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Hollywood, Hitler and Harvard | The Nation

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Hollywood, Hitler and Harvard


(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.

Urwand told me in an e-mail that the criticism of his book has been so strong “because this material is so new and so shocking.” But his critics have said precisely the opposite: Although Urwand has provided a great deal of new documentation, the story he tells is one we already know. Urwand claims to “reveal” for “the first time” the close cooperation between the Hollywood studios and the Nazi government, but several books have already done that, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, by Thomas Doherty, published by Columbia University Press in April 2013. As The New York Times Book Review explained, Doherty shows that “Nazis were all but invisible in American movies at the time when depicting their savagery might have done the most good,” and that “a great majority of American studios went out of their way to avoid any mention of the ominous political developments in Germany from the moment of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 until well into 1939.” They also backed away from depicting anti-Semitism or indeed any Jewish subject matter. Doherty shows how the key figure for the studios was the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. The motivation of the studio heads, as the Times Book Review put it, was “largely commercial”—they “did not want to risk the loss of a major European market by offending Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, whose censors decided which foreign films would be shown in Germany.”

Doherty relied primarily on the trade press, while Urwand did massive archival work. His book includes sixty-five pages of endnotes, reporting on his research in five German archives and a dozen more in the US, including much more on Gyssling than Doherty found. But what he documents is basically the same story. Thomson told me, “It’s true that a lot of Hollywood was cowardly, compromising, opportunistic, looking out for its own interest. But why be surprised about that? That’s the nature of Hollywood. There’s a way in which the book is unduly outraged by things that a more experienced Hollywood commentator would understand as being part of the system.”

Another problem for Urwand: the leading Jewish defense organizations urged the studios not to make movies about anti-Semitism or Hitler. Urwand acknowledges that the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee both urged the studio heads not to make films that might lead people to blame the Jews for fomenting another war. Thus greed and cowardice were not the only motives.

Urwand writes as if the main source of pressure on the studios to change scripts and kill projects came from Gyssling, the Nazi consul, but as Doherty shows, the more insistent demands for changes came from the Production Code Administration, the “Hays Office,” headed by Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic layman--Denby calls him an anti-Semite, but Doherty disagrees.  Breen insisted that anti-Nazi material be cut from films, citing a statement in the code that “all nations shall be represented fairly.” Sometimes Breen responded to letters from Gyssling, but more often he acted on his own. Urwand replies that the Hays Office was a creation of the studios, which is true, and he suggests that the studio heads could have replaced Breen if they wanted. That however is hard to imagine; would these Jews really fire a prominent Catholic because they wanted to make pro-Jewish films?

And it wasn’t just the Nazis that Hollywood was cooperating with. The studios submitted to censorship from all kinds of people all the time, as Doherty and others have shown, to hold on to audiences in particular foreign countries and also in the United States. Films were cut or altered at the request of the British, the French and even the Japanese; and also in response to demands in the US from Catholic groups, temperance groups, women’s groups, and local censorship boards in places like Chicago and Kansas City. The film studios were not in the business of protecting the First Amendment rights of artists; their number-one concern was to avoid offense to anyone.

The more original parts of Urwand’s book have gotten the harshest criticism. Urwand describes the film Our Daily Bread, directed by King Vidor, as a “Hollywood movie that delivered a National Socialist message.” Denby points out that it was in fact a left-wing film that the Nazis liked for their own peculiar reasons. Urwand’s “treatment of the King Vidor film is very misguided,” Thomson said.

Thomson also cited the conclusion of the book as especially problematic. Urwand told The New York Times that the only time he ever shouted in an archive was when he found documents showing that Jack Warner and other studio heads took a Rhine cruise in July 1945 on Hitler’s yacht. What exactly was Urwand shouting about? Hitler, of course, was dead by that point, and the war in Europe was over; their host was General George Marshall. The studio heads had not only visited the Rhine but also the death camp at Dachau. “They had seen firsthand one of the sites where the murder of the Jews had taken place,” Urwand writes. But after returning to the US, “they did not put it on the screen.” That’s the last thing in his book. So even when there was no more money to be made by collaborating with Hitler, the Jews who ran the studios still didn’t expose his crimes against their people! “The boat trip at the end is really kind of fatuous,” Thomson says. “It makes the book seem more reckless than it might be.”

Urwand also makes a mistake historians are supposed to avoid: instead of exploring the historical context around his central characters, he judges them by what we subsequently learned. Yes, the studio heads failed to see that the Holocaust was coming. But as Doherty has written, in the 1930s “the Nazis 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. But 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.”

There’s a deeper issue for some of the critics. People like Denby object to the book in part because it comes close to arguing that the Jews who ran Hollywood were so greedy they would cooperate with Hitler himself, selling out their own people to make money. It’s an age-old anti-Semitic trope. Urwand, perhaps anticipating this theme, emphasizes his status as the child of Jewish refugees from anti-Semitism. At his website he describes himself as “the son of Jewish immigrants: his father was forced to leave Cairo, Egypt in 1956, and his mother fled Budapest, Hungary the same year.” He also says that, as an undergrad at the University of Sydney, he “won the prize for best history thesis for his work on Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List.

The book does have at least two significant supporters. Harvard published the book with quotes on the back cover from Greil Marcus and Richard J. Evans. Marcus has written many well-known and much-admired books on American popular culture, including one on the film The Manchurian Candidate. He is described by Urwand in his acknowledgements as the person who “guided me from the moment I first stumbled upon materials in the archives,” and as someone who “has been unbelievably generous and constantly inspiring.” Marcus told me he did not want to add anything to his statement on the jacket, where he describes the book as “a tremendous piece of work, fully sustained, building momentum charged by thrillingly detailed storytelling, increasing suspense, and a consistent movement from outrages to atrocities, with a stunning conclusion of heroism and tragedy.”

