Hollywood’s Confrontations with Nazism


By Peter Monaghan

What did Hollywood do, when Nazis came calling?

Efforts by Nazis and their fellow travelers to influence Hollywood during the decade before World War II – in some regards successful — have long occupied historians of the period, resulting in numerous studies.

Two new books have in recent months joined that parade, and have cast fresh light on an enormous controversy that arose in 2013 when two other books appeared that dealt with Hollywood’s confrontation with Nazism.

Ross and Rosenzweig’s books both use this image, from the  Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’s Community Relations Committee Collection. It shows a celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday in Los Angeles, 20 April, 1935, at the Deutsches Haus Auditorium.

Issued since August 2017 have been Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles, by Laura B. Rosenzweig, an independent scholar (NYU Press, August), and Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross (Bloomsbury Publishing, October).

Both deal with little-known, brave efforts in 1930s Los Angeles to combat the rise of home-grown and imported Nazism in Hollywood, the city surrounding it, and the United States, generally.

The two 2013 books had a related, but broader focus. Both The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard University Press), by Ben Urwand, and Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press), by Thomas Doherty, delved into the way Hollywood studios interacted with Nazi leaders in Germany, where the studios had substantial pre-War distribution investments, and also how they dealt with Nazi diplomatic officials and home-grown fascists in the United States.

How, in short, did Hollywood portray Nazism and anti-Semitism, if it did?

All four authors have attempted to come to grips with a troubled and troubling period in which hate groups sought to gain an American foothold, in part by pressuring Hollywood. Home-grown agitators, as well as German consular officials in Los Angeles, were intent on scaring Hollywood away from adverse depictions of the Third Reich, whose grotesque persecutions of Jews and others were rising.

In Germany, governmental efforts to suppress popular film’s disparagement of the gathering tide of fascism had begun after Lewis Milestone’s 1929 film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Its Berlin screening late in 1930 outraged Nazi Party sensitivities; at the behest of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, brown-shirted thugs rioted against the film, charging that its portrayal of German soldiers was an affront. German censors quickly banned it. In 1932, the German government passed a law designed to suppress anything like it, anywhere in the world.

In The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard University Press), Ben Urwand, a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, claimed that in the 1930s, Hollywood studio heads effectively collaborated with American Nazis and consular representatives of the German Nazi political movement. His claim was particularly contentious because many studio heads had been Jewish. In its heated critical reception, the key question became: What exactly was Urwand claiming the relationship was?

He claimed that in sharp contrast to what he called “a common idea about Hollywood, one that has been recycled in dozens of books — namely that Hollywood was synonymous with anti-fascism during its golden age,” Hollywood studios had in fact been rather cozy with the German government, throughout the 1930s. “Like other American companies such as IBM and General Motors, the Hollywood studios put profit above principle in their decision to do business with the Nazis,” Urwand wrote.

Urwand based his reading on extensive searches in numerous archives including German state archives in Berlin; there, he found letters from the German offices of the Hollywood studios to German authorities that, he wrote, “adopted a fawning tone; one even included the sign-off ‘Heil Hitler!’” The takeaway from German and American archival materials, for Urwand, was that a word studios and Nazi authorities used, “collaboration” – “Zusammenarbeit” — best characterized Hollywood-Nazi relations. “The studio heads,” he wrote, “who were mostly immigrant Jews, went to dramatic lengths to hold on to their investment in Germany. … These men followed the instructions of the German consul in Los Angeles, abandoning or changing a whole series of pictures that would have exposed the brutality of the Nazi regime.” In fact, he claimed, Hollywood produced no overtly anti-Nazi film until the likes of The Mortal Storm, released in 1940, about refugees from Nazi Germany. He noted that even in that film, those refugees are only vaguely identified as Jewish. That, he says, was an ellision that typified Hollywood’s muted response to Nazism, during the 1930s.

Urwand’s conclusions, which included that studio bosses’ attempts to bring their profits out of Germany indirectly financed the German military build-up, have met with a good deal of criticism and correction.

To understand why many film historians have challenged Urwand, it is well to consider the social conditions of the America of that time, and of Hollywood.

