his death and is under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.” That legend is easily proven untrue. The first human cryogenically frozen occurred one month after Walt’s death. Walt Disney’s remains were cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Still it is common to hear the pirates myth. The fact that Walt has false myths surrounding him does not exclude the possibility that he was antisemitic. They are just examples of a man, who’s life and death have been subjected to myth and rumor in the popular imagination. He will not be the first or last pop culture icon to suffer from post-mortem mythology.
Is there any evidence that Walt Disney was Anti-Semitic, or is it all just Urban legend?
There are strong claims that Walt had associations with Anti-Semitic groups and individuals. The biggest claims are as follows.
- Old employee’s accused Mr. Disney of visiting Anti-Semitic meetings.
- Early Disney production has examples of Anti-Semitic caricatures.
- Disney had relationships with known Nazis.
On the surface these accusations seem to strongly support Disney as a rabid Anti-Semite. Lets take a look at the evidence. Lets review what is known and what is unproven about Walt Disney.
Walt was accused of keeping company with rabidly antisemitic people. The German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is the prime example. Her documentaries (primarily Nazi propaganda films) in the mid-30s had helped to glorify the Nazis. Despite the obvious nature of her work and associations. Mr. Disney did have a face to face meeting with her prior to WWII. How much time did he spend with her? How close was Walt to Riefenstahl? Long after his death she was quoted as follows-
“after Kristallnacht , she approached every studio in Hollywood looking for work. No studio head would even screen her movies except Walt Disney. He told her he admired her work but if it became known that he was considering hiring her, it would damage his reputation.”
There were other damning accusations about Walt Disney. He was accused by senior animator Art Babbitt of a relationship with Fritz Kuhn leader of the German American Bund. Babbitt was at Disney studios from 1933-1951. Mr. Babbitt notably created one of Disney’s most enduring characters Goofy. He claimed that Disney had outright sympathy for Kuhn. Babbitt made other accusations about Disney and Disney’s lawyer. He claimed that they attended several German American Bund meetings. Mr Babbitt specifically stated that he had seen Walt and his attorney attend a meeting.
“In the immediate years before we entered the War there was a small, but fiercely loyal, I suppose legal, following of the Nazi party . . . There were open meetings, anybody could attend and I wanted to see what was going on myself. On more than one occasion I observed Walt Disney and [Disney’s lawyer] Gunther Lessing there, along with a lot of prominent Nazi-afflicted Hollywood personalities. Disney was going to meetings all the time.”
Walt also had a well documented association with a known anti-Semitic group the MPAPI. Mr. Disney was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals until the 1950’s. The MPAPAI was an anti-communist, anti-fascist, and Anti-Semitic organization.
There is evidence of antisemitism in Walt Disney’s signature artistic works, his cartoon shorts. There are racist and vaguely anti-Semitic caricatures in Disney studios early production. The best examples are the Three Little Pigs, and Opry House. Walt Disney kept a very short artistic leash on his staff in the early years. He personally approved all short films produced by his studios at that time. Meaning nothing hit the screens unless he approved it.
In the original Disney short Three little Pigs the Big Bad Wolf is dressed as a Jewish peddler attempting to fool the little pigs. It was excised from the film after its release drew criticism, and was re-animated so that the Wolf would be a Fuller Brush Man. It was reanimated but the character kept a Yiddish accent, plus the nose, glasses, and beard disguise. Airings on American television have edited this further by using the Fuller Brush Man footage and re-dubbing the Wolf’s voice so that he does not sound stereo-typically Jewish. When the film was released on home video, the scene was further edited. The topical ‘Fuller Brush Man’ line “I’m the Fuller Brush Man…I’m giving a free sample!” was changed to the incongruous “I’m the Fuller Brush Man – I’m working my way through college.” This change remains in all subsequent home video releases.
In Opry House Micky Mouse performs vaudeville acts notably as a caricature of a Hasidic Jew. This is the Jewish racist equivalent of Blackface.
Even the Walt Disney Museum admits that Disney also had some business and personal relationships with Jewish individuals that were “difficult”.
