When Hollywood held hands with Hitler



A debate is raging over Hollywood\’s alleged collusion with the Nazis. At stake: the moral culpability of Jewish studio heads during cinema\’s golden age.

The catalyst is a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood\’s Pact With Hitler, by the 35-year-old historian Ben Urwand. The book is still several months from publication, but emotions are running high after an early review in the online magazine Tablet, followed by an exchange of rhetorical fire in The New York Times between Urwand and Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who this spring published his own account of the era, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press). The clash comes during a period of heightened scholarly attention to Nazi infiltration and counterinfiltration in Depression-era Los Angeles, complicating the story of Hollywood\’s stance toward fascism.

Urwand\’s Hollywood-Hitler focus began in 2004, when, while pursuing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, he saw an interview with Budd Schulberg in which the screenwriter mentioned that in the 1930s, the head of MGM would show movies to a German consular official in LA and they\’d agree on cuts. Urwand knew that anti-Nazi pictures didn\’t start appearing until 1939, and he suspected that indifference or passivity couldn\’t fully explain that. He smelled a dissertation topic. \”It was the spark,\” he says, and he spent the next nine years traveling to dozens of archives, piecing the story together.

At Sandrine\’s Bistro, off Harvard Square, Urwand, a slender junior fellow in Harvard University\’s Society of Fellows, sits down to lunch in short sleeves on a hot, humid day. The Sydney, Australia, native\’s accent sounds as though it has been gently sanded by a decade and a half in the States. He is affably intense, no less so after a two-espresso appetizer to his gazpacho and lobster salad. The lunch is a break from sorting out his book\’s index while navigating a steady stream of press calls and e-mails in English and German, although The Collaboration is not due out until October. (In response to the controversy, the press bumped up the release from mid- to early October.)

Urwand\’s forthright, deadpan expression bursts intermittently into an engaging smile. Should you wish to see that smile vanish, mention Doherty. You\’ll get a somber look, a mild shake of the head. Urwand won\’t discuss Hollywood and Hitler specifically, only the more general \”mythology,\” as he puts it, of the studios\’ staunch antifascism.

Yes, after the Anschluss, in March, 1938, the Munich Agreement, in September, and Kristallnacht, in November, Hollywood\’s stance toward the Nazis changed, though even then, the films strangely ellipted explicitly Jewish characters. But why did it take so long for the studios to cross cinematic swords with the Führer?

For Urwand, the answer is in the archival evidence: bald complicity with the Nazis. For Doherty, whose book covers some of the same topical ground as Urwand but largely from the standpoint of the era\’s trade press—Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Motion Picture Herald, Box Office—it came down to hardheaded business decisions during a time of more ethical, political, and economic complexity than moralistic hindsight allows.

Goldberg McDuffie, a New York publicity firm hired by Harvard University Press, is not as tight-lipped as Urwand when it comes to discussing Doherty. Promotional materials for Urwand\’s book deride Doherty\’s as relying on \”flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers.\” Doherty fired back in the Times: Urwand\’s use of the word \”collaboration\” he said, was \”a slander.\” \”You use that word to describe the Vichy government,\” he said. \”Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling,\” a reference to the Norwegian traitor who ran a Nazi-backed regime.

Urwand says he welcomes mitigating evidence. But he\’s dug through some two dozen archives on two continents (taking classes to bring his high-school German up to \”a good reading level\” for the task). He\’s viewed more than 400 films made from 1933 to 1940. (Seeing four or five films a day, many of them quite bad, got \”a bit weird,\” he says.) Ultimately, collaboration is what he found—and collaboration, Zusammenarbeit, is what the studios and the Nazis called it.

It\’s long been known that the major studios—Columbia, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, United Artists, Universal, Warner Bros.—all tailored and blanched their 1930s product in response to the Motion Picture Production Code; to an American suspicion of Jews generally, and particularly of the Jews who ran Hollywood; and to motion-picture business interests abroad.

