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Was Hollywood Cozy with Hitler?

posted October 24, 2013

That’s the claim of a new book that has proven incendiary — and has been soundly disparaged.

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BEN URWAND’S THE COLLABORATION: HOLLYWOOD’S PACT WITH HITLER has not enjoyed universally positive reviews and responses.

To put it mildly.

Urwand, a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, argues that Hollywood studios appeased and even assisted German authorities – the Nazi regime – far more than has been acknowledged, particularly by the Hollywood studios.

Reactions to the book, beginning well before Harvard University Press officially released it early in October 2013, have ranged from the complacently credulous to the outright hostile.

At one end of that continuum have been assessments by some news outlets, including CBS This Morning, which seemed happy to bank on he ready-made, attention-grabbing nature of Urwand’s claims.

CBS’s promo copy included enticing verbiage: “A shocking new book claims there was a dark period in Hollywood during the 1930s when many major studios had secret dealings with Hitler and the Nazi government to keep the lucrative German film market open for their movies. Author and historian Ben Urwand details how studio executives pandered to the Nazi regime in his new book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. “A shocking new book,” CBS’s copy gushes, with no hint of skepticism, “… claims … many major studios had secret dealings with Hitler and the Nazi government to keep the lucrative German film market open for their movies.”

In Vanity Fair, Lesley M. M. Blume adds a heroic tone: “After 10 years of intensive archival research akin to a high-stakes scavenger hunt on two continents, [Urwand] is tearing down the popular impression that the 1930s Hollywood community stood united in efforts to combat the Nazi regime.”

And Allan Hunter, in Herald Scotland, similarly echoes the press’s publicity releases when he writes that Urwand’s book “systematically reveals the way major Hollywood studios were willing to protect their financial interests in the German market by appeasing the Nazi regime.”

Adding to the credibility of Urwand’s case, he says, is that the practices he claims to have uncovered persist, today: “We can confidently predict the disappearance of Chinese villains from Hollywood blockbusters and the suppression of any scripts that make critical references to the country’s past.”

Hunter praises Urwand, saying he had “unearthed remarkable evidence from archives in Germany and America, confirming that the road to hell was paved with a thousand concessions. … a fact all the more ironic considering that many of the studio bosses were Jewish.”

He also contends that “the book is such a revelation because it goes against the grain of commonly held assumptions.” By that he means purported Hollywood propaganda that pushed forward heroic deeds and patriotic acts such as “Humphrey Bogart nobly sacrificing personal happiness with Ingrid Bergman for the greater cause of victory.”

In sum, he says, Urwand’s book is “impeccably researched and impressively argued.”

Ben UrwandIn The Guardian, the novelist Anthony Quinn lit upon Urwand’s arresting description of Hitler’s sentimental attachment to Laurel and Hardy, Mickey Mouse, and many other American film icons. Quinn recounted, for instance, Urwand’s account of Hitler never tucking in for the night without viewing a film at this cinema in the Reich Chancellery. He often invited guests — it’s not hard to imagine which bits they laughed at: the ones he did.

Urwand writes in his book: “It is time to remove the layers that have hidden the collaboration for so long and to reveal the historical connection between the most important individual of the twentieth century and the movie capital of the world.”

Hitler never tucked in for the night without viewing a film at this cinema in the Reich Chancellery. He often invited guests — it’s not hard to imagine which bits they laughed at: the ones he did.

Quinn echoes Urwand’s portrait of Hitler as the “most important individual” as Hollywood tragic:

Hitler regarded movies as something more than entertainment; he saw in their power to seduce and bewitch a vital instrument of persuasion. His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels … after watching It Happened One Night … wrote in his diary: “A funny, lively American film from which we can learn a lot.”

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Urwand argues that once Hitler ascended to power in 1933 the major Hollywood studios tacitly agreed not to portray Germany in an unfavourable light or to mention its persecution of the Jews. On occasion they went to extraordinary lengths to suppress any mention of the word “Jew” at all.