In the economic imbalances that led up to the Great Depression of 1929, and in the social upheaval that ensued, a variety of American fascist groups attracted membership in Los Angeles as elsewhere in the country. Pro-Nazi groups such as Friends of New Germany (from 1936 called the German American Bund) attributed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to the same concocted villains as European Nazis were targeting. Also spewing Nazi, fascist, and anti-Semitic invective were various other groups, of varying size and influence, such as William Dudley Pelley’s Silvershirts, Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front, the American Warriors, National Copperheads, the 100,000-strong readership of the monthly The Defender of “The Jayhawk Nazi” (Gerald Burton Winrod), and the longer-established Ku Klux Klan, as well as such cousins as The Militant Christian Patriots in Great Britain.

In the American context, fascist hatred would find a target in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which from 1933 to 1938 sought to correct the disruptions of the 1920s. Roosevelt tried to help the millions of struggling unemployed, farmers, youths, and elderly, and to regulate more closely the U.S. banking and monetary systems; but in the fevered minds of far-right ultranationalists, that translated to a global conspiracy headed by Jewish bankers and business moguls.

While the membership of the Bund and similar groups may never have exceeded several thousand in the United States, their activities garnered attention. At the Bund’s headquarters in L.A., the Deutsches Haus, and at the city’s Hindenburg Park, named for the German president from 1925 to 1934 who had appointed Adolf Hitler as German chancellor, the Bund held numerous rallies and other events, including celebrations of Nazi invasions of European neighbors. The influence of Nazism was felt across the United States, and the infatuation was sufficient that, for example, swastikas could unabashedly be displayed on the streets of Los Angeles.

Little wonder, then, that Nazis found some receptive listeners at “patriotic assemblies” for one of their claims: Jewish Hollywood was corrupting America’s young, not coincidentally by employing many Jewish immigrant directors who had fled Germany as Nazism rose, such as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, and Max Orphuls.

In the addled isolationist brains of American Nazis, the bizarre notion readily formed that Jewish movie executives, including the heads of six of the seven largest studios, were members of a conspiratorial “Jewocracy.”

Propaganda-obsessed Nazi leaders in Germany believed that Hollywood provided key insights to American culture and society, and that controlling it was crucial to reception of their own actions. Hitler held nightly screenings of Hollywood films. He was, as Urwand relates, so smitten with the features that he could be inspired to proclaim new laws based on what he saw in them.

It stood to reason, then, that Nazi leaders believed that Los Angeles was crucial to their propaganda agenda. And they could see that the city, as much as any in the United States, was fertile ground for their deceptions. In 1933, Hitler and Goebbels dispatched a diplomat, Georg Gyssling, to Los Angeles to serve as the regime’s overseer of the film industry. He became, in Urwand’s account, the man Hollywood film studios kowtowed to, doing his bidding throughout the buildup to war in Europe. Urwand argued that the Jewish studio chiefs, directors, and screenwriters, far from conspirators in some vast left-wing, New World scheme, as local Nazis claimed, were in fact collaborators with German Nazi Party plans to keep anti-Nazi messages from popular films. Urwand deduced from a search of many archives in the U.S. and Germany that the studios, along with compliant actors, were so intent on profits and market stability that they consistently acceded to cuts, edits, rewrites, and other alterations — this was not a novel historical finding, but one that greatly excited his speculation.

A key issue, for detractors of Urwand’s reading of the history, has been whether Gyssling was effective in having studios do the Third Reich’s bidding, and how much of studios’ certainly muted portrayal of the rise and evil of European Nazism resulted from other forces. Those would have included the unprofitability of films with political messages, the wish to sustain profitable German distribution operations as Nazism took hold but with an uncertain outcome and longevity, and the need to safely manage eventual withdrawal of studio personnel from Germany once the Nazi conflagration became undeniable.

One factor in Hollywood reality weighed more than any other, several critics of Urwand’s theories have argued: the enormous power of the industry’s own censorship arrangements.

In 1930 the infamous Hays Office — the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — promulgated a moral code for films, with a Production Code Seal of approval that Hollywood studios could not afford to snub.

The infamous Joseph I. Breen

Joseph I. Breen, the L.A. enforcer of the Hays Code, took to his role with a vengeance. Among the stipulations of the Code he particularly insisted on was a half-voiced ban on criticizing other countries: “The history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly.”

In Breen’s mind, this admonition took a bizarrely contorted form — but one that, again, was in keeping with currents of his day. In a 1936 memo, he issued a characteristic caution to a Hollywood producer, Sol Lesser: “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.”

