When Dr. Seuss Made Hitler Into a Turtle

A reading of Dr. Seuss’s “Yertle the Turtle” with a bit of history in mind

Ben Kageyama


Yertle the Turtle (1958), Illustration from Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, Fair use from Dr. Seuss and Random House Children’s Books

TThe Cat in the Hat, The Grinch, and The Lorax are among the many children’s books authored by the wise and quirky Dr. Seuss. His books not only entertain but impart valuable lessons on empathy, tolerance, and kindness. He wanted to make the world a more accepting place, having lived through the horrors of World War II.

Most people don’t know that Dr. Seuss hated Hitler and the Nazi party with passion. After his vacation in Europe in 1936, he felt called to fight the fascism he witnessed on his trip — fueled even more by his German ancestry. When he returned to America, he became a cartoonist for the left-wing daily newspaper called the PM.

From 1941 to 1943, the author-illustrator created over 400 cartoons that satirized European fascists and American politicians who refused to address the problem. His goal was to have America join the war to end the abuses that happened overseas.

When the war ended, Dr. Seuss focused on his books for children, but he never forgot about his hate for fascism. This is most evident in his story called “Yertle the Turtle.”

Yertle the Turtle

“I’m ruler,” said Yertle, “of all that I see.
But I don’t see enough. That’s the problem with me.”

In Seuss’s story, Yertle is an ambitious turtle that rules as King of the Pond. He is upset with the breadth of his kingdom and so decides to expand it. Yertle then commands the other turtles to stack themselves as he sits on top. While this expands his kingdom, it hurts the turtles in the bottom.

One subject beneath, a turtle named Mack, complains. He argues that the strain might make his shell crack. The suffering turtle then tells King Yertle:

“I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Yertle scolds his subject and dismisses his complaint. The king then witnesses the moon's rising and is appalled at its audacity to remain above him. He calls for more turtles to raise his throne.