The neo-Nazi violence at Charlottesville, the persistence of hate speech by white supremacists such as Richard Spencer and the militant response of antifa forces in Berkeley, Calif., and elsewhere over the last few months have left many Americans wondering what to do when hate groups move from the margins into the mainstream of society, and when government authorities seem complacent or, as some would argue, complicit.
History provides us with potential answers. What we see today is a revival of the open hatred that permeated the American scene during the 1930s. Instead of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hyper-nationalists screaming, “The Jews will not replace us,” real Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and fascist groups with patriotic names such as the American Nationalist Party, marched in the streets of Los Angeles calling for “Death to Jews” on a regular basis. When Nazis held their first open meeting in Los Angeles in July 1933, seven months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the German Reich, they vowed to save America by destroying Communism and eliminating the Jewish menace — and they were prepared for murder if necessary.
The responses to hate and prejudice in the 1930s came in many forms, but none more startling or daring than the actions by Hitler’s representative in Los Angeles.
From April 1933 until July 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt expelled German diplomats from the United States, Ross Gyssling was the most reviled Nazi in Los Angeles. Hollywood studio heads hated him because he threatened to bar their films from Germany if they ignored his suggested cuts. Jewish leaders hated him because they considered the consul a militant Nazi who strictly toed the party line. Local Nazis, however, thought the opposite — they hated Gyssling because they viewed him as insufficiently militant and too soft on Jews.
The local Nazis were closer to the mark: Gyssling was not a true Nazi, but a double agent working against prejudice. During his nine years in Los Angeles, the man sent by Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to stop Hollywood from making any anti-Nazi films was passing valuable information about the faltering German economy, the German American Bund and German war plans to his Jewish friend Julius Klein, an officer in the Illinois National Guard. Klein in turn sent the information to General George C. Marshall, head of Army Intelligence. Ultimately, Gyssling found ways to maintain his German nationalism while working to undermine the anti-Semitism of the Nazi leader he despised.
Gyssling, a lawyer and World War I veteran, joined the German Foreign Service in 1919. He so impressed his superiors that they assigned him to the German consulate in New York in 1927. Pleased with his work, Ambassador Hans Luther sent him to Los Angeles six years later to serve as Hitler’s official representative to the Jewish-dominated motion picture industry.
Although he joined the Nazi party in 1931, Gyssling, like many in the Foreign Office, hated Hitler and felt trapped by leaders he loathed. “He thought Hitler was a disaster,” his daughter Angelica recalled. Gyssling was first and foremost a German nationalist who believed in tolerance and whose main loyalty lay with his nation and its peoples. “I grew up in a household where no one ever said ‘Heil Hitler’ or made any racial slur,” noted his daughter. To the extent he could, Gyssling placed the interests of his homeland ahead of the interests of the Nazi party and its ideology.
Gyssling was neither a saint nor a fool. Instead he lived “a two-sided life.” He excelled at his job, thwarting Hollywood attacks on Germany. Gyssling used the threat of exclusion from the profitable German market to prevent studios from making movies he deemed “detrimental to German prestige.” He also threatened reprisals against German screenwriters and actors if they participated in films that defamed Hitler or the Nazi government.
Nevertheless, at the same time, the German consul quietly worked to subvert Hitler’s climate of hate and anti-Semitism. He refused to openly attack Jews or make anti-Semitic pronouncements to the press. That refusal led to local Nazi leaders, including his personal physician, branding him a traitor and demanding Berlin replace him with “a completely unblemished national-socialistic personality who will join the battle” against the Jews.
The outraged Nazis didn’t know even a fraction of Gyssling’s disloyalty.
He represented all Germans in Los Angeles, regardless of their religion. He knew “the Jewish émigrés were in a hot spot,” his daughter recalled. “They were not American citizens; they certainly didn’t want anything to do with a Nazi official.” Yet Gyssling considered them German citizens and so he surreptitiously did what he could for them. He devised a secret telephone code by which Jews in need could contact him. “If somebody got on the phone and asked for ‘Dr. Ginsberg’,” Angelica recounted, “we knew it was from Jewish émigrés.”
