Counterfactual Thoughts on Ben Urwand's "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler."

In my discussion of the controversy sparked by Ben Urwand's provocative new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler in this week's issue of The Forward, I employ counterfactual reasoning at several junctures to reflect on the book's controversial thesis.

First, I point out that "there is...[a] counterfactual conundrum underlying the book’s moralistic line of reasoning. As is true of all historians who write about Nazi Germany, Urwand is right to apply a moral framework to his subject. But his conclusion that the Hollywood studios’ behavior towards Nazi Germany was “shameful” implies that there was a counterfactual alternative. It implies that if the Hollywood studios had stood up to the Nazis, they could have had a positive effect on history.

Unfortunately, this is doubtful. Based on the evidence provided in The Collaboration, it seems clear that if the studios had produced more anti-Nazi films or films featuring Jews, they would have simply been banned by the regime. Even if such films had somehow found their way into the German market, they would have remained ineffective. Urwand himself writes that while some “American movies that contradicted National Socialist ideology were shown in Germany,” their subtle political messages were overlooked by German moviegoers. There is little reason to think that the messages of more stridently anti-Nazi films would have had any more positive effect." 

Later in the essay, I note that a comparison of Nazi Germany and present-day China provides food for further counterfactual thought, especially as it highlights the perils of projecting present-day moral views back upon the past.

“At the same time, its moralistic perspective distorts as much as it clarifies. Through its use of condemnatory language and historical comparisons, the book projects the sordid realities of wartime collaboration in Europe back upon to the peacetime United States, thereby leading readers to blur the distinctions between them. In short, book’s impassioned tone sometimes clouds its judgment.

Indeed, it ultimate prevents the book from explaining the willingness of so many people in the 1930s to work with the Nazis. Today, this fact strikes us as unfathomable today, given our view of the Nazis as the epitome of evil. And yet Hollywood was hardly unique. In the 1930s, many Americans were happy to pursue a business as usual relationship with Nazi Germany, whether American companies (Ford, GM, IBM), American universities, which promoted student exchanges and welcomed visiting Nazi dignitaries to their campuses, and American athletes, who competed in the 1936Berlin Olympics.

This activity is very difficult to explain if we view the Nazis from our postwar perspective as the perpetrators of genocide. But it makes more sense if we realize that before the outbreak of war in 1939, many Americans did not see the Third Reich as unusually evil. If anything, as Michaela Hoenicke Moore has shown in recent book, Know Your Enemy: The American Debate on Nazism, 1933-1945, they viewed the country as more benign than Japan or the Soviet Union. This realization is lost in Urwand’s book, which would be stronger if it established the broader context of American views on Nazi Germany in the period.

This issue of perspective is further underscored by a present day analogy. In many ways America’s relationship with Nazi Germany in the 1930s resembles its relationship with China today, in the sense that both countries’ economic power allowed (and continues to allow) them to evade any consequences for their political repressiveness. Today, Hollywood studios and – as The New York Times recently reported – book publishers routinely allow their works to be censored in order to gain access to the Chinese market, despite the regime’s well-known brutality. Few people today raise moral objections to this practice, let alone embark upon moral crusades to halt it. This reality helps us understand why Americans behaved similarly in the 1930s.

To be sure, views can change in light of later events. Just as American views of Nazi Germany gradually changed after the eruption the Second World War, we can speculate counterfactually that if the U. S. were to go to war with China one day in the future, many would eventually look back and condemn current practices as “collaboration.” Conversely, had Hitler died in 1939 and World War II never happened, few today would bother to condemn Hollywood’s relationship with the Nazi regime. As the Holocaust never would have happened, the moral stakes of the film industry’s appeasement of the Third Reich would have been far lower. In other words, although we always reinterpret the past in light of subsequent events, Urwand’s importation of a post-Holocaust perspective, while understandable, somewhat impedes his analysis.”


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