Did the Axis Have Any Funny Animals? – WWII history from Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
- SEE BOTTOM: At Fred’s request, a gallery of rare book illustrations from Van den Vos Reynaerde was scanned for this post by the UCRiverside Library.
- Animal fables traditionally tell morals – this article shows a historically fascinating misuse of anthropomorphism for fascist and Social Darwinist goals.
- “Dear Patch; This is basically rewritten from my article for Flayrah, Retrospective: Talking Animals in World War II Propaganda.“
Did the Axis Have Any Funny Animals?
Yes. Whether the Nazis and Italians did is technically debatable, but the Japanese certainly did.
(Oops! I am reminded that many younger people today do not know what “the Axis” was. “The Enemy” during World War II. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy signed a mutual defense treaty on October 25, 1936 that Italy’s Benito Mussolini described in a speech on November 1 as putting Europe on a Rome-Berlin axis. Imperial Japan joined in 1937. On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a Tripartite Pact and formally declared themselves the “Axis powers”. They were joined during the next month by Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. “The Axis” during World War II meant Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies.)
There were more funny animals assigned to them by American cartoonists for anti-Axis propaganda than there were of their own. The best-known today are probably the Leon Schlesinger/Warner Bros. animated short cartoons The Ducktators and Scrap Happy Daffy, and MGM’s Blitz Wolf.
In The Ducktators, directed by Norm McCabe and written by Melvin Millar, released on August 1, 1942, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are ducks, Benito Mussolini is a goose, and “the Jap” (a stereotypical “Jap”) is presumably also a duck (although he looks more like a coot).
In Scrap Happy Daffy, directed by Frank Tashlin and written by Don Christensen, released August 21, 1943, Daffy is confronted by a scrap-eating Nazi billygoat.
Blitz Wolf, directed by Tex Avery and written by Rich Hogan and Bill Thompson, released on August 22, 1942, portrayed an Adolf Hitler wolf fighting the three little pigs as American G.I.s.
But there were other American propaganda animated cartoons, generally forgotten today, with the Axis as anthro animals. In TerryToons’ The Last Round Up, directed by Mannie Davis and written by John Foster, released on March 15, 1943, Private Gandy Goose and Sergeant Sourpuss as American G.I.s confront Adolf Schicklgruber as a pig, with Mussolini as his pet monkey.
In Universal/Lantz’s Pigeon Patrol, directed by Alex Lovy and written by Ben Hardaway & Milt Schaffer, released on August 3, 1942, Homer Pigeon as an Army carrier pigeon has to deliver a message past a Japanese vulture.
In Ted Eshbaugh Studios’ Cap’n Cub, directed by Ted Eshbaugh & Charles B. Hastings (no writer credit), released in 1945 (no exact date), Cap’n Cub encourages the military to build a civilian air force and go hunting for Japanese warplanes, piloted by racist-looking monkeys.
The British did not make World War II propaganda animated cartoons. The Soviet Union’s Soyuzmultfilm studio generally stuck to caricaturing Nazi U-boats and the Luftwaffe as sharks and vultures, but in Kino-Tsirk (Cinema-Circus), directed by Leonid Amalrik & Olga Khodataeva and written by Amalrik, Khodataeva, Konstantin Gavryushin, N. Kopyevsky, & Nikolai Volkov, released in 1942 (no exact date), Hitler is burlesqued as an ugly dog trainer with Mussolini (Italy), Horthy (Hungary), and Antonescu (Romania) as his trained dogs, cavorting for his pleasure.
In American comic books and newspaper comic strips, those with human characters such as Terry and the Pirates and Little Orphan Annie fought Axis human villains. It was in the funny animal comics that the animal heroes fought German and Japanese animal villains, none of whom were very memorable. American propaganda never bothered with Italy.
