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Hitler’s Willing Hollywood Collaborators

Since its publication this past summer, Ben Urwand’s book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, has sparked intense debate. Its claim that Hollywood’s major (Jewish-run) film studios colluded with the government of Nazi Germany to protect their economic interests has elicited angry responses from critics who have objected that the book’s thesis is deceptively sensationalistic and unsupported by its evidence.

In fact, Urwand’s book uncovers important material about the relationship between the American film industry and the Nazi regime. But in seeking to judge the past, “The Collaboration” falls short of fully explaining it.

“The Collaboration” advances several important claims. Partly as a result of German government pressure, major Hollywood studios (MGM, Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, etc.) made unseemly compromises with the Nazis in order to protect their investment in the German film market.

They quashed plans to produce anti-Nazi films, like “Mad Dog of Europe” and “It Can’t Happen Here,” to avoid running afoul of Nazi censors; they removed nearly all mention and depiction of Jews from studio films so as not to offend German racial sensitivities (which had been offended by the 1933 film, The Prizefighter and the Lady, featuring Jewish boxer Max Baer); they produced numerous films whose apolitical or quasi-fascist tendencies made them a hit among German movie-goers (and even the Reich Propaganda Ministry); and they callously fired Jewish employees in Germany, in keeping with the regime’s anti-Semitic Nazi policies.

Front Page News: Screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht tried to employ his writing to save the Jews of Europe. Image by Getty Images

This systematic kowtowing to the Nazis allowed the studios to increase their exports to Germany over the course of the 1930s and boosted their sales. Worse still, because the studios could not repatriate their profits and were forced to buy German bonds from firms involved in the armaments industry, they indirectly “financed the German war machine.” In short, Hollywood placed profits ahead of morals and in so doing, failed to oppose Hitler when it had the chance.

These charges are serious and hard hitting, but they have been energetically countered by critics. Among others, film historian Thomas Doherty (the author of a new book on the same subject) and New Yorker film critic David Denby have accused Urwand of overestimating the role of German officials, such as Nazi consul in Los Angeles Georg Gyssling, in shaping the studios’ behavior, pointing out that many of their decisions were equally influenced by the lobbying of the Hays Office and the Anti-Defamation League.

They further charge that Urwand unfairly blames certain Hollywood films for being admired by the Nazis and frequently misjudges their political valence (misinterpreting the pro-communist message of the film, “Our Daily Bread,” for example as pro-Fascist). Pointing to these and other shortcomings, critics have described Urwand’s book as overhyped in its conclusions, with Denby going so far as to chide Harvard University Press for publishing it without doing more “basic fact-checking.”

The critical response to “The Collaboration” has been considerable, but readers may find it difficult to assess its fairness without having a deep knowledge of the minutiae of film history from the 1930s. (Both Urwand and his critics mobilize evidence from dozens of films that will be unknown to ordinary readers)

A far simpler way of explaining why the book has sparked controversy is to scrutinize the four main words of its title. The way in which Urwand uses them and the partly misleading conclusions they promote help explain the origins of the current debate.

The first problematic word is “collaboration.” Urwand explains early on that he decided to employ the term after discovering the frequent appearance of the German word, “Zusammenarbeit,” in correspondence between Hollywood studios and Nazi government officials. Urwand translates it as “collaboration.” In so doing, he evokes the term’s many notorious connotations from the years of the Second World War.

Yet the German term is best translated as “cooperation.” (There is a separate word in German for the kind of collaboration Urwand wants readers to think of: “Kollaboration,” with its related terms, “kollaborieren” and “Kollaborateur”). These German words date back to the early 19th century Napoleonic wars (which explains their French derivation), but they are best known for having been employed in the context of World War II, when many of the countries that were invaded, defeated, and occupied by Nazi Germany chose to collaborate with it.

This kind of collaboration took place under conditions of unequal power and differed entirely from the more consensual activity implied by the term cooperation. It notoriously entailed countless moral compromises and outright crimes, such as the willingness of puppet governments to accede to Nazi requests to round up and deport Jews to extermination camps.

Urwand’s application of this perjorative term to the behavior of Hollywood studios implies that they worked with the Nazis in the same way as the collaborationist governments of Quisling’s Norway or Pétain’s France.

