There are several Walt Disney Rumors going around the internet. Most are simply made-up stories that create a particular narrative about the man. But there’s one persistent rumor that may have some validity.
In 1938, Europe was on the brink of war. Germany annexed Austria and occupied the Sudetenland. It was only a matter of time before Germany took Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland.
Despite the pending turmoil in Europe, most Americans wanted to stay as far away from the coming war as possible. Some even wanted the Nazis to win. This is where the Walt Disney rumor comes in. Was Walt a Nazi sympathizer?
The answer to that is complicated. Walt Disney was fiercely American. He loved everything about the United States. During World War II, he made dozens of war-related and propaganda films for the U.S. military. He even designed a Mickey Mouse gas mask.
So, given Walt’s steadfast loyalty to America, where did this rumor come from? It started with Hitler’s favorite director coming to America to sell her film.
In November 1938, German Director Leni Riefenstahl came to Hollywood to sell her documentary, Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1934, Adolf Hitler made her the official documentarian of the Nazi Party. Hitler commissioned the movie to show off the great success that was his Olympics. Her film was in two parts and ran for over four and a half hours.
The vast majority of Hollywood was against her before she even arrived. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League took out a full-page ad saying:
There is no room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl. In this moment when hundreds of thousands of our brethren await certain death, close your doors to all Nazi agents.
Hollywood shunned Riefenstahl, with two notable exceptions. The first was gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who attended a private film screening. Hopped worked for Hearst Newspaper, owned by William Randolph Hearst. In the 1930s, Hearst had many prominent fascists, including Benito Mussolini and Hitler, write columns for his papers.
The other member of Hollywood’s elite to break ranks and welcome Riefenstahl was none other than Walt Disney. Disney gave her a personal tour of the Walt Disney Studios and showed her the storyboards for his upcoming film, Fantasia (1940).
Despite that warm welcome, Disney refused to sit for a screening of Riefenstahl’s film. No one knows for certain why Disney invited her to his studio but then refused to watch her movie. Perhaps he was concerned about the backlash from the rest of Hollywood.
As for Riefenstahl, she returned to Nazi Germany in early 1939, bitter about her experience in America. She was the last member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle to die, passing away in 2003 at 101. Olympia was released in America in 1995 after Riefenstahl removed three minutes of Hitler footage.
Related: Walt Disney’s Housekeeper Died with an Amazing Secret
So was Walt Disney pro-Nazi or an antisemite? Sarah Colt, who was the director and producer of Walt Disney’s PBS American Experience documentary, told the Television Critics’ Association in 2015:
That’s just not based on any truths, so there’s no reason to bring it up in the film. It wasn’t relevant. There isn’t any evidence.
But that still leaves questions. Why did Walt Disney invite Hitler’s favorite filmmaker to his studio? Why did he then refuse to watch her film? We may never have the answers.