Breen, a Catholic zealot who wielded his power so effectively that he became known as “the supreme pontiff of picture morals,” was certainly an anti-Semite bigot. He dressed that up in feigned concerns for how anti-Nazi films might provoke dire repercussions for Jews in Europe, and in the United States. But, describing Hollywood in a 1932 letter to Wilfrid Parsons, a friend and priest who was editor of the Jesuit weekly America, he wrote: “People whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here and wax fat on it. The vilest kind of sin is a common indulgence hereabouts and the men and women who engage in this sort of business are the men and women who decide what the film fare of the nation is to be. You can’t escape it. They, and they alone, make the decision. Ninety-five per cent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”

In 1933, Gyssling, the Nazi’s Hollywood envoy, approached Breen to object to the planned making of film agent Al Rosen’s independent The Mad Dog of Europe from Herman Mankiewicz’s script about the Nazi persecutions of Jews. Gyssling objected to whichever unfavorable projects he could. But how to view studios’ generally shying away from such projects was hotly debated, in the wake of Urwand’s charges that it stemmed from “collaboration” in the usual sense of that word. New Yorker film critic David Denby was so appalled by Urwand’s spin that he wrote two long articles claiming Urwand had indulged in “recklessly misleading“ “scholarly sensationalism,” abetted by Harvard University Press. He called on the press to issue a revised edition, believing the original needed comprehensive fact-checking and a good deal more perspective.

Denby faulted Urwand for apparent unfamiliarity with much of the extensive previous research and writing on Hollywood’s encounter with Nazism. He said Urwand had mischaracterized the Hollywood studios’ actions in part from ignorance of “Hollywood history and manners,” of how things were done, and why, in the enclave.

“I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany,” from 1936, was unusually overt among 1930s films in its reference to the Third Reich. It dramatized the imprisonment in Germany of Isobel Lillian Steele, on charges of espionage and treason. It was not a major-studio product, but rather was produced by a company created to produce the film, Malvina Pictures, which the Los Angeles German Consul, Georg Gyssling, tried to persuade the Hays office’s Joseph I. Breen to shut down. Gyssling also threatened repercussions to the film’s actors. Breen eventually granted the film a Code seal on the grounds of “technical conformity to the Production Code.”

Like many of Urwand’s detractors, Denby faulted him for reading history from a later perspective — for failing to allow sufficiently, for example, that studios could hardly have known that Nazism was leading towards a new world war. He says Urwand, “writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, which few people in the mid-thirties could have imagined, recasts every act of evasion as the darkest complicity.”

Then there was the Hays Office’s stipulation about criticizing other nations. Its ironic result, Denby wrote, was that “the more cruel and irrational the Nazis got, the safer they were from any Hollywood dramatization of their actions.”

In a time of widespread anti-Semitism in America, Denby wrote, the studio heads took the many hints, subtle and not, and “acted as if all their power and their personal wealth could be taken away if they made a mistake.” In that America, “there was no room for the kind of Jewish characters and actors who had appeared in the silent and early-sound-period movies — the ghetto dwellers, the Yiddish dialogue comics, the Jewish boy in the first sound film (from 1927), The Jazz Singer, who turns his back on the Lower East Side and assimilates into American society.”

Yes, Denby conceded, “the studio bosses fell into the trap that they had allowed men like Gyssling and Breen to set for them. Because they were Jews, they believed, they couldn’t make anti-Nazi movies or movies about Jews, for this would be seen as special pleading or warmongering.”

The studio bosses, Denby concluded, “negotiated, they evaded, they censored their creative people, they hid, they schemed to preserve their business in the future. They behaved cravenly. But they did not collaborate.”

In effect, Denby wrote, Urwand had reached “extreme conclusions” that missed the complexity of “the half-boldness, half-cowardice, and outright confusion that marked Hollywood’s response to Nazism and anti-Semitism.”

Major academic disagreements sometimes arise due to revolutionary takes on existing evidence, or discoveries of new evidence; Urwand was convinced he had found plenty of the latter, and accomplished plenty of the former.

But major academic disagreements just as often involve matters of faith — faith that one’s own perspective is not to be disbelieved. Conclusions far afield of accepted ones, especially when proclaimed loudly and aggressively — in the case of Urwand’s claims, with a public-relations campaign provided by Harvard University Press — typically attract not just close inspection but also a good deal of collegial disdain.