But here\’s the arguable game-changer: Urwand unearthed evidence that suggests the studios were not merely self-censoring in an effort to keep their shareholders, audiences, and industry and government monitors happy. Rather, he says, the studios began working in detailed coordination with Nazi officials, putting profits above principles.

Largely through the Third Reich\’s vice consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, the Nazi-Hollywood relationship gave Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, effectual power over what films got made, what scenes got cut, which stars and filmmakers were blacklisted, and which Jewish studio employees in Germany were fired. The Germans demanded say not just over American films shown in Germany but over those shown anywhere. Nazi emissaries visited theaters worldwide to report back on whether promised scene cuts had in fact been carried out. If not, the officials scolded the studios and threatened to close German production and distribution markets to them. The studios, year after year, would promptly grovel and comply.

Germany wouldn\’t allow the studios to take their profits out of the country. Paramount and 20th Century Fox circumvented that restriction by shooting newsreel footage in Germany that they could sell worldwide. However, the Nazis determined what footage those newsreel crews could film and how that footage was used for studio-produced Nazi propaganda shorts.

MGM didn\’t have a newsreel operation and was losing most of its profits to German banks because of draconian Nazi finance laws. To diminish that loss, as Urwand discovered in one of his most damning archival finds, MGM instead lent money to firms that manufactured Nazi armaments in Austria and the Sudetenland, received bonds in exchange for those loans, then sold the bonds to an American bank. \”In other words—the largest American motion-picture company helped to finance the German war machine,\” Urwand writes.

There is a Bizarroland aspect to how seriously the Germans took film. Both Hitler and Goebbels had a mixture of passionately insightful and insane theories about film\’s effects on the masses. Hitler would watch movies nightly in his private theater with invited guests, and his adjutants would take notes on his reactions. From those notes, Urwand learned that the Führer enjoyed King Kong, although the film\’s kitsch as well as the primate-pawing of an Aryan-type beauty were controversial among other senior officials. Hitler didn\’t cotton to Tarzan but enjoyed Laurel and Hardy (as did Mussolini, notes Doherty in his book).

Urwand found that Nazi officials considered some American films ideologically useful—among them Gabriel Over the White House (1933), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Our Daily Bread (1934), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)—and that the studios expressly marketed certain titles in that vein. For instance, Gabriel Over the White House, an American fascist fantasia about a fed-up, divinely inspired president dissolving a chaotic Congress and whipping the United States into totalitarian shape, was touted by Frits Strengholt, an MGM executive in Germany, as resonating with Nazi work-mobilization, anticrime, and other efforts. True, the 1934 picture was outperformed in Germany by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, and Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. But when the Prussian justice minister, the president of the German Film Chamber, and several higher-ups in the Foreign Office attend a special screening, and when Nazi critics applaud a movie for its appreciation of the \”leader principle,\” clearly there are factors involved beyond box-office sizzle.

Meanwhile, Gyssling, the Production Code, and some Jewish groups wary of fueling anti-Semitism in America by seeming to special-plead their case through the studios, undermined antifascist films in the works. Among those were The Mad Dog of Europe, a 1933 script by Herman Mankiewicz about German persecution of the Jews; a Sidney Howard screenplay of Sinclair Lewis\’s fascist-peril novel It Can\’t Happen Here; and darker, gutsier, more specifically anti-Nazi early drafts of what became Alfred Hitchcock\’s Foreign Correspondent.

The few obliquely anti-Nazi pictures that were produced in the 1930s were troubling in other ways. Either they stereotyped Jewish characters to the point that the films did more harm than good—Urwand cites The House of Rothschild (1934), repurposed by the Nazis in a notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film called The Eternal Jew (1940)—or they were so bowdlerized and thematically opaque that most of the audience didn\’t even know they were about Nazis and Jews at all.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) treated the subject of anti-Semitism, yet thanks to Jack Warner\’s intervention the word \”Jew\” is never uttered and is seen in writing only once, briefly. Even as late as 1940, when MGM\’s The Mortal Storm finally brought to the screen a direct representation of Nazis persecuting a minority group, the film never identifies that group as Jews. An audience survey of 300 viewers found that 62 percent liked the acting, 65 percent understood that it was about changes brought about by Hitler, and 45 percent appreciated the picture\’s \”scenic beauty.\” Only 7 percent came away realizing they\’d just seen depicted barbarities against Jews.

