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The Myth of Jewish Hollywood’s Collaboration With the Nazis

A Harvard researcher was convinced he’d found evidence of 1930s movie mogul fascism. But did he get it wrong?

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It’s a shocking revelation, first reported in Tablet magazine: During the 1930s, Hollywood’s movie studios secretly collaborated with the Nazis. The Jewish moguls, taking their orders from Berlin, suppressed anti-Nazi scripts, cut every positive reference to Jews out of their films, and released one “pro-fascist film after another.” A small coterie of wealthy Jewish-Americans betrayed their country and sold out their co-religionists. Their sole motive was profit, pure and simple.

It sounds like another cracked, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory dredged up from some Truther website, but it’s the thesis of a recent book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, written by a freshly minted young Berkeley Ph.D., now Harvard Junior Fellow, Ben Urwand, and supported by documents culled from German archives, pages of supplemental notes, and back-cover bona fides from respectable historians like Richard Evans, who also reviewed the manuscript for the Harvard Press. “It is time to remove the layers that have hidden the collaboration for so long,” the author writes in his prologue, “and to reveal the historical connection between the most important individual of the twentieth century and the movie capital of the world.”

The Collaboration, however, reveals nothing of the sort. The book’s astounding claims are not only flatly contradicted by more credible accounts the author inexplicably ignores, but his thesis is undercut by evidence, old and new, he himself provides. The author misunderstands classic films, not to mention the social and political history of the period. One can’t help wondering why the Harvard Society of Fellows thought this book worthy of support and what Harvard University Press intended by publishing it.

***

In 1933, Georg Gyssling, a Nazi party member, was appointed German consul in Los Angeles. At the time, many foreign governments banned or censored American films they found objectionable: Like other diplomats in Los Angeles, Gyssling lodged his objections with Will Hays, chief of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (precursor of today’s MPAA) or Joseph Breen, Hays’ chief censor, who ran the Production Code Administration. Like other countries, Germany leveraged its demands by threatening to ban individual films, or even a studio’s entire output, from German theaters.

Foreign markets were a crucial component of Hollywood’s bottom line, so these were no idle threats. Because studio films were not considered “speech” in those days, they were not protected by free-speech laws: A maze of state and local censorship boards, not to mention national organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency, could prevent any film from being shown. The state of Pennsylvania’s board of censors arrested one theater manager (and his secretary) for showing a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. Anti-Nazi films were censored or banned in Chicago, in Pennsylvania, and in San Francisco, wherever there was a large German-American population—or a powerful America First committee. Navigating this maze was Will Hays’ job, and preemptive self-censorship was a central component of the evolving studio system. The Hays office read and approved every script in advance in order to beat local and international censors to the punch. Sex was a problem, but politics was just as bad. “Propaganda disguised as entertainment” was anathema.

Urwand fails to mention any of this essential background in the book. He states flatly that the studios suppressed films with explicit anti-fascist themes because Georg Gyssling, the Nazis’ agent in Hollywood, instructed them to. If the Hays office censored only anti-German subjects, Urwand might have had a case. But Breen and Hays were notably catholic in their distaste, as Thomas Doherty makes clear in another recent book, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, a far more judicious and comprehensive history of the period (and a well-timed antidote to The Collaboration’s excesses). Doherty points out that anything that might irritate any segment of the domestic or international audience was considered dangerous by Hays and Breen; political controversies, labor unrest, religious and ethnic topics, all were no-no’s. Breen questioned a script that was “pro-loyalist” one day, then blocked a Darryl Zanuck film that sounded pro-fascist. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer altered the film version of Sherwood Anderson’s hit play Idiot’s Delight to eliminate any reference to Mussolini’s government, while the Breen office blocked MGM’s production of The 40 Days of Musa Dagh because it dealt with the Armenian genocide. The villains? Turkey and France.

Urwand also claims that Hollywood eliminated Jews from their films to satisfy a German demand, citing no evidence. He’s right that there were more Jews identified as Jews in films made before the Production Code went into effect in 1930. But Urwand’s book fails to communicate that this represented progress: American silent films in the ’20s routinely indulged in gruesome racial and ethnic stereotypes, often transplanted from the vaudeville stage—and it was these that were largely expunged. As Doherty and numerous other scholars have shown, it wasn’t the Nazis who forced this change, it was the newly respectable Jewish movie moguls themselves, intent on assimilation and broadening Hollywood’s appeal.

Urwand strangely traces the rise of Nazi control in Hollywood to Weimar Germany’s banning of All Quiet on the Western Front—an event that took place in 1930, before the Nazis came to power and before Gyssling arrived in Los Angeles. Even when the Nazis are in power, Urwand’s examples of Gyssling’s influence are largely undermined by his own evidence. Take the fate of Captured!, a 1933 WWI film, one of Urwand’s key smoking guns: Gyssling objected to the film because he thought it unfavorably portrayed German soldiers, and he pushed for extensive cuts, threatening to have the film banned in Germany. But Urwand also reveals that Warner Bros. and the Hays office went over Gyssling’s head and found a more compliant German official who was willing to approve a version with far fewer cuts. The same thing happened with Below the Sea, a German U-Boat film made by Columbia.

Thomas Doherty also documents the case of The Road Back, a Universal picture. Consul Gyssling noisily objected to the project, in part because it was based on a novel by the anti-Nazi emigré Erich Maria Remarque. Gyssling asked Breen to kill it, but Breen ignored him and approved the script. Gyssling then sent letters to the film’s actors, threatening to put them on a German blacklist. His letter was published in newspapers in L.A. and New York and roundly denounced. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an organization made up of movie professionals, publicly censured Gyssling.

Worse for Urwand’s case, Warner Bros., weary of doing business with the new Nazi regime, closed down its German subsidiary in 1934. Instead of kowtowing to Nazi demands, Hollywood’s largest studio called Germany’s bluff and stopped doing business there. Urwand downplays the significance of this by incorrectly dismissing Warner Bros. as one of Hollywood’s “smaller companies.” He perversely concludes that the Warners departure helped the Germans. “For the remainder of the decade, the studios still doing business in Germany were very careful to remain on good terms with Georg Gyssling.”

Yet, as Urwand himself acknowledges, by 1936, Columbia, RKO, Disney, and Universal had joined Warner Bros. in shutting down their operations in Germany. The Collaboration’s central premise, then, that a monolithic “Hollywood” acted in concert to collaborate with Germany throughout the ’30s, is unsupported. After ’36, only three out of eight studios, MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Paramount, maintained subsidiaries in Germany, and none were prospering. The German subsidiaries barely broke even, as Urwand also acknowledges. They did try to placate the Nazis by moving Jewish executives out of Germany, but the number of pictures passed by German censors still dropped to 30 in 1937. By January 1939, there were no first-run American films in Berlin theaters at all.

If profit wasn’t the compelling motive Urwand insists it was, what possible justification could there have been for continuing to do business in Nazi Germany? Urwand never mentions the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, or 1939, all passed by Congress and signed by Roosevelt, nor does he mention that FDR was urging Hollywood to serve as a global ambassador, promoting American values in as many countries as possible, including Germany.

***

The Collaboration’s best case rests on detailed accounts of two films that were never made: The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here. The first was a low-budget independent production that was pitched to MGM and rejected; the second was an all-star MGM project, shut down before cameras ever began rolling.

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The Myth of Jewish Hollywood’s Collaboration With the Nazis

A Harvard researcher was convinced he’d found evidence of 1930s movie mogul fascism. But did he get it wrong?