Hiler 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.
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.