LOS ANGELES - A new book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler,” has created an uproar in the film community and beyond, including among descendants of Hollywood's Jewish studio heads of the time.
The author, Ben Urwand, a Junior Fellow of Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, said in an interview with The New York Times that in the 1930s the studios were "not just collaborating with Nazi Germany” but also “with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being." And he claims that MGM, then the largest American motion picture company, "helped to finance the German war machine."
This assertion is particularly galling to Alice Mayer, grandniece of Louis B. Mayer, the legendary head of MGM. In an interview with Haaretz, Mayer acknowledged that the Jewish movie moguls "were tough businessmen, and my uncle was one of the toughest."
And they were "certainly no angels; did they do things that in hindsight they regretted? I'm sure they did. But to say they collaborated is to peddle a falsehood, and to tarnish their legacy - a thriving, multibillion dollar industry for which they laid the foundation."
Urwand's book, published by Harvard University Press and partly based on previously unexamined German archival material, has been lauded by scholars, such as the noted Cambridge history professor Richard Evans. He has described it in press interviews as being "full of startling and surprising revelations, presented in exemplary fashion."
But Urwand’s book has also been met with skepticism. Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” published in April by Columbia University Press, wrote in an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter: "Collaboration is how you describe the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation of France, or Vidkum Quisling, the Norwegian double-crosser whose name became synonymous with treason."
Last week, The New Yorker weighed in on the controversy as well. In an erudite essay about both “The Collaboration” and “Hollywood and Hitler,” film critic David Denby writes that Urwand, the grandson of Hungarian Jews who spent the war in hiding, has certainly discovered and "established the existence of multiple contacts between the studios and German government officials." But, Denby concludes, "the charge of 'collaboration' is … a case of scholarly sensationalism."
Denby describes how the studios "cancelled several explicitly anti-Nazi films planned for production,” such as an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' “It Can't Happen Here,” which Denby calls “a semi-satirical fantasia about American totalitarianism” (quashed by MGM in 1935). And how they "deleted from several other movies anything that could be construed as critical of the Nazis … [or] favorable to the Jews – or even a simple acknowledgement that they existed."
But he takes Urwand to task over his assertion about the financing of Germany's weapons manufacturers. In his book, Urwand writes: "In 1933 the Nazis passed a law preventing foreign companies from taking their money out of the country… In December 1938, MGM discovered a way to export its profits effectively… [It] loaned money to German firms … received bonds for the loan and finally sold the bonds abroad at a discount…[Some of ] the firms in question were connected with the armament industry."
The question that Denby asks is whether the studio executives could have known, back in the mid-1930s, that another war was coming. His answer to that is "hardly." Moreover, Denby writes, "Urwand, writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, which few people in the mid-thirties could have imagined, recasts every act of evasion as darkest complicity."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Jewish studio moguls were financing an anti-Nazi spy ring. A forthcoming book by Steven Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, will recount the obscure story of a group that began operating in Los Angeles in 1934 and foiled plans by the German American Bund to bomb, lynch and assassinate Jewish business and civic leaders, including studio heads.
Seventy years later, this seems like the kind of story that today's Hollywood would lap up. Daredevil espionage work was also the hallmark of "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," the 1939 Warner Bros. thriller based on the FBI's uncovering of a Nazi spy ring that had been operating in New York. The film "cleared the way for anti-Nazi pictures with the full approval of the Production Code administration," Doherty writes in “Hollywood and Hitler.” After the gala premiere, "telegrams of congratulations poured in," Doherty writes. "Last night the motion picture had a Bar Mitzvah," producer Lou Edelman wrote in a memo to studio boss Jack Warner. "It came of age."