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Controversial New Hollywood History Book Asserts Direct Link Between Studio Heads and Adolf Hitler

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood June 28, 2013 at 2:36PM

One Hollywood history book that will be stealing our attention upon its publication this fall is Ben Urwand's "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler." A recent profile in the New York Times points out that the already contentious project asserts that in the 1930s Hollywood wasn't just collaborating with Nazi Germany but, in Urwand's words, "with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being."
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Hitler and Goebbels at the UFA studio in 1935 Berlin
Deutsches Bundersarchiv Hitler and Goebbels at the UFA studio in 1935 Berlin

One Hollywood history book that will be stealing our attention upon its publication this fall is Ben Urwand's "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler." A recent profile in the New York Times points out that the already contentious project asserts that in the 1930s Hollywood wasn't just collaborating with Nazi Germany but, in Urwand's words, "with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being."

More than a few feathers are ruffled by Urwand's thesis. Historian Thomas P. Doherty, author of recently published "Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939," tells the Times: 

"The word 'collaboration' in this context is slander... You use that word to describe the Vichy government. Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling."

And USC history professor Stephen J. Ross mentions for the article:


"The moguls who have been castigated for putting business ahead of Jewish identity and loyalty were in fact working behind the scenes to help Jews."


The Collaboration Hollywood's Pact with Hitler

Urwand, a young historian at Harvard's Society of Fellows, has a retort for his detractors, pointing out that "collaborate" is a word that recurs repeatedly in the documented communications he's uncovered between studio heads and Nazi officials.

A couple of Urwand's archival discoveries featured in his book include a 1938 letter from the German branch of 20th Century Fox asking whether Hitler would share his thoughts on American movies (and signed, "Heil Hitler!"); and a scrapbook in which Jack Warner documented a Rhine cruise he and other studio execs took on Hitler's former yacht in 1945.

In Hollywood journalist, film historian and frequent TOH! contributor Aljean Harmetz' book "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca - Bogart, Berman and World War II," she writes that Warner Bros. was actually ahead of its time in terms of resisting Nazi alliances:


"Psychologically, Warner Brothers was two steps ahead of the other studios when it came to facing the war.  Unlike the other moguls, Harry Warner had been an early and fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and an early opponent of Hitler.  All the moguls except Darryl Zanuck were Jewish, but only Harry Warner -- and, later, Jack Warner -- were anti-Nazis when opposition to Hitler was unfashionable.  Warner Bros. closed down its operations in Germany in July 1934.  It was the first studio to leave Germany.  As Hitler swallowed country after country -- Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark -- Warner Bros. was almost always the first studio to withdraw, choosing principle over profit.  By contrast, Paramount, M-G-M, and Fox, reluctant to lose such a good market for their films, were still operating in Germany in 1939."

So let the debates begin. Urwand's book is set to be published in October from Harvard University Press.

This article is related to: News, Hollywood, News


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.