The study of history never lends itself to a single unambiguous view of the past. For history is, as the British scholar E.H. Carr observed in his famous 1961 book “What is History?” “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.”
One of the most important consequences of this dialogue is that historians often advance widely divergent interpretations of significant events, whether it be the question of whether the Exodus occurred, what caused the French Revolution or which factors led to the flight of Palestinian Arabs in 1948. At times, scholars use the same body of historical sources and still arrive at different conclusions. A good case in point was a pair of books published by Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen in 1992 and 1996, respectively. Relying not only on the same historical subject — the brutally murderous German Reserve Police Battalion that killed scores of thousands of Jews during World War II — but also the same archival files, the two researchers drew very different conclusions. Browning titled his book “Ordinary Men” to indicate that the behavior of the police battalion was not the function of a particular German way of being, but a reflection of the capacity for evil deeds inhering in the human condition at large. Goldhagen, for his part, subtitled his book “Ordinary Germans” to convey his view that a uniquely German “eliminationist” anti-Semitism motivated the police battalion.
We are reminded of the manifold possibilities of historical interpretation — and of the question of how we ourselves might act in trying circumstances — in the current controversy surrounding an historical topic with particular resonance here in Los Angeles: the relationship between Hollywood movie studios and the Nazis. In his new book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” Ben Urwand, a junior faculty at Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows, issues a stinging bill of indictment against the largely Jewish studio heads in Hollywood for placing economic gain above morality or a sense of compassion for their co-religionists in Germany during the increasingly dire 1930s. Danielle Berrin’s report on the book in the Jewish Journal from more than a month ago captures the sensational claim of the book: “Hollywood’s Deal With the Devil (Hitler).”
In making his case, Urwand relies on a wide trove of published and unpublished sources, especially German government files, to maintain that the studio heads capitulated to Nazi censorship of one movie script after another in order to preserve a foothold in the lucrative German market. There was at work, Urwand suggests, an unsettling alliance of interests among the studio heads, the movie industry’s own guardian of propriety, the Hays Office, and the German Propaganda Ministry, not to mention subservient American Jewish organizations. The overall thrust of the book’s argument follows a wider narrative arc about American Jewish passivity during the second world war that was forcefully promoted in the 1940s by the Jewish activist Peter Bergson (né Hillel Kook). This is not surprising, as Bergson emerges as a heroic foil to the studio heads late in Urwand book, alongside the writer Ben Hecht.
One cannot dismiss Urwand’s evidence about the opportunism of studio heads vis-à-vis the German film market, especially in the mid-930s. But neither must one buy into the image of them as greed-filled collaborators blithely indifferent to the fate of fellow Jews. Nor should one assume that all American-Jewish organizations and leaders spoke in the same, muted voice about Nazism. Urwand’s perspective in covering this terrain is tendentious, at times coarsely drawn and, above all, partial.
The partial nature of his account becomes clear when encountering a very different perspective on the same period and some of the same actors. Professor Steven Ross, the USC historian perhaps best known for his “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics” (2011), is at work on a book that moves the current of historical action in the opposite direction. Rather than focusing on the efforts of Hollywood moguls to preserve market share in Germany, he has uncovered, through a rich body of archival sources at California State University, Northridge, a terrifying scheme by Nazi officials and local sympathizers to engage in mass terror here in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Chief among their goals was a plan to assassinate 20 leading Hollywood Jews, including Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner — who are cast in Urwand’s book as enthusiastic supporters of “the collaboration” from which his book gets its title.
Ross and Urwand do have some overlapping themes and figures in their accounts, but the emphases differ greatly. Take, for example, Germany’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. For Urwand, Gyssling is the key figure in the Nazi propaganda effort in Hollywood, threatening and cajoling studio heads to remove any references to Germany or Jews, avoid any condemnation of fascism, and even eliminate Jewish actors and directors from films — lest they be subjected to Article 15 of the German film code that would entail their companies’ removal from the German market.
For Ross, Gyssling is the more public yet benign face of Joseph Goebbels’ efforts to conquer Hollywood. Far more dangerous was Gyssling’s rival, Hermann Schwinn, the leader of Los Angeles’ growing Nazi party in the 1930s. It was Schwinn who presided over a loose group of Nazis and fascists that gathered at the Deutsches Haus in downtown Los Angeles. Out of this local group emerged the plan to murder 20 leading Jewish figures from Hollywood. And out of this group emanated a scheme to hang 20 leading Jewish and civic figures in Los Angeles before driving to Boyle Heights to gun down Jews at random.
As shocking as this series of plots may seem, Ross has uncovered an even more remarkable twist. The Nazis’ plans in Los Angeles were foiled by a group of undercover spies led by one Leon Lewis, a Jewish communal activist and founder of the Community Committee, later known as the Community Relations Committee (CRC). Lewis makes a fleeting appearance in Urwand’s book, but he is a main protagonist in Ross’ forthcoming work. Beginning in 1933, Lewis assembled and ran a team of undercover agents, Jews and non-Jews, who infiltrated and then disabled the L.A.-based Nazi cell. It was he whom Gyssling accused of spreading the most pernicious anti-German propaganda. And it was he who came to be regarded by the Nazis as “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles.”
By excavating Lewis’ story, Ross is revealing a previously unknown facet of the complex triangle of Hollywood, Jews and Nazism. He is also offering a very different narrative lens through which to observe this triangle than the one used by Urwand in “The Collaboration.” Ross’ story is not a tale of Jewish indifference or betrayal, but of courage and daring, at least in the case of Lewis.
And yet, it would be a mistake to depict all as black or white in Ross’ history. With respect to the Jewish studio heads, themselves targets of the ill-fated assassination plot, he acknowledges that they continued to do business and curry favor with the Germans as late as 1939. At the same time, they provided critical financial support for Lewis’ anti-Nazi spy ring. Their legacy, in this regard, is mixed, neither heroic nor demonic.
And so we are left with two strands of the history of Hollywood and Nazi Germany, each based on extensive archival research, as well as the distinctive interpretive proclivities of two historians. While the great French scholar Lucien Febvre believed it possible to attain l’histoire totale, a total history, a complete understanding of any given historical moment, in all its fullness, forever evades us. Ross’ account of the anti-Nazi spy ring rounds out and balances the harsh judgment of the Jewish movie moguls in Urwand’s book, presenting an important and fascinating corrective, though not — indeed, never — the final word.
David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and chair of the UCLA History Department.