Superficially this evidence seems to support the contention that Walt Disney harbored, at least racist tendencies, if not an outright anti-Semitic views. As listeners well know the Skeptoid podcast looks beyond the superficial. I will try to do the same. Lets point a skeptical eye at some of the most compelling evidence.
There is no doubt Disney did in fact offer to meet Riefenstahl, it is also undisputed that he kept that invitation open to her even after news of Kristallnacht broke in November 1938. That is the limit of the evidence. We only have her word about the contents of the meeting. I couldn’t find any concrete evidence, other than her claims, about the discussion. We will assume that the null hypothesis is; he met with her at least once, and had a personal discussion with her. Certainly he had no long term relationship with Riefenstahl. That is the limit of the evidence.
He met with a Nazi but there was no contemporary evidence that Walt had any strong political views of any kind. Allegations aside, there is no evidence he had any prewar sympathy for Nazism. Companions of that time say he paid little attention to politics. Hindsight allows us to to convict Disney because of Riefenstahl Nazi status. How convincing is a single meeting? This meeting was prior to onset of WWII in Europe, 6 years before the truth of the final solution would be discovered. The visit was not a social call, planning session, or political rally. It was a business and filmography visit. The relatively politic neutral film Olympia was showing in the United States. Olympia was a film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Not her most “infamous” anti-Semitic film. The 1936 film Triumph of the Will. It would be easy for us to assume this was a “Nazi friend”visit. A visit to share their mutual hatred of all things Jewish. That is a post-hoc analysis of the meeting. The available evidence gives another, more plausible explanation.
Walt was a true film innovator. Olympia was truly a revolutionary film from a filmmakers perspective. Olympia contained many advanced motion picture techniques, which later became industry standards. Now common and even dated to some extent they were groundbreaking at the time. Riefenstahl used unusual camera angles, smash cuts, extreme close-ups, placing tracking shot rails within the bleachers, and the like. Does a apolitical business man, trying to build his business, spend his very valuable time to have a chat with a minor Nazi figure? Only one visit? Taking time to endorse his silent support for the Nazi Party? No, I do no think so. There is a more plausible explanation that fits the evidence. He met with another filmmaker who was innovative. Probably primarily to develop/steal those techniques for his own pictures. In addition he was probably currying favor for German marketing and distribution of his films. Others have stated that if not for her associations, Riefenstahl may have been recognized as one of the most innovative filmmakers of the time.
In my opinion, I find Riefenstahl’s quote about Disney apocryphal and inconsequential. She outlived Disney by more than 30 years and these statements came well after his death. Obviously it is easy to make claims without the possibility of denial. Especially when you are trying to foster a sympathetic version of events. Riefenstahl had ample opportunity to make these statements before his death yet she didn’t. After World War II Riefenstahl persistently tried to paint herself as a victim of American discrimination. She steadfastly deflected/denied her impact on the death of millions.
There is independent evidence that Walt was completely naive to her influence on the German propaganda. Witnesses attest that Disney had no significant idea of her strong Nazi associations.
“In 2006 Disney biographer Neal Gabler also claims in regards to Riefenstahl’s visit, the invitation was suggested to Disney by Jay Stowitts and that although Walt knew who Riefenstahl was, he didn’t know exactly what she represented in terms of politics, as he had no particular political leaning during the 1930s.”
Overall I find this claim of ignorance to fit the available facts. Given the time frame (pre-war), plus all German film makers had to be in the Nazi party at the time, making her associations less distinctive to Disney. If you were not in the Nazi party you did not make films in Germany in the late Pre-War era. There were only three people in Germany that could approve foreign films for showing in Germany at that time, Leni Riefenstahl, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, and Adolph Hitler. Riefenstahl was the only German filmmaker who produced films without Nazi party oversight (due to Hitler’s direct support). Overall it very plausible that Walt was not as concerned with her political associations.
If you start off with the null hypothesis” We do not know if Walt was Antisemitic or not” Riefenstahl is not very compelling evidence.
