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.
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 Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.