Ben Urwand’s recent Harvard University Press book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, has generated considerable media attention, both positive and critical: reviews and notices have appeared in Tablet Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, to name just a few. We at Harvard University Press welcome this engaged discussion of a complex and controversial topic, and indeed consider such conversations central to our mission.
At the same time, we wish to address specific concerns raised by David Denby at the New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog. Writing on the book for a second time, Denby suggested that Harvard University Press’s vetting process was flawed or insufficient. In fact, Urwand’s book underwent a rigorous review process, in this case having been read by five scholars in various disciplines. We stand by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures. A thorough review process is standard at Harvard, where we take very seriously the imprimatur of the University’s name. 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.
Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published.
Update: The full text of Ben Urwand’s letter to the New Yorker—a shortened version of which appears in the October 7th edition of the magazine—is below.
Dear Sir or Madam:
After reading David Denby’s second review of my recent book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard University Press, 2013) for the New Yorker, I feel compelled to lay to rest a few misunderstandings.
Mr. Denby’s primary criticism of the book is my use of the term “collaboration.” This was the term that the Nazis and the studios used in the 1930s to describe their relationship with each other. In the words of the German Foreign Office, “friendly collaboration at the actual site of production is recommended” [“wird eine freundschaftliche Zusammenarbeit an Ort und Stelle zu empfehlen sein”]. In the words of MGM to the German press, “We believe in a satisfying collaboration” [“Wir glauben auch hier an eine zufriedenstellende Zusammenarbeit”]. And in the words of the German representative in Los Angeles, “Universal’s interest in collaboration is not platonic but is motivated by the company’s concern for the well-being of its Berlin branch and for the German market.” This was not a matter of negotiation between two equal parties; rather, the Nazi regime was dictating how an American business could create and distribute its product at home and abroad. For such a business to agree to these conditions is collaboration, in the sense in which the term is generally understood.
Mr. Denby claims that the studio heads could not have understood the extent of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in the mid-1930s. In fact, victims of Nazi harassment included Carl Laemmle’s own nephew and the German manager of Warner Brothers. Rather than challenge the Nazis on this issue, the studios fired half of their Jewish salesmen in May 1933. By 1936, they had agreed to Aryanize their entire German payroll.
Mr. Denby also questions my explanation of how the studios got their money out of Germany. As I explain in the book, the studios could not export their profits from 1934 onward because of the new German finance laws, so Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox reinvested these profits in the production of pro-Nazi newsreels, which fueled support for the Nazis in Germany. Documentation from the U.S. Commerce Department shows that MGM, which did not make German newsreels, invested in the production of German armaments from 1938 onward.
Mr. Denby writes that the Hays Office employees dictated policy to the studios. In fact, the Hays Office employees were the paid representatives of the film industry. In the original case of All Quiet on the Western Front, they recommended that Universal Pictures stand up to the Germans (“None of these do I consider legitimate objections and said so at the time”). But Universal Pictures ignored their advice and dealt directly with the German authorities, thereby setting the precedent for the rest of the decade.
The Hollywood studios remained in Germany as long as they could, and MGM, Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox continued to collaborate with the Nazi regime until the summer of 1940. These are facts that have not been made known to the American public until now. My book is based on documentary evidence, and just as other scholars have uncovered the record of such American companies as IBM and General Motors, it is time to confront the actions of the Hollywood studios.