How Hollywood Helped Hitler.
August 5, 2013 10:14 AM   Subscribe

"Throughout the 1930s, the term "collaboration" was used repeatedly to describe dealings that took place in Hollywood." -- The story of how Hollywood censored movies around the world so they could earn more money in Nazi Germany.
posted by empath (31 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
That's an interesting story, but the constant harping on the use of the word zusammenarbeit gets pretty annoying. It's a pretty meaningless "gotcha" that really doesn't carry any of the freight of nefarious intent that they seem to imagine (OMG, they used a perfectly ordinary and pretty much inevitable word in the context for cooperation which, later, would also be applied to active collaboration with the Nazi regime!).
posted by yoink at 10:35 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just to be clear here, the link notes this is an excerpt from Ben Urwand's new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler.

The level of control Gyssling, the German consul in Los Angeles, was able to exert over the studios is astonishing (helped by the Hays Office, no less), and the fact that big studios were willing to stay in Germany while losing money up until 1940 is just...ugh:

The studios were faced with a difficult decision: continue doing business in Germany under unfavorable conditions or leave Germany and turn the Nazis into the greatest screen villains of all time. On July 22, MGM announced that it would bow out of Germany if the other two remaining companies, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, would do the same.

Paramount and Fox said no. Even though they were not making any money in Germany (Paramount announced a net loss of $580 for 1936), they still considered the German market to be a valuable investment. They had been there for years. Despite the difficult business conditions, their movies were still extremely popular. If they remained in Germany a while longer, their investment might once again yield excellent profits. If they left they might never be permitted to return.

Over the next few years, the studios actively cultivated personal contacts with prominent Nazis. In 1937, Paramount chose a new manager for its German branch: Paul Thiefes, a member of the Nazi Party. 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.

(yoink, the "collaboration" point is directly addressed in the introduction to the article.)
posted by mediareport at 10:47 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

yoink, the "collaboration" point is directly addressed in the introduction to the article.

Yes: which doesn't, alas, prevent the article (and, presumably, the book from which it is drawn) making an absolute meal of it. It's a bad sign as to the historical judgment of the author (in particular, his ability to see things fully embedded within their historical and cultural context) that he leans so heavily on this silly piece of linguistic happenstance.
posted by yoink at 10:55 AM on August 5, 2013

So you're ignoring all of the actual evidence of cooperation with the nazis because of a linguistic quirk? Seems kind of silly.
posted by empath at 10:58 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

The USA pre-Pearl Harbor had more than a few pockets of groups that were pretty pro-Nazi. It's interesting stuff.
posted by GuyZero at 11:01 AM on August 5, 2013

So you're ignoring all of the actual evidence of cooperation with the nazis

Where am I doing that, empath?

To clarify, because I seem to have confused at least two people: I'm saying that the fact that the author bangs on and on and on and on about a meaningless linguisting coincidence as if it were a significant piece of evidence undermines my faith in his historical judgment. This does not mean that I am dismissing out of hand the other evidence he marshals; it means, simply, that the impression I come away with from this snippet of the book is "this guy doesn't have a solid sense of what counts as good evidence and what doesn't; it's a pity this history wasn't written by someone with a better sense of judgment in these matters, because the fact that he makes this error inevitably leads me to wonder what other errors of judgment he may be committing which are not so self-evident."
posted by yoink at 11:06 AM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Worth mentioning: Thomas Doherty, another scholar of the period with a competing book, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39, has been pushing back at Urwand, both in an NYT article from a few weeks back and last week at The Hollywood Reporter. He bristles at the "collaborator" thing, too, and characterizes the book as a horrible slander:

Urwand's study has already generated an extraordinary amount of buzz due to the incendiary charges emblazoned in its title: that Hollywood was a hotbed of Nazi collaboration, a nest of craven greedheads whose pact with the devil made the American motion picture industry -- particularly the mostly Jewish moguls who ran the studio system -- complicit in the rise of Nazism and, presumably, the horrors that came after.

I consider Urwand's charges slanderous and ahistorical -- 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.

I can't say how much of that characterization of Urwand's book is accurate, but here's Doherty's alternative framing:

My own conclusion on the subject of Hollywood and Hitler in the 1930s? On balance, and given the restrictions of the time, Hollywood did more than any other for-profit business to sound the alarm against Nazism. It is a story of not of collaboration but resistance.

Maybe that's a fair point. But from what I've read, the details Urwand amasses are surprising many folks - even those who'd previously been aware that pro-Nazi self-censoring was part of Hollywood during that time. It also doesn't help that Doherty's "Of course, the Hollywood studios tried to negotiate with Germany to leverage their films into a lucrative marketplace. This is hardly a news bulletin." isn't a convincing rebuttal to the new revelations about just how deep and long the censorship went on. I'm out the door or I'd start looking at what history bloggers have to say about the dispute between the two authors, but I'm sure there will be some interesting posts about this from other historians.
posted by mediareport at 11:09 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

yeah, please stop the "zusammenarbeit" derail.
posted by marienbad at 11:11 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's interesting stuff.

