It may seem like an odd question to some, but to others, the issue of Walt Disney and his supposed Nazi connection is of genuine concern. Even the popular television show “Family Guy” has poked fun at the controversy, but where does it come from?
In 1932, Disney released a cartoon called “The Wayward Canary,” in which the iconic character Mickey Mouse is briefly shown using a cigarette lighter painted with an image of a swastika. While this might seem shocking to us now, Disney may have greatly underestimated what Naziism would ultimately mean for the world. In 1932, the Third Reich had yet to be established. Hitler's totalitarian ambition was still largely just a dream, as he would not become Chancellor of Germany until the following year.
Hitler's antisemitism and potential for evil were certainly well-known in 1932, but Disney's motivation for the use of a swastika in his cartoon is much less well-known. The swastika has significance outside of Naziism, particularly in eastern religions. In fact, it was not incorporated into the Nazi flag or the German state flag until after Hitler's rise to chancellorship. While the brief image in “The Wayward Canary” does raise some interesting questions, it certainly does not offer anything conclusive.
Disney himself was less concerned with politics than he was with business. Even his well-documented distaste for unionization was all about his bottom line. In the early 1930s, Disney took an interest in the German American Federation (also called the German American Bund). This is where proponents of the Disney/Nazi connection have their most thought-provoking evidence. The German American Bund was fiercely pro-Nazi, and in fact dedicated their time, money and energy to promoting a pro-Nazi image in the states. But again, this likely had less to do with politics and more to do with his own ambitions. The German market potentially offered new opportunities for the ambitious Disney, and as a result, he may have made some unsavory contacts and very poor assessments in the 1930s.
But any curiosity that Disney may have entertained in the '30s was certainly shattered by Hitler's invasion of Poland and the dawning of World War II. During the war, Disney produced pro-American propaganda cartoons, the most famous of which being “Der Fuhrer's Face.” In the cartoon, Donald Duck is seen waking up in Nazi Germany, forced to salute Hitler while working in slave-like factory conditions. In the end, Donald determines that the whole ordeal was just a nightmare.
Is it possible that this too was just a smart business move, given America's fierce hatred of Nazis during WWII? The world will likely never know for certain.