The Myth of Jewish Hollywood’s Collaboration With the Nazis
A Harvard researcher was convinced he’d found evidence of 1930s movie mogul fascism. But did he get it wrong?
It’s a shocking revelation, first reported in Tablet magazine: During the 1930s, Hollywood’s movie studios secretly collaborated with the Nazis. The Jewish moguls, taking their orders from Berlin, suppressed anti-Nazi scripts, cut every positive reference to Jews out of their films, and released one “pro-fascist film after another.” A small coterie of wealthy Jewish-Americans betrayed their country and sold out their co-religionists. Their sole motive was profit, pure and simple.
It sounds like another cracked, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory dredged up from some Truther website, but it’s the thesis of a recent book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, written by a freshly minted young Berkeley Ph.D., now Harvard Junior Fellow, Ben Urwand, and supported by documents culled from German archives, pages of supplemental notes, and back-cover bona fides from respectable historians like Richard Evans, who also reviewed the manuscript for the Harvard Press. “It is time to remove the layers that have hidden the collaboration for so long,” the author writes in his prologue, “and to reveal the historical connection between the most important individual of the twentieth century and the movie capital of the world.”
The Collaboration, however, reveals nothing of the sort. The book’s astounding claims are not only flatly contradicted by more credible accounts the author inexplicably ignores, but his thesis is undercut by evidence, old and new, he himself provides. The author misunderstands classic films, not to mention the social and political history of the period. One can’t help wondering why the Harvard Society of Fellows thought this book worthy of support and what Harvard University Press intended by publishing it.
In 1933, Georg Gyssling, a Nazi party member, was appointed German consul in Los Angeles. At the time, many foreign governments banned or censored American films they found objectionable: Like other diplomats in Los Angeles, Gyssling lodged his objections with Will Hays, chief of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (precursor of today’s MPAA) or Joseph Breen, Hays’ chief censor, who ran the Production Code Administration. Like other countries, Germany leveraged its demands by threatening to ban individual films, or even a studio’s entire output, from German theaters.
Foreign markets were a crucial component of Hollywood’s bottom line, so these were no idle threats. Because studio films were not considered “speech” in those days, they were not protected by free-speech laws: A maze of state and local censorship boards, not to mention national organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency, could prevent any film from being shown. The state of Pennsylvania’s board of censors arrested one theater manager (and his secretary) for showing a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. Anti-Nazi films were censored or banned in Chicago, in Pennsylvania, and in San Francisco, wherever there was a large German-American population—or a powerful America First committee. Navigating this maze was Will Hays’ job, and preemptive self-censorship was a central component of the evolving studio system. The Hays office read and approved every script in advance in order to beat local and international censors to the punch. Sex was a problem, but politics was just as bad. “Propaganda disguised as entertainment” was anathema.
Urwand fails to mention any of this essential background in the book. He states flatly that the studios suppressed films with explicit anti-fascist themes because Georg Gyssling, the Nazis’ agent in Hollywood, instructed them to. If the Hays office censored only anti-German subjects, Urwand might have had a case. But Breen and Hays were notably catholic in their distaste, as Thomas Doherty makes clear in another recent book, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, a far more judicious and comprehensive history of the period (and a well-timed antidote to The Collaboration’s excesses). Doherty points out that anything that might irritate any segment of the domestic or international audience was considered dangerous by Hays and Breen; political controversies, labor unrest, religious and ethnic topics, all were no-no’s. Breen questioned a script that was “pro-loyalist” one day, then blocked a Darryl Zanuck film that sounded pro-fascist. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer altered the film version of Sherwood Anderson’s hit play Idiot’s Delight to eliminate any reference to Mussolini’s government, while the Breen office blocked MGM’s production of The 40 Days of Musa Dagh because it dealt with the Armenian genocide. The villains? Turkey and France.
Urwand also claims that Hollywood eliminated Jews from their films to satisfy a German demand, citing no evidence. He’s right that there were more Jews identified as Jews in films made before the Production Code went into effect in 1930. But Urwand’s book fails to communicate that this represented progress: American silent films in the ’20s routinely indulged in gruesome racial and ethnic stereotypes, often transplanted from the vaudeville stage—and it was these that were largely expunged. As Doherty and numerous other scholars have shown, it wasn’t the Nazis who forced this change, it was the newly respectable Jewish movie moguls themselves, intent on assimilation and broadening Hollywood’s appeal.
