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Loaded question

U.S. historian looks at delicate issue of Hollywood co-operation with Nazis

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Did the Hollywood studios, most of which were run by Jews, collaborate with Nazi Germany in the 1930s and knowingly or inadvertently contribute to the atrocities of the Holocaust?

That's the highly loaded question that is examined by Jewish-American academic Ben Urwand, a Harvard fellow whose grandparents lived in hiding in Hungary during the Second World War.

Urwand is by no means the first author to tackle this disturbing issue. In the past 25 years six books have been written on various aspects of it, beginning with Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood in 1989. Also on the market right now is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933 to 1939 by Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University.

The short answer to the question as to why Hollywood would ever do anything to serve the interests of such a monstrous regime could be summed up with the simple three word phrase made famous during Watergate: "follow the money."

When the studio system became firmly entrenched in the U.S. in the 1920s, Germany quickly became one of Hollywood's most important foreign markets.

With great attention to detail, Urwand describes multiple contacts between the studios and German officials, and he apparently breaks some new ground with his descriptions of Georg Gyssling, who became a Hollywood fixture after Hitler came to power in 1933.

In an effort to protect their investment in the Third Reich, the studios allowed Gyssling to read selected scripts and suggest changes in the case of films that might dare to cast Germany in a bad light.

Hitler watched movies almost every night, recognizing the power of the medium to shape public opinion both at home and elsewhere. Urwand says Hitler also learned much about public speaking and grand spectacle from images on the screen.

Knowing that the Nazis were famous for keeping records of everything, the author uncovered records of what Hitler and others like Joseph Goebbels watched and what they thought of them.

Besides movies with military themes like All Quiet on the Western Front, the Germans had some concerns that seem truly bizarre in today's context. He recounts a mental-health expert who worried about the racial implications of King Kong, which did huge business in Germany, and Tarzan, which was banned by the propaganda ministry.

The danger to the Jews became evident quite soon after Hitler became the German chancellor. After 1934 they were forbidden to work in the film industry. Thus began an exodus to Britain and America of many of Germany's most talented and creative people, including writer-director Billy Wilder, who would become a treasured Hollywood legend.

This also included hundreds of studio employees who worked in sales and distribution in Germany.

Warner Bros. stopped doing business in Germany in 1934, and they were seen by some as the bravest studio when it came to subject matter on the screen that could be regarded as critical of the Nazi regime.

In 1939, Warners produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Even then, though, punches were pulled. The movie, which was basically a B picture, depicted the Nazis as thugs who had effectively killed freedom of speech.

It also dealt at great length with the growing legion of followers that Hitler enjoyed in America. But the persecution and incarceration of the Jews received barely a mention.

In addition to describing the Hollywood efforts to avoid offending the Nazis, Urwand also points a strong accusing finger at the Hays Office which enforced the Production Code in those days.

Aside from upholding the moral values of the day, Urwand says Hays and his No. 1 enforcer, Joseph Breen, were known to be anti-Semitic, and had little concern over what the Nazis were doing to Jews and other minorities in Europe.

Winnipeg writer and broadcaster Roger Currie is a lover of classic films and the history behind them. He is heard regularly on CJNU, 93.7 FM.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 A1

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