As summer approaches, I like to show how media and communication have affected our history. To that end, YouTube has been an invaluable asset in reaching students with historical media. You would be amazed as to what you can find.
Today’s selections showcase Walt Disney’s contributions to World War II. Like so many studios during the war, Disney was contracted by the US armed forces to produce training films, documentaries, propaganda and morale-boosting films. There was a monetary aspect to this as well: Disney had spent so much making its masterpiece Fantasia (1940) that it nearly bankrupted the studio. These government contracts saved the studio, which produced nearly 68 hours of film during the war years, nearly all for the war propaganda effort.
The government contracted 32 short films from the studio–the studio’s location, near the Lockheed aircraft plant, made it a perfect place for creating training and production films. Many films were animated training films for the various military departments, including some animated sequences for Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series. Yet two of the best were these animated shorts from 1943.
The first is Education for Death, subtitled as “The Making of a Nazi.” It was based on a book by German emigre Gregor Ziemer that chronicles a young boy’s development in Nazi Germany, from young innocent cherub to a cold, unfeeling Nazi ready to give his life for his Fuhrer. It is an interesting window into the way emotion–and especially family emotion–was used to stir up anti-Nazi sentiment. No mother would have been able to watch their son intentionally be turned into a monster by the state, which offers up loads of classroom discussion.
The second is a more humorous piece titled Der Fuhrer’s Face. It follows Donald Duck through a nightmare in which he imagines himself in Nazi Germany working in a defense plant. His entire routine is watched and monitored by a ridiculous band of Nazis singing the title theme song, which was recorded by noted comedy singer Spike Jonze. This is propaganda as absurdity–the use of exaggeration and satire to make the enemy seem as ridiculous as possible. It won the 1943 Academy Award for best animated short-subject, and is a gem to share with your students.
Note the quality of the production of both cartoons. Walt Disney Productions devoted 90% of their staff to these war films–the very same staff that produced such classics as Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. The era from 1937 to the start of the war was considered Disney’s golden age of animation, and their talent really shows in these films. Look at how the first one uses shadows and light, faceless authority figures and dark overtones to create a mood. Definitely contrast that with the bright, lively and silly nature of the Donald Duck cartoon.
Enjoy the films, and if you want more information on WWII propaganda, this link has some incredible pictures to use.