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Dr. Toon: 'Der Führer's' Paintbrush

In this month's column, Martin Goodman explores the strange tale of Adolf Hitler's infatuation with Snow White and the artistry of Disney animation.

Martin Goodman.

One of the strangest animation-related stories of this year to date has to be the discovery, in Norway, of a set of four watercolor paintings stashed behind the frame of a fifth. This artwork depicted three of Disney's Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, and would be of no great import unless one knew the identity of the purported painter: Adolf Hitler, supreme leader of the Third Reich. Finding artwork attributable to Hitler is not truly singular; it is estimated that the one-time aspiring art student did perhaps a thousand watercolors over the course of his "career." It is estimated that the Disney watercolors were done between 1938 and 1940. Hitler's choice of subject is not unusual either, since the dictator had an especial interest in Snow White -- and Snow-White.

The latter was, of course, a German fairy tale known as Sneewittchen. Hitler despised modernity; in his heart he harkened back to the tales of the simple Aryan folk. As for the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hitler considered it among the greatest movies ever made. During a 1938 visit to Germany, Roy Disney sold the film to the Propaganda Ministry, one of 50 American films bought by the Nazi regime that year. The film was never shown due to growing anti-Americanism, but der Führer had a copy delivered to his private movie theater in Ubersalzberg.

What he saw embarrassed and upset him. Hitler was by no means a total fan of Disney -- he considered Mickey Mouse to be a degenerate tap-dancing idiot -- but even the leader of one of the world's mightiest nations had to bow before the technical perfection and animated wizardry of Snow White. German animation could not have produced anything like it, despite the presence of talented animators such as Kurt Lodel and Wolfgang Kaskeline. Hitler was reportedly furious about this unhappy fact. (Germany did have a studio producing animation under the direction of Joseph Goebbels known as Deutches Zeichenfilm, but the only significant film produced was a forgettable 1942 opus about a canary called Der arme Hansi.)

Worse, the film featured Hitler's beloved Sneewittchen, property of the German volk, presented in all her glowing racial purity -- yet crafted by Americans! Could Deutchland aspire to conquer an entire planet but still be unable to make an animated film as radiant as Disney's Snow White? Adolf Hitler apparently had to know, and perhaps it was in this spirit that the chancellor sat down some evening in 1940, a fresh set of watercolors and brushes on his table.

Hitler produced a smiling Dopey waving a greeting, a painting of Doc standing attentively, a cute Sleepy, and Pinocchio sitting in repose, possibly listening to an unseen Jiminy Cricket. The figures are obviously copied from stills; it is unlikely that the chancellor could have held his own against Fred Moore or Bill Tytla, let alone Shamus Culhane. Still, the initial impression of these paintings is that they are not bad at all. Hitler appeared to have a good eye and a decent sense of color, lighting, and texture. At his best he may have been capable of reproducing Disney art for a children's picture book.

Hitler's love affair with Snow White and other Disney creations was crushed when American cartoondom joined in the war against the Third Reich. © Disney.

What was going through the mind of der Führer while he daubed his watercolors on to Dopey's shirt? During 1940, several nations, including arch-foe France, had already succumbed to the Nazi blitzkrieg. British forces had been routed and barely escaped at the port of Dunkirk. The Brits were faring little better in North Africa, and Hitler's merciless U-boats terrorized the Atlantic. The infamous Nazi-Soviet pact was in place, with Josef Stalin no threat to the Fatherland. Air Marshall Hermann Göring was attempting, unsuccessfully, to bomb Great Britain into submission, but as far as Herr Hitler knew, all seemed to be going well.

In short, life as the absolute dictator of Germany was good. There was time to take out a set of paints, revive an old hobby, and engage in a little Disney envy. Plenty of time, after all, to dream. Ah... what dreams Herr Hitler had. By the next year his extermination camps would begin operating, Belzec the first of them. The efficiency of gassing Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other sundry "political prisoners" to death using zyklon B would first be demonstrated at camp Chlemo in December of 1941.

It was just around the time those lethal nozzles opened that Hitler approved his "final solution" to the "Jewish problem," a meticulously constructed program of genocide codified at the Wannsee Conference in January of 1942. Military victory, racial purity, and the thousand-year Reich surely lay ahead, the golden road to a grand, Wagnerian Valhalla. Yet, here was one of the past century's undisputable monsters painting gentle pictures of Sleepy.

