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Hitler in Los Angeles edited 2Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
A couple of months back I was listening to one of my favourite radio shows, CBC’s “The Current”, when host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed an American historian by the name of Steven  J. Ross.


What unfolded over the next 25 minutes or so was a fascinating story during which Ross spoke about his recently published book, titled Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.
Luckily for me, I was able to find the book in the Kaufman Silverberg library at the Asper Campus. (By the way, if you’re ever searching for a recently published book that has a Jewish theme and find that there’s a long wait list at the Winnipeg Public Library, it’s well worth it to contact the Kaufman Silverberg library to see whether they might have a copy of that book. Their collection is very up to date.)
Steven J. Ross is an eminent American professor of history at the University of Southern California. He has written extensively on Jews and Hollywood and it was while doing research for a previous book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, that he says he came across an entire series of artifacts – many of which had never been examined, relating to a little-known period in American history.
That period was from 1933-41, when under the capable leadership of two Jewish men, Leon Lewis and Joseph Roos, a counterespionage ring was established in Los Angeles that proved indispensable in foiling plans by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers living in California, not only to arouse support for Nazi Germany, but to undertake numerous acts of sabotage – even murder.
Hitler in Los Angeles unfolds like a thriller, although written very carefully, and thoroughly footnoted – as you would expect from a professor of history. In it Ross describes in extensive detail the massive amount of support that a host of right wing groups commanded in the United States during the 1930s and 40s, right up until the moment that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and Germany soon thereafter declared war on the U.S..
Reading about the endless series of plots that were constantly being hatched, especially in California, by Nazis and their acolytes in such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, is a chilling experience. Even more disturbing is discovering how thoroughly Nazi organizations had infiltrated all echelons of law enforcement agencies, including  very senior levels  - and how totally uninterested elected officials and those tasked with law enforcement, most notably J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the F.B.I., were in pursuing the blatant threat that Nazis exhibited to the security of the United States. (They were obsessed with the “red threat” instead.)

If you’ve never heard of either Leon Lewis or Joseph Roos, you’re not alone. As Ross explains, Lewis was an extremely self-effacing lawyer who, although he was one of the prime architects of B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League, always preferred to operate in the shadows – exactly, I suppose, as you’d expect of a master spymaster.
Early on Lewis was fully aware just how deadly the threat posed by Nazis based in the United States, especially in southern California, posed in particular to American Jews. There were two primary German organizations that served as the centres for Nazi activity in California: Friends of the New Germany, and its successor organization, The German American Bund. The leaders of these organizations did not hide their beliefs. In fact, they were overt in their intentions to rid the “Jewnited” States, as they scathingly referred to the United States of all Jews. (They also referred to New York as “Jew York”.)
In order to counter the looming threat, Lewis and Roos, operating out of Lewis’s Los Angeles law office, began to recruit non-Jews who would be able to infiltrate the many Nazi and pro-Nazi organizations that were so pervasive in southern California. To that end they were brilliantly successful in attracting individuals whose bravery and resourcefulness proved indispensable in what became a protracted struggle.

As an illustration just how dangerous was the threat posed by Nazis in California, here is an excerpt from Hitler in Los Angeles: “As millions of Americans prepared to welcome in the New Year on December 31 (1934), Hughes planned to have twenty trusted men – working in teams of four- kidnap and hang twenty prominent Angelenos. ‘Each man we hang will be an example of a specific case, and what a representative group it will be too.’ The targeted Jews included film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, attorneys Milton Cohen and Jerry Giesler, Superior Court Judge Henry M. Willis, Mendel Silberberg, and Leon Lewis.”
Later in the book Ross describes plans to assassinate Hollywood producers and actors, including Lewis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Charlie Chaplin (who, even though he wasn’t Jewish, was viewed as a Jew sympathizer).
While those plots elicit the most attention in other reviews of this book, what was even more dangerous to American security at the time were plans to sabotage the many defense production facilities, especially airplane manufacturers (80% of air force planes produced in the U.S. at that time were built in southern California). Nazi spies ran rampant throughout the state, aided and abetted by German government officials who sent detailed instructions via German ships that docked in Los Angeles harbour. Support also came from the German consul in Los Angeles,Georg Gyssling, whose primary task was to insure that no Hollywood film contained anything that might be perceived as critical of Nazi Germany. (At the end of the book though, Lewis discloses that Gyssling was actually quite opposed to Hitler and, although he was quite effective in his efforts to mute  Hollywood anti-Nazi sentiment, he did not provide support for putative Nazi spy efforts in California, nor attempts at sabotage that were planned by pro-German groups there.)

Perhaps even more unnerving to read is the tremendous level of support that Hitler enjoyed among Americans. Ross notes that, at the time Hitler came to power in 1933, there were 23 million American of German descent.  By the time World War II started, according to Ross, (quoting from an article in Look magazine), while “most Germans were ‘more or less lukewarm about Nazism’, the magazine estimated that 10,000 to 500,000 were ‘militantly pro-Nazi’ and posed a distinct ‘threat to U.S. security’.”
Yet, anti-Semitism was not limited to Germans.  “In April 1940, when asked whether ‘Jews have too much power and influence in this country,’ a majority answered in the affirmative. The subsequent ‘Good War’ did little to diminish anti-Semitism,” Roos writes. “As late as July 1945, the number of Americans responding yes to the same question rose to 67 percent.”

As much as Hitler in Los Angeles provides an abundance of information about what, until this book’s publication, remained an almost totally unknown aspect of American history – the fabulously effective counterespionage ring run by Lewis and Roos, potential readers should be warned that it’s not an easy read. There is a dizzying array of names paraded throughout the book’s more than 400 pages. And, because many of the spies who worked for Lewis and Roos were themselves German, it’s not always easy remembering who was a good guy and who was a villain. (For example, John Schmidt was the first spy recruited by Lewis, but Herman Schwinn was leader of the German American Bund.)
The book is exquisitely detailed – likely much more than a reader interested in a casual read might like. Still, it provides an overwhelming lesson just how close to the precipice of veering into a violent takeover of many aspects of American governance the United States actually stood in the 1930s – and just how threatened many American Jews were without actually realizing the extent of that threat.
The question that will likely haunt anyone reading this book, but which Ross does not address, is: How close is the United States today to sliding back into some form of fascism? Hitler in Los Angeles shows how fragile are the institutions that are meant to safeguard American democracy – such as the FBI, and how on guard we must remain for threats to those institutions.

Hitler in Los Angeles:
How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.
By Steven J. Ross
Bloomsbury USA
414 pages
Published 2017