Tom, Jerry and the Nazi Connection

Oh, come on, Jim!”, I hear you say. “You’re not really trying to tell us there is a connection between animated mice and the Third Reich, are you?” Perhaps, perhaps not. But let me take you on a strange journey…

This started one Saturday afternoon in front of the Cartoon Network, when it was pointed out that, as well as being the most Oscar-winning duo in history, Tom and Jerry were also more-or-less the opposing sides in World War II: Tommies, the British soldiers, and Jerries, the Germans. I laughed. I thought about it a bit more. I did some research. I’m not laughing quite so loud now.

First, some history. We need to begin back before cartoons, before sound, before even cinema itself, in the Georgian era, which is where the term “Tommy” first arose. It’s noted as far back as 1815, and comes from the name used to show Army privates how to fill in official forms: Tommy Atkins. This name became a general term for any British ‘grunt’ and is significant, because it strongly suggests that the term had been around for a long term, and likely was familiar to the creators of T&J. Though there’s no such precise origin for ‘Jerry’, it’s rather more obvious, and so probably dates to the first time an English-speaking nation clashed with the Germans in anything more menacing than a penalty shoot-out.

I think it’s safe to assume, especially in the context of a series which began right around the time of the Battle of Britain, that the choice of these names was no accident, especially since it precedes the American entry into World War II. They are also markedly different to the meaningless names selected for other MGM cartoon characters around that time e.g. Sniffles, Droopy, etc.

In this context, it’s particularly interesting to note that, while Tom might seem an obvious name for a cat (as in “tom-cat”), he was not called that originally – in the very first cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot, he is clearly referred to as Jasper. It wasn’t until the second, The Midnight Snack, that the names Tom and Jerry appear. According to Patrick Brion’s seminal book [1], they came from a contest among studio employees, but strangely, there is no mention of precisely who won it.

There had previously been another animated couple of the same name, from the Van Beuren studio, but neither a cat nor a mouse were involved, and they are names whose pairing originally goes back a great deal further. Again, we must return to the Georgian era – 1821, to be precise – when Pierce Egan published the spectacularly-titled Life in London; or, the Day & Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq., and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. Clearly Mr. Egan was paid by the word, but this was Tom and Jerry’s first appearance in popular culture [2]. And by no means their last: while it’s of limited relevance here (okay – absolutely no relevance at all), Simon and Garfunkel were known by that name, early in their careers.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this theory is that Jerry is the good guy, the peace-loving victim of Tom’s evil schemes, but who usually wins due to his superior intelligence. Read in a wartime context, the suggestion that violence isn’t a solution goes beyond the subversive and borders on outright sedition. An alternative explanation that Jerry = GI is no more loyal, since it suggests the two Allied sides were fighting each other. In either case, it’s certainly worth noting that MGM were conspicuous by their absence in the field of animated Allied propaganda: even at the height of the war, Tom and Jerry was a series almost entirely free of political commentary. The closest approach was 1943’s Yankee Doodle Mouse, but this treats hostilities as just another setting for their usual slapstick, not significantly different from the Wild West or Three Musketeers milieus used in other instalments. The only other acknowledgement of ongoing global conflict which I could find was the same year’s The Lonesome Mouse, with Jerry drawing a Hitler-style moustache on a picture of Tom. This seems mere tokenism, especially when contrasted with Warner Bros, whose output included hugely jingoistic slices of xenophobic bigotry such as the amazing Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.

But then, we can also discriminate between the background of the studio heads [3]: Jack Warner was born in the British Commonwealth (London, Ontario) while Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer were both Eastern Europeans, from Warsaw and Minsk respectively. Mayer didn’t bother to become an American citizen until his late 20’s, while ‘Goldwyn’ was not Sam’s real surname. [Taking the latter as evidence of radical tendencies is, I admit, a bit much – I wouldn’t want to go through life called Sam Goldfish either…] At the risk of drifting into anti-Semitic territory, perhaps this ties in with the ‘Jewish Mafia’ who ran – and to a lesser extent, still run – Hollywood, though the question of why they would have any interest in supporting Adolf Hitler is a bit of a problem, to say the least. However, revolution makes strange bedfellows, and both men definitely have the potential to fall into the two areas most often suspected of attempting to undermine American values: Jews and Bolsheviks.

There’s a postscript to this subversive tale – or perhaps, tail. When MGM moved to revive the series in the early 1960’s, they used a Czech animation studio. Supporting Communist enterprise at the height of the Cold War, right through the Cuban missile crisis, seems remarkably unpatriotic, to say the least, and adds a cherry to the top of this insubstantial, yet somehow intriguing, illusion. In answer to the question posed at the start of this article, the answer is: “not really”. In many ways, it’s merely an exercise in how easy it is to find evidence to back up any theory, no matter how ludicrous. However…pay attention the next time you watch a cartoon cat and mouse hit each other over the head with household items – you may be seeing more than you think.

[1] Brion, Patrick: Tom & Jerry, Harmony Books, 1990
[2] Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 15th ed.
[3] Microsoft Encarta: entries on Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and Warner Bros.