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Denby Hits Harvard for Publishing Book on Hollywood Moguls’ Aiding Nazis | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Denby Hits Harvard for Publishing Book on Hollywood Moguls’ Aiding Nazis


Hitler and Goebbels tour a German film studio, 1935. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/German National Archives)

The book was sure to be controversial, and I’ve covered its claims for months, going back to pre-publication. Now David Denby of The New Yorker, first in a book review and last night in a blog post at the magazine’s site, forcefully calls out perceived errors and omissions—and slams the hallowed Harvard University Press for publishing the opus.

The book, by Ben Urwand, is titled, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler. The title alone promises a lot (and guarantees controversy). Based on new archival research, it claims that top moguls at Hollywood studios—usually they were Jewish—made all sorts of bargains and film edits to guarantee that they would keep their share of the German film market, and gain other favors.

Some of this has been suggested by others, and some of it is no doubt true. But Denby points to what he considers gross exaggerations or even outright errors, which he demands should be pulled or corrected. (I know this era fairly well from chronicling Hollywood’s first all-out plunge into US politics in my book on Upton Sinclair’s landmark race for governor or California in 1934.)

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Read the Denby critique yourself and make up your own mind. Denby also quotes from recent Urwand interviews. Surely the authors will be responding to The New Yorker soon. The Chronicle for Higher Education covered the early controversy.   Watch the two most famous scenes in Chaplin's The Great Dictator.  Here’s Denby’s balanced conclusion:

My own wish, for whatever it’s worth, is that Louis B. Mayer, the Brothers Warner, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, and the others had puffed their chests and said the following in the thirties: “To hell with Gyssling and his threats. To hell with the anti-Semitic bastards in the country who want to see us drown. To hell with the Anti-Defamation League, which is telling us we can’t do anti-Nazi pictures or pictures with Jews in them because it would call attention to ourselves. We built a magnificent entertainment business, and we’re going to make the pictures we want to make.” But they didn’t say that. They 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.

I repeat: I cannot see how Harvard University Press could have published this book without some basic fact-checking and a sterner sense of intellectual relevance and organization. Something broke down here in the vetting process, and that likely includes the expert academic reader reports that Harvard University Press surely commissioned, which are meant to protect the author, the press, and the facts.

By the way, in the book we also learn that Hitler loved Laurel and Hardy and hated Tarzan.

UPDATE:  A writer who recently had a book published by another academic press sent me this note, asking me to leave off his name:

Having published a book this year with xxxxxxxxxxx, and after talking
about that experience with friends who left the University of Chicago
Press, I can tell you the norm in academic publishing is astonishingly
slipshod. No in-house editorial guidance, checking, or copy editing is
offered; staffs are overworked and underpaid, and responsible for
releasing an overwhelming amount of material, books and journals, every
quarter. One Chicago English PhD candidate told me typos and other
errors are now accepted as an internet-driven norm; that is, they are
everywhere and not considered a very big deal when weighed against a
work's overall arguments, and the wider need to publish a ton of stuff.

I doubt Harvard, despite the brand name, is at all exceptional here.


Michael Sorkin questions a recent book defending Hitler’s master architect.

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