“Some of My Best Friends Are in Concentration Camps”: The Absence of Jews in Hitchcock’s WWII Films

During the late ’30s and the early ’40s, Alfred Hitchcock created a series of films pertaining to Europe’s political issues and the Second World War. Using both explicit dialogue and implicit metaphorical representations, Hitchcock presents his opinions on Hitler, Nazi Germany, and what the Allies must do to be victorious through movies like Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), and Lifeboat (1944). Endless scholarly tomes are dedicated to dissecting Hitchcock’s allegories and determining his ideological views; however, throughout Hitchcock’s numerous political films, he seems to discuss only the fight against Hitler and Nazism without discussing the other major event of that time: the Holocaust.

Both World War II and the Holocaust are rooted in Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, which fueled his anti-Semitic rhetoric and his desire for Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German people. Thus, this avoidance of “the Jewish question” within Hitchcock’s work would seem to be a blatant omission on the director’s part. This is especially true when we consider that Hitchcock lived in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power between 1933 and 1939, the widespread news of anti-Semitic events in Germany like the passage of the Nuremberg Laws (September 15, 1935) and Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), as well as Hitchcock’s collaboration with famed Hollywood screenwriter and fervent Zionist Ben Hecht on many of these scripts. It would therefore seem likely that Hitchcock would include some deep metaphorical subtext within his films regarding this issue even though it has not previously been discussed.

In Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, Lester Friedman points out that “during the war years, it was assimilation, not the need to expose anti-Semitism that dominated the thinking of the Hollywood community” (95). As such, it remains somewhat difficult to distinguish assimilated American Jews from Gentile characters in films from this time period due to the Jewish characters’ respective desire to blend into American society. Audiences therefore had to rely on stereotypical features such as a large, bulbous nose, dark hair, or a typically Jewish name to uncover a Jewish subtext within a film. In Hitchcock’s films which allegorize World War II, we would expect Hitchcock to include other stereotypical characteristics about European Jews under Nazi control within each film’s undertones. For example, a character representing the Jews would have to be either verbally or physically victimized by the Nazis (if not killed) in order to demonstrate the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism. Similarly, we would presume the Jewish character to be physically weak and not to stand up to the Nazi character even in the face of certain death. Of course, these points must be compared with all other possible allegorical connections in order to determine if that character’s relationship to Jews is indeed veracious. If there is another potential link, then we should assume that the other metaphor is correct since Hitchcock tends to concentrate his political films on democracy and not anti-Semitism.

The 39 Steps

Beginning in 1934 (not coincidentally the year of Hitler’s declaration of German dictatorial power), Hitchcock created a series of politically-themed spy-thrillers in Britain. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were all set against a backdrop of contemporary European politics. These films focus on foreign spy rings plotting the demise of Britain who must be stopped by English citizens, typically an ordinary person caught in an extraordinary situation.

Hitchcock biographer and critic Donald Spoto finds that “in all Hitchcock’s apparently political spy-chase thrillers, the international issue is merely his pretext for examining quite personal and emotional issues — thus his refusal to specify a ‘cause’ or to identify the nation involved” (38). As such, there are some conflicting ideologies within some of these films. The international spy ring in The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example, was based on a real-life incident involving Russian anarchists (Truffaut 89), yet Hitchcock’s casting of Peter Lorre, an Austrian actor who found fame in Germany with a key role in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), suggests that the group may be from continental Europe. Additionally, the British policeman Gibson’s (George Curzon) speech comparing this assassination plot to the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand connotes another link to the spies’ representation of Germany by re-drawing the old battle lines of World War I.

Hitchcock was similarly vague in The 39 Steps as Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) is a British civilian working undercover for an unnamed hostile foreign country; in fact, Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) is conspicuously shot before he can divulge the country for which the spy ring is working. Throughout the rest of the ’30s, Hitchcock would become more overt in his films’ connections to Germany. Secret Agent follows Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud), an undercover British officer who is sent to Switzerland to kill a German agent during the First World War, and Sabotage centers its story on an underground group of German and English terrorists headed by the foreign Karl Verloc, who was played by Austrian actor Oscar Homolka. However, it is not until 1938’s The Lady Vanishes that Hitchcock creates his first true allegory for the impending war.

