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Did Hollywood collaborate with the Nazis?

Jochen Kürten kbm
March 16, 2017

Hollywood catered to the Nazis before World War II to sell more films, claims an Australian scholar in a book that's now out in German. The highly controversial thesis puts a chip in Hollywood's anti-fascist image.

Adolf Hitler at a premiere of the film "Morgenrot"
Adolf Hitler at a premiere of the film "Morgenrot"Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

How closely did Hollywood cooperate with the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II? Did the powerful American studio bosses actively collaborate with the Nazis to make sure their films did well on the large and lucrative German market? These are the questions Ben Urwand dealt with in his book, "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler," which was released in English in 2013 but is just now being released in German on Thursday.

Spoiler alert: Urwand reaches the clear conclusion that Hollywood did collaborate with Nazi Germany.

Business before ethics

The US-based Australian scholar writes that American film bosses and functionaries started working closely with the Germans in the early 1930s, in order to ensure that their productions would run in Germany.

According to the historian, the Americans got themselves involved in an ominous deal, agreeing to editing stipulations for Hollywood productions and making sure that films didn't contain criticism of the Nazi regime. They allegedly rejected projects that would have brought up the persecution of Jews in Germany, writes Urwand.

It was the behavior of MGM head Louis B. Mayer that gave Urwand the idea for his book. Mayer apparently showed the German consul in Los Angeles at the time all of MGM's films - to get his approval before they ran. If the consul didn't agree with a particular scene - say, because it put Germany in a negative light - then it was removed from the film. Mayer's story inspired Urwand to embark on nine years of research.

Universal boss Carl Laemmle with "All Quiet on the Western Front" writer Erich Maria Remarque in 1930
Universal boss Carl Laemmle with "All Quiet on the Western Front" writer Erich Maria Remarque in 1930Image: picture-alliance/Everett Collection

Like other American companies such as IBM or General Motors, the Hollywood studios put profit over principles in their decision to do business with the Nazis, wrote Urwand, adding that the studio bosses, many of whom were Jewish immigrants, put up with a lot to maintain ties with Germany.

At the beginning of his research, Urwand posed the question: Is the picture that Hollywood has painted of itself for years really accurate? If not, the author said, it was time to "shake up the generally accepted idea of Hollywood that had been spread in dozens of books - namely, that Hollywood was synonymous with anti-fascism during its golden age."

However, as Urwand confirms, the US film industry did start making anti-fascist films at the beginning of World War II, but he focuses on the period before that.

Inspired by 'All Quiet on the Western Front'

The author backs up the fact that cooperation with the Nazis began in January 1933, even before the Nazis rose to power in March of that year. The anti-war film "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Lewis Milestone, based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, became a decisive turning point, wrote Urwand.

Police outside a German cinema in Berlin in 1930
Screenings of "All Quiet on the Western Front" required police protection in Germany in 1930Image: ullstein bild/Archiv Gerstenberg

The screening of the US film in Germany in 1930 was disrupted by nationalists. The critical representation of German soldiers and of the war itself was a thorn in the side of the right-wing. "All Quiet on the Western Front" was banned and only re-released after numerous edits had been made. The German-born Hollywood producer of the film, Universal boss Carl Laemmle - himself a Jewish immigrant - agreed to the edits. Business first, summed up Urwand.

'Mad Dog of Europe' was never produced

Ben Urwand refers in his book to several example of close collaboration between German authorities and American film producers after 1933. Due to pressure from the Nazis, "Mad Dog of Europe," the first film to address the persecution of Jews in Germany, was never produced. Nazi authorities threatened to boycott numerous American movies, should the film have been made.

At the same time, many American production companies, which maintained large offices in Germany with hundreds of employees until 1939, fired Jewish workers.

Author Ben Urwand
Author Ben UrwandImage: Theiss Verlag

Ben Urwand's allegations in "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler" are a blow to the image of an anti-fascist Hollywood in the 1930s. In the US, the book was sharply criticized after its release, particularly because his theses seemed a bit too drastic even to the experts. "The New Yorker" also pointed out several of Urwand's omissions and blunders.   

Urwand's theses called slanderous

"Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939" by film expert Thomas Doherty, also published in the US in 2013, was somewhat less critical.

Doherty criticized Urwand's theses as being slanderous and historically imprecise. In "The Hollywood Reporter," he claimed "The Collaboration" was tainting an industry that was fighting to make America aware of the threat that was simmering in Germany.

It's not a "story of collaboration, but of resistance," maintained Doherty. The word "collaboration" was particularly loaded, since it was used in connection with France's position during the Nazi occupation, Doherty pointed out. But Ben Urwand claimed he intentionally used the word collaboration, since that was the term employed by the Americans at the time.

Book cover "Der Pakt: Hollywood's Geschäfte mit Hitler" by Ben Urwand
The German version of Ben Urwand's book is out nowImage: Theiss

Hollywood's self-imposed censorship

Doherty, on the other hand, sees the "cooperation" between the Germans and the Americans in a different light. At the time, the Nazi threat and the plan to eliminate the Jews could not have been foreseen, he argued.

He added that it was the Americans who approached the Germans of their own accord by introducing their own self-imposed censorship. The so-called Hays Code in the early 1930s made sure things like sex - even heavy kissing -, drugs and profanity were kept out of Hollywood films.

Historians don't entirely agree on the exact nature of the relationship between Hollywood and the Nazis in the 1930s, and it's a conflict that's unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, since - as with similar debates - a great deal of interpretation is involved.