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Book on Hitler and Hollywood Published by Harvard University Press Elicits Criticism

By Daniel R. Levine and Ivan B. K. Levingston, Contributing Writers

A recent book written by Ben A. Urwand, a junior fellow at the University, and published by Harvard University Press elicited a storm of contention within the past week on its claims about Hollywood and Hitler.

Urwand, who is in the last year of his fellowship with the Society of Fellows, has been criticized for making unsubstantiated claims that Hollywood film studios actively colluded with the Nazis to promote propaganda.

In addition to attacking Urwand’s book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” critics have questioned Harvard University Press’s review process.

In a blog post, New Yorker critic David Denby called Urwand’s work “recklessly misleading” and expressed his surprise that “Harvard University Press could have published anything as poorly argued as Urwand’s book.”

Urwand and representatives of Harvard University Press did not return emails from The Crimson, but a statement on the Press website defended the organization’s peer review process, stating, “We stand by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures…[We] take very seriously the imprimatur of the University’s name.” The website also stated that five scholars engaged in a “rigorous review process.”

The word collaboration was a focal point of debate, according to Urwand.

“Collaboration is a word that had been used from the very beginning,” Urwand said in a video interview on the Press website. “The studios worked with the Nazis on the movies, which were screened all around the world all the way through the 1930s.”

Thomas Doherty, film professor at Brandeis University and author of “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939,” pushed back against Urwand’s characterization of Hollywood as collaborating with the Nazis.

“The word collaboration evokes an active alliance with the Nazis in World War II. It’s totally out of line with how Hollywood did business in the 1930s,” Doherty said.

He added that Hollywood’s goal in the 1930s was  “100 percent acceptability. They didn’t want to alienate any customer no matter if you were a KKK member or a communist they didn’t want to offend you.”

The overall content and historical methods of the book, which allege that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer  financed the production of German armaments before World War II began, have also been subjects of controversy.

James L. Hoberman, a Harvard visiting professor of visual and environmental studies who is currently working on his own review of Urwand’s and Doherty’s books, also objected to Urwand’s characterization of the period.

“I found his characterization of Hollywood to be extremely monolithic,” Hoberman said. “He seemed surprisingly insensitive to the cultural climate in the United States in the 1930s.”

Yet, Hoberman found strength in Urwand’s research.

“I found the material from the German archives—the censorship discussions, the reviews that movies got in German press, Hitler’s personal taste—this was all very interesting to me,” Hoberman said. “It was not something that I was aware of as someone who knows something about the period and the issues.”

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