Between 1942 and 1945, Hollywood produced a plethora of antifascist movies. Of the 1,500 titles released during this period, over half of them referred to the Second World War; 242 made reference to the Nazis, and 190 mentioned Adolf Hitler. The role American movies played in helping the United States defeat fascist Germany—in the populist version of history—reads almost like a screenplay: Brave producers and directors invested time and money on motion pictures that stood for freedom and democratic principles, Hollywood was declared a bastion of democracy, and Hitler was defeated. The End.
Casablanca (1942) fits perfectly into this narrative: The plot involves two lovers sacrificing their romantic friendship in order to continue the fight against tyranny. Shortly after its release, Variety commended Casablanca for its “anti-Axis propaganda.” But if one is to analyze the actual history of Hollywood’s relationship with fascism, a more sinister picture emerges. Ben Urwand’s study is the result of nine years of research, much of which he accumulated from German censorship records and the dusty archives of various Hollywood studios. His thesis is a controversial one: arguing that the Hollywood studio system, by using motion pictures as a propaganda tool, actively assisted the Nazis to fuel their campaign of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1930s. There is irony in this, of course, since the powerful executives who supposedly put Reichsmarks before moral values were all Jews.
To help the reader understand how the decade-long relationship between Hollywood and the Nazis developed, Urwand recalls a forgotten moment in Hollywood history: the first public showing of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany.
The premiere was due to take place in the Mozartsaal cinema in Berlin on December 5, 1930. Three hundred Nazi protesters bought tickets for the performance and started a riot as the curtains came down. Joseph Goebbels, who would go on to become propaganda minister in the Hitler regime, described All Quiet—based on the bestselling work by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque—as an attempt to destroy Germany’s national prestige. After just six days, it was withdrawn from German cinemas. A year later, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, offered the German Foreign Office a “revised” version of the film; it was approved and became a roaring success.
From this moment on, the moguls of Hollywood began to make concessions to the German government, ensuring that all movies met its standard of approval. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the Nazis employed a permanent representative to Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, whose job was to educate and train Hollywood studios about German “pride” and “tradition.”
Gyssling also played a key role in invoking Article 15, a legal clause that the German government had imposed on the film industry the year before. Its aim was simple but effective: threaten American studios with the loss of their import permits for the German market if they distributed any movie that was considered anti-German.
As long as dollars kept pouring in from Germany, studio bosses were happy to keep meeting Nazi demands. A letter that Urwand produces here confirms this. It was sent in January 1938 from the Berlin branch of Twentieth Century-Fox directly to Hitler’s office. “We would be very grateful,” it says, “if you could provide us with a note from the Führer in which he expresses his opinion of the value and effect of American films in Germany. . . . Heil Hitler!” Even as late as December 1938, one month after Kristallnacht, MGM, then the largest motion picture company in the United States, was receiving bonds in exchange for loans it provided to German arms companies.
All of this ended, of course, when America entered the Second World War and the studios began investing in antifascist propaganda.
The facts presented here are all true: Hollywood was guilty of appeasing Nazi Germany—as long as it yielded profits—throughout the 1930s. But Urwand’s argument is not placed in any kind of historical or cultural context. The actions of the moguls were, indeed, brutal and selfish; but Urwand seems to miss a very salient point: The studio bosses were ruthless businessmen aiming to make money in what they felt was a healthy marketplace. They were not, as Urwand’s title suggests, “collaborating” with Nazis. Their decision to do business in Germany was based on practical, rather than ideological, principles. It is also difficult to believe, as Urwand suggests, that the studio heads derived some sense of schadenfreude from witnessing the misfortune of fellow Jews.
Urwand’s anger towards men who had working relationships with Nazis is more than justified. But the tone his narrative employs seeks to blame and scapegoat, rather than fully explore the subject. Urwand also fails to answer adequately a question he poses: “Why did these powerful executives . . . choose to do business with the most anti-Semitic regime in history?” The best reason he comes up with is that “the Hollywood studios put profit above principle in their decision to do business with the Nazis.”
Here, the author mistakes Hollywood for a bohemian movement that had moral integrity. It did not. The studio system—from its conception in the early 1920s to its breakup in 1948—was a large corporate enterprise. Its sole motive was profit, not art—a fact Urwand consistently ignores.
Urwand also suggests that Sinclair Lewis’s antifascist novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which was due to be made into a film but was never produced because of censorship restrictions, “could have been a triumph for democracy and American culture.” Statements like this miss an obvious but important point: Hollywood movies from this era were politically cautious in tone. Why? Because courting controversy might have disturbed the steady flow of revenue.
Whether, three-quarters of a century later, one agrees with the moral implications here is a personal choice. But it’s something that should at least be mentioned in a book that claims to explore an important chapter in the history of American cinema.
The culture of censorship that existed in Hollywood, both domestically and internationally, in the 1930s isn’t given enough attention either. Due to the Supreme Court ruling that emerged from Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio in 1915, the motion picture industry became the only form of media ever subjected to legal restraint in the United States: Movies were not granted the same freedom of speech as newspapers or radio.
In other words, censorship was a standard procedure for all Hollywood movies of this era.
Towards the end of his narrative, Urwand introduces a Jewish hero into the story: playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht, who tried to publicize the anti-Semitism of Hollywood and campaigned for Jewish refugees to be brought to the United States. Hecht, writes Urwand, “saw Hollywood as one of the great Jewish achievements. The only problem, in his view, was that the studios did not share his pride. In fact, they removed all images of Jews from the screen.”
Again, Urwand misses the paradox: The majority of Jews who ran this massive film empire had escaped European poverty and pogroms and became rich because they did their best to erase their past and assimilate. By creating a fictional, squeaky-clean American culture that hid their Jewishness, these ambitious immigrants appealed to a mass American audience. When it came to international markets, the same model was followed. And in 1930s America, making antifascist movies was not smart business for Hollywood.
Hollywood executives may have acted immorally, cowardly, and with self-interest that is shameful when we reflect upon it today. But Urwand’s argument is too simplistic and reductive to give this subject the analysis it deserves.
J. P. O’Malley is a writer in London.