Should Hollywood Lie Low or Sound the Alarm? ‘Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939’

“Excerpted from Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (footnotes omitted), by Thomas Doherty. Copyright © 2013 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.” No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.



Hollywood first confronted Nazism when a mob of brownshirts barged into a motion picture theater and trashed a film screening—a resonant enough curtain-raiser, if a bit heavy-handed on symbolism.

On December 4, 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Universal Pictures’ spectacular screen version of the international best seller by Erich Maria Remarque, premiered at the Mozart Hall, a showpiece venue in Berlin, the true capital of the Weimar Republic, the democratic federation founded in 1920 and hanging on by a slim thread ten years later. The antiwar epic was the first must-see film, not starring Al Jolson, of the early sound era. Only a few years earlier, Jolson had shattered the mute solemnity of the silent screen with the soulful racket of The Jazz Singer (1927), a technological marvel and cultural bellwether about an ethnic, religious, and racial chameleon—a Jewish boy in blackface—who hits the big time in America, actually becomes American, by singing jazz and shaking his hips on the Broadway stage.

Only the clash of ignorant armies filled the soundtrack of All Quiet on the Western Front. Directed by Lewis Milestone, a Russian-born veteran of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the somber death march kept faith with Remarque’s bitter perspective on the Great War, a wrenching tale of blithe cannon fodder led to the slaughter by dreams of glory and the lies of cynical old men. The film won top honors from a professional guild founded just two years earlier, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, garnering a pair of trophies not yet dubbed Oscar for Best Director and Best Production.

Remarque’s sentiments were shared by most of the people so lately in each other’s crosshairs: the real enemy was war, not Germany, England, or France, still less the United States, a tardy combatant who had emerged from the bloodbath relatively unscathed, the body count for its entire hitch in service not matching the deaths suffered by the British, French, and Germans at the Somme, or Verdun, or Pachendale. With a presold story and a heartfelt message, the international market for what critics and audiences alike hailed as a cinematic masterpiece seemed auspicious, nowhere more so than in Germany, the war-ravaged home of the author.

Yet since the January 1929 publication of Remarque’s novel, a bildungsroman steeped in the antiwar atmospherics of the Weimar Republic, a rival zeitgeist had swept over Germany. Led by a former corporal on the Western front, the most extreme of the right-wing militarist groups continued to fight for a noble cause lost only because the gallant warriors had been stabbed in the back by the Armistice of November 11, 1918, and crushed underfoot by the Versailles Treaty. For the Nazis, the Great War remained a festering wound and a powerful recruitment tool. The party’s paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (storm troopers, or S.A.)—street thugs known by the brown color of their uniform—stood ready to do battle, Armistice or not.

Anticipating a turbulent reception in Germany, Universal tried to head off trouble by soliciting prior clearance from Baron Otto von Hentig, the German consul general in San Francisco, who flew down to Los Angeles for a private screening at Universal Pictures. Under his editorial guidance, and with the approval of the German Chargé d’Affaires in Washington, D.C., Universal prepared a special print for German release, sanitizing the stench of life in the trenches—the foul mud, the rancid food, the vulgar griping—and muting the antiwar rhetoric, notably a patch of dialogue blaming the Kaiser for the war. On November 22, 1930, given the go-ahead from the foreign office, the German censors in Berlin cleared All Quiet on the Western Front for exhibition in the nation that had inspired the source material.

The first public screening in Berlin augured well. Mirroring the reactions of American, British, and French audiences, the opening-night crowd at the Mozart Hall watched in quiet reverie. After all, like the book, the film was a deeply German story: of a patriotic young Gymnasium student, blazing with fervor for the Fatherland, who marches into carnage, disillusionment, and ultimately, inevitably, death, felled by a sniper’s bullet as he reaches over a parapet to touch a fluttering butterfly. The final image plays taps for the dead on all sides: a double exposure of fresh-faced, smiling recruits, looking back into the camera, not accusingly, just oblivious to what awaits them, over a field of graveyard crosses.

