Did Hollywood Movies Studios “Collaborate” with Hitler During WW II? Historian Makes the Case

As anyone who watches the History Channel can tell you, stories about the Second World War still fascinate. Stories about Nazi Germany specifically seem to fascinate more than they ever have before. Combine that with the current American desire to gaze upon the dark side of its own once-beloved institutions, and Harvard historian Ben Urwand may have a hit on his hands when his book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler comes out next month. (Read an excerpt here.) Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt uses an even more apt term: “I think what this guy has found could be a blockbuster.” She is quoted in an article by the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler on Urwand, his discoveries, and his book. “On page after page,” Schuessler writes, “[Urwand] shows studio bosses, many of them Jewish immigrants, cutting films scene by scene to suit Nazi officials; producing material that could be seamlessly repurposed in Nazi propaganda films; and, according to one document, helping to finance the manufacture of German armaments.”

As if Urwand’s findings about these deals between Hollywood studios and the Third Reich won’t cause enough of a stir by themselves, his perspective on them has already fired up an academic controversy. Schuessler quotes Brandeis’ Thomas P. Doherty as calling Urwand’s use of the word “collaboration” a “slander” and mentions, by contrast, University of Southern California history professor Steven J. Ross’ forthcoming book which tells “the little-known story of an extensive anti-Nazi spy ring that began operating in Los Angeles in 1934, financed by the very studio bosses who were cutting films to satisfy Nazi officials.” You can read a fuller critique of Urwand’s arguments from Doherty at the Hollywood Reporter. At the top, you can watch that publication’s brief conversation with Urwand himself, in which he explains and defends his use of the word “collaboration” — which, he says, the Hollywood executives in question used themselves. Finally, just above, you can hear more from Urwand in Harvard University Press’ clip about The Collaboration. As with most modern research into World War II, the book no doubt raises more historical and moral questions than we can answer, though I do doubt that anyone who reads it will ever watch pictures from Hollywood’s Golden Age in quite the same way again.

Related Content:

Rediscovered: The First American Anti-Nazi Film, Banned by U.S. Censors and Forgotten for 80 Years

Rare 1940 Audio: Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulterior Motive for Spreading Anti-Semitism

The Making of a Nazi: Disney’s 1943 Animated Short

The Nazis’ 10 Control-Freak Rules for Jazz Performers: A Strange List from World War II

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Alicia Mayer says:

    There are 20 or so major rebuttals and negative reviews for The Collaboration from esteemed historians, academics, journalists and authors, including Thomas Doherty, Jeanine Basinger, Mike Greco, David Denby, Jerome Christensen, Farran Nehme, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Joel W. Finler, Fredric Raphael, J. Hoberman, Craig Brown, Clare Spark, Thomas Hodgkinson, Ed Carson, Chris Yogerst, Mark Horowitz, and Merve Emre.

    As well, Jon Wiener, prominent journalist, academic and author of ‘Historians In Trouble,’ wrote a comprehensive article about the controversy in The Nation pointing to matters that go all the way back to Urwand’s original Berkeley thesis.

    What the many rebuttals and reviews typically have in common span well past differences of opinion and focus on these primary areas: 1) errors 2) endnotes that do no support the author’s claims 3) lack of context and 4) manipulation. I appreciate that Ben Urwand has uncovered some interesting new details regarding the business dealings of the time and Hitler’s odd fascination with films.

    But no history book where so many have made accusations of shoddy scholarship can be used as a citable source. As well, eminent British historian, Joel W. Finler (mentioned above) accused Urwand of manipulating his audience during his presentation at the prestigious Wiener Library in London in November.

    I advocate for Harvard University Press to withdraw the book from sale, for an independent fact check to be conducted and some appropriate vetting of his endnotes, and the book then re-released (although I doubt it would be able to retain its current title).

    This process will be good for Urwand’s own career because leaving the book to be repeatedly savaged by intelligent, articulate commentators who feel compelled to set the record straight, must certainly affect his reputation as an academic and historian.

  • Alicia Mayer says:

    A full list of rebuttals and negative reviews plus controversy coverage for Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration can be found here:


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