When Cartoons Go to War - Propaganda Week

By Mark Falanga

A still from the credits of the Disney short, “The Spirit of ’43”. Image is in public domain.

When his alarm clock sounds, the Nazi soldier quickly arises from his bed and makes himself a breakfast complete with a cup of coffee made from one bean, bacon and eggs aroma, and a stale piece of bread (that’s actually made of wood). After that, he is forced to work “48 hours a day” for Adolf Hitler, producing artillery shells of various shapes and sizes. The shells keep coming and the soldier simply can’t keep up, but alas it was all just a dream as he wakes up with a feeling of relief, now finding himself in the sanctuary of the United States of America.

There are two surprising facts about this piece of work. The first is that the film, “Der Fuhrer’s Face”, which depicts this sequence, won an Academy Award. The second is that the soldier depicted in the film saying “Heil Hitler” was none other than Donald Duck.

By today’s standards, this, without doubt, is very controversial. Despite the fact that the United States has been at a state of war since 2001, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll never see Donald Duck, or any famous cartoon character for that matter, in propaganda cartoons. In fact, it would be rare to come across this old cartoon if it weren’t for YouTube.

However, this was not the only Disney cartoon that was used as propaganda for World War II. The cartoon “Education For Death” was the most serious of these propaganda films from Disney. It uses the story “Hitler’s Children” by George Ziemer, to depict the education of a young boy named Hans who eventually becomes a Nazi soldier. The only humorous part of the film occurs at 2:30, when Hitler is revealed to be a handsome prince that will save Germany. Otherwise, the tone of the film is starkly serious as we watch Hans become a good Nazi soldier, and eventually die in battle.

Disney was not alone in producing cartoon propaganda. Warner Brothers also produced propaganda cartoons to boost morale. Aside from the shorts that were produced as advertisements for war bonds, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fought the axis. Daffy Duck, starred in “Daffy the Commando”, in which he raided a Nazi bunker run by an anthropomorphic crow and his sidekick Schulz.

Bugs Bunny starred in a more controversial cartoon called “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”, in which Bugs Bunny runs afoul of Japanese soldiers and bombs most of the Japanese army with various explosives. The reason for the controversy is that he used ethnic slurs while committing the violence, calling his victims “slanty eyes” and “monkey face.” Though this cartoon was racially insensitive, it was not one of Warner Brothers’ infamous “Censored Eleven”, and was even released on home video. Though after Japanese rights groups protested it, it was taken off the shelves, never to be released again.

But not all of these propaganda cartoons were offensive. One in particular taught the American public about saving money so you can pay your taxes. The Donald Duck cartoon, called “The Spirit of ’43”, begins with Donald Duck receiving cash on payday. He is then faced with two choices, follow the advice of his Uncle Scrooge to save his money for taxes or spend it on things he doesn’t need at a place that has the characteristics of a night club. Donald eventually comes to his senses and “pays his taxes to beat the Axis.”

Like many ugly things that have happened in history, these cartoons are important to save as a reminder of how far we’ve come in civil rights, what we deem appropriate for children, and the way we treat minorities. Although we will almost certainly never see a famous cartoon character in politically charged propaganda films, we have the internet to thank for preserving them. Th-th-th-that’s all folks!