When the lights came up, the Berliners sat still for a long moment, as if shell-shocked, “too stirred and moved to either disapprove or applaud,” according to a Hollywood reviewer in the crowd. A beat later, the patrons filed out in stricken silence. A relieved reporter for the Film Daily, the New York–based trade paper, cabled back an optimistic prediction to the home office. “Considerable interest and apprehension has been aroused over the picture due to its war theme, but it does not appear likely that any untoward demonstrations will result.”

A film for the ages: a German solder (Lew Ayres) and a dying French
soldier (Raymond Griffith) share a night in a bomb crater in Universal
Pictures’ antiwar epic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), directed
by Lewis Milestonefrom the novel by Erich Maria Remarque

In fact, the first day’s screening was uneventful; the police, tipped off to the potential for violence, had come out in force. The next day, however, the authorities let down their guard, or perhaps looked away. Led by Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, the media impresario for the Nazi Party, a cadre of burly brownshirts had infiltrated the theater’s interior. As the film unspooled, the Nazis stood up and howled invective at the screen, railing against the perfidy of the Hollywood Jews who had bankrolled this slur on German honor. Above the din, a shrill epithet rang out. “Judenfilm!” screeched Goebbels. “Judenfilm!” Along with the rhetoric, other noxious elements—stink bombs and sneezing powder—permeated the air, and white mice, released at the same time, scurried down the aisles. As patrons gagged and women stood on their seats screaming, the management was forced to stop the show and clear the house. Amid the chaos, several moviegoers, taken for Jews by the brownshirts, were savagely beaten.

“Within ten minutes, the cinema was a madhouse,” Goebbels gloated in his diary that night. “The police are powerless. The embittered masses are violently against the Jews.” Over the next evenings, Goebbels mounted a series of nighttime rallies and torchlit parades to protest All Quiet on the Western Front. Assembling in the nearby Nollendorf Plaza, hordes of brownshirts, with Goebbels in the lead, descended on the Mozart Hall and demanded that the theater doors be shuttered and the film print destroyed.

As similar riots erupted across Germany, Dr. Alfred Hugenburg, owner of Ufa, Germany’s flagship motion picture studio, beseeched President Paul von Hindenburg, the geriatric leader of the wheezing Weimar Republic, to revoke the permit for exhibition issued by the German film censors. The German Motion Picture Theater Owners passed a resolution refusing to exhibit All Quiet on the Western Front and regretting “exceedingly that Carl Laemmle, a German-American, should present, twelve years after the war, a war film in which the German version differs from those shown throughout the world.” That is, after insisting on alterations in the original American version for the German release, the Germans now objected to the alterations.

Carl Laemmle, president and founder of Universal Pictures, was indeed a native son of Germany, but his national heritage was not the problem. Born in 1867 in the municipality of Laupheim, in the blue Danube district of Württemberg, Germany, he was the son of precariously bourgeois Jewish merchants, Julius and Rebekka Laemmle. At seventeen, he immigrated to America to live out a scenario scripted by Benjamin Franklin: up the ladder a rung at a time, working hard, living modestly, and keeping an eye out for the main chance, rising from $4-a-week messenger, to clerk, to store manager, to store owner. In 1906, Laemmle moved to Chicago with plans to invest his savings in a five-and-dime store—until he noticed a long line of customers, nickels in hand, waiting to enter a storefront to gawk at the entertainment revolution launched with the new century.

Opening his own nickelodeon, Laemmle got in on the ground floor of a business that would never again be small change. As an exhibitor, he needed a reliable film broker, so he expanded into distribution. As a distributor, he needed a steady stream of product, so he moved into production—financing his own films and fighting the monopolistic film trusts that controlled the supply chain. In 1912, flush with an infusion of cash from a white-slavery exposé entitled Traffic in Souls (1912), he transferred his operation to the city soon to become synonymous with the budding industry, opening the first Universal Pictures in an old brewery on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. On March 15, 1915, he expanded the operation to a 230-acre lot in the San Fernando Valley and christened the grounds Universal City—already declaring his global aspirations for the universal medium.