I find it fascinating - it's a rich subject fraught with all kinds of emotional baggage. The only issue is which of the two new books about it to read.
posted by mediareport at 11:14 AM on August 5, 2013

This happened all the time. The classic Groucho Marx song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" from "At the Circus" (1939) originally had the line "When she sits, she sits on Hitler".
The song's lyricist Yip Harburg, was told to take that out.
So you had a Jewish studio boss telling a Jewish lyric writer to change a line that was going to be sung by a Jewish comedian, in order not to offend Hitler. Lame.
posted by w0mbat at 11:15 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for that Hollywood Reporter piece, mediareport; I don't know enough of the history to judge between Doherty and Urwand as to the facts, but Doherty's characterization of Urwand's book jibes perfectly with the axe-grinding and tendentious impression given by the extract in the piece linked in the FPP.
posted by yoink at 11:22 AM on August 5, 2013

yeah, please stop the "zusammenarbeit" derail.

Not a derail; it feels like people are not reading Yoink's comments in full.
posted by spaltavian at 11:22 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

yeah, please stop the "zusammenarbeit" derail.

It's a substantive criticism of the linked work, not a derail.

I also find it obnoxious.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:23 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't share your opinion at all, yoink; in fact I find Doherty's "how dare he!" response much more tendentious and unconvincing than the specifics in Urwand's excerpt.
posted by mediareport at 11:25 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Doherty's "how dare he!" response

Accusing a bunch of Jewish people of being Nazi "collaborators" and of entering into a "pact" with Hitler is pretty devastating stuff. If Doherty is right that Urwand is reading the evidence onesidedly then a "how dare he" response seems more than justified. I guess we'll have to wait and see how the historical community in general responds to the book.
posted by yoink at 11:37 AM on August 5, 2013

If I had access to the Los Angeles Times I'd provide a summary, but here's an article from 1937 which references the conflict between the German Consul Gyssling and the studios regarding the movie The Way Back.

Did I read the article too fast? I didn't see much about zusammenarbeit other than the opening lead. Instead, it discusses how the Nazi German government used access to its theaters as a threat to make Hollywood conform its product to its approved tastes. It would seem that since Hollywood could have pulled out of Germany at any time, as Warner Bros. eventually did, that it was not an industry acting out of duress from threat, but one which made a willing choice to behave in an acceptable manner for a falsely perceived eventual lucrative prize. I can see why some don't like the application of a word like collaboration, but it was a willing decision to acquiesce versus walking away.

This also puts a better light on Chaplain's decision to produce The Great Dictator in 1940.
posted by Atreides at 11:59 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

If Doherty is right about the evidence being presented in a one-sided manner, then he should be able to defend the argument with evidence. Otherwise, just shouting "how dare he!" serves only to try to shut down a needed debate on the grounds that it makes certain groups uncomfortable to face the realities of the past.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:03 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

So this happened in the 30s, just imagine how much it would be controlled in today's world.
posted by Napierzaza at 12:23 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

GuyZero: The USA pre-Pearl Harbor had more than a few pockets of groups that were pretty pro-Nazi. It's interesting stuff

I recall that too, previously. The anecdote about a guy asking another guy who was giving a Nazi salute if that was an American greeting, only to be told "it will be" still sticks with me.
posted by dr_dank at 12:25 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is a mixed story, and therefore it is fair to criticize Urwand's one-sidedness as Doherty does in more than generalities here. There is no question that the 5000 member Hollywood group HANL did plenty to raise awareness of the Nazis. And it is also true that no one really got how bad the Nazis really were until later than the period Urwand is mostly highlighting. Furthermore, anti-Semitism was a much more familiar and tolerated attitude. The great Errol Flynn, for one, was a noted anti-Semite and that didn't hurt his employability. Gentleman's Agreement was considered shockingly revelatory about U.S. anti-Semitism when it came out in -- 1947! And at bottom a good deal of Hollywood has always been about the almighty buck, too.

I don't mind seeing some of the burnish removed from Hollywood's alleged Nazi-fighting credentials, but I do think Urwand's picture lacks nuance and completeness.
posted by bearwife at 12:25 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

If Doherty is right about the evidence being presented in a one-sided manner, then he should be able to defend the argument with evidence. Otherwise, just shouting "how dare he!" serves only to try to shut down a needed debate on the grounds that it makes certain groups uncomfortable to face the realities of the past.

He did write a book about it....
posted by mr_roboto at 12:26 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Some time ago I read an essay suggesting that in the '30s, Jewish leaders and thinkers in Europe and America saw Hitler as merely another in a long line of impecunious yet very ambitious European monarchs who had allowed and encouraged ever-smoldering popular hatred of Jews to burst into flame in the form of riots and pogroms-- and then sat back and collected what amounted to ransom payments from these same Jews and others until he had enough money to pursue those ambitions, usually amounting to some form of war, upon which the outbreak of flagrant anti-Semitism would die back down to previous tolerable levels.

From this point of view, the continuing engagement of "the mostly Jewish moguls who ran the studio system" appears as one of the ways of delivering this implicitly demanded ransom, and as such, an attempt to save the Jews of Europe rather than any kind of collaboration with the Nazis.

