Adolf Hitler loved American movies. Every night at about 9:00, after the Führer had tired out his listeners with his hours-long monologues, he would lead his dinner guests to his private screening room. The lights would go down, and Hitler would fall silent, probably for the first time that day. He laughed heartily at his favorites Laurel and Hardy and Mickey Mouse, and he adored Greta Garbo: Camille brought tears to the Führer’s eyes. Tarzan, on the other hand, he thought was silly.
As it turns out, Hitler’s love for American movies was reciprocated by Hollywood. A forthcoming book by the young historian Ben Urwand, to be published by Harvard University Press in October, presents explosive new evidence about the shocking extent of the partnership between the Nazis and major Hollywood producers. Urwand, a former indie rock musician and currently a member of Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows, takes the subject personally: His parents were Jewish refugees from Egypt and Hungary. Digging through archives in Berlin and Washington, D.C., he has unearthed proof that Hollywood worked together with the Nazis much more closely than we ever imagined.
Urwand has titled his riveting book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, and as you turn its pages you realize with dismay that collaboration is the only fitting word for the relationship between Hitler and Hollywood in the 1930s. Using new archival discoveries, Urwand alleges that some of the Hollywood studio heads, nearly all of whom were Jewish, cast their lot with Hitler almost from the moment he took power, and that they did so eagerly—not reluctantly. What they wanted was access to German audiences. What Hitler wanted was the ability to shape the content of Hollywood movies—and he got it. During the ’30s, Georg Gyssling, Hitler’s consul in Los Angeles, was invited to preview films before they were released. If Gyssling objected to any part of a movie—and he frequently did—the offending scenes were cut. As a result, the Nazis had total veto power over the content of Hollywood movies.
What is shocking and new about Urwand’s account is its blow-by-blow description of Hollywood executives tailoring their product to meet the demands of the Nazi regime. While Hollywood’s relations with the Nazis is not a new subject, the inclination of previous historians like Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, who did not have access to the documents that Urwand has uncovered, has been to let the studio executives off the hook. Like most historians before Urwand, Doherty seconds Jack Warner’s self-portrait as an ardent foe of the Nazis, who stopped doing business in Germany because he was appalled by the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. But as Urwand alleges here, it wasn’t Warner who rejected the Nazis; they rejected him: Hitler dumped Warner Bros. because the studio failed to make the substantial cuts demanded by his consul Gyssling to a movie called Captured!, set in a German-run camp for foreign POWs during World War I. By July 1934, Warner Bros. had been kicked out of Berlin, and the rest of the studios were running scared. Urwand details Hollywood distribution companies faced with having to fire half of their Jewish staff members in Germany and negotiating with the Nazis so that they could hang on to other half. In 1936, all Jews associated with the American film industry in Germany were forced to leave the country. Yet even after this, the studios eagerly kept up their profitable dealings with Hitler’s regime.
Many dozens of Hollywood movies were imported into Nazi Germany each year, and they often did stunningly well at the box office. The American movies that the Nazis loved best were those that proclaimed the need for a strong leader. Nazi newspapers were ecstatic to see the “leader principle” illustrated in films like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mutiny on the Bounty, Our Daily Bread, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They found in these blockbuster entertainments sound fascist political lessons leavened by humor—a light American touch that, Nazi reviewers lamented, German movies could never approach. (In 1939 10 Nazi newspaper editors—including the editor of the Völkischer Beobachter, the official Nazi party newspaper—were treated to a “good will tour” of the MGM studio.) No one was more wholesomely American than the warm-hearted, stammering Jimmy Stewart; but movies like Mr. Smith were welcomed in Germany because they showed that the democratic form of government was inefficient and corrupt.
A film that showed the advantages of democracy over fascism could never be made in Hollywood in the 1930s because of political pressure stemming from Hitler’s Germany, whose market was simply too lucrative for the studios to ignore. In 1936 MGM planned to adapt for the screen Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a fascist takeover of America, It Can’t Happen Here. When Louis B. Mayer called off the project shortly after it started production, the Nazis announced their pleasure with Mayer’s decision. Mayer was first tipped off to the danger of making It Can’t Happen Here by Will Hays. The Hays Office, Hollywood’s censorship bureau, enforced its Movie Production Code “to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized” (as the code put it). Hays admitted that It Can’t Happen Here didn’t offend according any standards of decency, but he warned that certain foreign governments—i.e., Germany—would be upset by the film.
Even before the Nazis took power, Hollywood was buckling under to German demands. In 1932 a new German regulation, inspired in part by Nazi agitation, appeared: Film producers could have their permits to show their films in Germany revoked if they screened, anywhere in the world, movies whose effect was damaging to Germany’s prestige. The intent was to curtail a flourishing genre: movies about World War I that portrayed German officers as scoundrels or sadists (and that often starred Erich von Stroheim, the Silesian Jewish genius who supplied his villainous acting roles with Teutonic growls, barks, and carpet-chewing mannerisms). When Hitler came to power a year later, he used the new law as a way to censor Hollywood movies: to control how they could depict Germans and Jews not only within Germany, but around the world.