As Laemmle built his American dream factory, he maintained warm kinship ties and close commercial links with his native Germany, frequently vacationing there and mixing business and pleasure with his extended family. In 1920, returning to Germany for the first time since the Great War, he was heartsick at the appalling destitution in a once prosperous land. Taking to the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, he made impassioned pleas for the fortunate people of America to relieve the sufferings of the stricken people of Germany. “Possibly many of you haven’t forgotten the war and maybe some hatred still lingers in your hearts, yet it is an American trait to forget and forgive, to soften and sympathize, when real distress steps over the threshold,” he wrote, imploring his readers to give aid and comfort to their former enemy—not the bestial Hun leering from the Great War propaganda posters but fellow human beings in desperate need of relief. “Will you send me any kind of help you can afford—food, clothing, hats, shoes, money?” he begged. “All the employees of Universal are contributing and weekly we are sending cases of supplies to Germany.” Laemmle paid the shipping costs for the donations out of his own pocket.

A product of late-nineteenth-century Germany, Laemmle was a generation and a culture removed from the newer Jewish arrivals in Hollywood, descendants of Eastern European and Russian Jews mostly, who occupied the executive suites of his rivals at Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, and Fox. An avuncular figure known—universally—as “Uncle Carl,” he had a weakness for the ponies (he was a regular at the racetrack at Santa Anita) and poker (he wryly described himself as “the unluckiest poker player in the United States,” knowing how lucky he was in other ways). If Laemmle adhered to any stereotype, it was the stock image of the kindly German burgher—white-haired, well-fed, and warm-hearted.

The Focus, Sharpened

The idea for a motion picture version of All Quiet on the Western Front was the brainchild of his son, Carl Laemmle Jr., known as “Junior Laemmle” around town, whom Laemmle Senior appointed as head of production for Universal in 1929 when his son was just twenty-one years old. Both Laemmles visited Germany that year to negotiate the film rights with Remarque and to reassure the wary author that the Hollywood version would remain true to the spirit of the book. On the centrality of the antiwar theme, father, son, and author were all on the same page. “The picture will bring home the useless wastefulness of war,” declared Laemmle Senior, pledging to infuse the film with “the spirit that moved so many to read the volume.”

Laemmle Jr. was even more emphatic. Having botched his first big assignment as executive producer, a film version of the hit play Broadway (1929), by meddling with the original formula, he resolved not to make the same mistake with the more valuable screen property. “It gave me the courage to okay All Quiet exactly as written, when that seemed an utterly foolhardy and iconoclastic thing to do,” he recalled in 1932. “There was no love story in All Quiet, and none was added. Its success shattered the legend that no picture can succeed without love interest. At least that’s one less picture taboo.” To the Laemmles, the project was more than a commercial investment. “If there is anything in my life I am proud of, it is this picture,” the elder Laemmle told his associates at the Universal Sales Convention in 1930. “It is, to my mind, a picture that will live forever.”

“Uncle Carl”: Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle in 1927,
visiting a child with polio, the first patient convalescing in a room
donated to the Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital by the
employees of Universal in Laemmle’s honor.
Laemmle brought along a radio set for the boy.

Genuinely shocked by the uproar in Germany, Laemmle responded from Hollywood with a 1,000-word cable published as a paid advertisement in the German newspapers. Still eloquent in his native tongue, he asserted that the film, like the book, in no way insulted Germany. “The real heart and soul of Germany has never been shown to the world in all its fineness and honor as it is shown in this picture,” Laemmle wrote. “The civilized world, outside of Germany, has seen [All Quiet on the Western Front] and accepted it as anything but anti-German. If you, the German people say it is not all I claim for it, I shall withdraw it from exhibition in Germany. I yield to no one in my love for the Fatherland. The fact that I came to America as a boy and built my future in America has never for a moment caused any cessation of my love for the land of my birth.” He expressed amazement “that a film which has done more to create friendship for Germany than any other single agency since the War, should receive an adverse reception in Berlin.”

In truth, the adverse reception was not confined to Berlin. In Vienna, the training ground for the man spearheading the movement, the Nazis incited an even more tumultuous scene when All Quiet on the Western Front premiered at the Apollo Theater. A cordon of 1,500 police surrounded the theater to beat back a mob of several thousand Nazis determined to halt the screening. Here too stink bombs—concealed in seat cushions—forced an evacuation of the house. After the air was cleared, the show went on, but outside in the streets the mob wreaked havoc, torching streetcars, smashing shop windows, and scuffling with mounted policemen.

