Fascinating Text Explores Hollywood Reaction to Hitler and Nazism

One of my most romantic childhood memories as a Swiss girl growing up in 1980s Zurich was watching Casablanca, the 1942 blockbuster film starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart which decried the horrors of Nazi Germany. My English was just good enough to be able to fully follow the dialogue, and the film instilled in me a desire to visit North Africa and Morocco. I later did both and spent a number of years there. And to this day I am sure that the seed for that journey was planted in my mind in that long ago evening watching the classic anti-war film Casablanca.

In Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, Thomas Doherty a professor of American studies at Brandeis University with a special interest in the cultural history of Hollywood cinema, traces a compelling narrative of Hollywood’s analysis and treatment of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. The tale evolves in unexpected ways with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Francisco Franco in Spain, a triumvirate of authoritarian tyranny.

Perhaps the most important lesson I took away from this book is that while it is commonplace today to regard Hollywood and the film industry as a significant social and geopolitical force, able to shape whole generations in their beliefs, this was not so obvious before the Second World War when notions of propaganda, especially filmed propaganda and radio propaganda, were nascent and ill-defined.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, representations of the Nazis, and more particularly a hard assessment of the real meaning of Nazism for both Germans and Americans, came with great difficulty to Hollywood, growing more ominous and distinct only as the decade wore on. Americans saw a variety of conflicting images and ideas on the screen during the emerging period of the Nazi threat. Doherty reviews long-forgotten films such as Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934), a pioneering docu-drama, along with I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936), a bizarre story of a young Hollywood woman caught in Germany, and Professor Mamlock (1938), a strongly contra-Nazi film made by German expatriates living in the Soviet Union. He also lays out how the disproportionately Jewish heritage of the business leaders in the Hollywood studios — and that, too, of many of Hollywood’s best writers and thinkers — shaded reactions to what was never simply a business decision but a moral assessment tempered by an anti-Semitism that was still present to some degree in the United States. As Europe moved inexorably toward war, a battle waged in Hollywood over how to conduct business with the Nazis, how to cover Hitler in the news media, and just how to speak to (or ignore!) Nazi ideology in American feature films. What role, if any, was Hollywood to play? It was not a simple question to answer then, though the answer today seems clear enough in hindsight.

Doherty’s history features a cast of weirdly fascinating personalities, including Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, whose production of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) created discord in Germany among young members of the nascent Nazi movement; George Gyssling, the German consul resident in Los Angeles, who studied Hollywood trade magazines with the same zeal as any studio tycoon; Vittorio Mussolini, the bumbling first-born of the Italian dictator who was himself an aspiring motion picture bigwig; Leni Riefenstahl, the statuesque blonde beauty of the Third Reich who came to America to sell distribution rights for Olympia (1938); along with writers Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker, who helped organize the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League; and Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Bros., who yoked anti-Nazism to a special kind of American patriotism that finally emerged fully fledged in later films like Casablanca in the early 1940s.

At the precise moment of Nazi control of Germany in the early 1930s, Hitler and his inner circle immediately grasped the importance of propaganda, and radio and film propaganda in particular, in ways that far exceeded the understanding of anyone in Los Angeles, focussing especially on the critical role of film in promoting the party’s aims. Joseph Goebbels, as the newly-installed Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, made it a personal crusade of his to put a Nazi stamp on as many areas of art and culture as it was possible for him to quickly reach, and he was farsighted enough to recognize long before many of his peers the special power of film and the movie studios as a vehicle for transmitting ideas and in shaping behavior.

During the six years of the Nazi Reich preceding the beginning of World War II in 1939 the US film industry was fairly passive about Nazism, which was perhaps not perceived at first as the threat it was to become. Given the strength of isolationist feeling, too, this is not a big surprise. Internal red tape and the Production Code also conspired to keep Hollywood silent about what was happening in Germany. The Production Code Administration and local censorship boards quashed nearly every attempt to tackle the subject, and most of the studios themselves hesitated to rock the boat and lose the opportunity to sell their own products to German distributors.

Although Doherty is a gifted academic, his book is written in a pleasant, accessible style. This is indeed a very readable treatment, filled with detailed evocation of personalities and Hollywood stories that read as easily and as quickly as yesterday’s gossip column in the local paper. This is will be a most enjoyable book for anybody interested in the cultural history of World War II and the parallel history of the film industry. The book is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty, 448 pages, hardcover, published by Columbia University Press, 2013.

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