Arnie and the Jews

August 07, 2003

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach a feature article I wrote in December 1996 for the Jerusalem Post arts and entertainment section, titled "Arnie and the Jews."

As recipients of this list no doubt know by now, Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for the position of what the New York Post is calling "Governator" of California.

It is quite likely that his father's background is going to attract some press if not negative ads. (His father was a Nazi Party member.)

But as the article makes clear, and as I believe to be the case, any suggestion that Arnold Schwarzenegger has ties to anti-Semites is unjustified. Quite the contrary. Schwarzenegger has for years donated money to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he has helped raised millions of dollars for the Holocaust Memorial Trust in Los Angeles, he has visited Israel, and he has been presented by then mayor Roni Milo (who is soon to become Israel's ambassador to London) with a "golden key" to Tel Aviv.

In 1989, Schwarzenegger successfully sued a British newspaper which had suggested he was an anti-Semite.


Arnie and the Jews
By Tom Gross
The Jerusalem Post
December 16, 1996

In Hollywood and here in Israel, opinions are divided over Arnold Schwarzenegger's suitability to portray a 'good' Nazi. Tom Gross reports.

There is controversy in Hollywood over the reported intention of Arnold Schwarzenegger to portray a "nice Nazi" in a new film.

According to reports, Joel Schumacher (who is presently directing the latest Batman film, for which Schwarzenegger is receiving $20 million to star as Mr. Freeze), offered the Austrian-born muscleman a curt four letters of advice on making the film: "Don't."

Several leading film directors have turned down offers to make the film, tentatively titled "With Wings of Eagles," after initially expressing interest in it, according to sources in Los Angeles. Some of these directors, who don't want to go on the record, are said to have admitted in private that they are concerned the film might "offend Hollywood's powerful Jewish lobby."

A few weeks ago, Alan Ladd, the producer behind Blade Runner and Braveheart, said he was "fully confident" that filming would start in January. But now Ladd's employers, Paramount Pictures, are declining to discuss the project.

Much of the controversy stems from Schwarzenegger's own background. In the past, the superstar actor has strongly denounced the Nazis, including his own father, Gustav. Yet Schwarzenegger, 49, continues to be plagued by rumors that he is a Nazi sympathizer, partly due to his friendship with Kurt Waldheim, whom he invited to his wedding in Massachusetts in 1986. At the time, Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary-general, was running a successful campaign that would see him elected to the Austrian presidency, while conveniently "forgetting" his own central role in Nazi atrocities. A year later Waldheim was banned from entering America.

Schwarzenegger's supporters point to the fact that he has donated money to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and raised millions of dollars for the Holocaust Memorial Trust in Los Angeles. He also visited Israel last year, to promote the opening of the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Tel Aviv, of which he is part-owner. Among others, he met prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Tel Aviv Mayor Ronni Milo presented him with a golden key to the city.

In 1989, he successfully sued a British newspaper which had suggested he was an antisemite. Yet the rumors continued after Schwarzenegger was photographed last year with Jorg Haider, leader of Austria's extreme right-wing Freedom Party. Haider has praised Hitler's "sensible policies" and also been filmed at a secret SS reunion.

But Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who has known Schwarzenegger for many years, came to a vigorous defense of the actor. "Arnold has every right to make the film," Hier told The Jerusalem Post. "The attacks on him are grossly unfair. This is guilt by association of the worst kind.

"Plenty of people, including many leading Jews, were happy to meet former German president Richard von Weizsäcker, even though his father Ernst von Weizsäcker was a leading Nazi criminal sentenced at Nuremberg. Arnold's father, on the other hand, while a Nazi Party member, was never accused of any crimes, and worked as a postal inspector.

"Being a major movie star, Arnold is photographed with many thousands of people. He doesn't even know who 99 percent of them are. Haider contacted him in order to try and have his photo removed from our rogues' gallery [of contemporary extreme-Right figures, at the Simon Wiesenthal Center museum]. Arnold then called me to find out why Haider was included, and after hearing the explanation told Haider 'You're up there because you deserve to be.'

"He wants no truck with Haider or Waldheim. His brief contact with them was an oversight which he strongly regrets," said Hier. "He probably did not have any clue as to the seriousness of the allegations against Waldheim at that time [in 1986]. To suggest that Arnold's an antisemite is preposterous. He's done more to further the cause of Holocaust awareness than almost any other Hollywood star.

"Not only does he regularly make substantial donations to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which he began helping in 1984, before the Waldheim accusations had even come to light, he has also hosted functions for us, including some in his private home. These allegations stick like glue. Anyway Arnold never said for sure he is going to do the film," said Hier.

Since emigrating to the US in 1968, the superstar has established himself in the very fabric of American popular culture, albeit with an Austrian accent. His status as an American icon was secured by his 1986 marriage to Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan, and by his appointment in 1990 as head of the President's Council of Physical Fitness and Sports.

THE plot of "With Wings of Eagles" is based around the true story of a Wehrmacht captain called Ostermann, who refused to shoot a group of British POWs. But it has become highly fictionalized.

"In the draft script, Schwarzenegger bursts into Gestapo HQ in Berlin and shoots half the Gestapo and SS," said Hier, who was asked by writer Randall Wallace (who wrote the screenplay for this year's Oscar-winning movie, Braveheart), to read the script. "The film clearly shows who are the bad guys."

Schwarzenegger is reported to have told friends that the German officer he wants to portray "is no friend to Hitler's government and a real challenge to play."

Esquire, which started the ruckus with a story in its December issue (under the headline "Springtime for Arnold") and also published a contrived photomontage showing Schwarzenegger giving a straight-arm salute under a spoof film title "Saturday Night Führer," has agreed to apologize to Schwarzenegger in its January edition, according to Hier.

But even those who dismiss the allegations over Schwarzenegger's political opinions, question whether he is the right sort of actor for this film.

Although he has done a few comedies - his latest, Jingle All The Way, opened here this week - "The Austrian Oak," who started out as a body-builder and has won the Mr. Universe title a record 13 times, is best-known for playing violent, trigger-happy characters such as secret agents, barbarians, and killer robots in a series of highly successful commercial blockbusters. Terminator 2 alone earned more than $506 million worldwide.

The reaction here to the controversy has been mixed. One Jerusalem-based Holocaust researcher, who did not wish to be named, said: "If one tries to tell the history of World War II from a perspective of resisters and likable action heroes, this is in fact a form of revisionism. That wasn't the way things were. Even if Schwarzenegger has been supportive of the Wiesenthal Center, that he should even conceive of making a film about the war and do it from the perspective of the extremely rare good Nazi is curious.

"Spielberg also told the story of one of the very few good Germans, but he gave a very clear background picture of what was happening and clearly showed Schindler was a very ambiguous hero, if a hero at all. It's doubtful that Schwarzenegger with his particular style of movie-making and use of vocabulary could convey such a historically important background."

Harry Wall, director of the Anti-Defamation League office in Jerusalem, took a different view. "If handled correctly and sensitively, we would welcome such a film," he said. "Big-budget and television docudramas have a tendency to sanitize the Holocaust, yet there is an educational value that can supersede the lack of reality.

"Schindler's List, for all its faults, made countless more people aware of the Holocaust than much more authentic books and films. If Hollywood can lend itself to Holocaust education, we would welcome it."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.