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes is set in the fictional Central European country of Bandrika, which is intended to stand in for Nazi-controlled countries. In the film, an elderly British spy named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) knows vital secret information about a peace treaty that she must bring to her superiors in London. While on a train traveling to England, Froy is kidnapped by a spy ring led by Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), and she must be rescued by Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a British woman whom she had only met recently. The other British passengers on the train deny having seen Froy as they refuse to get involved with a matter unrelated to their lives. Sam Simone finds that this action is “indicative of isolationism” (21) and Maurice Yacowar, quoting Gavin Lambert, believes that “the British passengers still cling to an obstinate isolationism, reluctant to take the enemy seriously” (247). In fact, the passengers (outside of Iris) only begin to understand the danger of the situation after the cricket-obsessed Charters (Basil Radford) is shot in the hand and pacifist lawyer Todhunter (Cecil Parker) is killed by Bandrikan soldiers despite holding up a handkerchief as a white flag of surrender. The officers are appropriately dressed in outfits reminiscent of Nazi SS uniforms with their long trenchcoats, insignia-patched collars, black leather gloves, and peaked caps.

Hitchcock’s political commentary seems to present two opposing forces, the British and the Bandrikan-Nazis, with Miss Froy caught in the middle between them. Different critics have different interpretations of Froy’s role in the picture. Simone finds that Froy represents the vanishing autonomous nations of Austria and Czechoslovakia (22) while Geoffrey O’Brien describes her as “Englishness itself in its least threatening form.” However, a case can be made for Froy as a metaphor for European Jewry. Her disappearance at the hands of the Bandrikan-Nazis mirrors the plight of many Jews who would be taken silently from their homes by German soldiers and deported to concentration camps in what was known as the country’s Nacht und Nebel (“Night and Fog”) policy. Their neighbors would claim that these people simply vanished as they fell victim to Hitler’s Final Solution. The Bandrikan officer’s speech on the train emphasizes this comparison as he presents a message of fabricated safety to the passengers in order to get them off the train and presumably kill them; these tactics are reminiscent of Hitler’s Gestapo. If Froy stands in for the Jews, then Hitchcock seems to be arguing for the British to open their eyes to the Nazi atrocities and fight back, not just for the safety of the Jews, but for themselves.

Unfortunately for this analysis, this interpretation seems to be stretched too far beyond its historical limits. While anti-Semitic violence was prevalent by 1938, the Nazis did not truly begin rounding up Jews and placing them in concentration camps until the invasion of Poland in 1939. The first death camps, built for the sole purpose of exterminating the Jewish population, were correspondingly built after the beginning of the war. Similarly, the Nacht und Nebel policy was not instituted by the Nazis until 1941. As such, it is far more likely that Froy represents her most direct connection to British political intelligentsia and her message of a covert peace treaty would symbolize the Munich Agreement, which occurred in September 1938.

Foreign Correspondent

Hitchcock’s direct allegories would continue in his first two political films made in America: Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. The former film follows American journalist Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), later renamed Huntley Haverstock as a pen name, who is sent to Europe in 1939 to cover the beginning of World War II. While overseas, Haverstock unintentionally uncovers a Nazi spy ring that publicly fakes the assassination of a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) in order to extract vital information from the foreign official privately without disturbance. While initially neutral (like the United States at this time), Haverstock joins forces with British journalist Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) and Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) in order to defeat the enemy. The film ends with Haverstock giving a propaganda statement over the radio as London is being bombed by the Nazis. Haverstock implores America to “keep those lights burning” because “they’re the only lights left in the world,” essentially pleading the country to drop its isolationist views and join the Allied forces.

As in The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent is split into two opposing sides, the Americans and British against the Nazis, with Van Meer caught in the middle this time. Just like Miss Froy, Van Meer’s likeliest real-life counterpart would not be the Jews, but his job in the film: the diplomat or representative of a country that has fallen to Nazi control. On the other hand, Hitchcock seeks to uncover American fascism or the Nazi influence in America in Saboteur. The lead character is Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), an American airplane factory worker, who is wrongly accused of starting a fire at his workplace. Kane travels across the country in order to find Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), the real arsonist, and clear his own name. The film once again pits the American hero against the Nazi villains, but does not contain any characters that could symbolize the Jews. The person who is most victimized by the Nazi spy group is Kane, who represents American innocence. Thus, throughout these two blatantly propagandistic films, Hitchcock avoids any mention or symbolic depiction of Jewish suffering.