Gyssling’s resistance went beyond his desire for tolerance. He also passed valuable German secrets to Klein, his friend in the Illinois National Guard. Both men carefully cloaked the true nature of their relationship, but Klein forwarded everything he learned to Marshall at the War Department.
Gyssling also initiated secret informal discussions through trusted German and Jewish intermediaries aimed at forging an agreement to loosen the regime’s legal mistreatment of Jews. If successful, Gyssling promised to take the proposal to German ambassador Hans Luther.
Gyssling wanted his government to tone down its persecution of Jews both because he believed persecution to be wrong, but also because it came at a high price. New York attorney Samuel Untermyer’s 1933 call for an international boycott of German products had taken a toll on the nation’s fragile economy. Gyssling was convinced that easing restrictions on Jews would end the boycott, thereby providing a shot in the arm for the German economy and a small victory for democracy.
The hoped-for agreement never materialized. But Gyssling continued his resistance efforts. In January 1940, after a three-day meeting of German diplomats to discuss the progress of the war in Europe, Gyssling stopped in Chicago to give Klein a thorough account of the proceedings. He told Klein about Germany’s long-range war plans: how the Gestapo was sending secret agents to the United States, how fifth columnists working in aircraft factories along the Pacific Coast were prepared to stop production of any weapons to be used against Germany and how German military attaches feared that if America entered the war before Hitler conquered Europe it would lead to Germany’s ultimate defeat.
Klein sent a detailed account of their debriefing to Marshall, to his nephew Joe Roos and to Jewish attorney Leon Lewis, who were running an undercover operation spying on Nazis and fascists in Los Angeles. Local and federal authorities responded to this information by increasing security at aircraft and munitions factories in southern California, while Lewis and Roos placed their spies on high alert looking for potential sabotage by German nationals working in those plants.
When Gyssling and his daughter returned to Germany in the summer of 1941, the Gestapo interrogated him for several days about complaints that he was too soft on Jews. Cleared of any wrongdoing but fearing arrest, Gyssling succeeded in getting himself transferred to a consular position in Merano, Italy.
The Gestapo had been right. Gyssling was not a loyal Nazi. In the spring of 1945, he became part of Operation Sunrise, secretly working with Allen Dulles, head of the Office of Strategic Services and future CIA director, to negotiate the peaceful surrender of German forces in northern Italy. Six days before the end of the European war, these efforts proved successful.
American authorities arrested Gyssling, as they did other Nazi officials. He remained in prison until being brought to Nuremberg, Germany, for interrogation in May 1947. Seven months later, however, the American Denazification Board cleared Gyssling on the strength of “resistance rendered.”
Evidence of “resistance rendered” came in the form of a character reference sent by Julius Klein, then a brigadier general. “This is the only testimonial I have ever given or would give to any German national who is accused of being a Hitler follower,” Klein wrote. He recounted knowing Gyssling during his tenure in Los Angeles and found him to be “the only one I met who was willing, at all times, to cooperate for the rebirth of a German Democracy,” including sharing information that proved “of great importance to our government.”
Following his release, Gyssling lived in small towns in Austria and Spain until his death on Jan. 8, 1965.
Gyssling’s story reveals that there are many paths of resistance to hate. Even as he overtly represented the Nazi regime, Gyssling repeatedly risked his life by defying Hitler. He believed the cause of tolerance and democracy was greater than the cause of hate.
Gyssling knew something that President Trump does not: stopping hate is not a partisan issue. It is a human issue. Gyssling knew that when it came to confronting hate groups, good people — even Nazis — could not stand by and watch democracy torn apart by violence and intolerance. Whether it is taking a knee for democracy or denouncing hate speech whenever we hear it, actions small and large by each one of us matters. It is a lesson worth remembering today.