Urwand sees in this more than MGM\’s reluctance to reference its Jewish origins. He interprets it as a strategic omission by MGM\’s head, Louis B. Mayer, who in 1933 had abandoned the similar tale, The Mad Dog of Europe. The studio execs\’ \”timidity, in other words, was not inherent; it derived from their years of collaboration with Nazi Germany,\” Urwand writes. \”In this context, it was perfectly logical that when they finally released a picture about the horrors of Nazism, The Mortal Storm, they would consciously erase all references to Jews.\”

During a postwar trip organized by the U.S. Army in 1945, the studio heads traveled the Rhine on Hitler\’s former yacht; Urwand found photos of the trip. There\’s scant mention in the group\’s records of their visit to Dachau, where, one visitor recorded, \”less than 5,000 of the camp\’s 38,000 inmates remained … recovering from disease and starvation.\” Jack Warner \”took a couple of snapshots,\” Urwand writes. Then \”they drove back to Munich, and they had a festive dinner and celebration.\” In contrast, there\’s considerable correspondence from Warner following the trip emphatically urging that the German film industry not be allowed to rebuild, and that the German market be reopened to Hollywood.

Urwand and Doherty have starkly different views of the era and its films.

The yacht incident is a case in point. Urwand is careful to let his archival evidence speak for itself. But in a rare moment of extratextual musing, he explains that he found himself looking in vain for any shred of remorse on the part of the Hollywood execs, some version of \”Oh, what have we done?\”

Doherty, on the other hand, can imagine the well-documented hard-ass Jack Warner on board the late Führer\’s frolic boat thinking some 1940s version of, \”Suck it, Adolf.\”

In a phone interview, Doherty is reluctant to hammer The Collaboration. He wryly refers to Fred MacMurray\’s line from Double Indemnity: \”I never knock the other fellow\’s merchandise.\” He praises Urwand\’s archival finds but says he\’s shocked that Urwand is shocked by what he found. (Insert your own impersonation of Casablanca\’s Captain Renault here.) \”I\’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past,\” Doherty says. \”\’I would have been so much more farsighted … scrupulous … I would have seen what was on the horizon. …\’\”

In 1933, Hollywood was dealing with seemingly rational Germans, with whom America was years from being at war, he says: \”We filter the 30s through the vision of what the Nazis were in the Second World War.\” Should the moguls really have been able to foresee the horrors to come? Particularly when they were also battling national, state, and municipal censorship boards, profound anti-Semitism from the likes of Father Coughlin and the German American Bund, and schisms within the American Jewish community regarding how vocal or assimilated a presence it should have?

Like scholars before him whom Urwand feels have bought into and furthered the studios\’ antifascist \”mythology,\” Doherty says he is \”a little more sympathetic to the dilemma and plight of the moguls.\” Yes, the studios had to accept Nazi restrictions on their newsreel production, says Doherty, who devotes a chapter of his book to that matter. But the choices weren\’t black and white. Would it have been better if the crews were pulled and even less 1930s newsreel footage from Germany were available?