Urwand strangely traces the rise of Nazi control in Hollywood to Weimar Germany’s banning of All Quiet on the Western Front—an event that took place in 1930, before the Nazis came to power and before Gyssling arrived in Los Angeles. Even when the Nazis are in power, Urwand’s examples of Gyssling’s influence are largely undermined by his own evidence. Take the fate of Captured!, a 1933 WWI film, one of Urwand’s key smoking guns: Gyssling objected to the film because he thought it unfavorably portrayed German soldiers, and he pushed for extensive cuts, threatening to have the film banned in Germany. But Urwand also reveals that Warner Bros. and the Hays office went over Gyssling’s head and found a more compliant German official who was willing to approve a version with far fewer cuts. The same thing happened with Below the Sea, a German U-Boat film made by Columbia.
Thomas Doherty also documents the case of The Road Back, a Universal picture. Consul Gyssling noisily objected to the project, in part because it was based on a novel by the anti-Nazi emigré Erich Maria Remarque. Gyssling asked Breen to kill it, but Breen ignored him and approved the script. Gyssling then sent letters to the film’s actors, threatening to put them on a German blacklist. His letter was published in newspapers in L.A. and New York and roundly denounced. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an organization made up of movie professionals, publicly censured Gyssling.
Worse for Urwand’s case, Warner Bros., weary of doing business with the new Nazi regime, closed down its German subsidiary in 1934. Instead of kowtowing to Nazi demands, Hollywood’s largest studio called Germany’s bluff and stopped doing business there. Urwand downplays the significance of this by incorrectly dismissing Warner Bros. as one of Hollywood’s “smaller companies.” He perversely concludes that the Warners departure helped the Germans. “For the remainder of the decade, the studios still doing business in Germany were very careful to remain on good terms with Georg Gyssling.”
Yet, as Urwand himself acknowledges, by 1936, Columbia, RKO, Disney, and Universal had joined Warner Bros. in shutting down their operations in Germany. The Collaboration’s central premise, then, that a monolithic “Hollywood” acted in concert to collaborate with Germany throughout the ’30s, is unsupported. After ’36, only three out of eight studios, MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Paramount, maintained subsidiaries in Germany, and none were prospering. The German subsidiaries barely broke even, as Urwand also acknowledges. They did try to placate the Nazis by moving Jewish executives out of Germany, but the number of pictures passed by German censors still dropped to 30 in 1937. By January 1939, there were no first-run American films in Berlin theaters at all.
If profit wasn’t the compelling motive Urwand insists it was, what possible justification could there have been for continuing to do business in Nazi Germany? Urwand never mentions the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, or 1939, all passed by Congress and signed by Roosevelt, nor does he mention that FDR was urging Hollywood to serve as a global ambassador, promoting American values in as many countries as possible, including Germany.
The Collaboration’s best case rests on detailed accounts of two films that were never made: The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here. The first was a low-budget independent production that was pitched to MGM and rejected; the second was an all-star MGM project, shut down before cameras ever began rolling.
The Mad Dog of Europe was a crude anti-Nazi script that tried to expose the very real horrors of Nazism, including anti-Semitism—making it exactly the kind of thing the studios never touched. It Can’t Happen Here, based on the best-selling novel by Sinclair Lewis, imagined the possibility of fascism in America, and Lewis’ homegrown proto-Nazis deployed the same brutal techniques as their European brethren, including large doses of anti-Semitic scapegoating and violence.
Urwand’s thesis is that the films were suppressed to satisfy the Germans, yet he cannot find any evidence that the Germans intervened with MGM in either case. The story of both projects has been written about extensively before, in Doherty and Welky, among other books, so one holds out some hope that Urwand’s archival dives will reveal something new. But regarding The Mad Dog of Europe, he writes, “It is uncertain whether Gyssling actually did this at this particular point in time—the evidence is inconclusive.” Unfazed, he states without any backup that Gyssling “probably” complained.
In the case of It Can’t Happen Here, which Louis B. Mayer canceled during pre-production, Urwand also comes up short. “The German and Italian governments had apparently not said a word against the picture.” He adds “in all of the remaining archival materials, there is no evidence to suggest that Gyssling issued any complaint about It Can’t Happen Here.”
So, what does he then conclude? “Whether Gyssling was involved in the cancellation of It Can’t Happen Here will probably never be known. But even if Gyssling were not directly involved, his presence in Los Angeles undoubtedly affected MGM’s decision. … Regardless of whether Gyssling took any action.”
The Collaboration does admit that the studios received complaints about the projects: The problem for Urwand’s thesis is that they weren’t from German agents. Instead, opposition came from prominent American Jews and Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, which feared the projects could trigger increased anti-Semitism and feed accusations that Jewish warmongers controlled Hollywood.
