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?
Yet Urwand’s evidence underwhelms. Studios were businesses, Germany and Europe were a valuable markets, the Depression was on, profits were shrinking, so they held their noses and tried to hang on—hardly an admirable approach, but certainly typical of American businesses of the era.
After 1933, American companies were prohibited from repatriating German profits. As a result, financial workarounds were devised. In 1938, Urwand says, before war broke out in Europe, MGM, one of only three studios doing business in Germany, laundered some of its profits by buying German corporate bonds, then immediately selling them at a loss outside of Germany. Some of the firms whose bonds they traded were unnamed Austrian firms “connected to the armament industry,” according to a U.S. trade commission document. That one document, pertaining to a single studio, is the basis of the entire charge—a single studio did what presumably dozens of other American companies did throughout the entire decade to get embargoed profits out of Germany. We know profits were negligible at the time, because Urwand told us. Nevertheless, no dollar amount is cited, and no evidence supplied that the accounting trick was ever repeated. That’s it. It is on the basis of this tidbit that Urwand declares that “the largest American motion picture company helped to finance the German war machine.”
Even the isolationists and America Firsters may have come closer to the truth. In 1941, Sen. Gerald Nye demanded that Congress investigate Hollywood—not for appeasement, but for warmongering. The studio moguls, according to the Republican senator from North Dakota, were “trying to make America punch drunk with propaganda to push her into war.”
Starting in 1938, FDR had dropped his neutrality stance and exhorted Hollywood producers to openly support Europe’s struggle against fascism. The studio gates opened, and anti-Nazi films like Mortal Storm (MGM), So Ends Our Night (United Artists), and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Warner Bros.) poured forth, in a conscious effort to educate and influence an American population that was in dire economic straits and—rightly or not—largely opposed to the idea of a foreign war.
Naturally, Urwand’s book casts Hollywood’s anti-Nazi phase as further evidence of complicity with the Nazis. This is confirmation bias at its most absurd. A film like Mortal Storm, he says, is suspect because it never identifies the Nazi victims as Jews. To be sure, Hollywood preferred to portray German fascism as a universal threat, the enemy of all freedom-loving people, because Hollywood Jews feared casting opposition to Hitler as a “Jewish” war. But Urwand’s description of Mortal Storm is ridiculous. The family’s name is Roth, and when the father is sent to a concentration camp—a concentration camp!—his documents are stamped with a large “J.”
Most of Urwand’s film interpretations are eccentric, to say the least. He claims to have found pro-fascist propaganda in pictures like Captain’s Courageous, Mutiny on the Bounty, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It sheds a useful light on the mindset of the author and his editors to read that Lives of a Bengal Lancer, starring Gary Cooper, “delivered a National Socialist message,” or that It Happened One Night, Capra’s 1936 romantic comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, contains dialogue that echoes the ideas of Josef Goebbels. (Just reread that last sentence.) Urwand spends an embarrassing number of pages on Gabriel Over the White House, a tedious 1933 political satire about a fictional American president who, after being visited by an angel, eliminates corruption and unemployment by imposing martial law, but he gets it wrong. Gabriel Over the White House was not fascist propaganda. If it was, it fooled FDR, who went out of his way to praise it.
Urwand also asserts that Charlie Chaplin “toned down” The Great Dictator under pressure, to match Hollywood’s appeasement policy—again, with no evidence (and the film was not produced by a major studio). If you haven’t seen it, Lynne Olson describes The Great Dictator as “an unsparing look at the Nazis’ savagery toward the Jews.”
During most of the 1930s, the rest of the world was afraid to confront the Third Reich. Hollywood also averted its eyes. Their shameful behavior is well-documented by Doherty. Yet between 1939 and 1941, Hollywood partially redeemed itself by courageously and wholeheartedly joining FDR’s quiet campaign in support of intervention, producing interventionist films like Sergeant York, Mrs. Miniver, Foreign Correspondent, and The Fighting 69th (which had an openly Jewish subplot). Even Errol Flynn took to the sea on England’s behalf in The Sea Hawk (1940) to face down a very Nazi-like Spanish Armada. The studio bosses defied the isolationists, stood up for England, and laid the moral groundwork for intervention in Europe. And they paid a price for it, attacked by Lindbergh, Coughlin, and United States senators. When Sen. Nye convened his anti-Hollywood hearings in September 1941, the moguls hired Wendell Willkie to defend them, and he forcefully upbraided the committee. “To oppose Hollywood was to oppose the United States,” he said. “To question its motives was to embrace Nazism.”
Urwand ridicules Willkie, describing the speech as a cynical lie using false patriotism to defend Hollywood appeasement. But if Hollywood was really still as isolationist and pro-appeasement as Urwand seems to believe—despite all the evidence—why not say so before an isolationist and pro-appeasement Senate committee?
The Collaboration accuses Jews of betraying their country, selling out their co-religionists, and funding the Nazi war machine—for German gold, no less! This is not simply a silly book; it’s a deeply problematic, even potentially dangerous, one. Who knows whether this is due to incompetence or malevolence. The mystery is that no editor or faculty adviser seems to have been looking out for the author. Harvard University Press circled the wagons in response to early criticism, which may be the standard CYA policy of any bureaucratic organization. But now that Urwand’s radioactive assertions have gone viral, with tens of thousands of references on Google to the book’s “revelations,” it’s too late for explanations or corrections. The damage has been done.
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The work, lost for a century, depicts Edgardo Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy seized by Church authorities