It is a compelling story. A young Jewish researcher teaches himself German and ultimately spends years combing through Nazi archives in search of evidence to support a heinous claim uttered by an old man. In cold vaults, and often alone, the young man, whose own maternal grandparents narrowly missed becoming victims of the Holocaust, sifts through thousands of documents, and in one particularly tough year, views 400 films.
At night, the damning documents he has read during the day slice through his sleep. Between old movies and old memos, he fears his eyes will soon become rectangular.
Finally, the stalwart researcher could only come to one horrific conclusion: In the 1930s, Hollywood’s Jewish movie men enthusiastically aided Hitler and his Nazi regime’s global propaganda effort in order to preserve an important foreign market. The old man was right! The young man knows he must be brave, for no one will be happy to read this story. The truth hurts, after all.
This is not the plot of an upcoming arthouse film, or even the storyline for a feature documentary. Instead, it is the back story for one of the most intensely discussed new books, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” published by Harvard University Press (HUP) and authored by Jewish-Australian Ben Urwand, now a junior Harvard fellow based in Cambridge, Mass.
Shrewdly anticipating the massive response, HUP took the unusual step of hiring Goldberg McDuffie Communications, a high-profile public relations firm, whose usual clients are established best-selling authors and major corporations. With the book due for release last September, a press release was issued in June pointing to Urwand’s amazing claims, his years of research, learning German, and his Jewish background and grandparents.
GMC took the even stranger step of comparing “The Collaboration” to “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” a book released earlier in the year by Thomas Doherty, an esteemed film historian and academic from Brandeis University. The press release inferred Doherty had taken the easy way out using trade papers as sources, whereas the young researcher had slaved away in German and other archives.
In late June, staff editor Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times picked up the story, giving Urwand a dream start. Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Emory University, said the story was “breathtaking” and she was anxious to read it. There were dissenting opinions from Doherty and Steven J. Ross, a longtime film historian and academic from the University of Southern California. But Urwand had the last word, condemning the Jewish studio heads and executives as “collaborating” with Hitler, pointing to this as the very word they used in their correspondence between the studios and the Nazi regime.
It’s safe to say the summer of 2013 was Urwand’s. He was feted as courageous, his book as very brave. He was flown around the U.S. and overseas, giving interviews and making dozens of personal appearances, ranging from bookstores to Jewish literary festivals. In some instances, online articles repeating Urwand’s claims were posted to social media sites thousands of times.
But it didn’t last. By late August, the rebuttals began to flow from nearly two dozen prominent academics, historians, film journalists, authors and even an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Their negative reviews and full rebuttals, often many thousands of words long and usually providing history lessons of their own, were carried in major news outlets and prestigious literary journals.
There was also a flurry of controversy coverage, including lengthy articles from Jon Wiener in The Nation that brought up issues spanning back to the book’s inception as Urwand’s thesis at Berkeley, and a hilarious article from Tom Carson, writing for The American Prospect that poked fun at Sir Richard Evans, Urwand’s one high profile supporter who, with not a bit of bluster, had called some critics of the book, “Hollywood attack dogs” on Twitter.
Even Urwand’s talks came into question, with veteran British film historian Joel W. Finler accusing the author of manipulating his audience during an appearance at the Wiener Library, a Holocaust studies center in London.
But December would see the most damning rebuttal of all by journalist, editor and author Mark Horowitz writing in Tablet Magazine, the first of the Jewish media to cover the book with a positive review in June by David Mikics.
Horowitz clinically eviscerated Urwand’s claims, saying the book had “error or lunacy on every page” and a full fact check would need to be book-length itself. Horowitz called “The Collaboration” dangerous and anti-Semitic (as have others), but said the damage the book had done was so substantial it was simply too late for corrections.
A torrid seven months was capped with “The Collaboration” ignominiously included in the Los Angeles Times’ list of the top five literary scandals of 2013.
So how did it all go so horribly wrong for Ben Urwand?
The problems began with the book’s title. The terms “collaborate” and “pact” have a specific meaning in the context of WWII and Urwand’s book could never prove the Jewish moguls and executives were guilty of these claims.
The German equivalent of the word “collaborate” used in the correspondence, zusammenarbeit, is commonly used to refer to normal business activity, and certainly in the key years, no one had any inkling of a murderous regime. “Pact” is a technical term relating to two formal nation-to-nation contracts from the time. The studios did have contracts with the regime, as they did with most foreign entities they dealt with; these stipulated distribution rights, fees, timing and the like.
