The U.S. and the Holocaust
Ken Burns’ most important work
Bryan Zepp Jamieson
October 8, 2022
Over the past 30+ years, Ken Burns has established himself as America’s premier documentarian. His signature style (vivid voiceovers describing an amazing array of images and videos from the people and times described) combined with meticulous proofing and great curation has created a national film library of inestimable value.
His most recent, The U.S. and the Holocaust, is unequivocally his most important. The three-part six-hour production focuses on the rise of Nazism in Germany, the war years themselves, and the searing, bloody wreckage Hitler and his ghouls left behind.
The focus is on the role of America during the years 1932-1945: what was known about Hitler’s extermination of millions, Jews being the greatest number, what America tried to do about it, what was actually done about it, what could have been done about it, and how we responded as the horrors of the camps were made visceral and undeniable.
A lot of people are going to take that as America-bashing, but Burns makes it crystal clear right from the outset that, poor as the American response was to Hitler and his crimes, it was the best from amongst what later came to be known as the Allied Nations.
Burns doesn’t try to justify the poor response, but he breaks it down into its constituent parts, and explains why the response was so poor.
Some of it was economic pressure brought to bear by Germany, which then was much more powerful than the United States. One of the most striking examples was Hollywood, which bowed to German warnings that “unsuitable” movies that disparaged the German government would be banned in Germany and as a result, no movie mentioned Hitler’s treatment of the Jews until after war had been declared. And yes, Burns mentions (although not by name) that some of the major Hollywood figures behind this were, themselves, Jewish. Similarly, a lot of papers downplayed the growing persecutions in Germany, although the source of pressure was domestic; papers had readers who didn’t want a bunch of immigrants polluting their culture and stealing their jobs. They didn’t want war. And they didn’t care about Jews.
Propaganda played a role, as well. Tailored for American consumption, the tales woven featured a beleaguered nation fighting a depression and inflation and being undercut by domestic enemies and vilified by the vengeful victors of the Great War. People were willing to accept that some excesses could be excused in the name of national self-defense.
America has always had a powerful fascist movement, one supported and financed by the richest segment of America, the industrialists (the polite word for plutocrats) and filled out by the dispossessed, the frustrated, the ignorant and the hateful. They coalesced in massive numbers around the America First Committee, the face of which was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. He became the face of American isolationism, saying at one point that the sinister figures “pressing this country toward war;” [were] “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration” Unlike many of the openly antisemitic people in his following, Lindbergh had a modicum of decency, saying “It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany.” Unfortunately, he went on to say, “But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”
Hitler had one tactic that worked with the west as well as with his own people: he played on the decent but often misguided will of people to disbelieve in true horrors, to expect better of people. Even with ample evidence, few people guessed within a magnitude the true scale of Hitler’s atrocities.
Once the war was joined, allied opportunities to save millions from Hitler’s depredations were limited. Roosevelt and Churchill surmised (correctly in my opinion) that the only way to stop Hitler would be through the utter destruction of the Third Reich. The existence (if not the horrific scale) of the death camps in Poland was known to the allies after D-Day, when it became physically possible to bomb the camps, but “precision bombing,” a fiction today, was a complete fantasy back then, when only about 20% of the bombs landed within a mile of their intended target. And to paraphrase a later murderous folly, it wasn’t possible to bomb the prisoners in order to save them.
Burns pulls no punches, and the six hours are grim and horrific. But it’s very important, and every adult and child over the age of 10 should see it. There’s a reason Nazis and white nationalists are so disgusting and so widely hated.
While it’s important to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, especially with so many scumbags trying to pretend it never happened, one of the most disturbing elements is the eerie parallels to the present day. There are murderous right wing monsters on the loose (yes, I’ll include Donald Trump by name) and there are plutocrats willing to fund and defend such monsters in the belief they can control them once in power. There are jackbooted street thugs threatening teachers, poll workers, school boards and any other element of a functioning democracy, trying to tear democracy down with lies and fear. There are churches, including the Catholic Church, willing to ride a rising tide of human sewage to power. And there is the race-baiting. The main targets are Muslims and immigrants, but Jews, intellectuals, leftists and the disabled are on the list of people today’s fascists think America would be better off without.
The parallels are obvious in the first episode, but Burns deftly lets them present themselves, unremarked upon. He makes the similarities between brownshirts and MAGA, and the world-wide rise of fascism more obvious in the third and final episodes.
He isn’t wrong. He isn’t exaggerating. Take his warning to heart.
Now available free for streaming at https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/us-and-the-holocaust/