Walt Disney’s Century: “Der Fuehrer’s Face”

Disney’s pivot to wartime propaganda produced a short you won’t see on Disney+

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Walt Disney’s Century: “Der Fuehrer’s Face”

This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt Disney’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema. You can read all the entries here.

When the Fuehrer says we is the master race,

We HEIL! HEIL! Right in the fuehrer’s face!

Not to love the Fuehrer is a great disgrace,

So we HEIL! HEIL! Right in the fuehrer’s face!—Der Fuehrer’s Face


Many of the worst man-made events that ever occurred were not the product of evil geniuses. Instead they were the product of a parade of idiots and lunatics, incoherently flailing their way through events, helped along the way by overconfident people who thought they could control them.—Tom Phillips

Nazis—National Socialists, the political party of Adolf Hitler that seized control of Germany, invaded its neighbors, and systematically prosecuted genocide against Jews, Roma and LGBTQ+ people before finally being defeated—were always cartoonish. Hitler in particular was too ridiculous to really be believed: No lesser a clown than Charlie Chaplin lampooned him. There’s the tired old saw that “at least the trains ran on time” when brutal fascists were in charge of Germany or Italy or Japan, but broadly speaking, this is not true: Hitler’s government was a fiasco from start to finish, and the man himself was indolent, narcissistic and disinterested with the particulars of his thousand-year reich.

People know this now, and they knew it at the time. But some people really like the idea of being superior to others—who wish against all their kindergarten wisdom that it could just once be okay to be mean to other people for no coherent reason. Some people desire with their whole being that the human condition and the arc of justice would bend toward them being inherently right and worthy, and others being inherently wrong and inferior. And those folks just can’t stop thinkin’ ‘bout Nazis. They hold them up to the light, turn their odious and destructive ideology over facet by facet and try to find something there that we haven’t already disproven a hundred times. That, to them, is preferable to doing the hard work of interrogating what is wrong with their own hearts, or of making the world a better place for everybody—listening to women is exhausting, acknowledging other modes of gender or sexuality is deeply uncomfortable, and sharing the table with people of color is scary. If you’re a normal person reading this—somebody who tries to be kind and feels bad when you fall short of that—I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t understand these jerks, either.

Disney’s short cartoon “Der Fuehrer’s Face” is an eight-minute film, starring Donald Duck, about those jerks, and what it is like in their neck of the woods. It is nowhere on Disney+, even though it won an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1943. I could be facetious about why not, but you’re already tired: It’s not a family-friendly little movie, and surely Disney doesn’t want it popping up in the algorithm if you leave your five-year-old zoning out in front of old episodes of DuckTales. Yet, it’s a part of Disney history, a part of Donald’s history, and by virtue of being part of the Mouse House’s shift to wartime propaganda during World War II, a part of world history. It was originally going to be titled “Donald Duck in Nazi Land,” and I’m kind of sad it wasn’t.

Going into “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” you should know that it features Donald Duck repeatedly shouting “Heil Hitler!” and throwing around Nazi salutes, dressing like a Nazi (still no pants), and goose-stepping at gunpoint. You should know the Japanese caricatures are as bad as you imagine.

Donald is roused from sleep by a Nazi brass band singing the title song before he sneaks a tiny bit of coffee he’s squirreled away in a safe and is dragged to his work at a munitions factory. All the while, every rooster, alarm clock and steam whistle seems to be saying “Heil Hitler!” Donald screws together every conceivable size of shell on the assembly line while getting yelled at by his superiors. It all leads to a nervous breakdown, with Donald hallucinating bizarre amalgamations of shells and boots, and seeing himself as a mindless whistle or a caricature of Hitler.

But it’s all a dream. Donald awakens in his star-spangled PJs to find himself a citizen of the U.S. of A., and so thankful for it. It’s bizarre, surreal slapstick—and as deeply disrespectful to Nazis as you hope. For almost everybody alive today who isn’t aware of it, it must seem unbelievable to think that at one point Donald Duck was starring in anti-Nazi propaganda. But it was much of what Disney was producing at the time, even if the company doesn’t seem to want to talk about it now.

The truth about Disney in 1940 is that it was in bad financial shape. Fantasia and Pinocchio—both incredible films that received glowing reviews—were duds, in part because distribution to Europe was halted as World War II began in earnest. The Walt Disney Company was cut off from a major source of its revenue, and Walt Disney did what must have seemed obvious at the time: He pivoted the company to wartime propaganda. Donald Duck, one of its most popular characters, was suddenly getting drafted, fighting in the Pacific, and having nightmares about how much it must suck to be a Nazi. For a time immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Disney’s lot was an actual military base with 500 troops stationed at it. According to reporting at the time (which likely was going off of what Walt was saying), about 90 percent of Disney’s work was in service to government agencies, producing everything from propaganda films like “Der Fuehrer’s Face” to educational and instructional videos about how to spot enemy planes.

Not all of this has fallen down a memory hole. Donald is a proud member of The Three Caballeros, which were introduced across two movies, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, starting in 1943, the result of Disney following a U.S. government directive to shore up relations with Central and South America, since we certainly didn’t want them siding with Hitler. In light of the politics of the Western Hemisphere, it’s both easy to see why this was a concerted effort and bizarre to consider how it created Donald’s panamerican entourage.

It’s unfortunate that modern-day Disney doesn’t seem to want to preserve its wartime history. The vicious racist caricatures of “Der Fuehrer’s Face” notwithstanding, it’s part of the studio’s history, and arguably one of the reasons it still survives at all today. It is also a better reminder of one of the particular evils of Nazism than, say, having tons of creepy Nazi artifacts you keep in the mansion you invite your pet Supreme Court justice to. All supremacist ideologies are rooted in self-interest, after all. Who better than Donald Duck to remind you that living in a world run by fascist lunatics sucks for everyone?

Next month, Walt Disney’s Century moves into the 1950s, and Disney’s foray into live action with Treasure Island!

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses and read more at his blog.

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