Hollywood’s deal with The Devil (Hitler)

August 7, 2013

Many people, Jew and non-Jew alike, have wondered who they might have been during the Holocaust. A righteous gentile like Schindler? A self-serving member of the Judenrat? In other words, a person of courage or cowardice?

Now, nearly seven decades later,And the era’s predominantly Jewish studio heads are taken to task for their apparent complicity in Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda.

In America, responses to Hitler’s assault on Europe varied — but they mattered. What if Roosevelt had been braver sooner? What if American Jewry had been as loud about Germany as it is today about Israel? Because during World War II, America’s response to news of the Holocaust can be characterized at best as ambivalent, or, at worst, handicapped.

Even the Jewish-owned New York Times, the country’s cherished newspaper of record, was reluctant to herald the horrific news about the Jews.

Between the years 1939 and 1945, the Times published 23,000 front-page stories: 11,500 were reports on the war; 26 about the Holocaust. The thousand other Holocaust-related headlines that made it into the paper were buried inside.

According to the new documentary “Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust,” the anti-Semitic climate of the period inhibited the Times’ publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, from spotlighting the Shoah.

[Q&A: Quentin Tarantino talks Hitler, Hollywood and his hero Jack Warner]

There was concern that “the paper would be discredited to the extent possible, because of its Jewish ownership,” former Times reporter Alex Jones says in the film. Sulzberger’s kowtowing cowardice led to Holocaust coverage that was “un-dramatic, un-passionate and framed in general terms,” Jones says, without explicitly emphasizing the extermination of the Jews.

Haskel Lookstein, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, tells the camera, “[Sulzberger] was conscious that he lived in a world of anti-Semitism. It was not an easy time to be a front-and-center American Jew.”

The same could be said of the era’s Hollywood Jewish moguls. In the new book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler,” the historian and Harvard fellow Ben Urwand takes aim at another of America’s cultural institutions: the entertainment industry. Although the book has not yet been released, a June article in The New York Times fomented a furor when it described the book’s central argument: that “Hollywood studios, in an effort to protect the German market for their movies, not only acquiesced to Nazi censorship but also actively and enthusiastically cooperated with that regime’s global propaganda effort.”

Although it is hardly news that Hollywood’s founding moguls were ambivalent about their Judaism, the notion that Jewish studio heads conducted business-as-usual with Hitler’s Third Reich could stain the proud image of America’s most Jewish and idealistic industry. Whatever anyone previously thought of the moguls’ role in supporting their brethren overseas, this book, to borrow a phrase from the Times, offers one big revisionist whack.

Not everyone is buying it: “First of all, it is not true that the Warners did that,” Harry’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, exclaimed over the phone. “My grandfather was adamant about getting [Warner Bros.] out of Germany, and got out of Germany in 1933, and tried to get the other moguls to follow suit and was horrified that they wouldn’t.”

To its credit, Warner Bros. was the first major studio to stop doing business with Germany in the mid-1930s, and, in 1939, despite warnings not to, released the avowedly anti-Nazi film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” So you can imagine Warner Sperling’s dismay when she saw the cover of last week’s Hollywood Reporter displaying a giant swastika superimposed onto the famous Warner Bros. water tower, under the headline “How Hollywood Helped Hitler.”

“I take offense to that,” Warner Sperling said. “That is pushing a fallacy which is not OK with me. You cannot put my family in that because they championed the opposite.”

She added: “Mr. Urwand has chosen a subject which will get a lot of attention, and I feel sorry for him that he feels he needs to promote this information, when I think it is probably partially true but not all true.”

Because many of the moguls were immigrants of Eastern European Jewish descent, including Harry and Jack Warner, and Louis B. Mayer of MGM — all of whom figure prominently in the book — the idea that they would ignore the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and contort themselves into pretzels to sustain their German market well into 1940, seems shockingly gutless, even morally egregious.  

But was it really a pact with Hitler?

“You might call that capitalism’s pact with Hitler,” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino quipped when I showed him the book. Moral courage is a fine ideal for Hollywood artists, “but you’re talking about studio heads; you’re talking about people whose job it is to make money,” said Tarantino, whose 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds” showcases his vast knowledge of the period’s history. “That’s just the way it is. They had a very lucrative market in Germany for their product.” The moguls probably agreed to compromise their content, thinking: “Why turn away that market if it’s not killing us?” Tarantino said. “Apparently, they felt it wasn’t killing them. And at that time, for all they knew, Germany would win the war in Europe. They could be saying goodbye to all of Europe for the next 50 years.”