What did the Axis have of its own? Nazi Germany did not believe in funny animals. It left them to the decadent democracies, except for Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda’s periodic denunciations of Mickey Mouse as an ugly, disease-spreading rodent. Germany did not have a state-controlled animation studio at the time, and its largest private animation studio, Fischerkösen-Film-Produktion in Leipzig, was run by Hans Fischerkösen (or Fischerkoesen), about as public an anti-Nazi as he could get away with. He ignored Goebbels’ “requests” to make pro-Nazi cartoons, and subtly satirized Nazi doctrine. When he released Das Dumme Gänslein (The Silly Goose) in 1944, about a vain goose tricked by a fox who wants to eat her, Goebbels announced that the fox was obviously a Jew! Fischerköesen kept quiet.
(Note from Patch: There’s a great separate topic about subversion in Nazi-era animation. Public resistance to Nazis was deadly. In Munich, there’s a memorial for executed student heroes of the White Rose movement that’s very intense to visit. But Fischerkoesen’s work showed quiet resistance. It shows up in his other works, like Der Schneemann. In that story, the end of winter and melting snow is seen as a poignant wish for Germany to survive the Nazi regime.)
Goebbels did consider it an affront to Nazi Germany that it did not have an animation studio that could compete with the American output of Disney, Warner Bros., the Fleischer Studios, MGM, and so many others. He pulled strings to create a massive, state-of-the-art animation studio in Berlin, Deutsche Zeichenfilm G.m.b.H., announced in August 1941 with plans for art classes and 4,000 animators. But it was built with careful Teutonic planning, and did not open until late 1942. It only managed to make one 17-minute featurette, Armer Hansi (Poor Hansi) with anthro birds, before Allied bombing raids closed the studio.
Ironically, the biggest “Nazi” funny animal wasn’t really Nazi, but Dutch. The so-called “Nazi equivalent of Orwell’s Animal Farm” was actually censored by the Nazis. During the 1930s, as the Nazis consolidated their hold on Germany, its equivalent party in the Netherlands, the Nationaal Socialistische Bewening (NSB), tried to do the same there. One of its most ardent members, Robert van Genechten, was the editor of the NSB’s literary magazine, Nieuw-Nederland. Genechten was a fervent believer in the Nazi “New Order” philosophy, and felt that the NSB should support it. As the editor of Nieuw-Nederland, he wanted to use the magazine to promote “a New Literature for the New Order”.
In its November 1937 issue, he published his own Van den Vos Reynaerde, Ruwaard Boudewijn en Jodocus (About Reynard the Fox, Regent Baldwin, and Jodocus), a “sequel” to the Medieval Reynard the Fox folk tale. This ran for only pages 336 to 347 of the magazine, 11 pages, so presumably it was not the same Van den Vos Reynaerde that he published as a 98-page novel in 1941, even if the book had illustrations to pad it out.
(See bottom of post for a special gallery. The classical style illustrations were scanned from a rare book just for this post, by the UCRiverside Library, at Fred Patten’s request.)
In the 12th-century written version Van den Vos Reynaerde, Le Roman de Renert, Reinhart Fuchs, etc. that is admittedly written from earlier oral versions, numerous anthropomorphized animal nobility complain to the lion king of the beasts at his royal court that Baron Reynard the fox has victimized them. The king (variously named King Leo or King Noble) orders Reynard to be brought to court to answer the charges; but each of the animal nobles sent to arrest Reynard is tricked by him, usually leading to that animal’s death or disfigurement. At the conclusion, Reynard is allowed to live, but is sentenced to house arrest in his castle, Maupertuis; a comfortable life imprisonment. This folk tale, in long or short versions, is the origin of many animal names: Reynard the fox, Bruin the bear, Chanticleer the rooster, Tybalt the cat, Baldwin the ass, Isengrim the wolf, Grimbert the badger, Cuwart the hare, Lapreel the rabbit, Courtoys the hound, Tyselyn the raven, Bellen the ram, Scratchfoot the hen, Corbant the rook, Martin the ape, and others.
