Google+

BBC Culture

The Reel World

Did Hollywood studios help the Nazis?

About the author

Tom Brook is a New York-based journalist who has reported on film and the movie industry for BBC News since 1985. He has presented Talking Movies on BBC World News since 1999.

Adolf Hitler

(Photo: Getty Images)

A controversial new book claims movie studios gave into the wishes of Hitler’s Germany. How true are its claims? And why is the subject still so raw? Tom Brook investigates.

Harvard scholar Ben Urwand is a mild-mannered man in his mid-30s whose new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, has provoked some strong criticism – and to be fair – some praise too.

“It’s a disgrace,” says The New Yorker’s David Denby, one of America’s top film critics. “I’ve called for Harvard University Press to withdraw it. It’s full of unproved assertions,” he claims.

“Slanderous and ahistorical” is how another of Ben Urwand’s detractors, Brandeis University historian Thomas Doherty, describes the book in remarks published in the trade publication The Hollywood Reporter. Doherty, who is the author of the recently published competing narrative Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, has been among Urwand’s most vocal critics.

What Ben Urwand has attempted to do in his book, based on ten years of  research in Germany and the United States, is shift the narrative on Hollywood in the 1930s. He makes the case that the men who ran the studios, far from being saintly figures opposed to Hitler’s growing power in Europe, acquiesced to the demands of the Nazis and even collaborated with them.

One of the most audacious charges is that one studio even financed German weaponry. “MGM, to get its money out of Germany, was investing in the production of German armaments – that was the single most shocking find,” says Urwand.

 “The studio executives wanted to preserve business in Germany all through the 1930s,” says the author. “And  what they did was they invited the Nazi German consul in Los Angeles to their studios and showed him pictures that could be potentially offensive to Germany and they would allow him to make cuts to their pictures.”

Hitler’s man in Hollywood

The Third Reich’s diplomatic representative in LA, Georg Gyssling, who has been referred to as ‘Hitler’s Hollywood consul’, had a specific brief to monitor the activities of the studios. By all accounts he was extremely diligent in his duties.

The Nazis, according to Urwand, could also prevent movies from being made. He claims a Hollywood film about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was never produced because of Nazi pressure. “In 1933 the great Hollywood screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote Citizen Kane, came up with a script about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in which he predicted that this would lead to the killing of the Jews. The Nazi German consul told studio executives that if any studio made this picture then all of the Hollywood studios would be banned from the German market.”

But why would the studio heads, most of whom were Jewish, so willingly agree to shape their movies to please Nazi sensibilities? Urwand suggests it was all about maintaining access to the German market.

Urwand’s critics claim he has got it wrong – that the German market wasn’t consistently lucrative in the 1930s. On this point, Urwand concedes that box office revenues really started to dwindle by about 1936 – and that in 1937 one US studio sustained a loss in Germany. But he maintains Hollywood was thinking in the long term – it wanted to maintain a business relationship to ensure it had access to markets in Germany and other European countries that Hitler might conquer should the Third Reich prevail.

Some of Urwand’s detractors also maintain he has overplayed the role and influence of the German consul in Hollywood. Steven J Ross, Professor of History at USC, who is working on a book called Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews and their Spies Foiled Nazi and Fascist Plots Against America, argues that it wasn’t George Gyslling who had the power but local American officials enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code. The Production Code was a set of self-imposed guidelines that Hollywood adopted.  Its stipulations governed how filmmakers could cover a wide range of subjects – everything from sex, drugs and murder to the depiction of American flag. Ross notes that it also “prohibited any studio from making a film that denigrated any foreign country or leader. So that meant that most of the efforts to produce anti-fascist films didn’t get produced not because of Gyssling but because of the Production Code censors simply refusing to allow it to be made because it violated the code.”

Also, it’s argued that there are other reasons why the studio heads didn’t fight more strongly to make films with anti-fascist themes – or for the inclusion of Jewish characters in their movies. Film critic David Denby says that “the studio bosses were all from Eastern Europe. They never lost their feeling that as outsiders and as Jews, it could all be taken away.” Consequently they may have been hesitant, in an anti-Semitic environment, of taking any action which could be construed as being favourable to Jewish interests.

LA influential

Urwand’s critics also assert that his book doesn’t do justice to the work of the studio heads and their support of anti-Nazi groups in Los Angeles. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League counted Carl Laemmle, the German-born founder of Universal Studios as a board member in 1937 as well as Jack Warner who with three of his brothers had created Warner Bros.

Professor Thomas Doherty, author of   Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 says  “Jack and Harry Warner gave literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to the anti-Nazi causes. They gave their radio station. They gave free air time to the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.”

And Steven Ross notes that more than 40 studio leaders came together with Jewish community leaders in Los Angeles to help finance an operation to help thwart espionage and sabotage efforts by Nazi spies along the West Coast.  “ Privately, they funded the most significant anti-Nazi spy operation being run in the United States,” he says.

Urwand points out that he does mention some of the anti-Nazi efforts of the studio heads in his book but he doesn’t see that reality conflicting with his findings.  “Funding a small spy ring in Los Angeles to protect Jews living in a democracy and who are perfectly safe compared to Jews in Germany; you cannot put those two things on the same level. I include the activities in Los Angeles but I don’t think that in any means excuses them from collaborating with the Nazi regime. That’s the bigger picture.”

Professor Ross sees the studios’ ongoing engagement with the Nazis as understandable given the way they operated. “They are business companies,” he says. “[Urwand] assumes that because these companies were headed by Jews they should have put Judaism ahead of their business interests.”

And it all has to be understood in the context of the times, says Thomas Doherty. “In the 1930’s, the Nazis had not become what they are today,” he says, “which is this universal symbol for absolute evil. In the 1930s nobody knew that – so to condemn a generation of producers for dealing with the Nazis in the 30s is to my mind ahistorical.”

But in Ben Urwand’s view the studio bosses had to have known of the pernicious aspects of Nazism. “In the first few months of 1933, they fired their Jewish salesmen operating in Germany under the request of the propaganda ministry,” he says. “There’s a myth that people didn’t know what was going on. There’s no doubt that the studio heads knew exactly what was going on in Germany.”

As time goes by

Urwand doesn’t think there are any more damning revelations yet to come. He has made a thorough search of documents in Germany. It’s not easy to get at the truth of the studios’ precise involvement with the Nazis – but it’s also not entirely clear why Urwand’s charges have so inflamed his critics.

It may be partly because people like to view the studios as having been on the right side of history in relation to Hitler. “Certainly people are invested in a different kind of narrative,” says Urwand. “When we think of movies like Casablanca in 1942, these are so enshrined in American culture - and we think of these movies as defining Hollywood’s relationship with the Nazis. It’s understandable that people would be surprised that something completely different took place in the 1930s.”

Urwand stays firmly on message when pressed to comment on his critics. He is polite, resolute and standing by what he has written: “Any claims I make are based on archival materials. Everything in my book is documented.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.