Urwand dismisses these powerful fears as a fantasy and a smokescreen. He says the films were blocked because of economic pressure applied by the Nazis. He says Gyssling must have intervened in the cases of The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here, even if he can’t find any evidence, because for Urwand there can be no other explanation. Yet another possibility was staring Urwand in the face, but either he couldn’t or didn’t want to see it.
The war between isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin on one side, and interventionists led by FDR, Popular Front groups, and internationally oriented business groups on the other, is central to the social and political tensions rippling through the United States during the 1930s. Arthur Schlesinger, who lived through the battles over McCarthyism in the 1950s, and Vietnam in the 1960s, called the battle over intervention in Europe during the 1930s “the most savage political debate in my lifetime.” To get a sense of the ferocity of the political combat, it is helpful to consider that by 1941 the isolationist America First organization had more than 400 local committees across the United States, and many, if not most of them, were openly anti-Semitic, accusing “Jewish warmongers” of being behind the push for war. Chicago was a particular center of isolationist feeling because of its large German-American population: Two-thirds of the first 1 million members of America First lived in the largest city of the Midwest.
American Jews who favored active opposition to Hitler were therefore faced with a unique problem. Would openly espousing the interventionist line help or hinder the cause, or would they be accused of special pleading by placing Jewish interests over American interests? Jews had good reasons to fear exacerbating the growing anti-Semitic mood. Father Coughlin’s isolationist, nativist, and anti-Semitic radio rants, supported by Henry Ford, had 40 million listeners. In 1936, the United States did not boycott the German Olympics; instead, the U.S. Olympic Committee banned Jewish athletes from participating.
As Lynne Olson shows in her highly readable Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War Two, 1939-1941, published earlier this year, fears of the rise of home-grown American anti-Semitism were uppermost in the minds of Jewish elites. Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, complained that for the first time in his life he regretted being a Jew because “with the tide of anti-Semitism rising, he was unable to champion the anti-Hitler policy of the administration as vigorously and as universally as he would like.” FDR aide Harold Ickes warned wealthy Jews to “exercise extreme caution in the acquisition of their wealth and great scrupulousness in their social behavior.” FDR himself urged the studios to stay neutral, lest they prejudice the fight.
Urwand dismisses Jewish fears in a brief aside. There is “no evidence,” he claims, that Hollywood Jews were fearful of anti-Semitism. Really? This one is a real head-scratcher. “In the 1930s and early 1940s, overt anti-Semitism was a distinctive feature of life in the United States,” Olson writes, “Not until after World War II and the revelations of the Holocaust did most elements of U.S. society consider open anti-Jewish prejudice to be unacceptable.” Charles Lindbergh had identified the three leading “war agitators”: FDR, the British, and the Jews. Jews, he said, were a “danger to this country” because of “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” Congress held hearings about excessive Hollywood influence, and Joseph P. Kennedy, a former studio owner himself, later American ambassador to England and a leading isolationist, publicly warned his former colleagues in Los Angeles not to “use the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of democracies versus the dictators” because it would highlight Jewish control of Hollywood and lead to an anti-Semitic backlash.
It’s not hard, in other words, to image why Jewish leaders and organizations often pressured the studios to avoid Jewish subjects or any kind of special pleading on behalf of Jews: They were frightened of fueling more anti-Semitism at a moment when Hollywood executives were already being targeted as “Jewish warmongers” by America Firsters. That’s what happened in the case of The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here. Urwand even documents the pressure, yet he still concludes it was German influence that swayed Mayer. (Because Jewish fears were fake!)
The Collaboration’s final charge is also its most sensational. Harvard University Press promoted the book ahead of publication by promising that it would reveal how Hollywood directly financed the German war machine—the final act of perfidy, comparable to accounts of extensive Nazi entanglements of corporations like Standard Oil, Ford, Chase Bank, and ITT.
Yet Urwand’s evidence underwhelms. Studios were businesses, Germany and Europe were a valuable markets, the Depression was on, profits were shrinking, so they held their noses and tried to hang on—hardly an admirable approach, but certainly typical of American businesses of the era.
After 1933, American companies were prohibited from repatriating German profits. As a result, financial workarounds were devised. In 1938, Urwand says, before war broke out in Europe, MGM, one of only three studios doing business in Germany, laundered some of its profits by buying German corporate bonds, then immediately selling them at a loss outside of Germany. Some of the firms whose bonds they traded were unnamed Austrian firms “connected to the armament industry,” according to a U.S. trade commission document. That one document, pertaining to a single studio, is the basis of the entire charge—a single studio did what presumably dozens of other American companies did throughout the entire decade to get embargoed profits out of Germany. We know profits were negligible at the time, because Urwand told us. Nevertheless, no dollar amount is cited, and no evidence supplied that the accounting trick was ever repeated. That’s it. It is on the basis of this tidbit that Urwand declares that “the largest American motion picture company helped to finance the German war machine.”
Even the isolationists and America Firsters may have come closer to the truth. In 1941, Sen. Gerald Nye demanded that Congress investigate Hollywood—not for appeasement, but for warmongering. The studio moguls, according to the Republican senator from North Dakota, were “trying to make America punch drunk with propaganda to push her into war.”
Starting in 1938, FDR had dropped his neutrality stance and exhorted Hollywood producers to openly support Europe’s struggle against fascism. The studio gates opened, and anti-Nazi films like Mortal Storm (MGM), So Ends Our Night (United Artists), and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Warner Bros.) poured forth, in a conscious effort to educate and influence an American population that was in dire economic straits and—rightly or not—largely opposed to the idea of a foreign war.
Naturally, Urwand’s book casts Hollywood’s anti-Nazi phase as further evidence of complicity with the Nazis. This is confirmation bias at its most absurd. A film like Mortal Storm, he says, is suspect because it never identifies the Nazi victims as Jews. To be sure, Hollywood preferred to portray German fascism as a universal threat, the enemy of all freedom-loving people, because Hollywood Jews feared casting opposition to Hitler as a “Jewish” war. But Urwand’s description of Mortal Storm is ridiculous. The family’s name is Roth, and when the father is sent to a concentration camp—a concentration camp!—his documents are stamped with a large “J.”
Most of Urwand’s film interpretations are eccentric, to say the least. He claims to have found pro-fascist propaganda in pictures like Captain’s Courageous, Mutiny on the Bounty, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It sheds a useful light on the mindset of the author and his editors to read that Lives of a Bengal Lancer, starring Gary Cooper, “delivered a National Socialist message,” or that It Happened One Night, Capra’s 1936 romantic comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, contains dialogue that echoes the ideas of Josef Goebbels. (Just reread that last sentence.) Urwand spends an embarrassing number of pages on Gabriel Over the White House, a tedious 1933 political satire about a fictional American president who, after being visited by an angel, eliminates corruption and unemployment by imposing martial law, but he gets it wrong. Gabriel Over the White House was not fascist propaganda. If it was, it fooled FDR, who went out of his way to praise it.
Urwand also asserts that Charlie Chaplin “toned down” The Great Dictator under pressure, to match Hollywood’s appeasement policy—again, with no evidence (and the film was not produced by a major studio). If you haven’t seen it, Lynne Olson describes The Great Dictator as “an unsparing look at the Nazis’ savagery toward the Jews.”
During most of the 1930s, the rest of the world was afraid to confront the Third Reich. Hollywood also averted its eyes. Their shameful behavior is well-documented by Doherty. Yet between 1939 and 1941, Hollywood partially redeemed itself by courageously and wholeheartedly joining FDR’s quiet campaign in support of intervention, producing interventionist films like Sergeant York, Mrs. Miniver, Foreign Correspondent, and The Fighting 69th (which had an openly Jewish subplot). Even Errol Flynn took to the sea on England’s behalf in The Sea Hawk (1940) to face down a very Nazi-like Spanish Armada. The studio bosses defied the isolationists, stood up for England, and laid the moral groundwork for intervention in Europe. And they paid a price for it, attacked by Lindbergh, Coughlin, and United States senators. When Sen. Nye convened his anti-Hollywood hearings in September 1941, the moguls hired Wendell Willkie to defend them, and he forcefully upbraided the committee. “To oppose Hollywood was to oppose the United States,” he said. “To question its motives was to embrace Nazism.”
Urwand ridicules Willkie, describing the speech as a cynical lie using false patriotism to defend Hollywood appeasement. But if Hollywood was really still as isolationist and pro-appeasement as Urwand seems to believe—despite all the evidence—why not say so before an isolationist and pro-appeasement Senate committee?
The Collaboration accuses Jews of betraying their country, selling out their co-religionists, and funding the Nazi war machine—for German gold, no less! This is not simply a silly book; it’s a deeply problematic, even potentially dangerous, one. Who knows whether this is due to incompetence or malevolence. The mystery is that no editor or faculty adviser seems to have been looking out for the author. Harvard University Press circled the wagons in response to early criticism, which may be the standard CYA policy of any bureaucratic organization. But now that Urwand’s radioactive assertions have gone viral, with tens of thousands of references on Google to the book’s “revelations,” it’s too late for explanations or corrections. The damage has been done.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The work, lost for a century, depicts Edgardo Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy seized by Church authorities