But it is a false comparison. The United States was obviously never under Nazi occupation. Studio heads were never asked, nor did they volunteer, to perpetrate the same kinds of crimes committed by the Nazis’ puppet rulers. To be sure, they made morally repugnant decisions to put profits ahead of morals in dealing with Nazi Germany. But their misdeeds lie in a different realm from those of wartime collaborators. Part of the backlash by film critics against Urwand’s book is a response to this misleading suggestion.

A second misleading term in the book’s subtitle is “Hollywood.” Urwand uses it as a metonym for the major studios, but in so doing, distracts from the fact that the film industry was a far larger entity. While he is correct to criticize certain studios for their single-minded pursuit of profits, their actions were not representative of the whole film community. Certain studios, such as United Artists and Warner Brothers had been expelled from Germany already in 1933-34 and later became involved in making anti-Nazi films (“Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and “The Great Dictator”).

Moreover, other industry types were deeply involved in the anti-Nazi cause, for example the writers, actors, and directors who belonged to the left-leaning Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Critics complaints’ that Urwand obscures this reality by utilizing the generalizing term “Hollywood” further explains the negative response to his book.

The third problematic term is “pact.” Anyone familiar with the diplomatic history of the 1930s knows that the term has fascist connotations thanks to such agreements as the Anti-Comintern Pact (between Germany and Japan in 1936), the Pact of Steel (between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in 1939) and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939). Given this background, Urwand’s application of the term to describe the relationship between Hollywood studios and Nazi government officials implies a level of formality – indeed of ideological affinity – that did not exist in reality. The agreements between the studios and the Nazis were unsavory, but it is a stretch to compare them to the more notorious pacts of the time.

Fourth and finally, there is the matter of Hitler. The Nazi dictator features prominently on the book’s cover and readers are led to believe he had a direct hand in crafting the “pact” between his regime and “Hollywood.” In fact, while Urwand methodically describes Hitler’s taste in movies, he is unable to demonstrate that he had real involvement in crafting his government’s policies towards American movie studios. Indeed, Urwand admits late in the book that Hitler generally “avoided making official pronouncements about Hollywood.” In reality, it was German officials in the Foreign Office and Propaganda Ministry that devised the regime’s restrictive policies, many of which were actually based on pre-Nazi, Weimar era practices. To claim that Hollywood’s business practices arose through direct negotiations with Hitler misleads.

The book has other missteps, some of which minor: The SS was not merely a “paramilitary organization,” but a Hydra-like empire-within-a-state responsible for implementing the Nazis’ racial mission. Hitler’s January 1939 Reichstag speech was hardly “the first mark of his genocidal mentality,” but was visible on countless earlier occasions. It is doubtful, moreover, that studio executives took a “tour of the Brown House” (the original Nazi party’s headquarters) in Munich in July of 1945, given the fact that Allied bombers had transformed it into a pile of rubble.

Then there is the counterfactual conundrum underlying the book’s moralistic line of reasoning. As is true of all historians who write about Nazi Germany, Urwand is right to apply a moral framework to his subject. But his conclusion that the Hollywood studios’ behavior towards Nazi Germany was “shameful” implies that there was a counterfactual alternative. It implies that if the Hollywood studios had stood up to the Nazis, they could have had a positive effect on history.

Unfortunately, this is doubtful. Based on the evidence provided in The Collaboration, it seems clear that if the studios had produced more anti-Nazi films or films featuring Jews, they would have simply been banned by the regime. Even if such films had somehow found their way into the German market, they would have remained ineffective. Urwand himself writes that while some “American movies that contradicted National Socialist ideology were shown in Germany,” their subtle political messages were overlooked by German moviegoers. There is little reason to think that the messages of more stridently anti-Nazi films would have had any more positive effect.

That is not to say the studios should not have gone ahead and assumed an ethical stance of defiance. Doing so might have been fruitless, but like the U. S. Air Force’s missed opportunity to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, it would have been a gesture of solidarity with Europe’s oppressed Jews and helped avoid postwar moral indictments.