Most commentators were also scathing about the book’s more than 300 endnotes as evaporating like a desert mirage upon close scrutiny. And it is here that the old man and his shocking accusation comes in. Endnote 163, to give one example, is intended to support the claim by producer Budd Schulberg that MGM studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, screened movies for the Nazi consul, George Gyssling.
It is this premise that underpins “The Collaboration,” but was also the inspiration for Urwand’s years of research. However, endnote 163 is a transcript of Schulberg telling a writer about hearing the Mayer/Gyssling story from someone else, whom he does not even name. As Schulberg was known to hate Mayer, he is hardly a reliable witness, but in any event, endnote 163 is hearsay.
Another endnote house of cards from “The Collaboration” also centers on Mayer (who Urwand paints as chief Shylock) and relates to what has now become an infamous quote repeated hundreds, maybe thousands of times as a result of this book.
In relation to a proposed anti-Nazi film, “Mad Dog of Europe,” Mayer is accused of saying: “We have interests in Germany; I represent the picture industry here in Hollywood; we have exchanges there; we have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.”
However, the quote attributed to Mayer is, in fact, testimony from an independent producer who was suing MGM, another hostile source.
Just as damning, but more tragic, is that Urwand has stripped the book of any of the vital context of the time, including pervasive and frightening American anti-Semitism, constrictive regulatory pressures and even the influence of organizations that pressed studio heads to take some actions and not others. But finally, the notion one could tell the story of Jews through the lens of Nazi archival material is at once ridiculous and naive, but ultimately an example of victim blaming.
With so many flaws, “The Collaboration” is an academic and publishing scandal. The book can no longer be used as a citable source in academia, and the material within the book that is worthwhile is clouded by everything else that has been called into question. Certainly, Urwand’s own career as an academic and historian is impacted by the controversy.
Clearly, HUP should immediately withdraw the book from sale and complete a full, independent fact check. This action is not without precedence. Jon Wiener, in his book “Historians in Trouble,” points to David Abraham’s “Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis,” which was withdrawn by Princeton University in 1984 after the author conceded its footnotes contained significant errors. And when confronted about errors during his talk at the Sydney Jewish Museum in December 2013, Urwand said he would withdraw the book if any could be found.
Just as history repeats itself, it appears scandals involving historians do too.
In the late 1940s, pugnacious Dutch historian Pieter Geyl initiated a long-running, often bitter debate in print and through radio with English historian Arnold Toynbee, whom he accused of selectively using evidence to support his pre-conceived notions, and handily ignoring that which did not. For Geyl, who spent four years imprisoned by the Nazis including in Buchenwald concentration camp, Toynbee represented a type of historian who dealt in sophistry; whose research and analysis was tainted by a personal agenda that could never result in either the accurate telling of history or even the sound debating of it.
Geyl would have had a field day with Urwand, who, for whatever reason, marches his readers to a morally bereft finish line where Jews are as culpable as Nazis for the persecution of their fellow Jews.
As a grand-niece of Mayer, I remain proud of my great-uncle’s legacy. He was no angel, none of Hollywood’s founders were. It took blood, sweat, tears and tons of chutzpah to create the motion picture business into one of America’s most successful industries. But collaborators they were not. Nor did they have a pact with Hitler.
In fact, research by Ross and Laura Rosenzweig, who teaches American Jewish history at San Francisco State, shows that Mayer and several others, including Irving Thalberg, secretly paid huge sums for spies to infiltrate pro-Nazi groups at their own expense.
Perhaps the Jewish moguls and executives did even more. Perhaps they simply didn’t do enough. We may never know.
But as Jews in an often hostile environment and paid executives for corporations with shareholders back East, whatever they did, they wouldn’t have shouted it from the rooftops. And perhaps comments and actions were made precisely to pull attention away from covert activities.
Along with Ross’ and Rosenzweig’s research and upcoming books, strong evidence of resistance has been pointed to by Doherty and can be found in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors digital archive (a project of eminent film historian and author Richard J. Maltby of Flinders University in Australia).
If there is one silver lining to “The Collaboration,” it is the ongoing debate and new research it will spur in the years to come. But let’s start with sound history telling.
Despite certainty from many commentators that “The Collaboration” is discredited, Urwand has been invited to speak at several Holocaust-related organizations, including the Museum of Tolerance in New York City. He continues to be invited to speak at JCC events and other venues around the U.S. and overseas.
I call on Urwand and HUP to withdraw “The Collaboration” immediately and address its many fatal flaws identified by so many. This is the only action that can hope to dial back the gross acceptance of the author’s claims and help restore the many fine legacies, such as my great-uncle’s, which his book has wrongly attacked.
Alicia Mayer is a book editor and a grandniece of Louis B. Mayer. She writes about early film history on her blog, hollywoodessays.com.
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