Doherty\’s reading of a film like The House of Rothschild differs sharply from Urwand\’s, too. Where Urwand sees damaging Jewish stereotype, Doherty sees Jewish characters playing off stereotype to trick oppressive 18th-century versions of German storm troopers. (Asked about Doherty\’s interpretation, Urwand all but smacks his forehead in disbelief.) Sure, Nazi propagandists repurposed it for their own anti-Semitic ends, Doherty says. Frank Capra repurposed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl\’s footage for the Allies\’ \”Why We Fight\” series, too. \”That doesn\’t mean anything about the ideology of the original.\”

While Urwand portrays unmade films like The Mad Dog of Europe as potentially powerful in shaping public opinion, Doherty details the lackluster revenue of most of the serious political films that were made. They didn\’t do well compared with musicals, westerns, and other escapist fare. \”If you want to send a message,\” Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped, \”use Western Union.\”

Even if the Jewish presence is vastly, consciously underplayed in a film like Zola, Doherty says audiences knew how to decode it the same way viewers of M*A*S*H knew that it was a commentary on the Vietnam War, not Korea. \”Everyone, and any critic with a brain, commented on the allegory of tolerance and anti-Semitism,\” he says. Newspaper, radio, and newsreel coverage contextualized such films. And publicity campaigns accompanied them.

\”It\’s important to look at these films as existing in this cultural ecosphere,\” says Steven Carr, a communications professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and co-director of its Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He studies how Hollywood responded to Nazism and the Holocaust. He looks, for example, at \”ready-to-plant publicity\” items, some in both English and Yiddish, like an open letter about Zola from Louis Rittenberg, editor of The American Hebrew magazine. Rittenberg describes how moved he was by the courage of Émile Zola in bringing the Dreyfus injustices to light, averting \”disaster upon the Jews of France and indirectly upon Jews everywhere.\” Rittenberg cites the film\’s timeliness \”today, when prejudices are more rampant than ever,\” and the importance of the \”understanding which humanity must have before people of divergent faith and opinion can live together in peace.\”

\”I think in 2013 there\’s a misconception that audiences knew nothing,\” Carr says, \”and that films made sure that audiences knew nothing because the films didn\’t directly address Nazi anti-Semitism and the atrocities that occurred. … My argument is that audiences very much could understand what these films were trying to address, even if the films were doing so indirectly.\”

He also points to the wider business context. The studios all wanted to stay in Germany, and later, when it became clear that they could no longer do business with the Nazis, they wanted to position themselves to recapture the German market after the war. No one disputes that.

But by the late 1930s, the studios\’ German profits were slim at best. And dealing with the Nazis was a huge headache. Yet they stayed, and Carr thinks the patriotic motives for doing so have been \”vastly underestimated.\” The Hoover and FDR administrations encouraged Hollywood to pursue those markets. Both administrations \”saw motion pictures as essential to selling the American way of life, sort of a form of propaganda for capitalist democracy,\” he says. \”I think for the Hoover administration, there was more emphasis on consumerism and exporting American goods. Not that the Roosevelt administration shifted from this entirely, but the emphasis upon featuring American democratic ideals in films became more pronounced under Roosevelt. … What made Hollywood film valuable in this context was not the profit generated, but its influential image of America and the counterweight this image promised to exert against totalitarian ideology.\”

Further complicating Urwand\’s portrait of the studio heads as Nazi collaborators is the fact that they helped finance efforts to spy on and sabotage American Nazi groups like the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts in Los Angeles. Steven J. Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California; Laura Rosenzweig, a recent Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz who just completed her dissertation on the topic; and Jon Wilkman, a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, are among those who have combed special collections at California State University at Northridge for details. And the tale they\’re fleshing out reads like a cross between James Ellroy LA-noir and an Alan Furst international spy thriller.

In very broad strokes: In the 1930s, Leon Lewis, a war veteran, former Anti-Defamation League executive, and Hollywood-connected lawyer, organized a highly effective spy ring funded by Jewish movie moguls. The moles infiltrated and hobbled a variety of Bund plans, including bombings, lynchings, and assassinations of Jewish business and civic leaders (including the studio heads) as well as their non-Jewish allies, like Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney. The American Nazis also wanted to recruit American soldiers to divulge key military secrets, and planned to blow up aviation, munitions, and port facilities along the Pacific Coast.

Information from Lewis\’s spy network was relayed, but without indications that it was a Jewish-studio-supported enterprise, to top U.S. officials, who were too obsessed with anti-Communist measures to investigate the Nazi West Coast incursions with appropriate vigor.

