Hitler and Hollywood: Six degrees of separation

Ben Urwand’s ‘The Collaboration’

5 minute read
Look who was in the screening room.
Look who was in the screening room.

It ‘s a strange thing about the mind— or, at least, what passes for my mind.

I’ve just finished reading a remarkable book— and all sorts of links started coming into my mind. The book is The Collaboration, by Ben Urwand, which tells the story of Hollywood’s obscene collaboration with Germany— ”capitulation” would be the better word— in the 1930s, when the Germans more or less dictated what Hollywood would and would not produce.

What it would produce were films that the Germans approved; what it would not approve were films that depicted characters that were identified as “Jews” and/or any reference to the treatment of the Jews in Germany, and/or anything else the Germans didn’t like, including prominent Jews being involved in the making of a film— and, eventually, being involved in the distribution of the film in Germany.

And these changes were to be universal, not just for Germany. Embassies and consulates around the world were alerted to the changes and were to report if films were shown without them.

But, that's not the purpose of this rambling, except to establish the links.

Howard Hughes relents

The author starts with the making of the World War I film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). When the film included incidents the Germans didn’t like, they protested to Hollywood, and Hollywood went along with the objections. After all, Germany was Hollywood’s second largest market.

Having succeeded with All Quiet on the Western Front, the Germans objected to scenes in Hell’s Angels, by Howard Hughes. This film, with its breathtaking aerial scenes, was the most expensive ever made to that time. They succeeded, and so the precedent was established.

By the time the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, Hollywood was, in effect, dancing to the German piper.

Next up: Turkey

The link that came to me was that in 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of the film companies that acquiesced to German demands, wanted to make a film of Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which had become a best-seller in every country in which it was published. It tells the story of the defense by 5,000 Armenians against the Turkish attempt to destroy them and their village during the Genocide that began in 1915.

Whereas M-G-M had acceded to the German demands, it fought a long and heroic— and, ultimately, futile— battle to make the film made, despite Turkish demands.

Thinking about the Musa Dagh matter made me think, of course, of the Armenian Genocide, itself. German army officers served in and with the Turkish Army as it went about its role in killing about 1.5 million Armenians in the first state-conceived, state-planned, state-executed genocide of the 20th Century. The Allies, despite their pious words, never punished Turkey.

Hitler’s lesson

Which then led me to the fact that Adolph Hitler— whose early supporters included many of those high-ranking German Army officers who served in or with the Turkish army that did so much of the killing— liked what he learned from them. Especially the “never punished” part. Prior to taking office, Hitler often referred to the Armenian Genocide in his plans for the Jews.

(In fact, as an aside, Hitler was probably the 20th Century’s most honest politician: He said what he would do if he got into office, and when he got into office, he did it.)

Having reached 1936 in my thoughts, I was reminded that Turkey wanted the return of the province of Alexandretta, which had been given to Syria after World War I (and which, by coincidence, is where Musa Dagh is located). Mustapha Kemal decided the best way was to send Turks to settle the province.

Into Czechoslovakia

When enough Turks had established themselves there, he asked the League of Nations to conduct a referendum to determine whether the province should remain in Syria or be returned to Turkey and— surprise, surprise— the province voted overwhelmingly to return to Turkey. Until comparatively recently, Syrian maps still showed the province as a part of Syria.

Which then led to me to the fact that this deed so impressed Adolph Hitler that he decided to do the same thing in the Sudetenland, in 1938— except, of course, he didn’t bother with a referendum. He just marched in to “defend” the Germans there.

Early on, the author tells, Nazi storm troopers would cause disturbances and even wreck cinemas showing films the party didn’t like— even before the Nazis took over Germany. But, even when Hollywood had shown its willingness to collaborate, the German consul in Los Angeles, who more or less did the dictating, wasn’t averse to suggesting what might happen if the studio in question failed to comply.

‘Hot-blooded people’

The link continued as my mind recalled a conversation I had with an Israeli journalist a few years ago. He was interviewing an ambassador who had just returned to Jerusalem after a tour of duty in Ankara, and he was asked why Israel seemed to be such a willing partner with Turkey.

The ambassador replied that when Turkey wanted Israel to do something for it, he would be called into the office of the Turkish Foreign Minister and be told what was expected of Israel. If he demurred or seemed reluctant, the Turkish Foreign Minister would say, “You know, Excellency, we Turks are a hot-blooded people, and if the Turkish man-on-the-street were to learn that Israel did not co-operate with us on this, well...” and would let the thought hang there.

Israeli ambassador’s denial

Knowing what had happened in September 1995, when Jewish synagogues and businesses were torched and Jewish businessmen beaten and killed, the Ambassador would report to his superiors and Israel would do as bidden. (This, of course, was before the recent cooling off of the alleged ardor between the two countries.)

My journalist friend told the ambassador that this was a great story. But, he was told that if he used it, it would be denied. My friend then approached former Israeli ambassadors to Turkey. They, too, confirmed what he had been told by the first ambassador— and they, too, threatened to denial if they were quoted. He never used the story.

And, so, I thought about the remarkable circuit that had been linked: The Germans learn about Genocide from the Turks, who learn about pressure on film studios from the Germans, who learn about land-grabs from the Turks, who learn about putting pressure on another country with a threat of “or else.”

And all while I read a page-turner about a disgraceful period in Hollywood’s history.

What, When, Where

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler. By Ben Urwand. Belknap Press, 2013. 336 pages; $26.95. www.amazon.com.

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