Evans, who has written what is widely regarded as the definitive history of Germany in World War II, is quoted on the jacket praising the book as “full of startling and surprising revelations, presented…without any moralizing or sensationalism.” But “moralizing and sensationalism” are exactly what many critics found in the book. When I asked Evans what he thought of the critics’ arguments, he replied that he had reviewed the manuscript for the press; “I have read David Denby’s critique,” he said, “and others as well. I am not in any way convinced by them. If you read them carefully, they are either so general and rhetorical as to carry no conviction, or they pick up extremely minor points that in no way affect the overall argument.” He concluded that Urwand had written “an oustanding work of scholarship that should provide cause for reflection, not prompt knee-jerk reactions from people who are intelligent enough to know better.”

But it’s hard to find supporters of the book among other historians who study the subject. The Hollywood Reporter described Deborah Lipstadt, the award-winning Holocaust historian at Emory, as a “prominent defender” of Urwand in the controversy, citing her quote in The New York Times that the book could be a blockbuster.” But she made it clear in that interview that she had not yet read the book—and she told me it is not correct to describe her as a “defender” of Urwand’s work.

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I e-mailed six Berkeley faculty members thanked by Urwand in his acknowledgements, asking for their comments on the criticisms of the book. Waldo Martin and Anton Kaes did not respond. Kathleen Moran said she had not read the book. Urwand’s dissertation committee consisted of Leon Litwack, a leading historian of African-Americans (see update with comment from Litwack below), and Carol Clover, who has written a book on horror films, and who said she could not comment because she had not read the published book. The only one who defended Urwand was Martin Jay—he’s a distinguished intellectual historian and scholar of visual culture. He raised the issue of what he called “the time-dishonored anti-Semitic trope” of the greedy Jew. “Ben was aware of this issue,” Jay wrote, “but felt his evidence led him to those very conclusions.” Jay called Denby’s pieces “over-the-top,” especially what he called “the silliness of saying it was a scandal that a university press like Harvard didn’t check facts, as if this were a function of university press staffs.” Jay acknowledged that Denby raised two “valid questions”: “the 20-20 hindsight issue: the moguls were still unaware of the true nature of Nazi anti-Semitism,” and the fact of “Jewish anxiety over playing into the hands of American anti-Semites who were looking for any opportunity to blame the Jews for wanting another war.” But, he said, Urwand’s “evidence suggests there was more to the story.”

There is one possible source of the problem identified by both Denby and Thomson as the “recklessness” of the book: Harvard University Press took the unusual step of hiring an outside publicist, Goldberg McDuffie, to promote what had started as a Berkeley history PhD thesis. Goldberg McDuffie represents best-selling authors as well as companies like Amazon, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Some have suggested that the exaggerated claims for the book’s “collaboration” thesis are the work of the big-time publicist and a publisher eager for a bestseller, rather than the mild-mannered author. Thomson says Urwand was not served well by the press, and that the problems in the book could easily have been solved by an editor. “If you had a much more moderate title,” he said, “straightaway the book would have slipped into a different position.”

Other scholars who have faced intense and widespread criticism of their books have responded to critics with long detailed essays, sometimes in scholarly journals—for example David Abraham on German business and the Nazis, and Daniel Goldhagen on the Catholic Church and the Nazis. Urwand in contrast has written a five-paragraph letter to The New Yorker, only part of which was published in the magazine. His published letter restated his argument for using “collaboration” as his title. In the four paragraphs the magazine did not publish, but which he sent to me, he noted that the Hayes office was a representative of the film industry, and took up a couple of lesser issues, including how the studios got their money out of Germany. His published letter concluded, “It is time to face the actions of the Hollywood studios.” He told me he has no plans for any further response to his critics.

In the meantime, History News Network, a widely read website, polled historians on Denby’s proposal, asking, “Should Harvard University Press conduct a review of ‘The Collaboration’?” As of this writing (September 30), 62 percent said “yes,” with ninety-one people voting, and only 33 percent said “no.”

The director of Harvard University Press, William P. Sisler, has made it clear they’re not going to do that, and in fact the only books that get withdrawn by the publishers have authors who are guilty of massive research errors, systematic fraud or plagiarism. I know of only one scholarly book by a historian that has been withdrawn and reissued: Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis, by David Abraham, withdrawn by Princeton in 1984 after Abraham conceded his footnotes contained significant errors, and republished in a corrected version in 1986 by Holmes and Meier. (That story is told in my book Historians in Trouble.)

But even if you set aside Denby’s proposal and arguments, you still have Jeanine Basinger’s judgment. She’s a distinguished historian of film who teaches at Wesleyan, and her review, in The Wall Street Journal, concluded that Urwand’s book “clamors for attention and makes sensation out of facts that film historians have already weighed.” In addition, “he has judged the past from the informed awareness of the present, elevating the bad judgment and greed of individuals into actual political collaboration. His book does not prove it.” That seems right to me.
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UPDATE Oct. 1: Berkeley historian Leon Litwack writes, "Ben was my student and I supervised the dissertation. He impressed me from the very outset. The depth and quality of the research, the imaginative and critical powers he brought to the book, the resources he uncovered, the literary skills he demonstrated place the book at the top of the scholarship on the subject. I am hardly surprised at the  controversy it has generated. Hollywood's record on the African American experience speaks for itself."

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