(Courtesy of Youtube user Harvard University Press)
It doesn’t happen very often that a leading critic calls on a university press to withdraw and then reissue a corrected version of a scholarly book. But it’s happening now—the book is The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand; the publisher is Harvard University Press, and the critic is David Denby of The New Yorker, who said in a radio interview with me, “I have called for Harvard University Press to withdraw it and get him to rework it.”
Urwand claims to show “for the first time” what he calls a “bargain” made in the 1930s between the Hollywood studios, headed mostly by Jews, and “Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.” The “bargain” was that the studios “followed the instructions of the German consul in Los Angeles,” changed film scripts and cut scenes the Nazi official objected to, and cancelled planned anti-Nazi films—in exchange for continuing to distribute films and make money in Germany.
Denby reviewed the book and wrote a follow-up blog post, agreeing with Urwand that Hollywood was timid and cowardly in responding to the rise of Hitler, but calling the book “recklessly misleading.” Other reviewers have made similar criticisms. Even some of those thanked by Urwand in his acknowledgements are criticizing the book. David Thomson is perhaps our greatest film writer, author of the indispensable Biographical Dictionary of Film and more than a dozen other wonderful books, and film critic for The New Republic. He told me “there are quite a lot of ways in which one can find fault with the book.” He described “mistakes and misjudgments,” and “a certain recklessness in the book and that’s not been kindly served by the publisher.”
The problem for Thomson, Denby and others starts with the book’s title: The Collaboration. There is a huge scholarly literature on “collaboration and resistance” in World War II. Typical topic: “the French: bystanders or collaborators?” A collaborator, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is “a person who works with an enemy who has taken control of their country.” Urwand knows this, but insists his title is okay because he found the German word for “collaboration” in the Nazi documents from the 1930s describing their relationship with Hollywood studios. That doesn’t work. “This is not a case of collaboration in any sense of the word,” Thomson concluded. “It was a mistake to call the book that.”
The second problem comes with the book’s subtitle: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. There were two notorious “pacts” with Hitler—the Munich pact of 1938, where the French and British let Hitler have his way with Czechoslovakia, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, where the two agreed not to go to war and instead divided up Poland. It’s wrong to use the same term to describe the actions of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and the others.