Next bit of evidence involves a Jewish eyewitness. He claimed to have seen Disney and his attorney attending a German American Bund meeting “several times”. Although a compelling claim, the source of this evidence does pose several red flags. Mr Babbitt was the lead animator at Disney in 1938-1939. In 1941 Babbitt was one of the key organizers of the Cartoonist strike for better working conditions. It was a fairly acrimonious dispute and Walt felt personally wronged that Babbitt was a leader. Disney felt that Babbitt made an excellent living with Disney during the great depression. He was very angry that Babbitt had betrayed him. Worse, Disney was forced to rehire Babbitt at the end of the strike. Witness at the time indicated that they hated each other from that time forward. In the end Babbitt was fired, sued Disney, and won a large settlement in the supreme court. From 1938-1941 he continued to work for Disney.
Another red flag is the time frame. Babbitt made the anti-Semitic accusations decades after all the court cases and acrimony. At the time he had no problem working for a man that he observed attending German Bund meetings. Plus after he was fired no one would have blamed him for walking around and saying some form of “Walt Disney is a Nazi and I have proof.” Yet he did not do that. He waited until almost 20 years after both Disney’s and the Attorney’s death to give this quote to the author of a book. There are no other supporting witnesses. So it is Babbitt’s word against that of a dead man. Even more suspicious was the format for disclosing this information. The quote was never given in a public forum. It originates from a book, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, by Marc Eliot (Birch Lane Press, July 1993). Clearly a book attempting to paint a compelling agenda for publication.
I find the whole scenario problematic at best. Would Babbitt be anywhere near a German Bund meeting? If he did check it out, what are the odds that it was a on a night that included a visit from Walt Disney. If Walt attended many meetings, where are the other witnesses? Even if you accept the quote as fact, it suggestive but not proof of antisemitism. There may be many reasons why Disney and his Attorney were there. We just don’t know what really happened.
On a personal note, I found the inclusion of the attorney to be suspicious given the legal battles Babbitt and Disney had fought. Not evidence of innocence. Just very telling in my opinion.
Disney’s membership in MPAPAI is by far the most well documented Anti-Semitic indiscretion. There is no question that he was a member. There is no question that MPAPAI had rabidly anti-Semitic members and leanings. Disney tried to distance himself from the organization in the 1950’s after McCarthyism and anti-communist Blacklisting of the MPAPAI became public knowledge. Does that make Disney guilty of sharing the association’s anti-Semitic views? Guilt by association? Maybe. He was later ashamed of being associated with the group’s antisemitic leaders as well as the blacklisting. This evidence is not open to opinion.
The only other point I would make is that it was common for influential members of the entertainment business to be associated with this group. Mr. Disney does not stand out from the list in general. There is no evidence that he was a leading, or more active member of the group. On a personal note; I hope that being in the group is not synonymous with antisemitism. I would hate to have to give up every movie involving ” Robert Arthur, Martin Berkeley, Ward Bond, Clarence Brown, Charles Coburn, Gary Cooper, Laraine Day, Cecil B. DeMille, Irene Dunne,Victor Fleming, Clark Gable, Cedric Gibbons, Hedda Hopper, Leo McCarey, James Kevin McGuinness, Adolphe Menjou, George Murphy, Fred Niblo, Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers,Morrie Ryskind, Norman Taurog, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, King Vidor, John Wayne, Frank Wead and Sam Wood“. More troubling than Disney is the fact that there is a Modern X-US president on that list. Ayn Rand admittedly not very surprising except for the fact that she is Jewish.
Did Disney studios turn out anti-Semitic caricatures? Yes, absolutely no question. Did Disney personally approve anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish people in the 2 shorts The Three Little Pigs and Opry House? Best evidence says yes. Did he personally animate and write those shorts? No he did not. To be fair to Disney and Disney studios, this sort of racist fair was not isolated to Disney cartoons. For example Warner Bros also produced racist fair. The so called “Censored Eleven”. Negative stereotypes and blatant cartoon racism; black-face, native american stereotypes, Japanese racial stereotypes, and obvious racist characters.
