Fritz Kuhn was a despicable man. But he and his fellow Nazi followers in the United States thought he had a valuable reputation to protect. Which is why Kuhn sued Warner Bros. for libel in 1939 after the Hollywood studio released a film called Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
If you know Fritz Kuhn’s name at all it’s probably because he hosted an enormous Nazi rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. Officially called the German American Bund, the organisation helped spread Nazi ideology throughout the U.S. during the 1930s by organising meetings and by distributing printed propaganda. And Kuhn, despite the fact that he was swindling money from the group, was in charge of it all.
Believe it or not, anti-Nazi movies were highly controversial in Hollywood during the 1930s. There were a number of reasons, from fears of alienating a huge market for movies in Germany to the fact that Will Hays, the industry’s top censor, had to listen to German government officials who complained anytime Germans were depicted negatively on film. But Warner Bros. was able to get Confessions of a Nazi Spy made in 1939, largely because it was based on a real case of espionage brought by the FBI.
But none of that stopped Kuhn from filing a lawsuit, claiming that the film had harmed his reputation and that of other Germans in America. The movie showed Nazis in America preaching the gospel of racial purity and hate, like in this scene that was a not-so-subtle jab at Kuhn’s racist speeches.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy was controversial even before it opened, and some of the cast members had their names changed in the credits out of fear that they’d become targets of Nazis in the U.S. Some in the American Jewish community were even worried that the film might provoke backlash by Nazis and thus argued that it shouldn’t be made at all. But Warner Bros., at the insistence of the crusading anti-fascist Jack Warner (one of the Warner brothers, naturally), went ahead with the project anyway.
The film stars Edward G. Robinson, a Jewish-American actor who made his name in some of the most popular gangster movies of the 1930s, including the classics Little Caesar (1931), Smart Money (1931), The Little Giant (1932), and Kid Galahad (1937). Robinson stars as an FBI agent who busts a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., based on real events of 1938.
But the movie didn’t perform well in America. There were riots in the streets, and German-Americans even burned down a Warner Bros.-owned theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Even the New York Times thought that it was a bit too harsh on the Nazis in the way that they’re presented as cartoonishly evil:
The Warners had courage in making the picture, but we should have preferred to see them pitch their battle on a higher plane. Based on the evidence presented by the G-men during last year’s spy trials and on newspaper gleanings, the film’s quasi-documentary character has been supported by its employment of newsreel shots of Hitler haranguing his Brownshirts, a commentator’s voice, maps and other factual pictorial matter. But its editorial bias, however justified, has carried it to several childish extremes. Membership in the National Socialist party cannot be restricted entirely to the rat-faced, the brute-browed, the sinister.
The Times even played the “this is nothing new” card, claiming that everyone knew Nazis were bad, something that should be familiar to people living through the rise of fascism here in the 21st century:
As melodrama, the film isn’t bad at all. Anatole Litvak has paced it well, and the performances of Mr. Robinson as the Federal man, Mr. Lederer as the weak link in the Nazi spy network and Mr. Lukas as the propaganda agent are thoroughly satisfactory. But the film’s promised revelations have long been in the public domain, and we cannot fight down the impression that the picture has cheapened its cause and sacrificed much of its dignity by making its villains twirl their long black mustaches.
But as history has shown us, it’s impossible to overstate just how evil the Nazis were. Most Americans really had no idea. But the Germans knew how dangerous a movie characterising them as the villains could be. Some theatre owners in Poland were even hanged for screening the film in 1939, and the movie was eventually banned in 18 different countries where the Germans exerted political power, like Norway, Japan, and Italy.
Variety’s review of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in May of 1939 stands in sharp contrast to the New York Times review, noting that the world is currently at peace (it would be four more months before Germany would invade Poland) but that war was almost certainly on the horizon. And if Confessions of a Nazi Spy put us on the side of the good guys, that seemed important. To Variety the film wasn’t over the top anymore than it had to be in order to wake people up.
“Decades from now what’s happening may be seen in perspective,” the Variety review reads. “And the historians will certainly take note of this daringly frank broadside from a picture company.”
Kuhn, confident that he could claim he’d been libeled, set out with his lawsuit after the film’s American release on May 6, 1939. Kuhn sued for $US5 ($7) million (over $US90 ($125) million adjusted for inflation) but he didn’t want just money. He wanted Warner Bros. to be banned from distributing the movie altogether.
The May 13, 1939 edition of the Vidette-Messenger newspaper in Indiana reported on Kuhn’s lawsuit:
The Bund leader alleged that the film was “full of false statement” which maligned the Bund. The suit listed 18 excerpts from the script of the picture which, Kuhn charged, constituted libelous defamation of the organisation. He sued both as an individual and as leader of the organisation.
“The Bund is a patriotic, loyal and American organisation,” Kuhn’s lawsuit proclaimed, another hollow cry that should be familiar to those of us currently witnessing the burgeoning white supremacist movement take root around the globe.
White supremacists continue to threaten lawsuits left and right here in the 21st century. Jason Kessler recently sued a woman for calling him a “crybaby”
Somehow, Kessler won, though he was awarded just a measly $US5 ($7). Kessler helped organise the infamous neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville during the summer of 2017 that left a woman dead at the hands of a white supremacist. Kessler called the woman’s death “payback”
Baked Alaska, whose real name is Tim Gionet, even threatened to sue after a news organisation used a fake photo of him holding a gun. The only problem? He published the photo first, presumably thinking it was pretty cool.
Despite the fact that Warner Bros. was able to get Confessions of a Nazi Spy made, other movie studios failed to get approval for future anti-Nazi motion pictures. Will Hays, the official censor of the movie industry’s Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), now known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), declared that studios couldn’t make any more anti-Nazi movies and get the organisation’s seal of approval.
As the 1999 book Celluloid Soldiers by Michael E. Birdwell notes, U.S. politicians were threatening to impose their own sanctions against the movie industry if they kept up their anti-Nazi stance. American politicians warned that the movie studios were trying to dabble in foreign policy and would be treated harshly for souring relations with Germany.
Senator Elmer Thomas, a Democrat from Oklahoma, went so far as to propose a ban on all newsreels and movies depicting war in late 1939, shortly after war was declared between Germany and the allied nations of the UK, France, and others in September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Newspapers noted that the odds of passing the bill were “500-to-1” but the message was clear: Don’t bring up the Nazis in any way.
Some racist Americans claimed that Confessions of a Nazi Spy was “Jewish propaganda” that should be banned from movie theatres around the U.S.
“The Aryans, Americans, are not fooled by the Jewish propaganda today,” one letter to Will Hays in 1939 said. “We know they want to bring war with Germany and want us to fight for them. If they want to fight let them go ahead, but not include us.”
In the end, not only did Kuhn lose his lawsuit, he was jailed after the United States finally joined the war in late 1941. Kuhn was stripped of his American citizenship while in prison and deported to Germany after the war ended in 1945. Kuhn died poor and disgraced in Germany in 1951.