Quinn praises Urwand’s “energetic digging in the archives, quoting letters, memos, and newspaper reports to uncover a shameful policy of compromise and kowtowing on the part of the studio bosses,” and his coming up with stunning details of Hollywood’s response to pressure from Hitler’s agents in America. He cites, for example, the LA representative of the Hays Office, which accorded or withheld Production Code seals which, indeed, sealed the fate of companies seeking distribution for their films. That LA official was the notorious Joseph Breen, who wrote an infamous memo that is credited with causing abandonment of the making of The Mad Dog of Europe, a denunciation of German persecution of Jews base on a Herman J. Mankiewicz’s story.

Breen, advocating that any such film be denied Hays Office approval, wrote a memo that chilled American production of films relating to anti-Jewish actions: “Because of the large number of Jews active in the motion picture industry in this country, the charge is certain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes. The entire industry, because of this, is likely to be indicted for the action of a mere handful.”

Urwand has not lacked for opportunities to restate his case to an audience wider than the one any academic study is likely to attract. Interviews with him, and op-eds by him, are all over the place, even his own summary of his argument.

Quinn is just one of many observers who buy Urwand’s thesis:

Some basic facts in Urwand’s thesis look incontrovertible. The studio bosses could have stood up to the likes of Breen and Gyssling, but they didn’t. They could have supported their own film-makers and helped alert movie-goers everywhere to a genocidal crime, but they didn’t. They could have been mensches, but they acted like stooges. [emphasis added]

“Look incontrovertible.” Hmmm.

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Berlin police ready for Nazi protest showing of "All Quiet on the Western Front" in 1930
Berlin police ready for Nazi protest against a screening of "All Quiet on the Western Front" in 1930
So much for praise.

As energetic as the laudatory coverage has been the condemnatory, which has come from several World War II, film, and cultural historians.

In the Sunday Times, Ed Caesar Ed Caesar disparaged Urwand’s construction of a “pact” between Hitler and the predominantly Jewish studio heads as: “grave and overblown charges. Reading The Collaboration, one finds no proof of a pact.”

In two articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alexander C. Kafka describes the scholarly and critical backlash against Urwand’s claims. Harvard’s publication of Urwand’s book came soon after Columbia University Press issued Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty. That book, writes Kafka, “argues that the studio heads were guilty of nothing more than being hardheaded businessmen during a time of ethical, political, and economic complexity.”

Then, writes Kafka, the academic film-history skirmishing was on for young and old. A New York publicity company that Urwand apparently hired issued a disparagement of Doherty’s book as relying on “flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers.” Doherty wrote to Hollywood Reporter, in response to its invitation that he respond to its excerpt from Urwand’s book, that he considered Urwand’s book’s charges of collaboration by Hollywood executives “slanderous and ahistorical – slanderous because they smear an industry that struggled to alert America to the menace brewing in Germany and ahistorical because they read the past through the eyes of the present.” [This paragraph has been corrected to state that Doherty wrote only to Hollywood Reporter, not also to other publications; and also, to clarify that Doherty’s “slanderous and ahistorical” response did not relate to the publicity company’s comments about Doherty. – ed.]

Steven Carr, a communications scholar who co-directs the its Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, told Kafka that he doubted the full history of Hollywood’s confrontation with Nazi Germany would ever be fully known – perhaps, he speculates, the U.S. State Department had urged the studios to do whatever they needed to do to insure they remained in Germany.

Also focusing on what “the real story” may be is journalist and film historian Mike Greco. In the American Film Institute-published American Film, he mocks Urwand’s book as an “unintentionally funny … convoluted fairy tale” that concocts “a band of villainous latter day Shylocks – unscrupulous and cowardly – counting their shekels at the expense of the Jews being persecuted by the Nazis.” The Collaboration, charges Greco, “demands that its readers take its baseless assertions seriously.”

