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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