Shaken by the civic disorder and terrified of the brownshirts, the Supreme Board of Censors in Germany reversed its original decision and banned All Quiet on the Western Front on the grounds that it was “endangering Germany’s reputation.” Besides, the Germans were reportedly “so depressed by economic adversity and so excited by Nationalistic agitation that further provocation must be avoided.”

With the cancellation of All Quiet on the Western Front, the Nazis had won victories real and symbolic—over the Weimar Republic, exposed as a paper tiger cowed by street violence; over the cultural memory of the Great War, redefined as a patriotic cause sabotaged by enemies within; and over American cinema, branded as an infection spread by Hollywood Jews. “All of this indicates that films are now in politics for good as far as Germany is concerned,” read a postmortem filed by the Foreign Department of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). (The edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front was quietly rereleased in Germany in 1931. By then, the film had served its purpose for the Nazis. In 1933, however, the Nazis took special delight in an act of cinematic suppression that was also sweet payback. The single print of All Quiet on the Western Front, still circulating in Germany three years after its historic Berlin premiere, was confiscated by party zealots in Prussia. After protests on behalf of Universal by the U.S. Embassy, the print was deported to Paris.) “The trouble over All Quiet had a tremendous effect in Germany. This of course has little to do with the nature of the film itself. It is simply that the film is the thing that precipitated a fundamental internal conflict within Germany.”

At the production site, the violence in Germany was monitored with mounting anxiety. “This adverse decision has been hailed as a great victory by the National Socialists and their supporters, and has led to a series of other demonstrations against theatrical and film productions to which they take exception,” read a confidential U.S. government report filed in Berlin and passed on to the MPPDA office in New York. In Munich, emboldened Nazis turned to another subversive import from Hollywood, King Vidor’s all-black musical Hallelujah (1929). “The National Socialists claim this is a blow at Germanic civilization,” explained the dispatch, “because it was in the English language and portrayed Negro culture.” More bad news was on the horizon. “There is no doubt that this wave of intense national prejudice, which is now going on, will continue and that any pictures, particularly foreign pictures, which offend the sensibilities of the National Socialists will be a signal for riots and demonstrations.”

In America, Hollywood cinema may have appalled Victorian matrons and bluenose clerics, but it did not incite riots by armed militias. Whether in the cathedral-like expanse of a grand motion picture palace or a cozy seat at the neighborhood Bijou, the movie theater was a privileged zone of safety and fantasy—a place to escape, to dream, to float free from the worries of the world beyond the Art Deco lobby, a world that, in the first cold winter of the Great Depression, was harder and harder to keep at bay. All the more reason to view the Nazi-instigated violence as the desecration of a sacred space.

A few in Hollywood tried to shrug off the vandalism. Hearing that Germany had banned “that splendid film, All Quiet on the Western Front, on account of it showing Germany losing the war,” the cowboy philosopher and motion picture star Will Rogers joshed that the Germans should just tack on a different ending for domestic consumption. “Well, they can show us losing it and they won’t be far wrong, and I am sure there will be no kick,” he drawled.

Unlike the good-humored Rogers, W. R. “Billy” Wilkerson, editor-publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, found nothing funny in the news from Berlin. Introducing a new word to his motion picture-wise but foreign affairs–deficient readership, he fretted over the omens. “Certainly the Nazis—as the National Socialists are called—and their leaders would not create and foster so much dissatisfaction for so puerile a reason,” he pointed out, scoffing at Nazi claims that the film had been maliciously doctored solely for German release. “The real force back of these demonstrations apparently is the revived military spirit of a large part of the German people.” Wilkerson was old enough to remember where German militarism had once led, and he feared it might lead there again. “People cannot be spurred to another war if they see on the screens of the country representations of their armies retreating, of their soldiers going hungry, becoming discouraged, losing their courage at the sight of battle or the imminence of death. Such depictions bring things too close to home.”

Wilkerson, who usually devoted his columns to studio intrigues and box office tallies, concluded his diagnosis of the German psyche with a gloomy prediction:

The military spirit of the German people, created through years of training, is only dormant, not dead. Such a spirit, with centuries of growth behind it, cannot be killed even through such a lesson as the Great War. It is comparatively easy to revive—much easier than one would imagine. But—to revive it successfully, to fan it again into flame, cannot be done if the horrors of war are to be spread before the eyes of the people so dramatically and realistically as in All Quiet.

