December 15, 2018

Hollywood and Hitler: A book review

It’s rare that a book garners as much pre-publication publicity as has Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler” (Belknap Press, $26.95). Even more unusual, however, is the backlash that greeted the book now that it is actually available to read.

“Perhaps I’m naïve about academic publishing,” wrote film critic David Denby in a post at the New Yorker Web site, “but I’m surprised that Harvard University Press [which owns the Belknap imprint] could have published anything as poorly argued as Urwand’s book.”

Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor whose “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939” was published last April, was just as harsh in the Hollywood Reporter: “I consider Urwand’s charges slanderous and ahistorical — slanderous because they smear an industry that struggled to alert America to the menace brewing in Germany and ahistorical because they read the past through the eyes of the present.”

I think Urwand’s real offense is that he approaches a nuanced and volatile story with a certain lack of restraint. The title itself is problematic — he makes a good argument that the Jewish moguls in Hollywood, not unlike other captains of industry and commerce in America in the 1930s, were all too deferential to Hitler, all in the interest of making sure that profits could still be made in Nazi Germany. The same, of course, can be said of non-Jewish executives at Ford and IBM. But “collaboration” is a loaded word when it comes to World War II, and it may have been the wrong word to use here.

Urwand clearly savors — and exploits — the ironies that arise from the fact that Hitler himself was an especially enthusiastic user and consumer of movies. “Every night before going to bed Adolf Hitler watched a movie,” he reveals. “His adjutants complained that there were 365 days in a year and not enough good German films to satisfy him.” As a result, Hitler enthused about Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West” — “Good!” was the Fuehrer’s personal rating — and “he was a big fan of Mickey Mouse cartoons.” Indeed, when Goebbels presented him with a collection of movies in 1937, he included 12 Mickey Mouse films.

But the Nazis were always vigilant when it came to American movies. Even before Hitler achieved absolute power in Germany, according to Urwand, the Nazis succeeded in cowing Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, into censoring “All Quiet on the Western Front” to address their objections. “Not only Universal Pictures but all the Hollywood studios started making deep concessions to the German government,” Urwand writes, “and when Hitler came to power in January 1933, the studios dealt with his representatives directly.”

Thus, for example, one RKO executive promised to consult with the local German consul whenever he produced a movie about Germany, and so did his counterparts at Warner Bros., Fox and United Artists. A Nazi official named Georg Gyssling was dispatched to Los Angeles to act as Hitler’s official censor of Hollywood movies. In the case of an anti-Nazi movie project titled “The Mad Dog of Europe,” Gyssling succeeded in making sure that it was never made. “The German officials have intimated that the property of the large Hollywood producers in Germany would be confiscated and further American pictures would not be imported into Germany,” complained Al Rosen, one of the principals behind the picture, “unless they use their influence and pressure upon me to make me withdraw this film.”

Urwand, a junior fellow of Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, insists that ignorance of the Nazi agenda was no excuse even in the early 1930s. “One of the most persistent myths about the rise and fall of the Third Reich is that the outside world had no knowledge of the extent of the Nazis’ brutality,” he argues. “The Hollywood executives knew exactly what was going on in Germany, not only because they had been forced to fire their own Jewish salesmen but also because the persecution of the Jews was common knowledge at the time.” To preserve the market for their movies in the Third Reich, they all too willingly complied with the demands of the Nazis, a practice that lasted until the world went to war.

“The decision not to make ‘The Mad Dog of Europe’ was the most important moment in all of Hollywood’s dealings with Nazi Germany,” Urwand concludes. “It occurred in the first year of Hitler’s rise to power, and it defined the limits of American movies for the rest of the decade.” Above all, he insists, the incident demonstrated a willingness to “[set] a limit not only about what they could say about Nazis but also to what they could say about Jews.”

The real issue here is what scholars, including Doherty calls “presentism,” that is, the temptation to look at events of the past in light of what we know and what we think today. The same problem has arisen in discussions of another recent title, “FDR and the Jews,” which considers the question of whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have and should have done more to slow down or stop the mass murder of Jews during World War II. Perhaps Urwand should have approached his subject with a bit more care and caution; after all, Hollywood was hardly the only place in America where appeasement of Nazi Germany was actively practiced in the 1930s.

But it’s also true that Urwand refuses to engage in apologetics when it comes to the Jewish executives who compromised with Nazi Germany in the interest of profit-making. His bluntness owes something to the undeniable fact that America and the other Western democracies were far too complacent at a time when clearer vision and a stronger spine might have made a difference. When it comes to the lessons to be learned from the history of Nazi Germany, it is not merely “presentism” to hold ourselves to a higher standard of vigilance.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27, at American Jewish University on Oct. 30, at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1, at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14 and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21.