This article originally appeared in December of 2013
Was Hollywood working with Hitler? Based on decades of research from many historians, the consensus is no. However, Harvard University’s junior fellow Ben Urwand claims otherwise in the already infamous book titled The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. Urwand’s publication follows Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 that contextualizes prewar Hollywood as a business-centered industry where only profits mattered. Hollywood and Hitler provides useful cultural context to Hollywood in the 1930s, without which, it would be easy to misinterpret. After reading both Doherty and Urwand’s books, it is clear that Doherty has the superior study.
Urwand’s book, The Collaboration, claims to break the news to film historians that Hollywood was part of Hitler’s evil empire. The book’s subtitle, “Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” says it all. Urwand argues both Jack Warner (of Warner Bros.) and Louis B. Mayer (of MGM) both altered or stopped films on request of the Nazis. Urwand uses these claims to illustrate an alliance between Hollywood and Hitler. Urwand uses the word ‘collaboration’ because that is the word the studio bosses used. However, they meant collaboration in a business sense. Urwand is interpreting the word ideologically. With Urwand’s study available only a few months, scholars and critics have come out in hordes to trash it in major publications ranging from The Hollywood Reporter, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many others. Things have gotten so heated that questions have been raised of Harvard’s credibility, as well as Urwand’s dissertation committee members at Berkeley.
Dr. Georg Gyssling, who Doherty calls “Hitler’s man in Hollywood,” is one of the reasons Urwand sees a connection between Hitler and the studio moguls. Gyssling was looking for anti-Nazi material in American films because, of course, any that violated this rule would not be released in Germany – a business market for American films at the time. Hollywood was not just dealing with pressure from Germany; they were also dealing with censorship in America. In early 1930s Hollywood, Joseph Breen, head of the censorship board, and the Catholic Legion of Decency were getting close to enforcing censorship that eventually got its teeth in 1934. From a business perspective, which was the mogul’s primary viewpoint, each film had to be produced for the widest distribution possible.
It is commonly understood that the Warner Bros. studio long stood the strongest against the threat of Nazi fascism. However, Urwand recently told the New York Times:
There’s a whole myth that Warner Brothers were crusaders against fascism. But they were the first to try to appease the Nazis in 1933.
There is no myth here. As Thomas Doherty has noted, Warner Bros. cut ties with Germany in 1933 after Nazis assaulted one of their employees. Warner was the strongest anti-Nazi studio and their films prove it. Sure, studios edited some films to downplay direct Nazi references but, again, that was business not politics. If you look at the output of Warner Bros. during the 1930s you will find a strong connection to pro-democratic ideology and anti-fascist narratives (Black Legion, The Adventures of Robin Hood, G-Men, etc). What Urwand misses throughout his entire book is any sense of how Hollywood worked during the Studio Era. The bottom line meant everything.
The first studio to step out and attack the Nazis directly was Warner Bros. with Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939. Urwand writes this off as an insignificant film, but it was an influential, watershed moment for Hollywood to openly express anti-Nazi sentiment. Jack and Harry Warner spoke out against the threat of Nazism to both the public and studio employees (this is widely documented at the USC archives). If Hollywood had a pact with Hitler that went beyond business, why would they have given Leni Riefenstahl, the head of the German film industry, a cold shoulder upon her visit to America in 1938? Also, why would the industry be dominated by anti-fascist war films from 1940-1945, a charge led by the Warner Bros. studio, if they were sympathetic to Nazism?
Doherty addresses the issue of perspective in The Hollywood Reporter, “I am always leery of history that encourages the present to feel morally superior to the past.” It is important to view the issues of the time through the lens of the period so we do not run the risk of dangerous and inaccurate revisionism. Hollywood was facing censorship issues both home and abroad and every film production was meant to be a one-size-fits-all film for a maximum amount of markets.
If we take the perspective of the time period into account, it is easy to see that Urwand’s research is not revealing anything new and is instead spinning widely accepted facts into conspiratorial territory. For example, if Hollywood was really working with Hitler they would have never let United Artists get away with releasing The Great Dictator. Film historian Jeanine Basinger responded in the Wall Street Journal:
Galvanized by the possibility that Hollywood moguls might have cooperated with the Nazis, Mr. Urwand spent the next nine years researching the topic with a zealot’s energy. The result is something of a film historian’s nightmare.
Basinger also points out that Urwand covers many years where hundreds of films were produced in America, but only finds a small number to support his arguments. The films he uses are mostly historically insignificant. This is also why any changes or compromises to content for those films was an easy decision for the studios. Basinger continues, “Mr. Urwand’s book clamors for attention and makes sensation out of facts that film historians have already weighed.” Many of the most widely respected Hollywood historians have denounced the book. In addition to Doherty and Basinger, even David Thomson (who is thanked in Urwand’s book) was unimpressed and unconvinced by the message in The Collaboration.
Urwand concludes his study with a picture he noticed of Jack Warner of Warner Bros. and Harry Cohn of Columbia on Hitler’s personal yacht. The picture was taken in mid-1945, World War II was over, and Hitler was dead. Still, Urwand has mentioned that finding this picture was the only time he shouted in an archive. So this was some kind of “gotcha” moment? The studio moguls were actually touring Europe to see how they could reestablish their business. Jack Warner, who by this time was often referred to as Colonel Jack Warner for his help in aiding the U.S. during the war, could have only seen the opportunity to step aboard Hitler’s yacht as a patriotic way to celebrate the defeat of fascism.
I am all in favor of keeping a critical eye on history. Reevaluations are important when new information comes. However, there is no new information in Urwand’s book. A new interpretation of old information does not justify claiming Hollywood collaborated (or had any kind of ideological alliance) with Hitler. Hollywood worked with the German film industry (not directly with the Nazis) to maximize distribution, end of story. It is easy to attack anyone doing business in Germany during this time knowing the atrocities of WWII. However, we cannot judge business practices in the 1930s based on contemporary hindsight. Doing so in order to play the Hitler card is misleading and inaccurate.