Hitchcock continues this investigation of fascism within America in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Hitchcock continues this investigation of fascism within America in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). In his article “Hitchcock and Fascism,” Robin Wood interprets Uncle Charlie’s (Joseph Cotten) demeaning speech about “useless…, faded, fat greedy [widows]” as a severely restricted misogynistic Fascism aimed against “women of a highly specific age (old), class (wealthy), social status (widow), physical type (fat), character (silly), and social value (useless)” (34). Michael Walker supports Wood’s theory, stating that “the Nazi overtones [in Charlie’s speech] are unmistakable: the idea that ‘useless’ human beings should be ‘put down’” (196). Hitchcock later creates a similar speech promoting holier-than-thou killings in 1948’s Rope, with the character saying the line, Brandon (John Dall), actually compared to Hitler. Shadow of a Doubt therefore seems to position Uncle Charlie’s Fascist ideology against the small-town American Puritanism of his niece Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), her new boyfriend Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and the rest of the citizens of Santa Rosa. Thus, the vitriol which Uncle Charlie directs toward widows mirrors Hitler’s numerous anti-Semitic speeches. Walker points out that “one of Uncle Charlie’s contemptuous phrases for the widows — ‘smelling of money’ — is precisely the sort of racist rhetoric the Nazis directed at the Jews” (196). Similarly, Uncle Charlie’s animal comparison of the widows to swine brings to mind the Nazis’ description of Jews as rats.

Despite these inferences, there are multiple possible interpretations of the widows aside from representing the Jews. If we were to change our analysis to try to find any of the other groups that Hitler had ordered killed (Communists, homosexuals, gypsies, people with disabilities), then we could reach the same result. It is also possible that the widows resemble a female version of the British caricature John Bull, the national personification of England in political cartoons. The portly and humorous Bull fits many of the characteristics that Uncle Charlie despises (old, wealthy, fat, silly) and would capture Hitler’s hatred of the British forces. Additionally, it is important to note that Uncle Charlie only murders widows whereas the Nazis were indiscriminate toward gender. Donald Spoto’s analysis of Shadow of a Doubt as “one of the cinema’s indisputable masterworks on the nature of evil” provides further insight into the film (124). If Hitchcock is contemplating the nature of evil, then he would likely borrow from the reality of that time to have the film be more resonant with audiences. By using Hitler’s derogatory yet rousing manner of speaking for Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock is able to create a picture of evil without necessarily commenting on Hitler’s anti-Semitism.

Shadow of a Doubt

Hitchcock’s next film Lifeboat is the director’s most overt allegory to the ongoing world war. The picture pits the American and British survivors of a sunken passenger ship against Willy (Walter Slezak), the captain of the German U-Boat who torpedoed their vessel. Each of the characters stands as a metaphor for a different aspect of the war: Chicago-born crew member John Kovac (John Hodiak), with his Czechoslovakian heritage and liberal ideology, represents Russian Communism; successful American businessman Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) stands in for American capitalism; Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) is a pacifist nurse who only tries to save lives; Britain is depicted by the ship’s navigational officer Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn); Joe (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward, is African-American and the only minority figure in the boat; journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is completely absorbed in covering the war as a news story, thus rendering her neutral; Gus Smith (William Bendix), who requires his gangrenous leg to be amputated while aboard the lifeboat, captures injured American soldiers; finally, Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) is an English woman who suffers from psychosis due to German air raids. Hitchcock describes the film as “a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination” (Truffaut 113).

Within Hitchcock’s allegory, Mrs. Higley can possibly be interpreted as representing European Jewry. She is first introduced when Joe helps her and her baby into the lifeboat while preventing her from drowning herself and her child; unfortunately, Joe is too late to save the infant’s life. Sometime later on that first night on the lifeboat, she jumps overboard, killing herself. Out of all the characters, Mrs. Higley is the one most terrorized by the Nazis. The German air raids of Britain have rendered her paranoid and mentally unstable. After they sink the passenger ship, she becomes suicidal and murders her child to prevent him from further harm at the hands of the Nazis. This constant victimization would place Mrs. Higley in the position of European Jews, who faced the continuous barrage of violence and death from Nazi Germany. However, the hostility which Mrs. Higley faces is not directed at her specifically, but at Britain and the rest of the Allies generally. It is therefore more likely that Mrs. Higley and her child represent innocent British civilians whose lives have been ruined because of the war.


