Donald Versus Hitler Walt Disney and the Art of WWII Propaganda

During World War II, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse weren't just about entertainment. Film studios used animated characters to spread propaganda and educate Americans about their enemies. And the animators themselves were employed to make insignia for military units and equipment.
Von Sven Stillich

"Heil Hitler!" shouts Donald Duck as he raises his right arm in the Nazi salute. On the other arm, he's wearing a swastika armband -- just like everyone else in Hitler's "Nutzi Land," where the "Nutzis" have pruned even the trees into swastika shapes and swastika clouds drift across the sky. It's a land where there's barely anything left to eat, yet even the rooster greets the day with a hearty crow of "Heil Hitler!"

There, Donald toils away screwing war munitions together on a factory assembly line with soldiers looking on. He has to shout "Heil Hitler!" in time with his work, and his hands whirl faster and faster until he goes insane. Then the duck wakes up from his dream and discovers that he is actually lying in a soft bed and wearing pajamas patterned off the American flag. "Oh boy, am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" he cries. The movie ends with a tomato landing on Hitler's face.

This was a cartoon film made in the service of the US government. "Der Fuehrer's Face" hit the theaters in 1943 and won the Oscar for best animated short film the same year. It was far from the only propaganda piece that Walt Disney's studios released. In addition to Donald, Mickey Mouse, Bambi and even Pluto became standard elements in the American war machine.

Representatives of the US military paid a call on Disney already in December 1941, right around the time that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Army wanted to transform part of the studios into defensive fortifications that would be used to help protect a nearby airplane factory against air raids. And then there was the Navy, which commissioned animated films used to train its sailors.

More contracts followed. In May 1942, the world's most famous duck reported for duty in "Donald Gets Drafted." In a cartoon called "The Spirit of '43," Donald showed Americans why it was important to save money -- so that they could pay their taxes fully and on time. Their contributions were urgently needed for the war because "taxes will keep democracy on the march" and "every dollar you spend for something you don't need is a dollar spent to help the Axis."

This movie was commissioned by Henry Morgenthau Jr., then US Secretary of the Treasury and, later, father of the Morgenthau Plan for dividing and de-industrializing Germany once it had been conquered. "The Spirit of '43" was seen by 26 million Americans, and more than a third of them later admitted they began saving for their taxes partly thanks to Donald.

Bambi in the Volunteer Army

Cartoon films in those years were very consciously aimed at more than just children. Two-thirds of Americans went to the movies every week -- and they loved the Disney characters. Before long, Goofy was making propaganda, too. In another movie, Mickey and Minnie explained that even used cooking oil could be vital for victory. And Donald stepped in again and again, even destroying an entire fleet of Japanese planes alone in "Commando Duck" -- though it was really more by accident.

Disney's studios churned out more than 62,000 meters (200,000 feet) of film in 1942 and 1943, five times more than it ever did in times of peace. And Walt Disney wasn't just active in animated films. The duck family advocated for war bonds in comic strips, too, as did Mickey in the comic book "Mickey Mouse on the Home Front." All of Disney's characters had now been mobilized, and even Bambi fought the Axis powers in Disney's "Volunteer Army."

The movies and comic books were important for morale. They not only made the enemy look ridiculous; they also let audiences laugh at their own daily lives for a few minutes -- at the food shortages and their fear. Walt Disney gave America courage.

Hans Must Die

During World War II, Disney's provided some political education for Americans at home -- and for soldiers on the front, too. "Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi" appeared in movie theaters in 1943. The tone of the movie was serious, and it didn't feature the likes of Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. Instead, it used impressive images to describe how children in Nazi Germany were raised to hate and to participate in the war effort -- and how little blonde Hans' only purpose in life was to die on the front.

By then, Disney was everywhere -- and always closely involved with the military. Starting in 1942, Walt Disney's artists designed insignia for American troop units. There was a mosquito riding a torpedo for the Navy's new torpedo boats, a bellicose crow from "Dumbo" for bombing squadrons, and a turtle with a broom for minesweepers.

Graphic artists who had only recently been drawing Bambi and Snow White now switched to designing emblems for tanks, bombers and ships. Likewise, many soldiers and airmen decorated their tanks and fighters themselves with Mickeys, Donalds and Plutos. These were symbols of the American way of life, of freedom and democracy, of everything that was at stake. "Mickey Mouse" is even said to have been a password used by the Allied forces on D-Day.

Meanwhile, other Hollywood studios got into the propaganda business as well, and Hitler was made the butt of the joke again and again. For example, in 1942, Warner Brothers released an animated short called "The Ducktators." The movie takes place on a peaceful farm. In it, a duck family is waiting for a single black egg to hatch. But when the shell breaks, out pops a duckling sporting a Hitler mustache, Hitler haircut and swastika armband. It immediately raises its arm and shouts "Sieg Heil!" The duckling becomes a demagogue, and it quickly recruits the farm's dumb geese to be its followers. Eventually, even the weathervane wears a swastika on its arm. But, in the end, a peace dove beats up Hitler and his cronies.

Likewise, in "Daffy: The Commando," Daffy Duck skyrockets to Germany as a human cannonball, only to hit Hitler on the head with a wooden mallet. And in "Scrap Happy Daffy," Adolf Hitler chews his way through a carpet in anger because Daffy had collected such an enormous pile of scrap metal.

"Blitz Wolf," a short by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, features a big bad wolf (sporting a Hitler mustache) unsuccessfully trying to vanquish three little (American) pigs. The movie begins with a "Foreword" reading: "The Wolf in this photoplay is NOT fictitious. Any similarity between this Wolf and that (*!!*//--%) jerk Hitler is purely intentional!" At the end of the film, the defeated "Adolf Wolf" finds himself in hell.

During the war years -- whether it was on the big screen, in comic books, on the side of a tank or on a poster -- Hollywood's message was: "Hang in there! We'll win if you all pitch in. This war is your war!" But once the war was over, these movies disappeared into the studios' back cabinets for decades.

There were reasons for this. A new era had begun, and Disney didn't want to burden his new friends -- and business opportunities -- with ancient history in the newly won markets of Europe.

As a result, it was 50 years before Donald Duck could be honored with an award for his wartime services. In 1984, in honor of the cartoon duck's birthday, the US Army showed its gratitude by promoting Donald Duke to the rank of sergeant -- and then honorably discharging him from the military.

This story originally appeared in, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal.
Mehr lesen über