What Should Harvard University Press Do About Ben Urwand's "The Collaboration"?Historians in the News
tags: Ben Urwand, The Collaboration
David Denby, the film critic for the New Yorker, recently unleashed a broadside against Ben Urwand's new book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, writing in his web column that he was "surprised that Harvard University Press could have published anything as poorly argued as Urwand's book."
Urwand, a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard, argues in The Collaboration that major Hollywood studios actively collaborated with the Nazi government in order to keep the German film market open to American productions. They did so by engaging in self-censorship, suppressing anti-Nazi, anti-fascist movies, and anti-authoritarian (the first explicitly anti-Nazi production from Hollywood, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, wasn't released until 1939) and downplaying Jewish characters.
But Denby writes that
Urwand ... does much more than charge the bosses with cowardice (an accusation with which I agree); he has them actively working for the Nazis. On June 25th, Urwand told the [New York] Times that, in the thirties, “Hollywood is not just collaborating with Nazi Germany, it’s also collaborating with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.” It’s an extraordinary and damning claim, if true. But Urwand offers no evidence of this personal connection—not until the epilogue, when he pulls an apparent rabbit out of his hat. He describes a visit that a group of Hollywood executives took to Germany. On July 6, 1945, a little less than two months after V-E Day, the executives travelled up the Rhine in Hitler’s former yacht. When he learned of the trip, Urwand told the Times, “That was the one time I actually shouted out in an archive.”
Denby also points out that, far from suppressing anti-authoritarian messages, many Hollywood movies from the 1930s positively skewered political leaders, probably none better than the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Nor does Urwand mention Black Legion, one of Humphrey Bogart's earlier pictures which negatively depicts small-town American racism and the Ku Klux Klan.
One of Urwand's central claims is that Georg Gyssling, the German counsel in Los Angeles, was able to bully the studios into kow-towing to Nazi demands. But Denby points out other factors that were more important in the self-censorship process -- the anti-Semitic head of the Hayes Code, for example.
Steven Carr, a professor at Purdue whom Denby corresponded with via email for the article, characterized the relationship between the studio heads and the Nazi regime as "negotiation ... not collaboration."
The Collaboration generated considerable advance buzz, drawing major coverage from Tablet Magazine in June, and Urwand has made a number of media appearances over the summer and early fall, ranging from an interview with Vanity Fair to an appearance on the CBS Morning Show. Urwand's publicity is handled by the Wylie Agency, a prestigious literary agency whose client list includes Hendrik Hertzberg, Andrew Sullivan, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Despite the hype, The Collaboration has only become available to scholars in the past month, and some of the specialists in the field of film studies are not happy. Thomas Doherty, a professor at Brandeis whose similarly-themed Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 was published in April by Columbia University Press, was disappointed by Urwand's arguments.
"His charges are ahistorical," Doherty said in a phone interview from his home outside of Boston. "He's viewing the past through the contemporary lens of Nazis being the ultimate evil, not through the lens of the 1930s," a fallacy commonly described by historians as presentism.
Doherty pointed out that among the other flaws enumerated by Denby, Urwand failed to note that Hollywood films were routinely censored by other foreign markets -- including France, Great Britain (by far the largest), and even Imperial Japan.
The 1937 historical drama Knight Without Armor, which was produced in Great Britain but distributed by United Artists, had scenes clipped by Japanese censors involving kissing. The Japanese also banned "any film that included the idea that war is not entirely glamorous and noble." Yet, Doherty noted, Stagecoach was playing on Okinawa as late as 1939 -- nearly a decade after the beginning of Japanese aggression in China and two years after the Japanese sinking of an American gunboat, the U.S.S. Pinay.
In response to Denby's article, Harvard University Press posted on its blog that the press "stand[s] by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures. ... Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand's interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation." Harvard also notes that Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker via his agent, but the response has not yet been published.
Urwand spoke to New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler on Thursday, September 26, where he defended his research against critics like Denby and Doherty:
This book is a work of historical scholarship, based on documents I uncovered in archives in nine U.S. and German cities. ... My objective as a scholar is to find those materials and make them public. There’s not a single statement in either piece by Denby that makes me question any of my findings.”