An age-old technique for mobilizing a populace to fight a war is to so thoroughly demonize the enemy that the conflict becomes seen by the public as a moral battle rather than a political one. This technique was used to maximum effect in America during World War I, when for the first time the U.S. was engaged as a late entrant in an overseas war, a war that many Americans wanted no part of. Accordingly, the Germans were recast as “Huns” to whom all sorts of atrocity tales were attributed, and suddenly everything Germanic became anathema.
In response, German-Americans sought to avoid being branded as disloyalists, traitors, or spies by declaring themselves to be Dutch or anglicizing their names, and common items with German names were retitled: sauerkraut became “victory cabbage,” hamburgers turned into “liberty sandwiches,” and “hamburger steak” was henceforth known as “Salisbury steak.” And a young comic named Julius Marx, who came from a German family and was touring America in a vaudeville show with his three brothers, altered the persona of his stage character from German to Yiddish and finally to American. Julius would later became nationally famous as “Groucho,” one of the celebrated Marx Brothers.
This renaming frenzy didn’t carry over to World War II, in large part because the Germans did such a thorough job of demonizing themselves, but one result of the Nazi era in Germany was the long-lasting stigmatization of the names “Adolf” and “Hitler.” Thousands of people bearing those names changed them in order to avoid any association with the notorious German dictator.
So, when Marx Brothers fans eventually learned that although “Harpo” Marx had always stated his real first name as Arthur, he had actually been born Adolph Marx, they naturally assumed he had changed his name for a similar reason. But in fact, that assumption was an erroneous and anachronistic explanation for a transition that had actually taken place many years earlier for unrelated reasons.
Explanations for why the comedian who would later become world-famous as “Harpo” adopted the name Arthur vary, ranging from the claim that he had been nicknamed “Ahdie” early on and simply preferred that name to Adolph, to the notion that he sought to avoid an association with a notorious show business lawyer bearing the homophonous name of Adolph Marks:
With an irregular schedule of bookings in the later part of 1910, Adolph had a lot of time to practice his new [harp]. He also found time to handle an issue that had been bothering him since he entered vaudeville. Adolph Marx was not pleased by the fact that he shared a name, at least audibly, with Adolph Marks, a Chicago attorney whose specialty was the amusement business. Marks had become a notorious figure to vaudeville performers for his pesky habit of suing them on behalf of clients such as the United Booking Office, Martin Beck, and the Shubert brothers. Although Adolph Marks would later serve, for many years, in the Illinois State Senate and become known for championing racial equality and the rights of the less fortunate, he made his living suing vaudevillians in 1910. Adolph Marx was an unfortunate name to be stuck with as a vaudevillian based in Chicago. Adolph started using the name Arthur in 1909, but he had not made it his legal name.
Whatever the precise reason for the name change, it undeniably occurred long before Adolph (Harpo) Marx would have had occasion to hear of Adolf Hitler, as Robert S. Bader noted in his history of the Marx Brothers on stage:
The completely erroneous notion that Adolph changing his name had anything to do Adolf Hitler has its roots in an April 22, 1970, Variety article concerning the Broadway musical Minnie’s Boys, based on the early life of the Marx Brothers. “According to Marvin A. Krauss, general manager for Minnie’s Boys, he was told that Harpo changed his name informally to Arthur when Hitler seized power in Germany in the early 1930s, and shocked the world with his Nazi policy of Jewish persecution. The comedian made no attempt to have the name Arthur legalized.”
Minnie’s Boys, was cowritten by another Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son, who happened to be born on July 21, 1921 — precisely eight days before Hitler became head of the Nazi party. Arthur was named after his uncle (i.e., Harpo), who had, by then, been known as Arthur for more than a decade … the true story is that Adolph Marks persecuted vaudevillians twenty years earlier, and that was enough to make Adolph Marx into Arthur Marx.
Newspaper reviews of Marx Brothers performances also document that Adolph was identified as Arthur at least as early as 1913. Thus Adolph Marx’s name change demonstrably took place long before the world had heard of an Austrian named Adolf Hitler, well before the outbreak of World War I (much less World War II), and even years before the momentous day when the comic was first tagged with the moniker of “Harpo.”