Notorious (1946), Hitchcock’s final film related to World War II, was made after the war’s conclusion. Hitchcock collaborated with Jewish screenwriter Ben Hecht to create a script peppered with references to the war such as the famous uranium MacGuffin (an allusion to the atomic bomb), Alex Sebastian’s (Claude Rains) Nazi ideology, and Alex’s connections to German chemical manufacturer I.G. Farben, which benefited from concentration camp labor and supplied the Nazis with Zyklon B to use in the gas chambers (Krohn 102). Hecht, who had previously done uncredited writing on Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat, spent most of his time throughout World War II speaking out against Nazi anti-Semitism and both American and British inaction. In February 1943, he published an article titled “Remember Us” in Reader’s Digest which detailed many of the Nazi crimes and predicted future Jewish casualties through the remainder of the war. The following year, he wrote the book A Guide for the Bedeviled in an effort to attack anti-Semitism. In his creative ventures, Hecht penned the theatrical pageant We Will Never Die in 1943 which was intended to raise American awareness of the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Hitchcock spent June of 1945 working with British producer Sidney Bernstein on a documentary called Memory of the Camps which was built entirely out of Allied footage of liberated concentration camps. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock “viewed footage, wrote one of his detailed treatments, and oversaw the editing of the first half of the film” (102). With the memory of the Holocaust on both of their minds going into production, the references to the Nazis and the Shoah were hardly coincidental.

Hitchcock’s political dichotomy in Notorious mirrors the film’s love triangle. T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) is the American spy who is trying to infiltrate Alex Sebastian’s Nazi troupe in Brazil by using Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of one of Sebastian’s recently arrested colleagues. Alicia vehemently disagrees with her father’s politics due to his support of the Holocaust, something Hitchcock implies when Alicia calls her father and the Nazis “murdering swine.” She accepts Devlin’s offer to spy on Sebastian to atone for her father’s war crimes. Due to her father’s political affiliation, Alicia is obviously not Jewish; however, Hecht and Hitchcock weave various clues into the film’s subtext that suggest her connection to European Jews. Alicia’s last name “Huberman” contains both German and Jewish origins. Her disconnect from Germany compares to many German-Jewish expatriates like Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Arnheim, Albert Einstein, and Kurt Weill who left the country when Hitler came to power. Additionally, toward the end of the film, Alicia is stuck between the Nazis, who are discreetly trying to kill her without alarming anyone, and the Americans, who (nearly) arrive too late to save her. Of course, Alicia’s slow poisoning does not compare to the horrors suffered by Jews during the Holocaust.

These nontraditional interpretations of Hitchcock’s characters demonstrate that Jewish representation in Hitchcock’s cinema ranges from completely missing to improbable. Even the likeliest characterization found in Shadow of a Doubt remains in Hitchcock’s most covert propaganda piece. Even today, many of the interpretations of that film focus on the relationship between the two Charlies and its depiction of small town Americana instead of its vague wartime allegory. Hitchcock even goes so far as to say “it’s quite possible that those widows deserved what they got” in his famed interview with François Truffaut (153). So why would Hitchcock effectively ignore this important part of World War II’s history?

Like many other filmmakers of this time, Hitchcock’s continued avoidance of Nazi anti-Semitism reflects Hollywood’s reluctance to portray the impending war as a fight for Jewish lives. Since the majority of Hollywood studio executives were Jewish immigrants, any attempts to depict Nazi anti-Semitism would cause a major backlash against the entire industry. Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, warned that “the charge is certain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes. The entire industry, because of this, is likely to be indicted for the action of a mere handful” (Carr 159). Overt anti-Nazi propaganda films like The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940) had any references to Jews stripped by the Production Code and replaced them with the less offending term “non-Aryan.” Within this atmosphere, Hitchcock’s political films can be understood as the clearest representatives of the Hollywood zeitgeist — movies which may make vague, unclear allusions to the horrors of Nazism, but truly portray the war as a conflict among nations. Even if Notorious stands as Hitchcock’s attempt to communicate Jewish suffering, then it was made too late to have any effect on reality.



  • Carr, Steven. Hollywood & Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History up to World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

  • Friedman, Lester D. Hollywood’s Image of the Jew. New York: Frederick Ungar Pub. Co., 1982.

  • Krohn, Bill. Hitchcock at Work. London: Phaidon, Ltd., 2000.

  • O’Brien, Geoffrey. “The Lady Vanishes: All Aboard!” The Lady Vanishes. Criterion Collection, 2007. DVD.

  • Simone, Sam P. Hitchcock as Activist: Politics and the War Films. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research P, 1985.

  • Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures. 2nd ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

  • Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. 2nd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

  • Walker, Michael. Hitchcock’s Motifs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2005.

  • Wood, Robin. “Hitchcock and Fascism.” Hitchcock Annual. Vol. 13 (2004-2005): 25-63.

  • Yacowar, Maurice. Hitchcock’s British Films. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1977.

Michael Rennett graduated from CSU Northridge, in 2004 with a B.A. degree in Media Theory and Criticism and a minor in Jewish Studies. He received his Master’s degree from Chapman University in the field of Film Studies in 2006. He has contributed to The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies and The Journal of Religion and Film and is going to be published in The Journal of Popular Culture in 2010.