The Nazis were well off the beat covered by the Film Daily, the Hollywood Reporter, and the rest of the motion picture trade press, but stink bombs, street violence, and death threats incited by American movies were hard to ignore. At first irregularly and glibly, and then more avidly and grimly as the brutality of the regime hit home, Nazism and its featured players garnered banner headlines and copious ink in the pages of Hollywood’s required reading. After January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor of Germany and began his reign as omnipotent führer (another word soon to enter the American vocabulary), geopolitical concerns and moral calculations vied with commercial considerations in Hollywood’s relations with Germany.

Sweeping away a long-standing and mutually profitable bilateral relationship, the Third Reich forced Hollywood to face an unwelcome set of economic, cinematic, and moral problems. As Hollywood films were banned from German screens and Hollywood employees run out of the country, studio executives had to decide whether to cut their losses or bargain with the devil. Inevitably, the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Nazism bled into more public spaces. The terrain of the Hollywood feature film, by long reputation and official billing a fantasyland for the weary masses, a leisure product devoted to “mere entertainment,” became a battleground for fierce political fights. Some Americans wanted Hollywood to indict the Nazis and sound the alarm; others counseled neutrality and aloofness. Even the newsreels, the ostensible screen journalism of the day, were uncertain about whether the Nazis were fit subjects for the news of the day or best left on the cutting-room floor so as not to upset fragile moviegoers.

The first day of the Third Reich: Hitler reviews his brownshirted
Sturmabteilung (“storm troopers”) on January 30, 1933.
S.A. Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm marches directly behind him.

Percolating not too far under the surface of the controversies over trade relations and film content was the issue that for the Nazis over-rode all others. During the trashing of All Quiet on the Western Front, after all, Goebbels and his henchmen had screamed “Judenfilm!” not “Amerikanfilm!” In the streets of Berlin, Jews were Hitler’s preferred victims. In Hollywood, Jews were titans of industry, respected artists, and adored stars. The disproportionately Jewish backgrounds of the executives of the studios and the workers on the payroll shaded reactions to what was never simply a business decision. The term that in the 1920s came to describe the Hollywood studio heads—moguls—had an echo that cut two ways for the strangers in the land of plenty: powerful but alien, exotic transplants not yet firmly rooted in the American soil. A decade of unparalleled prosperity, influence, and visibility for American Jews, the 1930s was also, not coincidentally, a decade of festering antisemitism. On radio, domestic demagogues snarled the medieval slurs and spat out newly coined insults: that Jews were a fifth column in league with godless Bolsheviks, that the reformist New Deal was in fact a nefarious Jew Deal, and that Hollywood was a nest of smut merchants bent on corrupting Christian America with a foul product line. Pro-Nazi outfits like the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts agitated openly for an American-style Reich. Might the virus in Germany jump to America? Should Hollywood’s Jews lie low—or stand tall and denounce their sworn enemy?

Popular histories of the American motion picture industry rhapsodize over the 1930s as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the decade that saw the well-oiled studio system firing on all cylinders, a glitzy machineworks delivering reel after reel of graceful, cheek-to-cheek musicals, sleek screwball comedies, and lavish Technicolor pageants. It is a storied epoch capped by the mother lode struck in the most glittering of all movie years, 1939: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, and on and on.

The list of greatest hits from that vintage year usually omits Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Hollywood’s first marquee posting of a four-letter word that had blackened newspaper headlines since 1933. The story of Hollywood and Nazism—the behind-the-scenes business deals and the images shown and shunned on the screen—is more apt to tarnish than polish the luster of the Golden Age mythos. Yet the motion picture industry was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both. In the nearly seven years between Hitler’s seizure of power and the outbreak of war in Europe, the meaning of Nazism came slowly to Hollywood, like a picture just out of focus—fuzzy and dimly lit at first, sharp and fully outlined only at the end.

Photo by Sandra Doherty

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. His previous books include Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, and Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. He lives with his wife Sandra in Salem, Massachusetts.