It’s rare that a book garners as much pre-publication publicity as has Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.” Even more unusual, however, is the backlash that greeted the book now that it is actually available to read.
“Perhaps I’m naive about academic publishing,” wrote film critic David Denby in a post at the New Yorker website, “but I’m surprised that Harvard University Press [which owns the Belknap imprint] could have published anything as poorly argued as Urwand’s book.”
Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor whose “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939” was published last April, was just as harsh in the Hollywood Reporter: “I consider Urwand’s charges 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.”
Urwand will deliver a talk, “Did Hollywood Collaborate with Hitler?” at the JCC of San Francisco on Thursday, Jan. 23.
I think Urwand’s real offense is that he approaches a nuanced and volatile story with a certain lack of restraint. The title itself is problematic — he makes a good argument that the Jewish moguls in Hollywood, not unlike other captains of industry and commerce in America in the 1930s, were all too deferential to Hitler, in the interest of making sure that profits could still be made in Nazi Germany. The same, of course, can be said of non-Jewish executives at Ford and IBM. But “collaboration” is a loaded word when it comes to World War II, and it may have been the wrong word to use here.
Urwand clearly savors — and exploits — the ironies that arise from the fact that Hitler was an especially enthusiastic user and consumer of movies. “Every night before going to bed Adolf Hitler watched a movie,” he reveals. “His adjutants complained that there were 365 days in a year and not enough good German films to satisfy him.” As a result, Hitler enthused about Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West” and “he was a big fan of Mickey Mouse cartoons.”
But the Nazis were always vigilant when it came to American movies. Even before Hitler achieved absolute power in Germany, according to Urwand, the Nazis succeeded in cowing Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, into censoring “All Quiet on the Western Front” to address their objections. “Not only Universal Pictures but all the Hollywood studios started making deep concessions to the German government,” Urwand writes, “and when Hitler came to power in January 1933, the studios dealt with his representatives directly.”
One RKO executive promised to consult with the local German consul whenever he produced a movie about Germany, and so did his counterparts at Warner Bros., Fox and United Artists. A Nazi official named Georg Gyssling was dispatched to Los Angeles to act as Hitler’s official censor of Hollywood movies. In the case of a 1933 anti-Nazi movie project titled “The Mad Dog of Europe,” Gyssling succeeded in making sure that it was never made.
Urwand insists that ignorance of the Nazi agenda was no excuse, even in the early 1930s. “One of the most persistent myths about the rise and fall of the Third Reich is that the outside world had no know-
ledge of the extent of the Nazis’ brutality,” he argues.
To preserve the market for their movies in the Third Reich, Urwand contends, Hollywood producers willingly complied with Nazi demands, a practice that lasted until the world went to war.
“The decision not to make ‘The Mad Dog of Europe’ was the most important moment in all of Hollywood’s dealings with Nazi Germany,” Urwand concludes. “It occurred in the first year of Hitler’s rise to power, and it defined the limits of American movies for the rest of the decade.”
The real issue here is what scholars call “presentism,” the temptation to look at events of the past in light of what we know and what we think today. The same problem has arisen in discussions of another recent title, “FDR and the Jews,” which considers the question of whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have and should have done more to slow down or stop the mass murder of Jews during World War II. Perhaps Urwand should have approached his subject with a bit more care and caution; after all, Hollywood was hardly the only place in America where appeasement of Nazi Germany was actively practiced in the 1930s.
But it’s also true that Urwand refuses to engage in apologetics when it comes to the Jewish executives who compromised with Nazi Germany in the interest of profit-making. His bluntness owes something to the undeniable fact that America and the other Western democracies were far too complacent at a time when clearer vision and a stronger spine might have made a difference. When it comes to the lessons to be learned from the history of Nazi Germany, it is not merely “presentism” to hold ourselves to a higher standard of vigilance.
Ben Urwand will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. www.jccsf.org
“The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” by Ben Urwand (336 pages, Belknap Press, $26.95)
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles