Manufacturing Hate on the Big Screen

Until the beginning of 1918, the CPI’s Films Division had orchestrated and produced “upbeat” pro-war films like “Pershing’s Crusaders” and “Our Colored Fighters,” but soon they turned to promoting more graphic “atrocity” stories, just as they had encouraged the Four-Minute Men to do at this time.

Movies were a mysterious, new media to an often naive public who, not so jaded as today, actually believed they were fully accurate. At theaters, movies plotted in full conjunction with Hollywood producers such as “The Prussian Cur,” “The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin,” “The Claws of the Hun” and “Wolves of Kultur” gushed forth in a fury and capitalized on this vulnerability and gullibility. A patriotic slide appeared on the screen first, and the pianist would shift to patriotic songs.

Movie idols such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford soon participated in war loan drives. “The Little American,” 1917, directed by Cecil B. De Mille, was about a young girl (Pickford) whose ship is torpedoed by Germans as she travels to France to visit a sick aunt. There, she witnesses horrid German atrocities and supplies information to the good French about German positions. She is rescued from her evil German captors just before she is due to be shot by firing squad.

As the CPI recruited eager film producers such as D. W. Griffith to make propaganda movies, the British government likewise commissioned him to produce “Hearts of the World” about brutal German occupation in France.

It was at this time that the USA first sacrificed American values for British when they borrowed and adapted many British methods of political intelligence (which were first developed by the English aristocracy to manage its global empire). Long masters of propaganda and deception, this British model with its Official Secrets Act, although contrary to traditional American ideals regarding freedom of the press and the public’s right to know, formed the basis of our secrecy classification system. Walter Lippmann, considered the ‘father of modern American journalism’ (and also a writer of CPI propaganda leaflets) later wrote in ‘The Phantom Public,’ that the public, in its general ignorance, does not have the necessary tools to counter propaganda from our media and is easily manipulated therefore has no role in addressing important state questions.

Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks did their duty to fan the flames of prejudice, bitterness and war at a huge rallys such as one in New York, 1917, where they encouraged the admiring public to buy Liberty Bonds. Chaplin, Fairbanks and the rest of the movie industry helped to push the nation to war by turning the American people into fervent German-haters. The famous D.W. Griffith preached peace on Earth and good will to every man but a Ger-man.

‘The Bond,’ Charlie Chaplin’s 64th Film released in September of 1918, was a propaganda film created at his own expense for the Liberty Loan Committee to help sell U.S. Liberty Bonds during World War I. There was also a British version with Uncle Sam replaced by (our favorite ally and former enemy) John Bull promoting War Bonds.

“The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin,” was the blockbuster film in April 1918. The “bloodcurdling film” encouraged audiences to “raise the roof” with hisses and boos. A manipulative piece of “hate” propaganda produced by the CPI, reviews stated that “Wild cheering marked every show when the young captain socked the Kaiser on the jaw…” Huge street banners and street car signs were used to lure in the crowds and often a truck paraded the streets in front of the movie house with the Kaiser hanging in effigy and a big sign saying, ‘All pro-Germans will be admitted free.’ None dared.

As the war progressed, the movies became more extravagant, more graphic and drew upon every base human emotion conceivable. Germans were portrayed as homicidal, sexually sadistic and driven by an urge to conquer the world. There were plenty of helpers in the lucrative hate business.

Fake Germans: “The Man You Love to Hate.”

Erich “Von Stroheim,” the non-German son of a hat maker in Vienna, arrived in New York in 1909 complete with a fake aristocratic name and fake pedigree but a genuine low-class Austrian accent. He took a job as a traveling salesman and ended up stranded in San Francisco in 1912. By 1914, he was in L.A. mingling with other central Europeans and crewing on DW Griffith’s “Birth of A Nation,” and as the push toward war approached, it was soon discovered that he made the perfect mean and nasty “German” for the government’s anti-German propaganda industry. Soon he was playing the evil German officer in a barrage of films being churned out in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

He played the ugly, sneering German in such films as “Sylvia of the Secret Service” and “The Hun Within.” As a German in “The Heart of Humanity” (1919), he tears the buttons from a nurse’s uniform with his teeth, and when disturbed by a crying baby during a rape scene, he hurls it through a window. In “The Unbeliever” (1918), Stroheim is a German soldier who executes children and shoots an apple off an old lady’s head before he shoots her, brilliantly mixing up old Germanic legends to confuse and anger the public. In “Blind Husbands,” he plays an Austrian junior army officer who wages a campaign of seduction toward a married woman.

Stroheim usually aroused violent anti-German reactions from movie-goers appalled by his “German” onscreen brutality. In the 18 months that he was making these first pictures, America went from being a pacifist nation into a land that learned to “Hate the Hun.” Above: Stroheim and a theater decked out for a movie

Playing villainous German roles earned him the title ‘The Man You Love to Hate.’ Funny thing, he wasn’t even a German, or ethnic German, or even an Austrian. His career took a minor dive in 1917 and he found himself out of work, ironically a victim of same hysteria he had helped to fuel. Of course he rebounded with the help of several film bigwigs such as DW Griffith, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and crowd. He spent the last part of his life lounging comfortably in France where he was awarded the prestigious French Légion d’honneur.

CPI activities were widespread, extending especially into Russia where the CPI ran one of its most vigorous campaigns, often in conjunction with British operatives. They dispersed printed materials by the millions and made creative use of films in its Russian operation beginning in 1917, initially under the direction of C.P.I.s Edgar Sisson. The CPI conducted business in Russia without interference! Using the newest technical gimmicks, these movies moved Russian movie lovers into German-haters.

In a typical CPI movie shown in Russia, heroic agents in “The Eagle’s Eye” raid a German spy operation which was “planning to invade Canada.” With criticism mounting of Bolshevism and America’s strange new bed-fellows, Sisson presented documents in 1918 that he insisted could “prove” that “the present Bolshevik government is not a Russian government at all but a German government acting solely in the interests of Germany and betraying the Russian people, as it betrays Russia’s allies, for the benefit of the Imperial German Government alone.” The CPI published the “documents” accompanied by these bogus assertions in Pamphlet #20 in the War Information Series “The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy.” The New York Times stated: “Documents Prove Lenin and Trotzky Hired By Germans,” a complete fabrication.