Ross, Rosenzweig, and Wilkman say the Northridge archives show that German Nazis were instrumental in organizing, recruiting, and supplying these groups. Seeing LA as a more permeable target than \”Jew York,\” as the Nazis called it, the goal was nothing less than \”to paralyze the defense on the Pacific Coast\” to ready the Reich for \”taking over the government of the United States,\” one of Lewis\’s spies said in testimony before federal officials.

In a detail described by Ross, who is writing a book on the matter for Bloomsbury Press, Lewis\’s top spy, Neil Ness, a World War I vet who\’d studied engineering in Berlin, was introduced by his old friend Hans Luther, the German ambassador to the United States, to Georg Gyssling, the Nazi film arbiter in LA. Gyssling in turn connected Ness with the German-American Bund leader, Hermann Schwinn. Ness became Schwinn\’s \”main confidante,\” Ross says, and in that role was able to thwart some of the Bund\’s most savage plans. He may have paid for those victories when he died under suspicious circumstances several years later.

In addition to crying out for treatment as a cable-TV series, such findings suggest that there may be shockers to come regarding the Hitler-Hollywood nexus. More immediately, they present a fundamental puzzle: How could the same studio heads sucking up to Hitler also subsidize spy efforts against him?

Urwand isn\’t surprised by that seeming paradox, which was explored by the screenwriter, playwright, and Jewish activist Ben Hecht. In his 1944 book, A Guide for the Bedevilled, he wrote:

\”In Hollywood our Jewish heroes, as do our Washington ones, give alms to three hundred and ninety Jewish organizations. … But to throw their American won greatness into the battle against anti-Semitism—that, do not ask for. To stand up as the great of Hollywood and proclaim in their films against the German murder of their kind—that, too, do not dream about.\”

Urwand says that for him, there was no wider cultural current that led him to this history, just the puzzle posed by the Budd Schulberg interview. Wilkman, the documentary filmmaker, thinks that there\’s a regional-studies aspect to the current interest in Nazi-Hollywood connections, a sense of Los Angeles\’s importance beyond the big-screen sheen. Carr thinks the current scrutiny is a logical continuation of research into the Nazi dealings of corporations, governments, banks, the Vatican, and so on.

But Ross sees the fascist threat of the 1930s as resonant with our time. During the 1920s, he writes in materials for his book in progress, American Nazis\’ \”counterparts in Germany looked like fools, until they were not. In 1995 few Americans took the militia movement seriously until Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people. In September 2001 and more recently in Boston, people who many Americans believed incapable of serious acts of terrorism and destruction proved capable of both. The rise of dangerous politicians such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum—I call them dangerous because they pit American against American—reminds us of what prescient Sinclair Lewis warned citizens in 1934: It Can\’t Happen Here, but only if we remain vigilante in opposing fascism, Nazism, and all political hate groups.\”

Greil Marcus, a cultural critic and journalist who was on Urwand\’s dissertation committee at Berkeley, would like to see objections to Urwand\’s book aired in a symposium similar to one that was organized around The Passion of Michel Foucault, the controversial 1993 biography by Marcus\’s friend James Miller. The conference was difficult to take, in that there were \”horrendous attacks on him from all areas,\” Marcus says. Yet it was \”good to see to what degree personal animus, jealousy, a sense of turf protection failed to address what the book is about.\”

Extenuating circumstances. Spy sagas. Business instincts. Those are not what Urwand\’s book is about.

His book is about Hollywood\’s failure to see through those blaring, worldly matters, about the studios\’ choice to sell out rather than sound the alarm. Hecht, who in Urwand\’s telling represents all the moral strength and common sense lacking among the studio execs, put it succinctly in a 1943 poem, \”The Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe\”:

Four million Jews waiting for death.

Oh hang and burn but—quiet, Jews!

Don\’t be bothersome; save your breath—

The world is busy with other news.