- The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand
Ben Urwand attempts to prove that Hollywood studios appeased the Nazis to protect their profits in Germany, an important segment of the overseas market for American movies. Urwand alleges that George Gyssling, the German consul in Los Angeles, helped to determine which films got made or abandoned. According to Urwand, money (from Jewish financiers, supposedly) helped to finance the Nazi war machine, linking Urwand with journalist Edwin Black’s book indicting Thomas Watson of IBM. Urwand presents a confusing mix of “Hollywood,” Jews, Nazis, and American culture [End Page 226] that was supposedly already boisterously fascist, as “proven” by the scrapping of a Hollywood adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.
The Collaboration has earned a mixed reception. Urwand accuses prominent critics of his thesis of being either protectors of “the business” (e.g., David Denby of The New Yorker) or turf-protecting authors of competing works (e.g., Thomas Doherty, whose book on the same subject was released by Columbia University Press in 2013). In fact, leftist critics of the 1930s complained about the paucity of anti-Nazi movies, as Steven Alan Carr reports in Hollywood and Antisemitism, including an editorial in The Nation on 20 September 1941: “‘Far from being too vigorously anti-Nazi’ … the film industry ‘as long as they could, avoided making films that might endanger their markets in Germany and Italy. Business was their first consideration’” (p. 269).
Besides Doherty, other historians have tackled censorship in 1930s movies (David Welky, Gregory D. Black), but without Urwand’s agenda. These other authors, though less sensationalist than Urwand in their claims, do blame “Hollywood” for ratifying “the melting pot” or for glossing over class struggle. Their most serious charges, however, entail the Hollywood postwar blacklist, a process first undertaken by the Martin Dies Committee of the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1939. Urwand’s book should be seen as part of this leftist critique of popular culture. Curiously, none of these academic critics make the obvious point that the immigrant Jews who started the movie business catered to the populist tastes of their audiences. Moreover, neither Urwand nor the others acknowledge the diffuse and elusive process of decision-making in a collaborative business, affected by censorship from bankers, and local moralizing watchdog organizations, making it difficult to pin blame on any one person (such as the anti-Communist, pro-Catholic Louis B. Mayer, a major target for Urwand) for selecting which movies were actually made and marketed. These are startling omissions.
Urwand starts his book by emphasizing the significance that Adolf Hitler attached to the persuasive power of images, whereas Doherty emphasizes Vladimir Lenin (a major figure missing from The Collaboration) and ends his book with a nod to Soviet and Communist Chinese film historian Jay Leyda, a convinced Stalinist and Maoist. But what culture has not deployed visual images to enforce social cohesion and deference to designated authority? Writers on the left have frequently blamed capitalist-controlled popular culture, empowered by mass literacy, newspapers, radio, film, and television, for “bourgeoisifying” potential working-class revolutionaries. Such arguments are typical of “critical theorists” of the Frankfurt School in their attempts to explain working class support for Nazism. Some of their adherents (e.g., Martin Jay) backed Urwand’s doctoral dissertation and the book that followed. Such interpretations overlap with populist conspiracy theories circulated by public figures such as J. A. Hobson, Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and film censor Joseph Breen.
What Urwand and his rivals in academe lack is concrete knowledge of the diplomacy of the interwar period. Was Hitler “the mad dog of Europe” as Urwand wants us to believe (a view shared by some postwar social psychologists and journalists), or was he part of a coalition with sectors of the German Right? Was Hitler enabled solely by propaganda or by the delays caused by war-weary or isolationist leaders in Western [End Page 227] Europe and America who were willing to settle for a...