This week, part two of our history of Dr. Seuss’s service in Frank Capra’s Army Signal Corps unit during World War II.
Last week we told you about Theodor Geisel’s work on the Private Snafu cartoon series, but his war-time service consisted of more than writing verse for delightful animated training films. One of Geisel’s most significant assignments was writing Your Job in Germany, an orientation film for United States Army personnel who would occupy Germany after the war was over. The project was assigned to Geisel in early 1944, over a year before the German surrender (also known as VE Day, May 8, 1945).
In Your Job in Germany, Theodor Geisel (himself a German-American) created a film that advised soldiers to remain suspicious of the German people. The film portrays warfare as part of the national culture of Germany and is a fascinating document of how the U.S. military planned to handle the occupation.
The message of Your Job in Germany is anything but subtle. According to the film, Army personnel should be on guard at all times because all Germans are a “potential source of trouble”. Youth in particular are singled out as the nation’s next big threat. The job in Germany is to prevent “Chapter 4”, or the next war. As the narrator intones, “The German people are not our friends.”
In fact, in one of the harshest passages of Geisel’s script, viewers are advised that even Germans who appear to regret their nation’s actions during World War II should not be taken seriously:
“They cannot come back into the civilized fold just by sticking out their hand and saying ‘sorry’. Sorry? Not sorry they caused the war; they’re only sorry they lost it. That is the hand that heiled Hitler; that is the hand that dropped the bombs on defenseless Rotterdam, Brussels, Belgrade. Don’t clasp that hand. It’s not the kind of a hand you can clasp in friendship.”
Your Job in Germany uses every tool in the filmmaking kit to pound this lesson home. In order to establish warfare as an overall pattern and culture of the German people, a jarring contrast is made between Germany at peace and Germany at war. The build-up to war features quick cuts, tense music, and an insistent narrator, while Germany at peace is represented with a wistful tone, images of the countryside, folk dancing, dirndls and lederhosen. Viewers are advised not to be lulled into a false sense of security.
The non-fraternization policy introduced by Your Job in Germany was not without detractors. Geisel said himself that that was the one part of the film he did not support. The sheer impracticality of the idea led officials to ease restrictions and then completely eliminate the regulations within months of the end of the war.
Perhaps the best stories of Geisel’s war-time service come from Geisel himself, as told to his biographers Judith and Neil Morgan in Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995).
After making his most significant contributions to the war effort while safely stationed at “Fort Fox” in California, Geisel was placed closer to the action when he was sent to Europe to screen Your Job in Germany for the approval of top generals. Traveling around France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in November of 1944 (six months before Germany’s official surrender), Geisel received a front-row seat to the vast destruction of the war, while bombings and artillery could still be heard from the front lines.
The situation got dicey when Geisel visited Bastogne, Belgium in December. The surprise German offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge erupted and Geisel was trapped ten miles behind enemy lines. It was three days before Geisel and his military police escort were rescued by the British.
Theodor Geisel’s final major assignment, in the summer of 1945, was to create a film that would impress upon postwar soldiers the danger of another world war. For his story, Geisel used a concept he found in a science article in the New York Times: the idea that a single glass of water contains enough energy to obliterate half of the planet.
Geisel spent three months drafting the script and storyboard for the film, only to have it ordered destroyed when officials immediately deemed it a danger to national security. Geisel would not have known at the time, but his own story was too similar to the reality of the atomic bomb that was used on Japan. (Interestingly, a similar story is told about the Private Snafu short “Going Home”, which was never released the troops. You can view it here.)
Even though Geisel’s biography reported that all records were destroyed, I had hoped there would be some shred of evidence at the National Archives—perhaps just a memo assigning the film to Theodor Geisel, or a mention of the project being cancelled. I asked archivist Patrick Osborn to look around, and despite his best efforts, he could turn nothing up. His conclusion was that it was likely we were searching for a needle in a haystack, but without the needle. (If anyone out there is inclined to take on a mission that is nearly assured to result in failure, please let me know if you find anything!)
Theodor Geisel completed his Army service January 27, 1946, having attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. It would not, however, be the last he would see of his projects for the Army. Warner Brothers’ version of Your Job in Germany was released in 1946 as Hitler Lives and won that year’s Academy Award for best documentary short. The following year, Geisel adapted Your Job in Japan for RKO into a feature-length documentary, Design for Death, that won the 1947 Academy Award.
As we all know, Theodor Geisel did not stay in the business of making films in Hollywood for long. Over the next decade, using his penname Dr. Seuss, he would establish himself as one of the most important authors of children’s books in America.