What they did was not collaboration, Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum pointed out, as that term implies participation in the effort to achieve some end, and the moguls most certainly did not aid Hitler in murdering 6 million people. What they did do, however, was accommodate an increasingly malevolent regime.

“They were rebellious collaborators,” Tarantino said. “Because they did a bunch of movies dealing with Germany-esque countries; they dealt with the subject of countries taking over other countries in Europe and you losing your freedoms. They just conveniently never mentioned it was Germany, or it was Nazism, or it was Jews, particularly.

“All of a sudden, in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo,’ which is rewritten to look like Nazi Germany, it’s not Adolf Hitler, its [Gen.] Gurko Lanen.”

Tarantino called these tricks “subtextual Jewish resistance.”

“The moguls wanted it to be as much a one-way street as possible,” Alicia Mayer, grand-niece of Louis B. Mayer, said by phone from Sydney, Australia. “They wanted to sell their goods overseas. And who was in Germany at the time? There were Jews in Germany. There were their own people in Germany. The idea of collaborating with the Nazi regime — that’s insane. What they did do was tailor content to whatever the requirements were when there was a power in place. Look at China.”

But there was something different and more devious about the nature of Germany’s censorship than had ever existed before. When Hitler’s chief censor, Dr. Ernst Seeger, made clear to MGM that “the German people have collectively adopted a hostile attitude toward Jews” and that Germany had no interest in any film in which a Jew played a leading role, Urwand notes that this marked the first time in history a film could be banned not for objectionable content, but “because of the racial origins of the members of the cast.”

When I pointed this out to Mayer, she said of the German censors: “If they had actually taken this to the bottom line, they would have had no freaking films whatsoever, because it all had Jewish contact of some sort; the moguls were Jewish, the directors were Jewish, the writers were Jewish. [The Germans] had no other place to go. So I guess they decided to drop their own damn standards, and they dealt with the Jews anyway, didn’t they?” 

Nefarious Germans. Venal Jews. As most things are, this history is a complicated picture. So what are we to make of Urwand’s revelations?

“Look, from 1930 to ’33, Hitler was not in power,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, said. “That should be separated out of the controversy. But that the movie industry was in a way directly cooperating with Nazi policy in the late ’30s, after the Nuremberg Laws were set in Germany, I find inexcusable.”

However, Hier added, “Let’s put it all on the table: In the United States [in the late ’30s and early ’40s], nobody cared. And American Jews have a dismal record during that same period of time, so to say it was only the movie industry would be unfair.”

Moriah Films, the production outfit of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced a 2009 documentary, “Against the Tide,” depicting America’s handling of the Holocaust. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it focuses on the activist and Zionist Peter Bergson, who, in the early 1940s, began organizing public pageants and protests condemning Hitler and demanding U.S. support for the rescue of European Jewry. Although the American Jewish establishment of the time refused to support Bergson and his fringe group, Committee for a Jewish Army, Bergson did find some surprising and even unlikely partners: non-Jewish members of Congress, the ultra-Orthodox community, and, let it be said, Hollywood.

As Urwand notes in his book, Bergson and the writer Ben Hecht joined forces for a huge public pageant called “We Will Never Die” (about a “rabbi talking to God about the murder of the Jews of Europe”) starring actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Frank Sinatra and a then-unknown Marlon Brando. Some 40,000 people attended, including the moguls. “Every single studio chief was part of the steering committee,” Hier said.

Hier, an Oscar-winning member of the Academy and longtime friend to Hollywood luminaries, said he was surprised to learn of the findings in Urwand’s book. But he was quick to fill in the gaps: “Now I understand better why [the moguls] look so good in the ’40s. They knew what they did,” Hier said. How strange, he admitted, that in the ’30s, the moguls made every effort to accommodate Hitler and avoid Jewish responsibility, and then in the ’40s decided to publicly rally to save Europe’s Jews — even as the rest of American Jewry recoiled.

“They felt like fools,” Hier said of the moguls. “After all these negotiations, and then they see what Hitler’s doing.”

Were these later acts the moguls’ attempts at teshuvah — repentance? Was this their way of returning to their Jewish values and identities? Of restoring their souls?

“There’s no doubt that all these Jewish businessmen were very focused on making their way in a world that was antithetical to the Jewish experience,” Mayer said. “They came as poor Jews from a persecuted environment, in deep pain, in deep trauma, and they banded together and moved on because they had to. But to say they weren’t Jewish because they were hard-nosed and difficult, to say they didn’t have a spiritual core is not true. They lived in the Jewish experience all of the time; you can’t come from what they came from and shed that. It was fundamental to who they were.”

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