“People want to know — how do we resist hate in America?”
That’s what USC history professor Steven Ross said the appeal of his latest book was. Although the nonfiction historical work explores a spy group’s efforts to combat fascist groups in America in the mid-1900s, Ross said the ideas apply more generally to how hate becomes popular and how governments can be complicit in it.
Titled Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, the book is set for release Tuesday. The work follows the journey of attorney Leon Lewis and the spy group he created to infiltrate and prevent fascist groups in Los Angeles from carrying out plots to kill Hollywood professionals and Jews living in the area.
Ross first began exploring Lewis and his operation while conducting research for his last book Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, according to his Dornsife faculty profile.
“I wanted to learn more about Hollywood’s response to Nazism, so I found an online exhibit from Cal State Northridge, called ‘In Our Own Backyard’ that documented fascist and Nazi activity in L.A.,” Ross said. “I went out to the library there and discovered there were over 200 boxes, filled with these reports, and it was just too much for what was going to be a page in a book. So I said when I was finished with Hollywood Left and Right, I would go back to Northridge and try to figure out what the story was. So that’s what I did.”
Ross started working on Hitler in Los Angeles in 2011, following the completion of his last book. According to Ross, he researched and wrote the book over the course of five years, finishing the manuscript in December 2016.
At first, Ross had trouble piecing together Lewis’ story with the documents he found at Cal State Northridge because most information about the spy operation was kept secret. He finally made a breakthrough by returning to USC, where he found detailed papers kept by Joe Roos, who worked closely with Lewis in his spying operation, Ross said.
“After reading 30 pages of [Roos’ papers], I knew exactly what the story was, because he explained exactly what was going on, and at that point I knew I had a thriller,” Ross said. “Not just a history book, but a thriller.”
Beyond the fascinating nature of the content, Ross said he wrote the book because he has a personal history with the Nazis’ actions.
“My parents are both Holocaust survivors,” Ross said. “My mother had been in Auschwitz, and my father in Dachau, and from childhood on, I wondered how all this could happen, and my childhood self asked, ‘Why didn’t Jews do more to fight [Adolf] Hitler?’”
Throughout his research, however, Ross found that his question was a commonly held misconception about Jewish action against Nazism. Many historians, including Ross initially, believed American Jews didn’t do enough to fight Hitler’s actions. But the real problem, he realized, wasn’t Jewish complacency, but rather a lack of action on the part of the American government partly because of its preoccupation with combating communism at home.
“I realized that I had been asking the wrong questions, as had many decades of historians,” Ross said. “What I found was that Jews were very active in combating Hitler … the real villain of this era isn’t Jewish complacency, but the American government and their obsession with finding ‘reds’ in America, and their virtual, total ignoring of Nazis and fascists in America.”
Conversely, Ross said the people who spied for Lewis saw Jews not as a separate group, but as Americans.
“[Of] the spies, the men and women who went to help Leon Lewis, only one was a Jew,” Ross said. “Everyone else was a Christian. And they believed they were fighting not on behalf of Jews, they were fighting on behalf of Americans. As far as they were concerned, the notion of the hyphenated American — the Jewish-American, the Catholic-American, the Black-American — the first part of the hyphen was an adjective, and what mattered was the noun, American, and they did not want to see one group attacking another group of Americans.”
Even before publication, the book is gaining widespread attention. Ross’ work has been featured in The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times. He attributes this attention to the presence of fascist groups in Los Angeles during WWII, which holds a stark similarity to the rise of modern-day hate groups.
“It’s a story of what happens when hate groups move from the margins to the mainstream of American society, and when government authorities are either complacent or complicit in it,” Ross said. “I think my book is a warning. It’s both a story of the past and a warning of the present, because [what we see now is] not real Nazis but neo-Nazis, not Klan members but white supremacists.”