Disney and Death: Mythmaking and the Dangers of Mythmaking

By Kate Daley-Bailey…While few readers may be surprised that Walt Disney Studios created propaganda materials for the Allies during World War II, you might be awed at the following example of said Disney Propaganda cartoons, Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi. Made in 1943, this cartoon, is but one of many made by Walter Disney Studios on contract with the U.S. Government.


Disney and WWII

Readers may also be unaware that Disney Studios and Disney, himself, shared a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States Government beginning with WWII. While the outbreak of war in 1939, and the subsequent theater closings in Europe, threated to decimate Disney Studios profits, the war effort itself provided the means to keep Disney Studios running. In 1941, Disney signed a contract with the National Film Board of Canada to produce bond and training films. Not long after this, Disney was approached by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) to serve a type of diplomat in South America. The CIAA, hoping to offset the Nazi influence in South America, sent Disney and various Disney artists on a tour of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Peru. For his efforts, Disney was awarded a $270,000 budget and was contracted to make four films.

Disney Studios soundstages were also used by the U.S. Military to repair equipment and store ammunition for eight months in 1941. According to Disney, they had used so much gas and electricity that it took the government two years to reimburse him. Disney Studios also worked on a film entitled The New Spirit (whose slogan was “Taxes to beat the Axis”) commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in order to head off public discontent from the seven million new American taxpayers were ‘created’ by updated revenue laws. Disney Studios also collaborated with the U.S. government to create materials regarding rationing and nutrition, training films, and unique insignia and logos for various military squadrons.

Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi


Disney Studios, in 1943, also created five propaganda films (labeled as “psychological productions” by Disney’s publicity department) with a particularly anti-Nazi emphasis. This cartoon is one of the five. The cartoon, roughly ten minutes in length, details the birth, education, and indoctrination of a young Hitler Youth named Hans. Watching the cartoon, one might be surprised by the multiple levels of mythmaking taking place. Of course, the cartoon does the job of warning the American population of the dangers of an undemocratic and unchecked Nazi Germany. One need not look beyond the villainous shadows of Nazi officials dwarfing the German civilian, the fiery images of book burning, the reddening of the grotesque faces of Han’s teacher and Hitler himself, and the constant imagery of mindless goose-stepping, to understand the potent danger Nazi Germany represented to the Allies and European democracy. But what other messages (conscious or otherwise) are presented in this cartoon?

1. Notice that Hans and his parents are not presented as villains but rather as young, scared, and unassuming Germans living under the figurative boot of Hitler and the Nazis. Even during the comical episode of a gangly Hitler awakening Sleeping Beauty (Germany embodied as a slovenly, naïve, sexually explicit Valkyrie… horned helmet and all), the German people are presented as dullards taken for a ride by Hitler). While this might represent a historical sentiment, it is compelling to me that this piece of propaganda would present the German population as mindless masses.

2. The German spoken in the cartoon is never translated. Hitler and those representing the Nazis are presented as untranslatable and incoherent. Hitler’s image represents an odd mix of the ridiculous, irrational, and terrifying.

Mickey as Professor

These cartoons met with resounding success. One of the five, titled der Furher’s Face, won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject. Walt Disney, in the summer of 1945, was even moved to write an article entitled “Mickey as Professor” for Public Opinion Quarterly, in which he advocates for use of film in education. The logic behind his reasoning is based on the evidence he sees coming from the effect films had on the war effort. According to Disney,

The motion picture took a leading part in all phases of wartime education- propaganda and information as well as training. It explained and supported ideas, it showed with impartial fidelity the course of events, it made hidden phenomena visible, and it demonstrated the way to control them. So successful was the motion picture in this task of education for war that close attention was once more given to its capacity as a means for enlightenment and teaching in the work of peace.(119)


Perhaps this instance is another illustration of what William Arnal cites as the “construction of ‘fantasy’ in Disney-related phenomena” which “serve[s] the liberal political agenda of modernity?” Arnal, in his article “The Segregation of Social Desire: ‘Religion and Disney World,” states that both the construction of ‘fantasy’ in Disney-related phenomena and the creation of the category of ‘religion’ “create special enclosures that serve to segregate positive ends-oriented behavior” and “to minimize the social impact of subjectively determined goals and desires.” This example should give us pause, not just because it is a purposely constructed tool of modern indoctrination targeted at children (which ironically points out the dangers of indoctrination via a form of indoctrination), but also because the message presented affirms a particularly powerful American mythological discourse which is so overt and caricatured that it calls viewers to dismiss it as ‘mere propaganda’.

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