Does 'The Collaboration' Overstate Hollywood's Cooperation With Hitler?

Hollywood and Hitler by Thomas Doherty - P 2013

Hollywood and Hitler by Thomas Doherty - P 2013

Brandeis professor Thomas Doherty, who wrote an earlier book on Hollywood and Hitler, calls the controversial "The Collaboration," which is excerpted in THR, "slanderous and ahistorical."

Ben Urwand's new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, has sparked a debate among scholars and others about the nature of Hollywood's relationship to Hitler and the Nazi party in the 1930s before the outbreak of war in Europe. Drawing upon extensive archival research, much of it not previously known, Urwand makes the case that the major American movie studios went to extraordinary lengths to cooperate with the Nazis to protect access to the German market.

Urwand has prominent defenders, including University of Cambridge professor Richard J. Evans, the noted historian of the Third Reich, who called the book, "full of startling revelations presented in examplary fashion." Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Emory University has said it "could be a blockbuster."  

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But his most forceful critic has been Brandeis University historian Thomas Doherty, the author of a competing narrative, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39, published earlier this year. Here Doherty summarizes his criticism of Urwand's book for The Hollywood Reporter — Andy Lewis 

Ben Urwand's The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, to be published in September by Harvard University Press, dovetails in some ways with my own book, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, published last April by Columbia University Press.  

Urwand's study has already generated an extraordinary amount of buzz due to the incendiary charges emblazoned in its title: that Hollywood was a hotbed of Nazi collaboration, a nest of craven greedheads whose pact with the devil made the American motion picture industry — particularly the mostly Jewish moguls who ran the studio system — complicit in the rise of Nazism and, presumably, the horrors that came after.  

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.

The trouble begins with the title on the marquee. "Collaboration" is how you describe the Vichy government during the Nazi Occupation of France or Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian double-crosser whose name became synonymous with treason. 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.

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The subtitled designation "pact" doubles down on the J'accuse! by echoing the two infamous treaties that abetted the forward march of Nazism: the Munich Pact, signed on Sept. 30, 1938, in which the French and the British bowed before Hitler's "last territorial demand" and acquiesced to the carving up of Czechoslovakia; and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Aug. 23, 1939, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed an alliance that gave the green light for World War II. This is very nasty company for the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle and Jack Warner.

The counterpoint is so basic it should go without saying were not historical amnesia a pervasive condition. 

In the 1930s, the Nazis were not yet the Nazis of our history, our imagination. They had not yet started World War II, they had not yet implemented the Holocaust and they had not yet become what they are now: a universal emblem for absolute evil. From our perspective, the rise of Nazism looks like a linear trajectory, a series of accelerating events terminating inevitably at the gates of Auschwitz.

At the time, the endgame of Nazism was not so clear. 

Most Americans, including the Hollywood moguls, had no inkling of the horrors to come, no understanding that dealing with the new regime in Germany was not business as usual. While sifting through the trade press accounts (including those in The Hollywood Reporter) and industry memos from the 1930s, I saw some greed and cupidity, to be sure, but mainly I saw confusion, wishful thinking, and disbelief. How did a nation Hollywood had long considered sane and rational become so pathological? Was this a permanent affliction or would the fever break?

Today, any dealing with the Nazis seems unimaginable. In the 1930s, it just wasn't.

Appreciating the constraints under which the Hollywood studio system operated is equally important. In the 1930s, motion pictures possessed no First Amendment rights. (Cinema was not put under the umbrella of the U.S. Constitution until the U.S. Supreme Court's Miracle decision in 1952.) Censorship of all kinds — from foreign governments, from state censor boards, and from the industry's own in-house regulatory agency, the Production Code Administration — was an accepted fact of life. 

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A movie was not considered an inviolable work of art; it was a malleable product that could be tailor-made to suit the whims of the customer — take a little off here, add something over there. Hollywood had been editing films to foreign specifications since at least 1918, when the sinister Asian villain in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) morphed from Japanese to Burmese after protests from the Japanese government.

