Hollywood's hidden history of Nazi collaboration

June 20, 2014

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler
Ben Urwand
Belknap, 2013
327 pages, $39.95 (hb)

Throughout the 1930s, movie-goers all over the world got to see the German Nazi’s cut of every Hollywood film. Any movie touching on Germany contained no mention of Nazism or Jews.

Both these silences, as Harvard University’s Ben Urwand unearths in The Collaboration, were the result of a remarkable agreement allowing the Nazis to dictate Hollywood movie content in return for Hollywood studios keeping their access to the lucrative German market.

The pact was struck between the most anti-Semitic regime in history and the largely Jewish top executives of the major Hollywood studios such as 20th Century Fox, MGM and Paramount.

The pro-Nazi censorship was exercised by a Nazi consulate official in Los Angeles who personally vetted all movies concerning Germany or delegated the task to Hollywood’s self-censorship body. Movies that offended the core principles of Nazism were, without exception, abandoned or changed.

Failure to comply would have meant banning the offending studio from movie distribution in Germany.

The extraordinary absence of Nazis from Hollywood movies only changed when Hitler over-reached militarily in Europe, threatening the global dominance of US capitalism. Only then did the Nazis (though not the Jews) return to Hollywood movies in a patriotic celluloid crusade.

So why did Hollywood’s Jewish movie moguls cosy up to Hitler? Not because of ignorance, says Urwand, but because, just like other US companies such as IBM, General Motors and Ford, “the Hollywood studios put profit above principle in their decision to do business with the Nazis”.

As MGM’s Louis B Mayer said: “We have terrific income in Germany.” To protect this honey hole, Hollywood studios went to “extreme lengths to hold on to their investment in Germany”.

As well as censorship, studios sacked Jewish employees in Germany, chose Nazis as their German managers, donated films to the Nazi government “to help with the war relief effort”, and re-invested profits in Nazi newsreels and German armaments.

Urwand’s critics have objected to his use of the term “collaboration”. But collaboration comes in many forms and Hollywood’s movie bosses rendered both material benefits and ideological services to the Nazi regime.

As Urwand says, Hollywood’s powerful capitalists “had the chance to show the world what was really happening in Germany”, but chose not to for the sake of box office profits.

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