In the end, The Collaboration displays many of the strengths and weaknesses of the sizable literature on the behavior of collaborators and bystanders during the Nazi era. Like well-known books that have condemned the inaction of U. S. government officials, Zionist leaders in the Yishuv, and the American Jewish community during the Holocaust, Urwand’s study powerfully exposes the failure of a major institution – the American film industry – to consider moral and humanitarian issues in crafting their policies towards the Nazi regime.

At the same time, its moralistic perspective distorts as much as it clarifies. Through its use of condemnatory language and historical comparisons, the book projects the sordid realities of wartime collaboration in Europe back upon to the peacetime United States, thereby leading readers to blur the distinctions between them. In short, book’s impassioned tone sometimes clouds its judgment.

Indeed, it ultimate prevents the book from explaining the willingness of so many people in the 1930s to work with the Nazis. Today, this fact strikes us as unfathomable today, given our view of the Nazis as the epitome of evil. And yet Hollywood was hardly unique. In the 1930s, many Americans were happy to pursue a business as usual relationship with Nazi Germany, whether American companies (Ford, GM, IBM), American universities, which promoted student exchanges and welcomed visiting Nazi dignitaries to their campuses, and American athletes, who competed in the 1936Berlin Olympics.

This activity is very difficult to explain if we view the Nazis from our postwar perspective as the perpetrators of genocide. But it makes more sense if we realize that before the outbreak of war in 1939, many Americans did not see the Third Reich as unusually evil. If anything, as Michaela Hoenicke Moore has shown in recent book, Know Your Enemy: The American Debate on Nazism, 1933-1945, they viewed the country as more benign than Japan or the Soviet Union. This realization is lost in Urwand’s book, which would be stronger if it established the broader context of American views on Nazi Germany in the period.

This issue of perspective is further underscored by a present day analogy. In many ways America’s relationship with Nazi Germany in the 1930s resembles its relationship with China today, in the sense that both countries’ economic power allowed (and continues to allow) them to evade any consequences for their political repressiveness. Today, Hollywood studios and – as The New York Times recently reported – book publishers routinely allow their works to be censored in order to gain access to the Chinese market, despite the regime’s well-known brutality. Few people today raise moral objections to this practice, let alone embark upon moral crusades to halt it. This reality helps us understand why Americans behaved similarly in the 1930s.

To be sure, views can change in light of later events. Just as American views of Nazi Germany gradually changed after the eruption the Second World War, we can speculate counterfactually that if the U. S. were to go to war with China one day in the future, many would eventually look back and condemn current practices as “collaboration.” Conversely, had Hitler died in 1939 and World War II never happened, few today would bother to condemn Hollywood’s relationship with the Nazi regime. As the Holocaust never would have happened, the moral stakes of the film industry’s appeasement of the Third Reich would have been far lower. In other words, although we always reinterpret the past in light of subsequent events, Urwand’s importation of a post-Holocaust perspective, while understandable, somewhat impedes his analysis.

Then again, the book’s moralistic tone may ultimately be the key to unlocking its real agenda. Like other studies on wartime collaborators and bystanders, Urwand’s book can be seen as an expression of retrospective Jewish self-critique. The historian stresses that the studios’ relationship with the Nazi government was especially shameful given the fact that they were entirely run by Jews. In accounting for this disturbing fact, he describes how studio heads like Louis B. Mayer were highly ambivalent, if not embarrassed, about their Jewishness and consequently failed to stick up for their co-religionists.

This cowardly behavior stands in stark contrast to the assertive stance of the stridently anti-Nazi Hollywood writer, Ben Hecht, who appears at the end of the book as its hero. Hecht’s pride in his Jewish heritage and his effort to employ his writing to save the Jews of Europe (most notably, in his famous Madison Square production, “We Will Never Die,” from 1943) underscores the moral failure of the studio executives who tried to hide from who they were. In ending with this point, Urwand’s book resembles earlier studies that have declared the importance of Jews asserting, rather than hiding, their identities.

Readers may or may not agree with Urwand’s conclusion about the perils of Jewish self-denial. But in highlighting it, he provides a useful reminder that scholarship on the Nazi era continues to serve as a mirror in which Jews view themselves.

Gavriel Rosenfeld is Professor of History at Fairfield University. His new book, “Hi Hitler! The Nazi Past in the New Millennium,” will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2014.


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