He finds Urwand’s construal of events unsound, at best. In the case of the Captured, a Warner Brothers-produced film set in a German prison camp, he and Urwand agree that the studio invited Georg Gyssling, the German Consul in Los Angeles, to a screening in 1933, and that the Nazi diplomat demanded numerous cuts in a film he described as “the most evil concoction to appear in the post-war period.” But Urwand, Greco objects, too readily finds that to be sufficient proof of his thesis that Hollywood “collaborated” with the Nazis: “But screening films for special interest groups was standard operating procedure in Hollywood during the 1930s.”

Even more damning, Greco suggests, is that the known history of the fate of Captured itself undermines Urwand’s argument. Greco writes: “Urwand argues that “Warner Brothers had a lot to lose” and protected its German interests by knuckling under to Gyssling’s demands. However, the studio only made six cuts to Captured, and these had been dictated by the Hays Office. Warner Bros. ignored “the massive cuts” Gyssling had demanded.”

Greco claims, in addition, that Urwand is given to fudging to shore up his case. One example, Greco suggests, is in how Urwand frames Gyssling’s furious response to Warner Brothers’ ignoring his demands. Greco writes:

According to The Collaboration, Gyssling was furious. He supposedly wrote to Warner Bros. warning the studio of “dire consequences” if they did not comply with his demands. Urwand admits that Gyssling’s “letter has since been lost,” but claims, “it is not difficult to guess what he would have written.” “Guessing” about the content of a non-existent letter is one example of the author playing fast and loose with the evidence. The documents Urwand cites often do not say what the author claims or are not relevant to the text to which the note belongs. Many of the most sensational allegations in “The Collaboration” are not provided with any documentary citation.

Most loudly calling Urwand out has been not an academic historian, but a prominent film critic, the New Yorker’s David Denby. He bashes the book in a review in The New Yorker and in an ensuing blog post. He accuses Urwand of being “recklessly misleading” in a book marred repeatedly by “omissions and blunders.”

He far prefers Doherty’s book to Urwands because it “provides a much richer account of the political atmosphere of the studios in the nineteen-thirties than does Urwand,” says Denby. “And he arrives at different conclusions from The Collaboration.”

Denby argues that Urwand’s errors and miinterpretations are so many that it appears Harvard press’s scholarly-review system abjectly failed.

“Guessing” about the content of a non-existent letter is one example of the author playing fast and loose with the evidence. The documents Urwand cites often do not say what the author claims or are not relevant to the text to which the note belongs.

He asks: “How Could Harvard Have Published Ben Urwand’s ‘The Collaboration?'”

The mounting storm prompted the Harvard press’s director, to take the most unusual step of issuing a statement defending the decision to publish, and the standard procedures followed:

The manuscript was recommended to us by a Harvard faculty member, and seconded by another. It was read for us by five readers, and revised by the author in response to the reviews. … Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand’s interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation.

That hardly convinces Denby, who writes of the press’s anonymous reviewers: “They couldn’t have read it closely. [There are] basic things that do not make sense … failures of scholarship, of logic, of reason, and of relevance” in a book that somehow got past a University of California at Berkeley dissertation committee and a Harvard publisher. “Something’s screwy.”

He finds plenty of agreement among film historians. In the online publication The Millions, Merve Emre, the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, detects in Urwand’s work “the dark magic of a historian’s misreadings across otherwise fascinating archives.”

Emre continues: “At its worst, The Collaboration proceeds by insinuation rather than proof, clumsily contorting its archival findings to fit Urwand’s agenda of character assassination.”

Emre continues with faint praise: “At its best moments,” The Collaboration reiterates points well made by Doherty and others, “offering by-the-book sketches of the Nazi riots at the 1933 screening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the failed anti-Nazi film The Mad Dog of Europe, and the proto-fascist spectacle of films like Gabriel Over the White House (1933).”

