From the comfortable perch of 2013, it is easy enough to respond with moral outrage to bad choices made in the 1930s by those who should have known better. Yet how can we not?
What, for example, are we to make of a Berlin-based Twentieth Century-Fox official sending a 1938 letter to Hitler’s office that closed with the salutation, “Heil Hitler?” Or the decision by MGM to funnel profits from film distribution in Germany into German munitions? Or the readiness of most of the Hollywood studios, nearly all run by Jews, to confer with a Los Angeles-based German representative and cut scenes — even torpedo entire films — that offended Nazi sensibilities?
These and other revelations in Ben Urwand’s controversial exposé, “The Collaboration,” are nothing short of astonishing, going well beyond what was known about Hollywood’s timidity during that era. With damning archival evidence, Urwand argues that the studios, motivated by profits, were reluctant to abandon the German market, where American films were popular and Hitler himself was a fan.
THE COLLABORATION: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler
Wendy Lower’s “Hitler’s Furies” targets a more direct brand of complicity: the widespread involvement of German women — including nurses, teachers, secretaries, and soldiers’ wives — in the machinery of genocide. Her focus is on the hundreds of thousands of women, motivated mostly by ambition, duty, and opportunity, who traveled to Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia, and other sites of German conquest and mass murder during World War II.
While Nazi ideology ordered women back to the home, wartime needs dictated otherwise. In traveling east, women “left behind repressive laws, bourgeois mores and social traditions that made life in Germany regimented and oppressive,” Lower writes. There they joined a “governing elite,” with “new benefits, opportunities, and a raised status,” and “witnessed and committed atrocities . . . as part of what they saw as a professional opportunity and liberating experience.”
Lower sorts these women into witnesses (some more troubled than others by scenes of Jewish suffering), accomplices (including office workers who typed up genocidal orders), and perpetrators, many of them gleefully sadistic, whip-wielding murderers.
Some of these stories are painful even to read. The secretary Johanna Altvater moonlighted in the killing of Jewish children, using candy as a lure. One SS wife, Erna Petri, executed six Jewish children who were fleeing deportation, while another, Liesel Willhaus, randomly gunned down Jewish slave laborers.
These deeds, Lower argues, were all the more shocking because the perpetrators were women. But her more arresting contribution is to direct attention to the “ordinary” German women who participated in or benefited from the Holocaust, by (for instance) distributing Jewish plunder or shopping Jewish ghetto sidewalk sales.
While Lower unveils a parade of horrors, Urwand’s finely documented account is even more chilling — in large part because the “collaborators” to whom he points were American, and in many cases also Jewish.
Urwand, a junior fellow in Harvard University’s prestigious Society of Fellows, begins by noting Hitler’s ongoing interest in American films, which the dictator screened regularly. He then backtracks to a key 1932 provision in a German law regulating film imports, which mandated that “if a company distributed an anti-German picture anywhere in the world, then that company would no longer be granted import permits for the German market.”
As a result, Nazi officialdom — spearheaded by Los Angeles-based diplomat Georg Gyssling — had gained important leverage in dealing with both studios and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. Known as the Hays Office, the association served as a sometimes reluctant intermediary when the Nazis requested content-based film edits.
Among the casualties of the German-American nexus were nascent anti-Nazi film projects, including “The Mad Dog of Europe,” on the persecution of German Jews, and an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 bestseller, “It Can’t Happen Here,” which envisioned the rise of fascism in the United States. About the former, Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, said: “[W]e have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.”
Meanwhile, Urwand says, Hollywood produced films such as “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933), extolling “the leader principle,” that were wildly popular in Nazi Germany. The studios also acquiesced in demands to fire Jews from their German offices.
Thomas Doherty — author of the recent “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39,” a nuanced look at the era’s film culture — has accused Urwand of overstating the anti-Hollywood case. In the Hollywood Reporter, Doherty noted that “[i]n the 1930s, the Nazis were not yet the Nazis of our history, of our imagination.” On the part of the studios, Doherty says he discerned “greed and cupidity, to be sure” but mainly “confusion, wishful thinking, and disbelief.” On balance, he argues, the story is “not of collaboration but of resistance.”
It is difficult to read Urwand’s book and agree.
Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
288 pp., illustrated, $26