Disney studios was not the only studio to suffer from complaints about an antisemitic character in their short films. Warner Bros. was also accused of producing a stereotypical anti-Semitic character. When Bob Clampett made the 1944 short “Russian Rhapsody” he used caricatures of all the Schlesinger staff as the gremlins who are wrecking Adolf Hitler’s airplane in mid-air. Warner Brothers got a complaints about a gross drawing of a Jew, looking just like a Nazi caricature of a big-nosed Jew. Warner felt the complaint was an ironic twist. He felt the caricature was of staff cartoonist “Friz” Freleng,”who really did look like an exaggerated parody of a Jew.”
I have seen pictures and I would not agree with that excuse.
Despite the WB’s cartoon gaffe no one would accuse Mr. Warner of Antisemitism post-mortem or in popular culture(he was Jewish). Bottom line, racism and apologies were not unique to Disney.
Walt Disney’s more cultivated congenial public image is portrayed as a sham but was it? Biographer Neal Gabler, the first writer to gain unrestricted access to the Disney archives, concluded that available evidence did not support accusations of antisemitism. Floyd Norman, an African-American active in anti-prejudice organizations did not think Disney was a racist. He was hired by the Disney studio in the 1950s and often saw and worked directly with Disney before his death. Norman has said emphatically that Disney showed no sign of being racist or having any objection to hiring Black employees.
As for Jewish employee’s, one of Disney’s earliest animators was Isadore “Friz” Freleng. Freleng went to work for Disney in Kansas City, and when Walt moved to Hollywood he asked Freleng to join him. Freleng had worked with Disney on the “Alice” comedies and “Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit” until 1927 when Charles Mintz notoriously hired away all of Disney’s animators except Ub Iwerks. Trying to retain Freleng is hardly the actions of a man trying to exclude or discriminate against Jews in his studio. I can find no credible evidence that Disney attempted to exclude Jewish workers from his film making or corporate structure.
On the other hand, there was a lot of antisemitic feeling to those Disney’s shorts. While no one can specifically attribute bias to Disney himself, Jewish people were ready fodder for the animators’ gags. Walt Disney approved every scene, in every short the studio made from that period. The Three Little Pigs and Opry House are an examples of anti-Semitic cartoons that had to be edited after Walt had Okay’ed them.
In my opinion, Mr. Disney did on some level have anti-Semitic tendencies. He personally let a film with negative Jewish stereotypes go to public showings. It took complaints from the Jewish community to spur Disney to edit it. That qualifies as Antisemitism in my book. Still, I do not think there is any evidence that he was any more racist than any other entertainment outlet from that era. Disney produced racist and sexist fare, but does not appear to stand out from other entertainment from that era. Entertainment that suffered from a host of racist and derogatory fair.
There is no evidence that he systematically tried to discriminate against Jewish people or that he held any extremist type views. It is clear that he suffered from racist, sexist and antisemitic views. Overall, was Walt Disney a rabid Anti-Semite with Nazi leanings and support for Nazi ideals? In my opinion, no. That is revisionist history in current popular imaginings. There is evidence that he had bigoted ideas about comedy, but not that he acted on them. If you look past the suggestive nature of the evidence and focus on the substance you will find a few weak lines of evidence. Yes he was Anti-Semite on some level, no doubt. Was Disney a Nazi supporter, “Jew Hater”, or discriminated against Jewish people in his business? No, there is no good evidence to support those claims/portrayals.
I think it is hard to understand cultural changes over time. We can be ashamed of what our grandparents say or feel uncomfortable when we see old racist fare like Amos and Andy. By our standards the 1950’s entertainment was rampant with racists. If you compare 1930’s culture to Colonial America, US President George Washington (Slave owner), they were progressive. In the future people will be amused by the fight to prevent homosexual marriage, or the failure of the ERA. I have a hard time inditing entertainers for the cultural norm of the time. I do hold people responsible if they refuse to change with the culture, or worse try to perpetuate old racist views. Walt Disney did seem to regret his mistakes as time went on. Evidenced by his changes to the Three Little Pigs and distancing himself from MPAPAI.
I am glad that the Warner Brothers 11 were banned and the Three Little Pigs were edited. Still I think it is unfair to quantify Walt Disney as rabidly Anti-Semitic all things being equal.
Watts, Steven, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, 1997
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination (2006). New York, NY. Random House
Eliot, Marc, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, 1993