It somehow seems impossible that Hitler's own hand produced these charming portrayals; one would expect that, no matter how hard he tried, he could produce only twisted, horned homunculi, fanged creatures distorted with hate and ferocity. Sleepy should have had baleful red eyes instead of his pale blue ones, and sharp, wicked spines protruding from his spread fingers. There is something utterly dissonant about the idea of Adolf Hitler toiling diligently over a painting of a smiling Pinocchio, the puppet Disney designed to bring happiness to millions of children. Is it the idea that Disney's beloved designs could be so corrupted by the touch by one of history's foremost murderers... or the possibility that these paintings somehow give Hitler a glimmer of humanity in common with ours?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these "lost" paintings is how prophetic they proved to be, since they represented Hitler's losing battle. Even as the chancellor was daubing his watercolors on paper, it was obvious to him that neither he nor Germany's animators were going to win any battle against Disney. Perhaps German animators encouraged to ape Disney may have been able to produce shorts similar to those done by Hugh Harman for MGM: derivative of Disney's animation but not quite as good artistically or in terms of story structure. The system was simply not in place, nor did Hitler have a Disney. Deutches Zeichenfilm could never have assembled that much talent so efficiently in one place at one time, nor paid for such a film while competing for Reichsmarks with the Wehrmacht. Although of no military import whatsoever, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an early defeat for der Führer. He had laid France low and routed Churchill, but he could not best Walt Disney in animating German fairy tales. Many more defeats were soon to follow.

Beginning with the epic battles around Stalingrad in July 1942 and the defeat of Rommel's forces at El Alamein in October of that same year, the war began to unravel for Hitler. There would be few victories after that, and the chancellor, obsessed with his increasingly shaky Reich, put down his paint box for good. America had joined the forces arrayed against him and the Yanks were proving to be much better than expected. The United States' amazing feats of wartime production paralleled that nation's superiority in animation; Hitler could only pray to his Teutonic gods that Germany could equal them. Bleeding men, materiel, and territory, der Führer staggered into another enemy -- perhaps the most ironic foe of all. American cartoondom -- including The Seven Dwarfs -- were turning against him as well.

From 1942 until the end of the war, American animation pounced on Hitler as a figure of ridicule and disgust; every studio in the nation chimed in at least once. The leader of Nazi Germany was portrayed as an animal such as a duck (The Ducktators, WB 1942), a vulture (Song of Victory, Columbia, 1942), a wolf (Daffy the Commando, WB, 1943), or a pig (The Last Round-Up, 1943, Paul Terry studio). Often Hitler was caricatured as himself; his toothbrush mustache, slanted forelock, and livid frown made him an irresistible target for parody. One of the best efforts was Russian Rhapsody (WB 1942), directed by Bob Clampett; it featured Herr Hitler in all of his dyspeptic glory. Hundreds of cartoons mocked the haughty dictator's likeness or made contemptuous mention of him.

It was left to Walt Disney studios, the subject of Hitler's envy, to lower the boom most emphatically. Education for Death (1943) dealt Hitler perhaps the deepest ridicule of any anti-Nazi propaganda film. He is Prince Charming in a parody of Sleeping Beauty, awakening a grossly obese Brunhilde representing Germany. The lanky Führer, clad in silver armor, struggles to push his monstrous lady-love on to an overburdened horse as she moons over him like a silly teen. Der Führer's Face was a 1943 Disney effort starring Donald Duck, who dreams he is a citizen of Nazi Germany. This savage lampoon features many caricatures of Hitler, each one of which must be saluted by Donald at the cost of his freedom. The cartoon ends with Hitler receiving a ripe tomato in the face as the titular Spike Jones tune mocks Germany's dictator.

The unkindest cut of all, however, came two years before. Disney lent the Seven Dwarfs to the National Film Board of Canada, where they promoted war savings bonds to the public. "Invest in Victory!" was the message, and there was no doubt about who was to be defeated. The Dwarfs did the same a year later, also for the Canadians, in a short called All Together. The Seven Dwarfs, subjects of Hitler's own watercolors, were exhorting his enemies to invest in his destruction. It was an ironic turn of events for the dictator, who wanted his own animators to make a film as good as the one the Dwarfs starred in.

But that evening in 1940, all of this lay in the future. Never did Adolf Hitler dream, as he delicately limned Doc's eyeglasses in watercolor, that Doc, as well as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Popeye, Gandy Goose, Private Snafu, porky Pig and Donald Duck, would soon be mocking him, flattening him, blowing him up and driving him insane in every way imaginable. Tonight Hitler would leave his watercolor of Doc out on the table to dry. Perhaps he would take it to Ubersalzberg the next evening, screen Snow White again, and gauge how close he had come to reproducing Disney's brilliance. As with his dreams of a thousand-year Reich and perfect genocide, he would fall short, as he was ever destined to do.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.