BY DANA SPECTOR / AJT //
Ben Urwand and Thomas Doherty recently authored books dealing with the relationship between Hollywood and Nazi Germany. The two men, one a fellow at Harvard, the other a Brandeis professor – are well-respected researchers and writers.
Their books explore the same topic but offer up different conclusions.
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Urwand, a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, has written “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler”. After searching through archives and doing extensive research, he claims to have found evidence of Hollywood collaborating with Nazi Germany during the 1930s.
He suggests that Hitler critiqued films coming out of Hollywood – every scene, actor, director, producer and low-level employee. Urwand’s premise makes sense to anyone who understands how German officials in the ’30s 1930s interpreted national interests and national pride.
However, he goes a step further than most historians or Hollywood critics. He reports that studio moguls submitted to Nazi censorship after being warned that any films clashing with Nazi ideology wouldn’t be screened in Germany.
An early piece of Nazi legislation, commonly referred to as Article 15, outlines Nazi censorship of foreign films. When enforced, Article 15 would prohibit any questionable firm from accessing German markets.
Under the draconian measure, German officials would screen films, looking for offensive material. Eventually, these measures were expanded to exclude any material linked to Jews.
Urwand describes in detail the implications of Article 15 and other censorship efforts and ends up suggesting that Hollywood titan ended up collaborating with Hitler. He makes the case that the major American movie studios went to extraordinary lengths to cooperate with the Nazis to protect access to the German market.
Doherty, a professor of film studies at Brandeis University, follows somewhat the same path in his book, “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939”. One difference is he focuses on a history that seems to suggest Hollywood kept their eyes firmly closed during the Nazis rise to power.
In his book, Doherty details how many American studios never dealt with the ominous political developments in Germany from the moment Hitler came to power.
Many historians today agree that film production companies in Hollywood were under great pressure to portray Nazi Germany in a benign fashion. That said, many reviewers, including myself, initially had an exaggerated view of Germany’s impact on Hollywood.
Yet there is disagreement by historians on the various interpretations of historical review. Urwand and Doherty fall at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Urwand’s charges are slanderous and ahistorical,” Doherty charges, “slanderous because they smear an industry that struggled to alert America to the menace brewing in Germany and ahistorical because they read the past through the eyes of the present.”
Alicia Mayer, grandniece of Louis B. Mayer, would like to remind us of the context and scrutiny Hollywood moguls faced. Sure they might not have been perfect mensches, but their collaboration saved lives.
When it comes to Hollywood, historians can agree on a few points.
First, they acknowledge that the movers and shakers in Hollywood were mostly Jewish immigrants who came to American to escape anti-Semitism. Next, there is the indisputable piece of Nazi legislation, which prohibited Jews from participating in German movies.
Urwand argues that Hollywood executives knew exactly what was happening in Germany, “not only because they had been forced to fire their own Jewish salesmen but also because the persecution of Jews was common knowledge at the time.”
Scholars point out that Hollywood’s response to forced “aryanization” was, at best, halfhearted. Studios that had heavily invested in German distribution offices continued to do business as usual. Others with less to lose moved their operations out of Berlin but continued dealing with Germany from abroad.
You can imagine that the Nazis weren’t the only force that could benefit from a relationship with Hollywood. Urwand doesn’t address efforts on the part of the U.S. government to use Hollywood in its efforts to demonize the Nazis and support the war effort.
Long before Hitler gained power, the United States offered to help Hollywood in their efforts after World War I to re-enter European markets. Congress passed a series of acts exempting various associations from antitrust regulations on the condition that Hollywood would promote American culture.
Interestingly, Urwand and Doherty are Jewish; me, too. Our worldview, at least in part, is informed by our Judaism.
We know that many of the moguls in Hollywood lived on the same street, and that they probably didn’t record every conversation held at every meeting. Let’s face it, no one can walk a mile in a Hollywood mogul’s shoes to set the record straight.
That said, we can celebrate Hollywood’s successes and strengths. We can appreciate their perseverance and dedication to their craft. We can take the good with the bad, and delve into gray unknowns.
Want to know more?
Prof. Matthew Bernstein will interview Ben Urwand about his research and book on Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m. during the 22nd Annual Book Festival at the MJCCA. Tickets for the evening program are $13 for members and $18 for community members and can be purchased online at atlantajcc.org/bookfestival or by calling (618) 812-4005.