Of course, the Hollywood studios tried to negotiate with Germany to leverage their films into a lucrative marketplace. This is hardly a news bulletin.

Some, like Universal and Warner Bros., found dealing with the Nazis impossible and pulled up stakes. Others, like Paramount, Fox, and MGM, stuck it out until the outbreak of war in Europe. After all, Germany was officially a "friendly nation" and the United States was not a signatory to the Versailles Treaty. In addition to the immediate profit motive, the studios sought to maintain a foothold for their distribution infrastructure; no one expected the Third Reich to last for a thousand years.

Perhaps most importantly, a fixation on the mechanics of the import market ignores the action on the homefront — a story of passionate anti-Nazi activity in Hollywood. No Popular Front group in the 1930s did more to alert Americans to the looming threat from Nazism than the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of Democracy (HANL).  Founded in 1936 and numbering some 5,000 artists-activists from all ranks of the motion picture industry, HANL worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the menace of Nazism — holding rallies, broadcasting radio shows, and doing its best to inject anti-Nazi sentiments into Hollywood cinema (no easy task given the obstacles set up by the internal and external censors who always sought to denude American cinema of overt political content). 

It would be unfortunate if the headlines about Hollywood "collaboration" were to tar the reputations of those moguls who stood tall and firm against Nazi ideology.

The work of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, is especially praiseworthy. Like many German-born Jews of his generation, he had an abiding affection for what he called his "fatherland" (the word gave off no unpleasant aroma then). He was astonished when the Universal production he was proudest of — the antiwar epic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) — precipitated riots in Berlin, incited by Joseph Goebbels himself.

With the rise of Hitler in 1933, Laemmle soon came to understand that the Germany he fondly remembered was no more. He wrote checks to the European Film Fund, a refugee charity co-founded by agent Paul Kohner and director Ernst Lubitsch, and signed hundreds of affidavits to facilitate the immigration of Jewish refugees into the United States (and thereby singlehandedly saved more Jews from annihilation than the U.S. State Department).

At Warner Bros., which had pulled out of Germany in 1933 after the head of its Berlin office was beaten up by Nazi thugs, Jack and Harry Warner consistently placed their pocketbooks and studio in service to the anti-Nazi cause — dunning their employees for "donations" to HANL, opening up the airwaves on radio station KFWB for anti-Nazi commentary and entertainment fare, and producing a series of anti-Nazi allegories emphasizing democratic aspiration and religious tolerance.

The meaning between the lines could be read by any sentient spectator in films such as Black Legion (1937), a preachment against domestic fascism; The Life of Emile Zola (1937), a tribute to freedom of expression built around the French author's advocacy for the railroaded Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus; The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), an Errol Flynn swashbuckler that doubles as a broadside against tyranny; and the biopic Juarez (1939), in which dark Mexican peasants triumph over Aryan invaders. The allegory finally became explicit with the first real shot across the bow, the groundbreaking Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). 

No wonder, in 1938, at a gathering of anti-Nazi activists at the home of Edward G. Robinson, Groucho Marx, in one of his few recorded straight lines, raised his glass and offered up a toast to Warner Bros. — "the only studio with any guts."

"I never knock the other fellow's merchandise," says insurance agent Walter Neff in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) — a good policy as well for an author peddling a book. Still, I am obliged to say that I am always leery of history that encourages the present to feel morally superior to the past, that makes today's readers think: "Ah, if I were alive in 1935, I would have been far more far-sighted and morally scrupulous than those benighted and ethically compromised scoundrels who ran the studios."

My own conclusion on the subject of Hollywood and Hitler in the 1930s? On balance, and given the restrictions of the time, Hollywood did more than any other for-profit business to sound the alarm against Nazism. It is a story not of collaboration but resistance.

Thomas Doherty is professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).