Genechten’s sequel takes place several years later, after King Leo/Noble has died. The heir, Prince Lionel, is not old enough to rule, so the land is under a council of regency led by Baldwin the ass. Reynard is living quietly in his castle, and all is well, when a tribe of wandering rhinoceros merchants comes into the country. The story makes blatant comparisons of the rhinos’ nose-horns with the Nazi stereotype of Jews having big hooked noses. The leader of the rhinos is Jodocus, an invented name sounding extremely close to “Jew” in Dutch. Jodocus fawningly explains that the rhinos are only peaceful merchants who want to live in harmony in the Animal Kingdom. They gradually insinuate their way into the ruling classes by describing what is in vogue in the rest of the animal world, especially democracy and the marrying of animals outside their species. Soon the rhinos volunteer for more responsibilities, while the animal nobility produce cat-chicken and bear-rabbit offspring, all of which are ugly and stupid, illustrating the Nazi teaching of Racial Purity. Jodocus flatters Baldwin, who is vain and easily fooled, and soon gets the rhinos appointed as the Animal Kingdom’s tax collectors. Meanwhile, Reynard has been quietly watching all this. He realizes that the rhinos are deliberately weakening the Kingdom to take it over. At the last moment, he rallies the animal National Socialist commoners to revolt against and kill the rhinos, and support Prince Lionel who is now old enough to rule (incidentally supporting the old animal order).
Genechten was so proud of his story that he tried to have a German edition published. He was shocked when the Ministry of Propaganda rejected it, with a condescending putdown that, while he may have meant well, the topics of the International Jewish Menace and Racial Purity were too serious to be satirized. Also, Reynard the fox was too well-established in European folklore as a liar, thief, and murderer to make a good Nazi role-model. (Off the record, the Nazis never liked any satire. Also, they did not want equal partners with their own ideas; they wanted followers who would just take orders.)
It was no go at the time, but in May 1940 Germany occupied the Netherlands as part of World War II. The Germans immediately needed willing Dutch collaborators to fill their new puppet government. Genechten volunteered, and was accepted as the new Procurator General; the Dutch equivalent of the Attorney General. This made him important enough that he was able to have Van den Vos Reynarde (the title was shortened on the cover) published in March 1941 as a handsome hardcover 98-page book, with illustrations by Maarten Meuldijk. The publisher was De Amsterdamsche Keurkamer, a new press established for NSB and Nazi propaganda. Van den Vos Reynaerde remained on sale in the Netherlands and the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium throughout the rest of the war. It quickly disappeared when the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, and has not been openly on sale since then, although Dutch Neo-Nazi groups are trying to keep it in print.
Genechten also used his political connections to have Van den Vos Reynaerde filmed as the Netherlands’ “first animated feature”, although it was only about 20 minutes long. It was produced by Nederland Film, a new studio created in 1941 for NSB cinematic projects; Van den Vos Reynaerde, directed by studio head Egbert van Putten (though he later said that he was a director in name only since his duties for the rest of the studio required him to go on tour often; most of the animators, who were veterans from George Pal’s former studio, were experienced enough to be left on their own) from an adaptation of Genechten’s novel by Henk Plaizier.
(Note from Patch: The making of “the biggest production of the Dutch film industry during the war” is detailed in this history article – Reynard the Fox and the Jew Animal.)
The film followed Genechten’s story closely. The major change was in the animated film’s visuals. Meuldijk’s book illustrations of natural, unclothed, four-legged forest animals were turned into Medieval clothes-wearing, two-legged funny animals.
