Walter Disney (1901-66), a worldwide cultural icon, was an animator, film producer, and entrepreneur credited with pioneering the American animation industry. His films, which are beloved worldwide, include “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), “Pinocchio” (1940), “Fantasia” (1940), “Dumbo” (1941), “Bambi” (1942), “Cinderella” (1950), and “Mary Poppins” (1964). He was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 29 – both enduring records.
Even half a century after his death, Walt Disney’s iconic images, stories, and characters continue to leave an indelible mark on culture, and the multimedia conglomerate he built remains a formidable giant in the entertainment industry. His amusement parks, which began with Disneyland in 1955 and now include Disney World, EPCOT, and many others overseas, draw millions of visitors each year. Disney’s TV shows – including “The Wonderful World of Color” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” – are still favorites amongst children around the world.
Considerable evidence exists to support the proposition that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite, although, as we shall see, the record is decidedly muddled and, Neal Gabler, Walt Disney’s personal biographer, vehemently denies the charge. It is sometimes difficult to isolate fact from fiction; for example, the allegation that Walt had a private meeting with Hitler and developed a relationship with him is sheer nonsense, but it is true that he went out of his way to meet Mussolini.
Even Gabler concedes that Walt “willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced [anti-Semites] and cast his fate with them,” and The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges, as it must, that Disney included ethnic stereotypes in some of his early cartoons.
When Walt visited Munich in 1935, Nazi newspapers warmly welcomed him as a hero who stood up to the Jews of Hollywood. (Interestingly, the Sleeping Beauty Castle that Walt later built at Disneyland closely resembles the Neuschwanstein Castle he saw in Bavaria during his trip.)
Walt never met with Hitler, but it is beyond dispute that the Fuhrer adored Disney’s work. Goebbels is said to have presented 12 Disney short films to Hitler as a Christmas present in 1937, which the latter treasured. Hitler was determined – and ordered Goebbels – to create a Nazi animation studio and production company that would rival Disney, but the result was Deutsche Zeichenfilm GmbH, which ultimately produced only a few Nazi propaganda cartoons.
In 1938, just a few weeks after Kristallnacht, Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s personal filmmaker and propagandist, came to the United States seeking an American studio to work with her. Famous – or infamous – for glorifying the Nazis, and best known for “Triumph of the Will” (1935), a revolting propaganda film that chronicled the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, she was boycotted by all Hollywood studio leaders, except one – Walt – who expressed admiration for her work and gave her a personal tour of his studio.
According to Riefenstahl, Walt ultimately turned down her offer to work with him because he was afraid that doing so would tarnish his reputation. Returning to Germany, she publicly thanked Walt for having received her, declaring that it was “gratifying” to “learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews.”
In an infamous “Three Little Pigs” cartoon (1933), part of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series, the Big Bad Wolf is drawn with a Der Sturmer-like exaggerated depiction of a Jewish nose, a long scraggly black beard, and a Jewish hat. Dressed like a Jewish peddler, the Wolf speaks with a thick Yiddish accent as he tries to cheat the homeowner pig. (Pigs, of course, metaphorically represent everything repulsive to Jews, although it’s unclear if the producers specifically intended viewers to make this association.)
In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), the evil witch’s hooked nose, hunched bearing, and general demeanor of seduction are wholly evocative of the anti-Semite stereotype prevalent at the time. In “Pinocchio” (1940), the cunning puppet-master who manifests a total lack of any moral imperative and is interested only in amassing great wealth is the unambiguous incarnation of the Jewish skinflint.
In “The Opry House,” Mickey Mouse dresses up and performs a caricature of a dancing chassidic Jew, comparable to a blackface portrayal of African Americans. And, in “The Wayward Canary” (1932), Minnie Mouse, for some inexplicable reason, owns a cigarette lighter bearing a swastika.
Not surprisingly, Walt respected auto-industry tycoon Henry Ford, a notorious anti-Semite and union-buster who reciprocated his esteem and said he admired him for being “a successful self-made protestant in a field dominated by Jews.” Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, reported that when he once asked Walt a question, he responded, “Let me check that with my Jew.”
Walt was known to have actively supported many Jewish charities, including the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aged, and even the American League for a Free Palestine (the “Bergson Group”). The Beverly Hills Chapter of B’nai B’rith also named him its Man of the Year in 1955.
However, this argument is weakened by reports that Walt is reputed to have claimed that he had been forced by “that Jew” – i.e., Henry Morgenthau, FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury – to use Mickey Mouse to support the American war effort. Other commentators note that “Der Fuehrer’s Face” may address the topic of a “Master Race” but conspicuously fails to mention Germany’s systemic anti-Semitism.
When Jewish animator Dave Swift announced that he had accepted a new position at Columbia Pictures, Walt responded in a fake Yiddish accent: “Okay, Davy Boy, go work for those Jews. It’s where you belong.” Moreover, when Disney artists tried to unionize in 1941 (they were ultimately successful after a brutal and prolonged battle), Walt tried to ruin the careers of the union organizers, most of whom were Jewish; he often insisted that the unions, which he despised, were run and controlled by “the Jews.”
Even the earliest Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as vermin and parasites. The narrator in the infamous anti-Semitic propaganda film “The Eternal Jew,” explains, “Just as the rat is the lowest of animals, the Jew is the lowest of human beings.” A German newspaper article from the 1930s establishing a link between Jewish vermin and Mickey Mouse could not be clearer.
That the Nazis viewed Mickey Mouse as Jewish is also evident in their banning of “The Barnyard Battle” (1929), a cartoon in which Mickey and his fellow mice defend their farm against German cats. The Germans considered the cartoon “offensive to national dignity” because Jewish vermin, unambiguously represented by Mickey and his fellow mice, had dared defend themselves against the German military, represented by cats wearing German military helmets.
Palestinian children also grow up watching Mickey Mouse, but on PA national television, a Mickey Mouse clone may wear an explosive belt, encourage children to become suicide bombers, and sing “Death to America and death to the Jews.” While carrying grenades and an AK-47, “Farfur” has urged children to return the Islamic community to greatness by liberating Jerusalem with the blood of Jews (who, in one episode, are shown beating Farfur to death to silence him).