And I think it would be foolish to claim that those Jewish leaders should have known better and seen what Hitler was really up to. Even now in retrospect, with all the facts laid out before us, the enormity of the Nazis' crimes defies comprehension.
posted by jamjam at 12:37 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just think of it like all the stuff Hollywood is doing today to make its product palatable to the Chinese audience (and its cultural gatekeepers). Because it IS just like it.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:01 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

A book I just read about that era, Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days (2013), says on page 368 that “With one prominent exception, no Hollywood film in the late 1930s and early 1940s ever made clear, for example, that Jews were the main targets of Nazi persecution. In Hollywood movies, it was acceptable to condemn Nazism but unacceptable to make specific mention of its savage anti-Semitism.”

Olson writes, “The only major industry figure to thumb his nose at [this] was Charlie Chaplin, whose 1940 movie The Great Dictator... takes an unsparing look at the Nazis’ savagery toward Jews. Chaplin, who was not Jewish and who produced and directed his own films, was under ceaseless pressure to cancel the project from the day it was first announced... [A]s it turned out, [this became] Chaplin’s most commercially successful film, which today is regarded as a classic.”

She adds that Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK’s isolationist father then just ending his position as ambassador to Britain, met “with fifty top film executives, most of them Jewish,” in late 1940 and convinced them that raising the issue “would stir up an even greater wave of anti-Semitism in the United States.”
posted by LeLiLo at 1:08 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Here's a pretty nuanced article about the dispute from The Chronicle of Higher Education: When Hollywood Held Hands With Hitler.

Urwand's forthright, deadpan expression bursts intermittently into an engaging smile. Should you wish to see that smile vanish, mention Doherty. You'll get a somber look, a mild shake of the head. Urwand won't discuss Hollywood and Hitler specifically, only the more general "mythology," as he puts it, of the studios' staunch antifascism.

...why did it take so long for the studios to cross cinematic swords with the Führer?

For Urwand, the answer is in the archival evidence: bald complicity with the Nazis. For Doherty, whose book covers some of the same topical ground as Urwand but largely from the standpoint of the era's trade press—Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Motion Picture Herald, Box Office
[emphasis added]—it came down to hardheaded business decisions during a time of more ethical, political, and economic complexity than moralistic hindsight allows...Promotional materials for Urwand's book deride Doherty's as relying on "flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers."

At first glance, Urwand's archival research does look to be deeper than Doherty's: the notes Hitler's aides took on his reactions to the movies he screened nightly, photos of the studio heads' trip up the Rhine on Hitler's yacht just after the war, etc. And the new examples we get from the book do not do the moguls any favors:

MGM didn't have a newsreel operation and was losing most of its profits to German banks because of draconian Nazi finance laws. To diminish that loss, as Urwand discovered in one of his most damning archival finds, MGM instead lent money to firms that manufactured Nazi armaments in Austria and the Sudetenland, received bonds in exchange for those loans, then sold the bonds to an American bank. "In other words—the largest American motion-picture company helped to finance the German war machine," Urwand writes.

That said, the article also notes some complexities Urwand may have glossed over, like a) both the Hoover and FDR administrations encouraged studios to stay in Europe for propaganda purposes, and b) studio heads "helped finance efforts to spy on and sabotage American Nazi groups like the German American Bund."

Anyway, it's a good piece. Urwand's book comes out next month so I'm sure we'll see more reviews and articles soon.
posted by mediareport at 2:23 PM on August 5, 2013

LOTS of familiar figures/companies collaborated with the Nazis before the war. Names like IBM, Bush, Ford. To be a little fair, I doubt that, at first, most had any idea what a hellgate would emerge from absolute power. But after April, 1933, any excuses were null and void.
posted by Twang at 2:30 PM on August 5, 2013

The story of how Hollywood censored movies around the world so they could earn more money in Nazi Germany

...just like we do for China today.
posted by Renoroc at 6:05 PM on August 5, 2013

Exactly. They recently remade Red Dawn and replaced the invading Russians with Chinese ... until someone at the studio eventually realized they wanted to sell movies in China. So in post-production the Chinese became North Koreans.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:29 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thomas Doherty recently published a very similarly titled volume (Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 [NYT review]), and, in the process, unearthed another film that is an interesting juxtaposition to this: HITLER'S REIGN OF TERROR (1934). The film was independently filmed, produced, and distributed by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (yes, from THAT bunch of Vanderbilts). It was not a success at the time, and Mordaunt Hall at the New York Times sniffed that the film "scarcely lives up to expectations ... and there hardly seems enough excitement in the fresh scenes to warrant Mr. Vanderbilt's risking the ire of the Nazis and his freedom in smuggling them out of Germany." The New Yorker has a pretty interesting article about the background of this odd film.

The German government actively tried to interfere with screenings of the film, and succeeded in many jurisdictions (with the cooperation of local censors) of getting the film cut or pulled. (In Chicago, the film was forced to change its title from HITLER'S REIGN OF TERROR to the somewhat more anodyne HITLER'S REIGN.)
posted by orthicon halo at 4:12 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Excellent Jewish Propagandist
posted by homunculus at 8:43 PM on August 28, 2013

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