Van den Vos Reynaerde was finished, and had a big gala premiere for the filmmakers and NSB and German officials (but not the public?) on Sunday, April 25, 1943 at the prestigious Asta cinema in The Hague. But after all that, it was never released. The Germans controlled all Dutch film distribution, and the only print of the film was brought to Berlin, where it was lost during the fall of that city in 1945. No reason was ever given for its lack of distribution, but presumably it was a combination of the lack of Jews remaining in the Netherlands by mid-1943, making the film largely irrelevant, and the increasing passive resistance of the Dutch people to the German authorities. The Germans realized that such a blatant propaganda film would probably be massively boycotted, and that it would not be worth the war-critical cinematic stock to have prints made.
Van den Vos Reynaerde was considered a lost film, until its separate elements were rediscovered in Berlin between 1991 and 2005. The first to be rediscovered was one silent reel of 6 minutes, which is often cited as the running time of the whole film. The whole movie was first assembled and shown at the November 2006 Holland Animation Film Festival in Utrecht, for an academic audience. The film notes do not give the running time, which still appears in various sources as 6 minutes, 13 minutes, or 20 minutes. The few reviews agree that it is very well made, but extremely anti-Semitic. Probably neither the book nor the film could be released today due to laws in most Western countries against hate literature.
Most of Italy’s few animated propaganda cartoons did not show any funny animals, although in INCOM’s 1941 short Il Dottor Churkill, directed by Luigi Liberio Pensuti, an evil Winston “Churkill” drinks a ‘democracy’ potion and turns into a “Mister Hyde” murderous gorillalike (but still cigar-smoking) monster.
Ah, but the Japanese. Japan’s amateur animators had begun making propaganda short one- and two-reel cartoons glorifying the military in the 1930s, usually with little-boy or anthropomorphized monkey pilots. This came to a head when the Chinese Wan Brothers produced the first Oriental animated feature, Princess Iron Fan, in Shanghai in January 1941. Captured prints were brought to Japan and released in early 1942; Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka, who was then 13 years old, later said it was what first inspired him to become an animator.
Princess Iron Fan was a big hit throughout Japan in 1942, despite China being Japan’s enemy in the war. This was noted by Japan’s military-controlled government, which felt embarrassed by Japan’s inability to make anything comparable. The government, specifically the Naval Ministry, decided that animated propaganda was ideal to promote Japan’s war effort, especially to children. It went to Geijutsu Eigasha (Art Cinema Company), the largest of Japan’s tiny animation studios, whose director was Mitsuyo Seo, who had already made several animated shorts during the 1930s. The government offered Seo a sweetheart deal – unlimited access to war-critical cinematic supplies, and draft deferment for the studio’s animators – if he would assemble the nation’s separate animators to make a single major animated film glorifying the Imperial Navy and its fighter planes. Seo agreed.
Momotarō no Umiwashi (Momotarō’s Sea Eagles) was a modernization of Japanese folklore’s little-boy hero Momotarō (Peach Boy), who had four animal companions: a monkey, a bear cub, a puppy, and a pheasant. Seo turned Momotarō into a modern little-boy admiral, with his “sea eagles” as his funny-animal naval pilots; all monkeys, bear cubs, puppies, and pheasants – the deck crew on the aircraft carrier are all bunnies. Their sneak attack on “Devil Island” was an obvious pastiche of Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor; it even included rotoscoped Japanese newsreel footage. Admiral Momotarō stays behind on the Japanese flagship; the movie is almost entirely about the funny-animal naval pilots, especially the friendly rivalry between the puppy and monkey airmen of one of the attacking planes. The animators had no hesitation in using American copyrighted cartoon characters; a running gag is Bluto from the Fleischer Studios’ Popeye cartoons frantically trying to escape to a “devil” ship that isn’t sinking yet.
Momotarō no Umiwashi was released on March 25, 1943; distributed by the national cinema distributor Shochiku Moving Picture Laboratory. At 37 minutes, it was almost but not quite a feature. It was extremely popular. The Naval Ministry immediately “suggested” that Seo’s studio make a feature twice as long. Geijutsu Eigasha was too small for that, so – again at the Ministry’s “suggestion” through the military-controlled national government – Geijutsu Eigasha closed down and was reconstituted as the animation division of Shochiku.
