Observers of the current US election season have noted the prominent role of Rupert Murdoch’s reactionary Fox News Channel, which currently employs GOP and “Tea Party” partisans Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity, and others. Some have alleged that a television network carrying so many potential political candidates and propagandists on its payroll is unprecedented. But there is a precedent for large-scale Fox intervention into a political campaign.
In 1932, the German newsreel subsidiary of Fox News Channel’s corporate ancestor, Fox Films, intervened in national elections in Germany.
The candidate Fox supported was Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
The basic facts are available in German historian Hans Mommsen’s authoritative study entitled The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy, which is translated into English and widely available in over five hundred libraries in this country. Mommsen, one of the most distinguished postwar German historians, is now Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Bochum. In Mommsen’s account of Nazi propaganda techniques, we find the following: “There was nothing that escaped the ingenuity of Nazi propagandists. A case in point was the use of film. Under Goebbels’ influence the party had begun to exploit the potential of the political propaganda film to an unprecedented extent as early as 1930. Such films were shown mostly in places where Hitler and other prominent party leaders were not able to appear as speakers. For the manufacture of outdoor sound film, the NSDAP turned to an American company, Twentieth Century Fox.“1
Scholar William G. Chrystal confirms this account and provides further important details in his 1975 article on “Nazi Party Election Films, 1927-1938.” Chrystal writes: “Support for two additional 1932 election films, Der Führer (The Leader), and Hitlers Kampf um Deutschland (Hitler’s Struggle for Germany) came from the German-based subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Tönende Wochenschau (Fox Weekly Sound Newsreel [i.e., Fox Movietone News]). In addition, they also supplied some mobile sound film vans to be used during the campaign. Thus at least part of Hitler’s support in that critical time was the result of Fox’s help. The background for this assistance is unknown since Fox Tönende Wochenschau records were destroyed during the war,” according to a July 9, 1974 letter to Chrystal from Joseph Bellfort, who was at that time the vice president of the Twentieth Century Fox International Film Corporation.2
Fox Helped Hitler’s Voice to Reach Many Germans for the First Time
Of the first of these two films, Chrystal writes: “…Der Führer (The Leader) was one of two sound films subsidized by Fox Tönende Wochenschau. Released on April 13, 1932, it was originally titled Volk und Führer (Nation and Leader). It was a relatively short film, 263 meters long, but it provided many people with their first opportunity to hear Hitler speak. These films were accompanied by an apparently popular tide which enabled their wider dissemination. In his diary on March 6, 1932, [Nazi propaganda boss Joseph] Goebbels noted: ‘We now also win the movie theater for our propaganda.’”3
This film lasts about five minutes. In it Hitler, speaking in Berlin on April 4, 1932, develops his characteristic theme that the German army was betrayed and stabbed in the back in November 1918 by the Weimar politicians, especially the Social Democrats. This speech was part of Hitler’s campaign for president, in which he was defeated on April 10, 1932 by von Hindenburg but nevertheless received almost 37% of the votes, which represented a new high in Nazi support up to that time. In the subsequent parliamentary election held on July 31, 1932, the Nazis added 19% to their previous totals to emerge for the first time as the largest single party in Germany with 38% of the votes — thanks in part to the assistance rendered to Hitler by Fox Movietone News.
Concerning the second film Fox made for Hitler, Chrystal writes: “…new Reichstag elections were called for November 6, 1932…. The second of the Fox-subsidized productions, Hitlers Kampf um Deutschland (Hitler’s Struggle for Germany), appeared on August 30. It comprised 606 meters of Hitler’s July, 1932 Eberswalde speech. An indication of the effectiveness of this speech and its film record can be found in its later use. When Reichstag elections were held again in March 1933, this same film was re-issued under a new title, Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler Spricht (Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler Speaks).”4
Hitler’s speech in the Brandenburg Stadium in Eberswalde on July 27, 1932, one of three he gave that day, is a classic demagogic performance. As Mommsen points out, “in the hectic 1932 election campaign” the Nazis organized mass rallies featuring “speeches that Hitler tailored specifically to the psychotic public mood that had been created by the deepening crisis.” (Mommsen, p. 338) “We are intolerant,” raved Hitler, promising to drive more than thirty other political parties out of Germany. “We have one goal before us, to fanatically and ruthlessly shove all these parties into the grave,” he added. This was the message which Fox Movietone News helped deliver to the German public. Six months after he gave this speech, Hitler seized power as chancellor and began consolidating his power as dictator — once again thanks in part to the help of Fox Movietone News.
Note that Chrystal speaks of Fox has having “subsidized” Hitler’s critical 1932 election campaigns. This can be considered as the 1930s equivalent of illicit contributions in kind to a politician under current US election law, which is the charge often made against Fox News today, as for example in a recent filing by the Democratic Governors’ Association in regard to the Kasich gubernatorial campaign in Ohio.
Fox Movietone News and the Rise of European Fascism
Robert Edwin Herzstein, in his article entitled “Movietone News and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, 1930-1935,” explored the partial archive of Fox Movietone News for these years now at the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina.5 It is clear from this article that the regular weekly Fox Movietone newsreels also played into the hands of the Nazi and fascist media strategy. Proud of this record, “Fox called its newsreel operations ‘the mightiest of them all.’” (Herzstein, p. 314)
In the Fox Movietone newsreels and outtakes of Nazi rallies, says Herzstein, “one senses the enthusiasm, the communion between leader and masses…. Hitler is often seen standing in the presence of his friend and foreign press chief Ernst Hanfstaengl, apparently oblivious to the prying movie camera…. Hitler, in part a media creation, was better equipped to manipulate the masses by putting them on the movie screen. He made them part of the media action, and the outtakes show us how that was done.” (Herzstein, p. 317) Hitler’s rivals and adversaries, including his predecessor as chancellor, von Papen, the Austrian leader Dollfuss, and the Social Democrat Dittman all appear in the Fox footage in a negative or unflattering light by comparison.
One big fan of Fox Movietone News was the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who was given the opportunity to make one of his famous bravura speeches for the Fox camera. According to Herzstein, one of the first sound newsreels shown in the United States depicted Mussolini in March 1929 speaking in English directly to the American people, saying: “Your talking newsreel has tremendous possibilities. Let me speak through it in twenty cities in Italy once a week and I need no other power.” (Herzstein, p. 318) In the mind of the Duce, newsfilm was thus already the handmaiden of fascist power. Herzstein’s extensive survey of the Fox Movietone archive for 1930-1935 apparently yielded no examples of any criticism or unfavorable coverage of the fascist dictators, since none is mentioned in his article.6
The last Fox Movietone newsreels appeared in the United States in 1963. According to the Wikipedia article on Movietone News, parts of the Fox Movietone newsreel collection are still “owned and managed by the Fox Film Corporation’s corporate successor (and namesake), Fox News Channel. The majority of the collection is stored in New Jersey, mostly unseen since the newsreels were originally shown in theatres. During its early years, Fox News Channel had a weekend show which played the newsreels.”7
As the philosopher George Santayana rightly observed in 1905, “when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”