Hollywood's Pact with Hitler
By Ben Urwand
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Belknap Press, 2013
This book has caused a ruckus in many film historian circles because of the single-minded argument made by the author that Hollywood moguls compromised every conceivable moral scruple while negotiating deals with Germany. In order to get Hollywood films shown in the lucrative German theater market, Hitler's government made a variety of demands during the 1930s, many which were acquiesced to, such as the obvious demand that content showing Germany in a bad light be cut from films. This isn't much different than what happens today in film production where special interest groups pressure film companies on how to correctly portray their particular group in a feature film.
But Hitler's government went much further than just insisting upon a charitable view of Germany. Other requirements made by Hitler's agents to the Hollywood companies were to simply not show Jews in films at all, something that Hollywood generally went along with, though this was more likely out of a strategy to not raise the topic of Jewry at all because Hollywood was afraid of the matter being discussed in any context. So many performers and producers in Hollywood were Jewish, including many of the main owners of the big film companies (which has been written of in a number of books, particularly in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler) that many in Hollywood tried to keep the matter as low-key as possible, domestically and internationally. This fear of persecution wasn't an abstraction based upon seeing, for example, the growth during the 1930s of the German-American (pro-Hitler) Bund movement, but instead upon the shared family histories of many in Hollywood who had fled Poland, Russia and other countries where pogroms got tens-of-thousands (and more) of Jews killed. Seeing the growth of such anti-semitic attitudes in America during the 1930s must have been unsettling, to say the least.
This background might seem to excuse some of the wheedling and back-bending Hollywood did in order to keep film product moving freely into foreign film projectors, but the author of The Collaboration has a much bigger accusation to make, which is that Hollywood moguls were willing to make any concession in order to keep generating income, even if it meant warping movie content to please the vehemently anti-everything Nazi government. This meant not only cutting films of Jewish content, but also matters concerning gypsys, Africans, animal cruelty issues, and many other topics.
The entire book is a fascinating chronicle of how Hollywood dealt with pressures, and contains a great deal of detail about the censorship offices and what they were trying to achieve, and how Hollywood sometimes cooperated, and sometimes tricked their way to finishing a film with the all-important censorship board approval. Some of this is humorous, for example some film projects would deliberately put in objectionable content for the sole purpose of drawing attention away from content the film makers were truly afraid might not get past the censorship board, but was considered crucial to making the film a success once it got into theaters. If the censors could hack out a number of items that no one had expected to make it into the final film anyway, perhaps this would satisfy them to leave the other important content alone.
But this is a minor issue in the author's story of Hollywood watching Europe's erosion of basic human rights as Hitler spread his control over the map. The author brings forward a variety of anecdotes that seems to indicate that when it came to preserving the right to exhibit a film into these areas falling under Nazi control, Hollywood studio owners would compromise anything (with some exceptions, such as with Universal and Warner Brothers, who didn't cooperate effectively and were banned outright in Germany by 1934).
By the end of this book, this author has outlined an accusation that is only vaguely directed at the Hollywood of the 1930s-40s, but is really an indictment directed at particular Hollywood film studio owners and producers (particularly at M-G-M).
The protests I have seen against this argument are mostly along the lines that author Ben Urwand, in his critique of Hollywood contained in The Collaboration, is judging the film studio owners of the 1930s to know what Nazi Germany was going to do, and would be during World War 2. Of course, put that way, it's not fair for Urwand to drag Hollywood over the coals because of a lack of precognition about Hitler. But, Urwand's history isn't just about the limitations of hindsight, but a chronicle of detailed ongoing cooperation between some of the studios during the 1930s to please the German censors (hence the title The Collaboration) and how that effectively acted as a suppression of the truth.
The other defense of Hollywood offered by some who critique this book is that it was a legitimate and common activity in Hollywood to bend movies to fit the censorship requirements of other countries, something that was happening in Hollywood not just to placate Germany's government, but also the governments of everyone else. For example, the United Kingdom censors hated dealing with monster movies and would require extensive cutting. It was the nature of the business in which the somewhat more permissive culture of the United States, expressed in it's film product, had to be changed to be compatible with the cultures of other countries.
Whether Urwand proves his case about the role of Hollywood's moguls as accessories to the terrorism of Hitler (and by extension the holocaust in Europe, something Urwand never says but is nonetheless hard to avoid), is a matter that's difficult to judge on a single reading.
Urwand's outrage is quite palpable by the latter part of the book, which simply gets in the way of making a fair assessment of his argument. Eventually he is loudest in his portrayal of certain Hollywood businessmen, mercilessly fitting them with the role which is explicit in the book's title: they were Collaborators.
"Here is the remarkable, untold story of how five major Hollywood directors—John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra—changed World War II, and how, in turn, the war changed them. In a move unheard of at the time, the U.S. government farmed out its war propaganda effort to Hollywood, allowing these directors the freedom to film in combat zones as never before. They were on the scene at almost every major moment of America’s war, shaping the public’s collective consciousness of what we’ve now come to call the good fight. The product of five years of scrupulous archival research, Five Came Back provides a revelatory new understanding of Hollywood’s role in the war through the life and work of these five men who chose to go, and who came back."
“Five Came Back . . . is one of the great works of film history of the decade.” --Slate
“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.” --The New York Times
Original Page May 15, 2014 | Updated Oct 2019