Emre does not ease up:

The Collaboration is littered with such analytic missteps. Pick a page, and read it carefully, and some thread of Urwand’s argument is bound to unravel in your hands. There are conclusions that feel shaky the instant you land upon them — for example, his claim that Germany’s ban on Warner Brothers’ film Captured! (1933) somehow scared the other studios into “collaborating with Nazi Germany” seems both vague and implausible. There are instances where Urwand cites anecdotal evidence only to undercut it, only to rely on it in pushing his argument forward. His introductory chapter “Hitler’s Obsession with Film” is especially troubling in this regard, as he introduces his sustained analogy between Hitler’s oratorical skills and movie magic on the testimony of Hitler’s friend Reinhold Hanisch, an account he first flags as “dubious in several respects.”

And:

All of this is simply to say, if you only read one book this year on Hollywood and the Nazis, don’t read this one. And it’s a shame, really, because there’s an extraordinary book to be written using the evidence that Urwand extracted from his German and American sources. As a critic, the best part of reading The Collaboration is fantasizing about the book it might have been — something less sensational, but more patient and responsible with its raw materials.

The Urwand controversy has come to fit, perhaps, into a common category of disputes over academic research: Ones that reduce to issues of belief. Some scholars so fully believe their own theories, which often (like Urwand’s) emerge from years of arduous work in musty places, that they lose perspective and measure long before their work reaches an audience.

Unraveling all the strands of claim and dismissal of claims will drive any reader batty. The reading list has become considerable. Marilyn Ferdy, writing as Self-Styled Siren, matches Denby’s scorn of Urwand’s book. She says:

Urwand is on firm ground — and has decades’ worth of prior company — when he criticizes Hollywood silence as the Nazis began to enact their horrendous plans for the Jews. But it is some big leap from the fact that studio movies did not assail Nazism and the persecution of the Jews by name, to the idea that Hitler’s “great victory would take place.

In his own defense, Thomas Doherty, whose book Ferdy, like Denby, prefers, wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that for Urwand “to call a Hollywood mogul a collaborator is to assert that he worked consciously and purposefully, out of cowardice or greed, under the guidance of Nazi overlords.”
And on goes the now only barely civil exchange. The Urwand controversy has come to fit, perhaps, into a common category of disputes over academic research: Ones that reduce to issues of belief. Some scholars so fully believe their own theories, which often (like Urwand’s) emerge from years of arduous work in musty places, that they lose perspective and measure long before their work reaches an audience.

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In such cases, reviewers anonymous or named may support the publication of a book not due to its overall merits, but simply because the work may contribute something to a field of study.

The tendentiousness of Urwand’s case seems to rest on the way he construes a small number of suggestive documents that he unearthed. And construes to as singular an interpretation as he needs, to make his case, or to make himself believe it.

Is that what is evidenced here, for example?

Motion picture execs on a trip up the Rhine River on Hitler's personal yacht, including Eddie Mannix (2nd from right) and Jack Warner (3rd from right)
motion picture execs trip up Rhine on Hitler's personal yacht Eddie Mannix (2nd from right) Jack Warner (3rd from right)
I went to Germany on a research trip . . . and went through the files of Hitler’s personal adjutants at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin. The files contained birthday letters to Hitler and documents with his opinions on American movies, but I also found letters from MGM, Fox, and Paramount—including one letter from Fox asking if Hitler would give his opinion of the value of U.S. films in Germany. It was dated January 1938, on official studio stationery, and was signed off “Heil Hitler!” At that point, I thought, ‘O.K., here is evidence that’s going against the accepted story.’

The letter was from Twentieth Century Fox? And on Fox letterhead?

Well, yes. But read the fine print on Urwand’s pages 144 and 145: the letter was from “the Berlin branch of” Fox.

By someone in particular, there? A Fox executive?

Or perhaps a Fox-employed German fan or terrified subject of the addled Fuehrer?

Footnote 77 does not clarify.

A reader is little the wiser, only more confused.

— Peter Monaghan

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