Scholar Asserts That Hollywood Avidly Aided Nazis


Joined Apr 25, 2013
[h1]Scholar Asserts That Hollywood Avidly Aided Nazis[/h1][h6]By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER[/h6][h6]Published: June 25, 2013[/h6]
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The list of institutions and industries that have been accused of whitewashing their links to the Third Reich is long, including various governments, the Vatican, Swiss banks and American corporations like I.B.M., General Motors and DuPont.

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[h6]Charlie Mahoney for The New York Times[/h6]
Ben Urwand, author of “The Collaboration,” due out in October.

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“All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), a film that led to Nazi riots and demands for editing.

Now a young historian wants to add a more glamorous name to that roll call: Hollywood.

In “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler,” Ben Urwand draws on a wealth of previously uncited documents to argue that Hollywood studios, in an effort to protect the German market for their movies, not only acquiesced to Nazi censorship but also actively and enthusiastically cooperated with that regime’s global propaganda effort.

In the 1930s “Hollywood is not just collaborating with Nazi Germany,” Mr. Urwand said by telephone from Cambridge, Mass., where he is currently at Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows. “It’s also collaborating with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.”

Mr. Urwand’s book, to be published in October by Harvard University Press, has been seen by few scholars. But his research, which was summarized this month in the online magazine Tablet, is already creating a stir.

“I think what this guy has found could be a blockbuster,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Emory University. “I’m very anxious to see this book. I found it breathtaking in the audacity of the story it seems to be trying to tell.”

Other scholars familiar with the period, however, question both its claims to originality and its insistently dark slant, starting with the title.

“The word ‘collaboration’ in this context is a slander,” said Thomas P. Doherty, a historian at Brandeis University and the author of the recent book “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939,” which covers some of the same ground. “You use that word to describe the Vichy government. Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling.”

That the German government meddled in the film industry during Hollywood’s so-called golden age has long been known to film historians, and such activity was chronicled in the American press at the time. (“Long Arm of Hitler Extends to Hollywood Studio,” read a 1937 headline in Newsweek.)

But Mr. Urwand, 35, offers the most stinging take by far, drawing on material from German and American archives to argue that the relationship between Hollywood and the Third Reich ran much deeper — and went on much longer — than any scholar has so far suggested.

On page after page, he shows studio bosses, many of them Jewish immigrants, cutting films scene by scene to suit Nazi officials; producing material that could be seamlessly repurposed in Nazi propaganda films; and, according to one document, helping to finance the manufacture of German armaments.

Even “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” comes in for some revisionist whacks.

It was Warner who personally ordered that the word “Jew” be removed from all dialogue in the 1937 film “The Life of Emile Zola,” Mr. Urwand writes, and his studio was the first to invite Nazi officials to its Los Angeles headquarters to screen films and suggest cuts.

“There’s a whole myth that Warner Brothers were crusaders against fascism,” Mr. Urwand said. “But they were the first to try to appease the Nazis in 1933.”

Mr. Urwand, an Australian-born scholar whose Jewish Hungarian maternal grandparents spent the war years in hiding, said his project began in 2004, when he was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He came across an interview with the screenwriter Budd Schulberg vaguely mentioning that Louis B. Mayer used to meet with a German consul in Los Angeles to discuss cuts to his studio’s movies. Smelling a dissertation topic, he began digging around.

In the German state archives in Berlin, Mr. Urwand found a January 1938 letter from the German branch of 20th-Century Fox asking whether Hitler would share his opinions on American movies, and signed “Heil Hitler!”

Other discoveries followed, including notes by Hitler’s adjutants recording his reactions to the movies he watched each night (he loved Laurel and Hardy but hated “Tarzan”), and a scrapbook in which Jack Warner documented a Rhine cruise that he and other studio executives took with an Allied escort on Hitler’s former yacht in July 1945 as part of a trip exploring postwar business opportunities.

“That was the one time I actually shouted out in an archive,” Mr. Urwand recalled.

He also uncovered detailed records of regular studio visits by German officials, including Georg Gyssling, the special consul assigned to monitor Hollywood, who watched films, dictated scene-by-scene requests for cuts and engaged in bizarre debates. (Did “King Kong,” for example, constitute “an attack on the nerves of the German people?”) And Mr. Urwand found records of a global network of monitors who made sure the cuts were made in all countries, including the United States.

Sometimes entire films were quashed. Previous historians have written about the battle over “The Mad Dog of Europe,” an anti-Nazi film planned in 1933 that some Jewish groups opposed on the grounds that it would stoke anti-Semitism. But Mr. Urwand, who uncovered the only known script, argues that the studios were concerned only with protecting their business with Germany.

“We have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned,” Louis B. Mayer was quoted in a legal case as saying, “this picture will never be made.”

Hollywood’s “collaboration,” Mr. Urwand argues, began in 1930, when Carl Laemmle Jr. of Universal Studios agreed to significant cuts in “All Quiet on the Western Front” after riots by the Nazi Party, then rising in Germany. (Laemmle, Mr. Urwand acknowledges, would later help hundreds of Jewish refugees secure visas to the United States.)

And it lasted, in his telling, well past November 1938, when Kristallnacht became front-page news around the world.

In June 1939 Metro-Goldwyn Mayer treated 10 Nazi newspaper editors to a “good-will tour” of its studio in Los Angeles. Mr. Urwand also found a December 1938 report by an American commercial attaché suggesting that MGM was financing German armaments production as part of a deal to circumvent restrictions on repatriating movie profits.

Mr. Urwand said that he found nearly 20 films intended for American audiences that German officials significantly altered or squelched. Perhaps more important, he added, Jewish characters were all but eliminated from Hollywood movies.

Some of the movies that were never made “would have done a great deal,” he said. “They really would have mobilized public opinion.”

Some scholars, like Mr. Doherty of Brandeis, point out that many movies of the time contained veiled anti-Nazi slaps that any viewer would have recognized. And in private, the studio bosses often went much further.

Steven J. Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, is working on a book that will detail the little-known story of an extensive anti-Nazi spy ring that began operating in Los Angeles in 1934, financed by the very studio bosses who were cutting films to satisfy Nazi officials.

“The moguls who have been castigated for putting business ahead of Jewish identity and loyalty were in fact working behind the scenes to help Jews,” Mr. Ross said.

But Mr. Urwand strongly defended the notion of “collaboration,” noting that the word (and its German equivalent, Zusammenarbeit) occurs repeatedly in documents on both sides.

And he bristled at the suggestion that Hollywood had a better record against Nazism than other major industries, to say nothing of the State Department, which repeatedly blocked efforts to expand visas for Jewish refugees.

“The State Department’s record is atrocious,” he said. “But the State Department did not finance the production of Nazi armaments. It did not distribute pro-Nazi newsreels in Germany. It did not meet with Nazi officials and do secret deals.”

“Collaboration,” he added, “is what the studios were doing, and how they describe it.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 27, 2013

An article on Wednesday about the historian Ben Urwand, who has a book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler,” coming out in October that asserts that Hollywood aided Nazi Germany, misstated the given name of the Norwegian leader who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. He was Vidkun Quisling, not Vikdun. The article also misstated the middle initial of a historian at Brandeis University who said the word “collaboration” in the context of the title is a slander. He is Thomas P. Doherty, not Thomas M.
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