Forgotten Disney: Education for Death

We conclude our Forgotten Disney series today with a very un-Disney Disney film. One of the many propaganda pieces the studio made during World War II, 1943’s “Education for Death.” Our guest reviewer is Dan Heaton.

Dan has been writing about film, TV, and music for nearly 15 years.  He started doing really basic reviews for a student magazine in college. Since then, he’s contributed to a variety of print and web publications, including DigitallyObsessed.com and ErasingClouds.com. You can check out his current work at his blog, Public Transportation Snob (ptsnob.com). Dan says, “The blog helps me to explore my film blind spots, interact with other movie fans, and work on my writing. I’m tackling marathons each month on a specific theme. Examples from the past year include That Crazy Nicolas Cage, When Am I? (time travel), We’re All Dead! (post-apocalyptic), and Cult Movies.”  He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and toddler daughter.

Education for Death

One of the lesser-known periods of Walt Disney’s career is his extensive work producing films for the government and armed forces during World War II. The company was reeling financially despite the huge success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. Disney used his most recognizable animated characters like Donald Duck to promote the war effort at home. Some of these short films were designed more for comedy, while others went further and took a more serious route to attack Hitler’s regime. Some of these pictures remain stunning today, especially when you consider the source. Disney’s movies and theme parks are successful because they masterfully deliver a specific message and feeling. His propaganda films were no different and remind us of his tremendous artistic and intellectual talents.

One of the prime examples is “Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi,” a 1943 release that depicts the ways Hitler’s regime indoctrinated kids from an early age. Based on a book of the same name by Gregory Ziemer, this 10-minute short provides a series of remarkable shots that strike at our hearts. Legendary animator Ward Kimball drives home the message with striking juxtapositions of characters in each frame. The shot of small boys giving the Hitler salute is effective and clearly delineates the point of this film. Director Clyde Geronimi is trying to show how the enemy is doing more than corrupting its adult citizens. They’re basically taking over their lives at birth and never letting go. The main character is a boy named Hans, and his parents must prove they’re pure Aryans right after he arrives. He never has a chance to do anything but serve Hitler and prepare for war. The shadow of the Nazi looms over them and takes up most of the screen as he grabs control of Hans’ life.

Art Smith narrates the story, which includes German dialogue and no subtitles. This is another purposeful move to avoid humanizing the Nazis by giving them clear communication. Having a narrator ensures there’s no doubt about the point of each shot. When Hans grows sick, the footage of his mom with her son reminds us there are humans living under Hitler. While they’re shot warmly, the Nazi soldier is presented like a monster ready to devour Hans. Smith calls him a “superman”, and his giant shadow fits with that over-the-top image of the villain. His teacher looks more like a regular guy, but he’s also a huge man who gets more imposing when Hans counteracts his message. He also ridicules the boy in front of the class — a clever way to show how peer pressure drives the German populace.

There are attempts at comedy with the much-different version of Sleeping Beauty that’s reportedly told to Nazi children. This is the only misstep of the movie and could easily have been removed. The joke of the very fat German woman and a goofball Hitler doesn’t work, and it takes Smith’s narration to explain the point. It’s a fairly short sequence and stands out because it feels tacked onto a generally convincing production. It seems designed solely to retain audiences who need generic comedy to stay focused. Once we exit this interlude, the remainder stays grim and on point.

The most convincing sequence is the final act, which shows Hans accepting and becoming a full member of the Nazi army. The hellish scene of book burning is enhanced when the Bible morphs into Mein Kempf. We also see the crucifix being replaced with a sword as the violent carnage ensues. While Hans quickly grows up and becomes completely shackled, it’s setting us up for the final shocker. The image of a row of gravestones as far as the eye can see is a definitive mission statement for the movie. Disney and the U.S. Government paint Hitler as a madman leading his people to ultimate destruction. It’s a classic piece of propaganda that creates a hyper reality from the worst elements of the Nazi regime. It might seem out of character for casual Disney fans, but they don’t really know the company’s namesake that well. He was a politically motivated guy who had more on his mind than creating fantasy. “Education for Death” is a surprising example from his past that is forgotten or unseen by most viewers. It’s a classic example of war-time propaganda and the rampant possibilities of the animated medium.

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2 thoughts on “Forgotten Disney: Education for Death

  1. While unsurprising, it’s still shocking to see these propaganda videos. I used to browse YouTube for a lot of these old propaganda cartoons and it’s just wild to see how offensive some of them are. The Popeye ones especially take a very vicious turn, but Disney is seldom associated with this. Really glad you picked this one!

  2. I was also interested in how the short shows pathos for the child forced into the Nazi regime. It sort of reminds us that Disney, the man and the organization, loved children everywhere (at least that’s one way to read it). Thank you for writing this article about a part in American film history that isn’t often looked at. I mean, we look at Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, and this isn’t like that – but it’s definitely biased, sledgehammer propaganda none the less.

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