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

by Beth Hanna
June 28, 2013 2:36 PM
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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."

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.

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More: News, Hollywood, News


  • Michael | June 29, 2013 1:34 PMReply

    "...a scrapbook in which Jack Warner documented a Rhine cruise he and other studio execs took on Hitler's former yacht in 1945."

    Um, this is one of his smoking guns? Color me skeptical until we know more about the book and enough time has passed for a thorough debate.

    I'm not making any claims for the '30s studio suits as shining humanitarians or politically principled white knights, but on first sniff, this smells like simplistic sensationalism. I could be wrong, of course - perhaps time will tell.

    As for Mr. Scott below... "a figure that equally-biased American history tells us to revile"? Flirting with Hitler revisionism while maintaining plausible deniability with vague wording, are we? You're certainly one to judge other people's intellectual honesty and ethical probity.

  • Beth Hanna | June 29, 2013 2:24 PM

    @Michael -- If you click through to the Times piece, Urwand says that the discovery of the scrapbook was the one time he's "shouted out loud in an archive," or something to that effect. So maybe there's more incriminating info in the scrapbook than he was willing to reveal to the NYT. Or not. Hard to tell.

  • Scott | June 29, 2013 9:48 AMReply

    It's good that this book is ruffling feathers in academia. As a film student, I can tell you that much of film education, while important, is very stuffy and culturally biased towards the West. Too much privilege and emphasis are placed on films from Europe and America, so it's actually good to see that the kinds of people who perpetuate this sort of culturally biased education are made uncomfortable by the assertion that the studio heads of the time are seen for the callous people they were by collaborating with a figure that equally-biased American history tells us to revile.

  • Mark Gubarenko | June 28, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    Here's pre-order link:

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