Monday, August 5, 2013
Hollywood's Obscene Ties to Adolf Hitler
Ben Urwand's book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler provides chilling examples of the full extent to which Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s permitted the Nazis to censor the content of American movies. The August 9, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter contains an excerpt from Urwand's book and the magazine's Andy Lewis offers this summary of Urwand's findings:
The 1930s are celebrated as one of Hollywood's golden ages, but in an exclusive excerpt from his controversial new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler (Harvard University Press, on sale Sept. 9), Harvard post-doctoral fellow Ben Urwand uncovers a darker side to Hollywood's past.
Drawing on a wealth of archival documents in the U.S. and Germany, he reveals the shocking extent to which Hollywood cooperated and collaborated with the Nazis during the decade leading up to World War II to protect its business.
Indeed, "collaboration" (and its German translation, Zusammenarbeit) is a word that appears regularly in the correspondence between studio officials and the Nazis. Although the word is fraught with meaning to modern ears, its everyday use at the time underscored the eagerness of both sides to smooth away their differences to preserve commerce.
The Nazis threatened to exclude American movies--more than 250 played in Germany after Hitler took power in 1933--unless the studios cooperated. Before World War I, the German market had been the world's second largest, and even though it had shrunk during the Great Depression, the studios believed it would bounce back and worried that if they left, they would never be able to return.
Beginning with wholesale changes made to Universal's 1930 release All Quiet on the Western Front, Hollywood regularly ran scripts and finished movies by German officials for approval. When they objected to scenes or dialogue they thought made Germany look bad, criticized the Nazis or dwelled on the mistreatment of Jews, the studios would accommodate them--and make cuts in the American versions as well as those shown elsewhere in the world.
It was not only scenes: Nazi pressure managed to kill whole projects critical of the rise of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, Hollywood would not make an important anti-Nazi film until 1940. Hitler was obsessed with the propaganda power of film, and the Nazis actively promoted American movies like 1937's Captains Courageous that they thought showcased Aryan values.
Historians have long known about American companies such as IBM and General Motors that did business in Germany into the late 1930s, but the cultural power of movies--their ability to shape what people think--makes Hollywood's cooperation with the Nazis a particularly important and chilling moment in history.
Brave Jewish screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Herman Mankiewicz urged the Hollywood studio leaders--many of whom were also Jewish--to defy Nazi censorship and to make movies that clearly portrayed the true nature of Hitler's regime but Hollywood resisted such entreaties not only when the Holocaust could have been prevented but even after the Holocaust happened and the Allies defeated the Nazis. Urwand writes that several Hollywood studio executives visited post-war Germany but that this tour did not affect the executives' feelings or cause them to alter their policies:
The executives had witnessed the devastation, and toured one of the most notorious concentration camps in Europe. They had seen firsthand one of the sites where the murder of the Jews had taken place. But they did not put it on the screen. Decades would pass before any reference to the Holocaust appeared in American feature films.
Urwand provides some stunning anecdotes. For instance, Urwand reports, "The head of MGM in Germany, Frits Strengholt, divorced his Jewish wife at the request of the Propaganda Ministry. She ended up in a concentration camp." Urwand also cites a January 1938 letter sent by MGM's Berlin office to Hitler's office that ends with the words, "Heil Hitler!" The fact that a corporation founded by people of Jewish descent and run by people of Jewish descent worked on such friendly terms with the Nazis defies the ludicrous assertion that some shadowy Jewish conspiracy controlled or controls Hollywood. All of this brings to mind the joke about the Jewish person who asks his Jewish friend why he is reading anti-Semitic magazines instead of more reputable publications, only to receive the reply, "In the newspaper all I read about is people persecuting the Jews but here I can read about how we are actually running the world!" The winking irony of the joke is funny but it is sobering to consider the dichotomy between the powerlessness of the Jewish community through the centuries compared with the power attributed to Jews by the Nazis and other anti-Semites.
Urwand's scholarship has not been questioned, but some critics assert that his tone is too harsh and that the Hollywood studio leaders in the 1930s could not have imagined the full extent of what the Nazis were about to do. The simple answer to that is that Hitler boldly declared to the world all of his plans not only in Mein Kampf but also in numerous widely disseminated public speeches. Anyone who did not know what Hitler stood for and what he intended to do was a fool.
There are interesting parallels between America's dealings with Nazi Germany during the 1930s and America's current reluctance to forcibly confront countries like Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Syria. How could anyone know what these countries stand for and intend to do? We know because those countries' leaders have loudly and repeatedly stated their beliefs and intentions.
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