Indeed, critics have lined up to question Urwand’s read, even when allowing that his scouring German and American archives turned up some new information.

Doherty’s cover features “The Song of Songs” (1933) because its star, Marlene Dietrich, “the most famous German actress on the planet,” became “toxic to the Nazi system” when she left Germany for Hollywood. Doherty writes: “Though a picture of Aryan beauty, Dietrich was not a fair-haired model of Kinder, Küche, und Kirche, the Nazi motto relegating a women’s place to children, kitchen, and church.” An official statement rebuked her “scandalous behavior” in “The Song of Songs”: “With all severity, we must take exception against the fact that an actress of German origin … continues to play the role of a hussy in all her pictures.”

Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who earlier in 2013 had published Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press), with his own take on the events Urwand covers, denounced Urwand’s slant, as Denby had. He told the New York Times: “The word ‘collaboration’ in this context is a slander. … You use that word to describe the Vichy government. [One studio boss] Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling.”

In his own book, Doherty emphasized film makers and organizations that rallied to oppose Nazi infection of American life — groups like the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defence of Democracy — at the same time as he is careful not to praise too fully: “The motion picture industry,” he writes, “was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination and often a good deal better in the exercise of both.”

Doherty’s previous books had included Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934; Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture; and Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. Critical reception of Hollywood and Hitler held that it was balanced, nuanced, and written from a deeply researched sense of the period, as well as from a judicious reading of the trade papers he relied on most in the case of his latest book.

Much praise related to Doherty’s account of how “commerce and censorship colluded” to dampen Hollywood responses to rising Nazism, so that Nazis are generally absent from Hollywood films of the period, as are Jews. Doherty shows, Rochelle Miller wrote in the academic journal Film & History, that Breen, far more than Gyssling or any Nazi agent, actively or effectively vetted Hollywood films — such was Breen’s enforcement of “all nations shall be represented fairly” that “American films were initially more inclined to pass the stringent, and often bizarre stipulations of Goebbels’ Reich Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda that issued certificates and import permits for release in Germany.”

By contrast, many reviews have faulted Urwand for missing the trees for a forest of his own fertile conception. The authoritative blogger Self-Styled Siren, for example, cites numerous overtly or covertly anti-Nazi films of the 1930s that Urwand ignored. (What make that particularly ironic is that Urwand watched 400+ Hollywood films of the period, often four or five a day, to gauge their Nazi-related content.) Urwand has been found lacking in many regards, from accuracy on details, to substantiation of many claims, to overall thesis. (See, for example, Pogorelskin and Bennett.)

Steven J. Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, explains in Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America that Jewish-led studios, and in fact all American Jews during the 1930s, found themselves in a vise in the United States of that time. The country was so pervasively anti-Semitic that it is little wonder, as Doherty wrote in his book, that Jewish film moguls were hesitant to risk being branded as provocateurs if they made films that incited their fellow citizens to rush to war in Europe. Indeed, even in 1941, isolationism — like anti-Semitism — still was so pervasive that some members of the U.S. Senate felt empowered to launch an investigation into allegations of Hollywood warmongering.

Ross, like Laura B. Rosenzweig in Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles, focuses on a specific aspect of American film’s encounter with domestic Nazism. Both show how Leon Lewis, an attorney, ran a spy operation in which military veterans and their wives, habituated to handling fear, were able to infiltrate many Nazi and fascist groups in Los Angeles, often rising to leadership positions.

Lewis and his colleagues brought to the attention of the FBI and other agencies, organizations, and journalists that Nazis were, for example, plotting to kill Jews in Los Angeles and to sabotage military installations. Their plans included hanging or shooting dozens of prominent L.A. and Hollywood figures who were Jewish or anti-Nazi, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, and Samuel Goldwyn. They also hatched a plot to machine-gun as many Jews as possible on the streets of L.A.’s Jewish neighborhoods, all with assistance from Nazi-sympathizing L.A. cops. They set up a training school in Los Angeles to indoctrinate unemployed German-Americans, many war veterans, in the beliefs of Nazi National Socialism.

An item from the Cal State Northridge collection: The Anti-Nazi News (subtitled “A Journal in Defense of American Democracy”) was a publication that the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League published from October 1936 to February 1940, to alert the public to local Nazi activities.

Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California whose Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (Oxford University Press) appeared in 2011, writes in his new book that he found details of the plots in such archived documents as the papers of Joseph Roos, who worked alongside Leon Lewis, and left his papers, including a memoir, to U.S.C. (Ross used the Edward G. Robinson archival collection at U.S.C. to prepare his 1999 account of Robinson’s anti-Nazi activities, some with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, in his Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.)

The history of the efforts of Lewis, Roos, and colleagues was, Ross told the New York Times, “what every historian dreams about: an important story no one has ever told before.” In fact, the story had, to a degree, been told before, just not in such detail. Among material both Ross and Rosenzweig relied on was a large collection of documents held at California State University at Northridge, and the institution has been publicizing its collection, and its implications, for decades including through a 1989 exhibition.

The Northridge collection, and now the books by Ross and Rosenzweig, show that Jewish community leaders mounted a spirited response to monitor, catalog, and inflitrate Nazi and anti-Semitic groups during the 1930s. The Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee launched as a special defense organization led by 40 influential Jewish-community leaders from such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee; it later changed its name to the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, Community Relations Committee. The Northridge collection holds records detailing the committee’s efforts to combat prejudice and to educate the public through cooperation with both Jewish and non-Jewish groups, from its formation in 1933 through to the early 1990s. Leon Lewis led the organization until 1946.

Rosenzweig relates in Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles that the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee — the first such resistance committee in the country during the 1930s — sent its reports on seditious activities to Congress, the Justice Department, the F.B.I., and the Los Angeles Police Department. Her book’s purposes, she writes, include to alert readers to a little-reported instance of organized Jewish resistance to the threat of Nazism in the United States. Resistance projects grew up in several major American cities, but the L.A. activities are less covered in histories of the period, which tend to concentrate on East Coast activities. Yet the L.A. historical records are rich, she says. The JAJCC papers include files on hundreds of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi groups. Presenting the group’s response, she writes, should create a rounder historical account, one that balances bravery and resistance with the more often-reported fear and caution that, for example, led Jewish leaders to reject boycotts and public protests for fear of being labeled provocative, themselves. “Historians conclude that American Jewish political agency in the 1930s was shaped by fear,” she writes.

With barely a reference to Urwand’s spectacular claims, Rosenzweig addresses their thrust: Her focus, she writes, “brings the Jewish executives of the motion picture industry into the narrative of American Jewish political culture in the 1930s.” For decades, she writes, historians searching for evidence of the moguls’ political opposition to Nazism, finding little documentary evidence, have turned to the movies themselves. She continues: “Some historians, disappointed with what they deem a paucity of films dealing witht he problem, conclude that the studio executives did not do enough to combat Nazism, either at home or abroad. Domestic and international censorship guidelines notwithstanding, these historians argue that the moguls were either too greedy or too indifferent to stand up to Nazism.” (Here, Rosenzweig’s endnote makes her sole direct reference to Urwand’s claims.)

Were it not for the movie moguls, she writes, the LAJCC would not have been established as early as it was, nor been as effective. The movie executives provided the resistance effort with money, leadership, and strategic political support. A “Hollywood branch” of studio representatives headed the industry’s involvement. It did so at a time when German Nazi Party leaders were actively fomenting attacks on American Jews as part of a policy of seeding the globe with Nazism.

As Ross writes in his book, the activities of Nazis in Los Angeles had some bizarre and chilling outcomes. As early as 1934, Nazi sympathizers among studio foremen, for example, fired so many Jewish employees that many studios had become almost completely “pure” in the Nazi conception of Aryan superiority.

When Leon Lewis informed studio heads of this, the moguls ponied up to allow Lewis to run his operation — to recruit more spies, and earn for himself, among American Nazis, the title of “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles.”

One irony of his research, Ross told the New York Times, is that it revealed that Georg Gyssling, one of the arch-villains of Urwand’s interpretation of events, was in fact a sort of double agent. Ross says that Gyssling, after being sent to L.A. by Hitler and Goebbels in 1933, secretly worked to subvert Hitler by passing information about German economic and military vulnerabilities to U.S. Army intelligence. He ended up working with American diplomat and spymaster Allen Dulles to negotiate the surrender of German forces.

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