The sequel, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei (Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors), was exactly twice as long; 74 minutes – which was one minute longer than the 73-minute Princess Iron Fan. It was Japan’s first animated theatrical feature, and it almost entirely featured funny animals. If Momotarō no Umiwashi was the IJN’s attack on Pearl Harbor with funny animals, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei was the IJN’s conquest of the Dutch East Indies and Singapore with funny animals. The movie had several abrupt jumps in its plot, implying that Seo divided his studio into several independent units and assigned each of them a part of the film:
(1) Four just-graduated naval cadets, a puppy, bear cub, monkey, and pheasant (Momotarō’s traditional animal companions in modern naval uniforms), return to their home village to tell their families and friends goodbye before shipping out. The monkey’s young brother plays with his uniform’s cap, falls in a swift river, and is rescued by the monkey and the puppy. (2) The IJN, shown as bunny sailors, construct an air base on an Indonesian island (Wikipedia says Celebes in particular) while Indonesian animals in native dress look on and help. (3) A plane arrives with Admiral Momotarō and the four animal companions, who are his naval staff. (4) The IJN constructs a jungle school and the puppy musically teaches the Indonesian animals their first Japanese word, asahi (rising sun). (5) Scenes of happy IJN life: washing clothes, getting mail from home, the sweating sailors (Indonesia is on the Equator) marveling at the local animals and plants, etc., interspersed with action showing the Navy preparing to attack the enemy. (5) A “why we fight” sequence, in silhouette animation, showing the 17th-century Indonesian sultanates being conquered by Dutch merchants. (6) Japanese naval planes taking off from their air base, flying to the enemy base (British), parachuting down, and conquering it. (7) The British surrender, in a rotoscoped Ford automobile plant in Singapore (where the British Army surrendered), familiar to the Japanese public through newsreels). (8) The Japanese public (the home village from the beginning of the movie) getting the news of the victory on the radio, and celebrating.
The feature is full of subtleties, especially if you know WWII history. The Japanese sailors are handsome or cute funny animals, while the Indonesian animals are comical and grotesque “simple and happy natives”. The Japanese sailors clearly consider themselves superior to the Indonesians, though they are not used to the Equatorial climate. The British are shown as cowardly, with “foreign devil” horns. The Japanese government had set up several “independent” puppet nations during the 1930s and early ‘40s – Manchukuo, Burma, the Philippines, Japanese-occupied China – but none in Indonesia because it intended that Indonesia would become a wholly integrated part of the Japanese Empire, as Korea was. This may be why the Japanese animals are shown as so patronizing to the Indonesian animals. At the end of the movie, the Japanese animal children play at being paratroopers, jumping onto an outline map of the United States – the next target. Japan was not yet under American occupation and cultural influence, and Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei shows a Chinese artistic influence, particularly in the gently drifting dandelion seeds = falling paratroopers.
Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei must have seemed sardonically ironic to the Japanese public when it was released on April 12, 1945. Japan was losing the war on all fronts, was already undergoing massive bombing raids, and was only four months from total surrender.
Both Momotarō no Umiwashi and Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei abruptly disappeared as soon as the American Occupation forces entered Japan in late 1945. They were mostly forgotten – in fact, it was widely assumed that the American authorities had seized and destroyed all prints — until they were quietly released on the new home video market decades later; Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei by Shochiku in 1984 and Momotarō no Umiwashi in 2004. Today Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei is available free on YouTube, while Momotarō no Umiwashi is on a commercial DVD of early Japanese animation.
That’s it for the Axis funny animals.
Special gallery: illustrations were scanned from a rare book just for this post, by the UCRiverside Library, at Fred Patten’s request. They depict Nazi beliefs about “race mixing.”
From Van den Vos Reynaerde, by Robert van Genechten, the “Nazi equivalent of Orwell’s Animal Farm”: