Special Review ‘the California Reich’ Poses Dilemma
Menu JTA Search

Special Review ‘the California Reich’ Poses Dilemma

Download PDF for this date

A film like “The California Reich” which will be shown on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations Sunday night presents a dilemma. The documentary, by two young Californians, Walter F. Parkes, 24, and Keith Critchlow, 30, is a revealing glimpse into the thoughts, personalities and private lives of a group of American Nazis. The viewer is left with a strong impression of the kind of people who become Nazis in the United States and why.

Yet Parkes and Critchlow, who produced, directed and filmed this documentary, leave the story to be told by the people themselves, members of the National Socialist White People’s Party in the San Francisco area. There is no commentary.

This has troubled some people. William J. McCarter, president of WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station, called it “almost a recruitment film” and has refused to schedule it, a decision taken by some 20 or 30 other of the nation’s 270 PBS stations. WNET, New York City’s major PBS station, and some others are holding it up for showing at a latter date.

In an apparent response to this, the PBS version will carry an opening and closing statement by Clete Roberts, a newsman for public TV station KCET in Los Angeles. Jewish communal agency executives who met last week to discuss the program decided on a “low-key” approach and have suggested that local Jewish Community Relations Councils seek to arrange discussions by qualified Jewish authorities to be shown following the film on local PBS stations.

The film is being presented in a more unique way by the new Harold Clurman Theater in Manhattan starting tomorrow night. It will be shown in conjunction with “The Lesson,” a play by Eugene lonesco which depicts the rise of fascism through the allegory of a classroom.


Yet, “The California Reich” can stand alone just as its makers planned it. Parkes and Critchlow were right in their assessment that just by showing the Nazis as they are, letting them speak and act for themselves, they can make an important statement without the need for editorializing. This, incidentally, was their first film and it received an Academy Award nomination.

What the documentary shows is how ordinary these people, most of them blue collar workers, are. The exception is their leader, Alan Vincent, a product of a broken home and years of prison, who apparently finds in his Nazi activities an end to the loneliness he always felt. He revealingly says he wants as a future goal to end all loneliness.

Vincent, who lives by himself in a single room in San Francisco, never explains why his loneliness led him to become a Nazi. But some historians have noted that Hitler was lonely until he entered politics and loneliness has been a characteristic of other extremist leaders who found in the group the friendship and group bondings they could not develop on their own.

Others shown in the film are more ordinary: a former Marine who is fascinated by guns and has a collection of heavy firepower in the house, a tow truck operator in a small town, and a sergeant in the U.S. Army. What seems to attract these people to the Nazis is their hatred for Blacks. They, of course, don’t like Jews, but they mainly see Jews as using Blacks to destroy the country.


There are some shocking scenes that depict this. One in particular shows a group of Nazis and their families watching a football game as they make racist remarks. A woman then questions her four-year-old child about who should be hated and destroyed. He answers, “niggers and Jews.”

It is also shocking to hear an army sergeant say that while he does not believe six million Jews were killed by the Nazis in World War II he wishes it was true and would like to go to the concentration camps and celebrate. These scenes, showing these people the way they are, will have more impact on an audience than any commentary.

There were two revealing remarks in the film that are worth mentioning. One shows the Nazis getting ready for a demonstration at San Francisco State University. A leader advises them not to start any incidents but to let others start against them. He says this will happen because the swastika turns people into “mush” making them lose control of their emotions. This type of attitude revealingly highlights the basis for the tactics used by the American Nazis, not only in California, but elsewhere in the U.S.


The other comment comes from the man who likes guns. He says that his fellow workers all make racist remarks but when they are asked to join the Nazis they refuse. He and the others believe that though they are only a tiny group–the National Socialist White People’s Party has only about 2000 members across the country–they will eventually rule the country. This is the claim made by every fringe group on the right or left.

Parkes and Critchlow do make a statement at the end when they show a quotation from the New York Times in the 1930s noting that Hitler and his followers were considered to be comical when they were only a group of about 1000. Many people today try to draw parallels between the emergence of neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. and the rise of Hitler. But the U.S. is not the Weimar Republic. To duplicate it one would have to duplicate the same political, economic and social conditions, to say the least.

This is not to say there should not be concern about these groups, and Parkes and Critchlow have provided a service in depicting them. The viewer will be shocked and horrified at times and because it runs for 58 minutes, occasionally bored. But one will also come away with a sense of how ridiculous they are.

George Santayana may have been right when he said that those who forget history may be condemned to repeat it. But it is also true that those who are shackled by history will not be able to deal with changing conditions.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund