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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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The Mad Dog of Europe was a crude anti-Nazi script that tried to expose the very real horrors of Nazism, including anti-Semitism—making it exactly the kind of thing the studios never touched. It Can’t Happen Here, based on the best-selling novel by Sinclair Lewis, imagined the possibility of fascism in America, and Lewis’ homegrown proto-Nazis deployed the same brutal techniques as their European brethren, including large doses of anti-Semitic scapegoating and violence.

Urwand’s thesis is that the films were suppressed to satisfy the Germans, yet he cannot find any evidence that the Germans intervened with MGM in either case. The story of both projects has been written about extensively before, in Doherty and Welky, among other books, so one holds out some hope that Urwand’s archival dives will reveal something new. But regarding The Mad Dog of Europe, he writes, “It is uncertain whether Gyssling actually did this at this particular point in time—the evidence is inconclusive.” Unfazed, he states without any backup that Gyssling “probably” complained.

In the case of It Can’t Happen Here, which Louis B. Mayer canceled during pre-production, Urwand also comes up short. “The German and Italian governments had apparently not said a word against the picture.” He adds “in all of the remaining archival materials, there is no evidence to suggest that Gyssling issued any complaint about It Can’t Happen Here.”

So, what does he then conclude? “Whether Gyssling was involved in the cancellation of It Can’t Happen Here will probably never be known. But even if Gyssling were not directly involved, his presence in Los Angeles undoubtedly affected MGM’s decision. … Regardless of whether Gyssling took any action.”

The Collaboration does admit that the studios received complaints about the projects: The problem for Urwand’s thesis is that they weren’t from German agents. Instead, opposition came from prominent American Jews and Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, which feared the projects could trigger increased anti-Semitism and feed accusations that Jewish warmongers controlled Hollywood.

Urwand dismisses these powerful fears as a fantasy and a smokescreen. He says the films were blocked because of economic pressure applied by the Nazis. He says Gyssling must have intervened in the cases of The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here, even if he can’t find any evidence, because for Urwand there can be no other explanation. Yet another possibility was staring Urwand in the face, but either he couldn’t or didn’t want to see it.

The war between isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin on one side, and interventionists led by FDR, Popular Front groups, and internationally oriented business groups on the other, is central to the social and political tensions rippling through the United States during the 1930s. Arthur Schlesinger, who lived through the battles over McCarthyism in the 1950s, and Vietnam in the 1960s, called the battle over intervention in Europe during the 1930s “the most savage political debate in my lifetime.” To get a sense of the ferocity of the political combat, it is helpful to consider that by 1941 the isolationist America First organization had more than 400 local committees across the United States, and many, if not most of them, were openly anti-Semitic, accusing “Jewish warmongers” of being behind the push for war. Chicago was a particular center of isolationist feeling because of its large German-American population: Two-thirds of the first 1 million members of America First lived in the largest city of the Midwest.

American Jews who favored active opposition to Hitler were therefore faced with a unique problem. Would openly espousing the interventionist line help or hinder the cause, or would they be accused of special pleading by placing Jewish interests over American interests? Jews had good reasons to fear exacerbating the growing anti-Semitic mood. Father Coughlin’s isolationist, nativist, and anti-Semitic radio rants, supported by Henry Ford, had 40 million listeners. In 1936, the United States did not boycott the German Olympics; instead, the U.S. Olympic Committee banned Jewish athletes from participating.

As Lynne Olson shows in her highly readable Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War Two, 1939-1941, published earlier this year, fears of the rise of home-grown American anti-Semitism were uppermost in the minds of Jewish elites. Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, complained that for the first time in his life he regretted being a Jew because “with the tide of anti-Semitism rising, he was unable to champion the anti-Hitler policy of the administration as vigorously and as universally as he would like.” FDR aide Harold Ickes warned wealthy Jews to “exercise extreme caution in the acquisition of their wealth and great scrupulousness in their social behavior.” FDR himself urged the studios to stay neutral, lest they prejudice the fight.

Urwand dismisses Jewish fears in a brief aside. There is “no evidence,” he claims, that Hollywood Jews were fearful of anti-Semitism. Really? This one is a real head-scratcher. “In the 1930s and early 1940s, overt anti-Semitism was a distinctive feature of life in the United States,” Olson writes, “Not until after World War II and the revelations of the Holocaust did most elements of U.S. society consider open anti-Jewish prejudice to be unacceptable.” Charles Lindbergh had identified the three leading “war agitators”: FDR, the British, and the Jews. Jews, he said, were a “danger to this country” because of “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” Congress held hearings about excessive Hollywood influence, and Joseph P. Kennedy, a former studio owner himself, later American ambassador to England and a leading isolationist, publicly warned his former colleagues in Los Angeles not to “use the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of democracies versus the dictators” because it would highlight Jewish control of Hollywood and lead to an anti-Semitic backlash.

It’s not hard, in other words, to image why Jewish leaders and organizations often pressured the studios to avoid Jewish subjects or any kind of special pleading on behalf of Jews: They were frightened of fueling more anti-Semitism at a moment when Hollywood executives were already being targeted as “Jewish warmongers” by America Firsters. That’s what happened in the case of The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here. Urwand even documents the pressure, yet he still concludes it was German influence that swayed Mayer. (Because Jewish fears were fake!)

***

The Collaboration’s final charge is also its most sensational. Harvard University Press promoted the book ahead of publication by promising that it would reveal how Hollywood directly financed the German war machine—the final act of perfidy, comparable to accounts of extensive Nazi entanglements of corporations like Standard Oil, Ford, Chase Bank, and ITT.

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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?