Lately I’ve been thinking about the 1930s, Hitler’s rise to power, and Nazism not just in Germany but around the world. I’m writing a book about a Dutch Jewish cabaret singer, who married a non-Jewish German socialist, who had settled in Holland in 1936. In my search for information about his time in Holland, I found documents in the German national archives documenting how the German consulate in The Hague kept tabs on him, and eventually got him in trouble of spending too much time with Jews.
The German government kept tabs on its nationals around the world, as do all countries. Nazi Germany was no different as Hitler’s government made every German state institution around the world, whether in Berlin or Los Angeles, a source of government ideology. And that meant Nazism, symbolized by the swastika on the new flag of the Third Reich.
Nazism was quite popular in many countries, including the United States, where an English language Nazi Party newspaper was published and local Bund clubs celebrated German national pride with the support of local German consulates. With Georg Gyssling running Germany’s local consulate, Nazism was popular in Los Angeles too, so popular that it was in Los Angeles that the Nazi Party envisioned Hitler’s American version of Berchtesgaden, a mountain resorts of sorts, conveniently located halfway between Tokyo and Berlin that would serve as Nazism’s west coast outpost.
I visited the ruins of that outpost, called Murphy Ranch, built by wealthy Nazi Angelinos, who pumped in several million dollars to construct a mini-city tucked into the hills above Pacific Palisades. Perhaps ironically, just on the other side of the hill, also in the Palisades but near the ocean, was Villa Aurora, Leon Feuchtwanger’s home and an outpost of German Jewish exiles, who also turned Los Angeles into a German cultural hub, albeit of a different sort.
Today, the Nazi House, as I affectionately call it, has become a stunning achievement in urban decay. Deep in a valley, I climbed down several hundred stairs before coming upon my first ruined building, covered from the ground to the roof in vibrant graffiti. A sign at the top warns that graffiti is illegal. That sign is itself a canvas for graffiti artists.
The remaining buildings include a house or two, a water tank, and several other structures, whose purpose is not clear from the graffiti covered exterior. One of them, a magnificent soaring structure made of metal, resembles a giant boot, also covered in beautiful graffiti art.
The City of Los Angeles considers the structures a nuisance and has boarded up most of them with metal plates, which have also been covered in graffiti. Based on the content of the graffiti, the place is not frequented by neo-Nazis, as one might expect for those who know the origins of the building. With “Fuck Trump” signs greeting me every 20 feet, I couldn’t help but think how the site had repurposed into a site of anti-fascism, or at least an anti-populism that resists Trump’s calls to keep immigrants out of the country.
Only upon my ascent did I discover the proper grand entrance the mini city’s builders had intended-a swooping spiral driveway that led to several ruins of roads crisscrossing the canyon. I thought about what it would have meant for Hitler to drive into Murray Ranch via this drive way and shuddered.
I also discovered the only structure the City of Los Angeles has not yet boarded up. After surveying the site, I decided to enter the structure, a metal round building which I think was intended to be the water tower for the city. I stood inside amidst the ruins and drug paraphrenalia as it became clear that the site had been visited with some frequency.
I walked up the fire road back to my car as I surveyed what I had just experienced, a site once dedicated to serving as the Nazi Party’s west coast villa that had become a contemporary stop on a hike into the hills. Along the way I passed by new mansions going up right and left perched high on the Palisades hilltop, and had a sense that perhaps I was witnessing a similar hubris that those planning Hitler’s city may have had in the 1930s. Who knows which houses being built now will one day be ruins and sites of fascination to those in the future?