Does 'The Collaboration' Overstate Hollywood's Cooperation With Hitler?

Thomas Doherty
Does 'The Collaboration' Overstate Hollywood's Cooperation With Hitler?

Ben Urwand's new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, has sparked a debate among scholars and others about the nature of Hollywood's relationship to Hitler and the Nazi party in the 1930s before the outbreak of war in Europe. Drawing upon extensive archival research, much of it not previously known, Urwand makes the case that the major American movie studios went to extraordinary lengths to cooperate with the Nazis to protect access to the German market.

Urwand has prominent defenders, including University of Cambridge professor Richard J. Evans, the noted historian of the Third Reich, who called the book, "full of startling revelations presented in examplary fashion." Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Emory University has said it "could be a blockbuster."  

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But his most forceful critic has been Brandeis University historian Thomas Doherty, the author of a competing narrative, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39, published earlier this year. Here Doherty summarizes his criticism of Urwand's book for The Hollywood Reporter -- Andy Lewis 

Ben Urwand's The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, to be published in September by Harvard University Press, dovetails in some ways with my own book, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, published last April by Columbia University Press.  

Urwand's study has already generated an extraordinary amount of buzz due to the incendiary charges emblazoned in its title: that Hollywood was a hotbed of Nazi collaboration, a nest of craven greedheads whose pact with the devil made the American motion picture industry -- particularly the mostly Jewish moguls who ran the studio system -- complicit in the rise of Nazism and, presumably, the horrors that came after.  

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.

The trouble begins with the title on the marquee. "Collaboration" is how you describe the Vichy government during the Nazi Occupation of France or Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian double-crosser whose name became synonymous with treason. To call a Hollywood mogul a collaborator is to assert that he worked consciously and purposefully, out of cowardice or greed, under the guidance of Nazi overlords.

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The subtitled designation "pact" doubles down on the J'accuse! by echoing the two infamous treaties that abetted the forward march of Nazism: the Munich Pact, signed on Sept. 30, 1938, in which the French and the British bowed before Hitler's "last territorial demand" and acquiesced to the carving up of Czechoslovakia; and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Aug. 23, 1939, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed an alliance that gave the green light for World War II. This is very nasty company for the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle and Jack Warner.

The counterpoint is so basic it should go without saying were not historical amnesia a pervasive condition. 

In the 1930s, the Nazis were not yet the Nazis of our history, our imagination. They had not yet started World War II, they had not yet implemented the Holocaust and they 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.

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, no understanding that dealing with the new regime in Germany was not business as usual. While sifting through the trade press accounts (including those in The Hollywood Reporter) and industry memos from the 1930s, I saw some greed and cupidity, to be sure, but mainly I saw confusion, wishful thinking, and disbelief. How did a nation Hollywood had long considered sane and rational become so pathological? Was this a permanent affliction or would the fever break?

Today, any dealing with the Nazis seems unimaginable. In the 1930s, it just wasn't.

Appreciating the constraints under which the Hollywood studio system operated is equally important. In the 1930s, motion pictures possessed no First Amendment rights. (Cinema was not put under the umbrella of the U.S. Constitution until the U.S. Supreme Court's Miracle decision in 1952.) Censorship of all kinds -- from foreign governments, from state censor boards, and from the industry's own in-house regulatory agency, the Production Code Administration -- was an accepted fact of life. 

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A movie was not considered an inviolable work of art; it was a malleable product that could be tailor-made to suit the whims of the customer -- take a little off here, add something over there. Hollywood had been editing films to foreign specifications since at least 1918, when the sinister Asian villain in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) morphed from Japanese to Burmese after protests from the Japanese government.

Of course, the Hollywood studios tried to negotiate with Germany to leverage their films into a lucrative marketplace. This is hardly a news bulletin.

Some, like Universal and Warner Bros., found dealing with the Nazis impossible and pulled up stakes. Others, like Paramount, Fox, and MGM, stuck it out until the outbreak of war in Europe. After all, Germany was officially a "friendly nation" and the United States was not a signatory to the Versailles Treaty. In addition to the immediate profit motive, the studios sought to maintain a foothold for their distribution infrastructure; no one expected the Third Reich to last for a thousand years.

Thomas Doherty is professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).