Ironically, the man who set the pattern for German interference in American movie making was Carl Laemmle, Sr., head of Universal, who later heroically aided Jewish refugees from his native Germany (see Allison Hoffman’s recent Tablet Magazine story). In 1930, Nazis had disrupted the German premiere of Universal’s antiwar film All Quiet on the Western Front: Led by Goebbels, they set off stink bombs and let white mice loose in the theaters. After the Nazi riots, Laemmle, a Jew, put an ad in the German newspapers: “I yield to no one in my love for the Fatherland. The fact that I came to America as a boy and built my future in America has never for a moment caused any cessation of my love for the land of my birth.” Laemmle agreed to make major cuts to All Quiet on the Western Front, not only for screenings in Germany, but worldwide. The picture was gutted—its savage attack on German militarism wound up on the cutting room floor. The same thing would happen later in the decade to MGM’s Three Comrades, again in response to German demands. Other studio heads were less sympathetic than Laemmle to the plight of their fellow Jews, but they shared his wish to keep the German market safe for American movies. Laemmle’s personal efforts to save Jews from the Nazis later on may well have been motivated by his guilt at doing the German government’s bidding as the head of a major Hollywood studio.
Hollywood’s policy of collaboration with the Nazis took more active forms as well. As Jews were systemically excluded from German life and barred from schools and professions, 20th Century Fox released The House of Rothschild(1934), starring George Arliss, the British actor who had earlier played Disraeli. The movie showed how a single Jewish family, headed by its greedy, mean-spirited patriarch Mayer Rothschild, managed to gain control over the finances of Europe and was even able to influence the decisions of governments about war and peace. It was a film that the Nazis might have commissioned themselves.
In fact, the Nazis liked The House of Rothschild so well that a scene from the movie was actually incorporated into the most notorious Nazi anti-Semitic film, Der Ewige Jude. The ADL was so disturbed by the film that it convinced the studios to avoid all mention of Jews in their future productions. And so Jewish characters, who had been featured in hundreds of movies in the 1920s, all but disappeared from the American screen after Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler’s government couldn’t have been happier: There would be no reference to the ever-more desperate plight of the Jews under the Nazi rule in any Hollywood film of the ’30s.
Incredibly, the creative collaboration between the Nazis and Hollywood only deepened throughout the 1930s as exclusionary violence against Jews increased and Hitler tightened his grip on power. In the late 1930s, Urwand claims, Paramount and 20th Century Fox produced newsreels in Germany depicting major Nazi events. Most shocking of all, Urwand maintains, in 1938 MGM invested in factories making German weapons in Austria and the Sudetenland. As Urwand put it in a recent YouTube interview, “The biggest movie studio in America was actually financing the production of German armaments immediately before World War II.” After Germany invaded Poland, MGM further consolidated its alliance with the Nazis by donating eleven of its most popular movies to the cause of German war relief.
In 1937, Urwand discovers, Jack Warner seems to have agreed to Gyssling’s demand that the word “Jew” not be spoken in The Life of Emile Zola, which depicted the Dreyfus case; Warner Bros. reassured the German consul that Dreyfus was not a major figure in the movie. The studios even sometimes signed their communiqués to Berlin “Heil Hitler!”: They were loyal to the Führer, even when he didn’t want their movies and in fact wanted to see them dead. Eventually, in 1939, Warner Brothers produced a B movie titled Confessions of a Nazi Spy—the first and only Hollywood criticism of Hitler Germany to be released in the six years since the Nazis took power. But the damage had already been done; the cravenness of the American film industry had made them de facto allies of the Nazis.
Hollywood’s repression of the facts about Jewish persecution continued even during the war years, after all the studios had finally been driven from Germany (MGM and Paramount remained there well into 1940) and America was at war with the Nazis. Despite the courageous efforts of screenwriter Ben Hecht to raise public awareness of the Holocaust while it was happening, there was only one reference to what was being done to the Jews in any Hollywood movie made during the war: a 5-minute sequence of a minor courtroom drama called None Shall Escape (1944), in which Nazis shoot a group of Jewish prisoners who fight back while they are being loaded onto a train. Five minutes was all the studio heads could give to the mass murder of their people, which by then had become common knowledge—in part as a result of Hecht’s full-page newspaper ads and his 1943 Madison Square Garden pageant, We Will Never Die.
Hitler saw himself as a cinematic hero, a matinee idol who overwhelmed the adoring crowds awestruck by his power. He stepped in on occasion and edited the Nazi newsreels himself; he realized that film swayed the masses. Hitler knew he had to feed people fantasy in order to get them to follow his evil vision, and he knew that the movies had taught him how to exploit fantasy’s power: how to seduce on the grandest possible scale. The movies he found most inspiring, most magical in the spell they cast on an audience, were made in America. As Neal Gabler argued in An Empire of Their Own, the Hollywood Jews invented the America of our dreams, a place of high excitement, courage, laughs, compassion, family feeling, and true love. Hitler’s dream was different, and it found a terrible fulfillment in mass murder and war. Hollywood could have helped awaken the world to the looming danger of Nazism, but instead the Jewish dream-makers cast their lot with the world’s—and the Jews’—greatest enemy.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.