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Hollywood and the Nazis, Revisited

Why has Ben Urwand’s new book been subjected to such damning responses?

David Mikics
January 06, 2014
(Andrey Bayda /
(Andrey Bayda /

One of us, either Mark Horowitz or I, must be misrepresenting the contents of Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. Fortunately, Urwand’s book is readily available, so anyone who’s interested can check and see who to believe.

In his review of Urwand’s book, Horowitz bizarrely argues that fear of native American anti-Semitism was the prime motive behind Hollywood’s dealings with Hitler. But in fact money was the reason, and as Urwand demonstrates, the German market, though it had ups and downs, was a lucrative one. In their pursuit of profit, Hollywood bent over backward for the Nazis as they did for no one else. In order to win Hitler’s favor, the studios offered to replace Jewish composers like Erich Korngold with German ones, fired Jewish employees and hired Nazis instead, omitted Jewish performers from screen credits, and most important—something they did for no other country—they let the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, sit in the studio lot during filming and exercise veto power over their movies.

Urwand cites a February 1934 report in Variety that tells the real story: “American film companies are still afraid of offending the German government … preferring to continue business there in spite of current conditions … Two companies, Warner Brothers and Columbia, made deep concessions last week rather than possibly get into trouble.” The three biggest Hollywood studios stayed in Germany until mid-1940 and went to great lengths to avoid “get[ting] into trouble” with the Nazis, who by then had conquered much of Europe, a vast market for American movies.

Louis B. Mayer himself even commented on the ill-fated Mad Dog of Europe project, a proposed anti-Nazi film that very strategically never got made: “We have interests in Germany; I represent the picture industry here in Hollywood; we have exchanges there; we have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.” Horowitz insists in the face of such clear evidence—Mayer’s own words, reported in a court case about the film—that fear of American anti-Semitism, rather than desire for profit, was Hollywood’s motive for avoiding any unfriendly depiction of Germany in the 1930s.

Both Urwand and Thomas Doherty begin with All Quiet on the Western Front in their histories of Hollywood’s dealings with the Nazis, and for good reason. The massive riots against All Quiet, orchestrated by Goebbels in December 1930, were an enormous demonstration of Nazi party power. The Nazis provoked a popular furor against the film and got the German government to go along with it. The Germans passed a new law, Article 15, which declared that any company distributing a movie anywhere in the world that showed depictions that might be “detrimental to German prestige” would be banned from the German market. When the Nazis came to power, they exploited this law to the hilt.

What did All Quiet do to provoke the Nazis into releasing stink bombs, snakes, and shouting brownshirts into theaters? It depicted German soldiers during World War I being frightened on the battlefield and criticizing the war. Hollywood agreed to cut all such scenes from its movies. In the 1930s, American or French or British soldiers could be cowards on screen, but not German ones.

It would take more space than I have here to list all the inaccuracies in Horowitz’s review. But I will give a few.

Urwand demonstrates in detail that Gyssling’s power increased as a result of the Captured! and Road Back affairs, rather than declined, as Horowitz claims. (Universal made 21 cuts to The Road Back to satisfy German objections and then sent the film to the German ambassador for approval.) Gyssling routinely visited studio lots during filming and sent the studios threatening letters invoking Article 15. In 1937, Gyssling warned Joseph Breen, the Hays Office censor, four times about the MGM project Three Comrades. Breen relayed the warning to Louis B. Mayer, and MGM removed from the film all scenes that might appear critical of Germany or Nazism.

Horowitz claims The Mortal Storm was obviously about Nazis and Jews. But Urwand points out that in a post-screening poll only seven percent of the audience realized that the movie dealt with Jewish persecution, so its message couldn’t have been clear.

Most disturbing of all is Horowitz’s claim, which echoes David Denby’s, that Urwand thinks America produced a series of “pro-fascist” movies to satisfy the Nazis. Urwand doesn’t say this. What he does point out is that the Nazis loved American films that celebrated strong leadership and the revolt of the common man against a corrupt system. For the Germans, these were fascist movies.

The real question about all this is: why has Urwand’s book been subjected—and not just in Tablet, where my review elicited remarkable vitriol from commenters—to such damning responses, and such obvious distortions of its argument? Why should a book that points out the uncomfortable historical truth that Hollywood allowed the Nazis to dictate the content of its movies be condemned, in Horowitz’s words, as “incompetent, or malevolent”?

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.