Melinda Henneberger: Ken Burns Holocaust documentary makes it harder to kid ourselves about U.S. culpability

From the commentary: Maybe our current slide into fascism won’t continue; we don’t know yet, and the answer will be up to us. But we do have reason to believe that “America First,” means essentially the same thing to My Pillow’s Mike Lindell that it did to Charles Lindbergh.

People visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC on Feb. 26, 2020.
People visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC on Feb. 26, 2020.
Eric Baradat/AFP/TNS
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Those who think we should tell only happy stories about America will not want to watch the new PBS Ken Burns documentary, “ The U.S. and the Holocaust .”

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History majors like Yale and Harvard Law grad Ron DeSantis , the Florida governor who hijacks asylum seekers for his own amusement, and Stanford and Yale Law grad Josh Hawley , the Missouri senator who authored the “Love America Act,” know just how dangerous knowledge of the past can be.

But even when unacknowledged, history won’t stay in its box in the attic , and in fact acts out with particular flamboyance when ignored.

So no, you will not be able to watch this new three-part series by Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein without seeing that the antisemitism and anti-immigrant fever that made it possible for so many Americans to ignore reality, dismiss news accounts and even sympathize with the Nazis did not begin or end with Adolf Hitler.

I can’t guarantee that you will be able to listen to Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s 1895 anti-immigrant poem, “ Unguarded Gates, ” — “O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well/To leave the gates unguarded?” — without also hearing Donald Trump , who himself believes that it was the way he talked about and treated Mexicans and Muslims that won him the White House.


“The U.S. and the Holocaust” shows how our xenophobic 1924 law imposing new immigration quotas that favored the white and the Protestant — and tragically, made no exception for refugees — delighted Hitler. He probably needed some cheering up, reading about it as he did in the prison cell where he was serving time for treason after leading a failed coup.

Later, our Jim Crow laws and widespread beliefs about “ defectives ” became both a model and a “who are you to criticize?” defense for the Nazis. Hitler saw the mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe as a continuation of what we had done to the Native Americans we murdered or sequestered in reservations as we “settled” the American West.

In 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor after both causing and capitalizing on the chaos, convincing Germans that civil war was imminent. More mainstream conservatives assumed he’d moderate once in power, and, in any case, would prove malleable.

During his first 100 days in office, newspapers in this country ran some 3,000 accounts of attacks on German Jews. And how did the American public respond? With indifference, willed ignorance, and in some cases, worry about what could be done without “inflaming” Hitler. Even some Jewish friends of President Franklin Roosevelt told him they worried that he might only make things worse by speaking out. He didn’t speak out.

A 1938 poll asked Americans whether they thought the persecution of Jews in Germany was their own fault. Two-thirds of respondents said yes, it was either partly or entirely on them.

Slide into fascism

The U.S. was not, of course, the only democracy that looked away. Even after the violence of Kristallnacht in November of 1938, FDR was the only world leader to withdraw his ambassador from Berlin.

The next year, as Hitler spoke openly about the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe,” the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion lobbied against the plan to admit 10,000 child refugees. In 1941, the U.S. made it even harder for those trying to flee the Nazis to make it to America.

“If I had my way,” North Carolina Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds said in June of that year, “I would today build a wall about the U.S. so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.” This wasn’t all talk; he also started a group dedicated to hunting down undocumented immigrants.


Richard L. Wilson , the Pulitzer-winning chief Washington correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reported that Reynolds seemed to enjoy what we now call “triggering the libs.”

“‘Excuse me if I laugh,’ said Sen. Reynolds in reply to the accusations of fascist tendencies that liberals are bringing against him,” Wilson wrote.

Word of death camps neither opened our minds nor softened our hearts. Among those who knew best what was happening, Holocaust historian and ambassador Deborah Lipstadt says in the documentary, “the mantra was, we’ll rescue those people by winning the war.”

By the time that happened, most of those we might have saved were already dead. But “the dominant idea in the American government is, any act of rescue will be a diversion from the war effort. Both could have been done at the same time. But clearly, nobody wanted those people.”

The administration didn’t want American soldiers to know too much about the camps, historian Rebecca Erbelding tells us, out of fear “they won’t fight as hard if they’re really being sent to save the Jews.”

We all know how the story ends: The U.S., together with our allies, saved the world from the Nazis. But we also failed to save even those Jews we might have brought out alive by bombing the railway lines into Auschwitz.

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And after the war was over, only 5% of Americans said we should allow more refugees into the U.S. than we had before the war. A third thought we should let in fewer.

The scorching final moments of the six-hour series show events that not even participants would claim are well behind us now.


They include images of the torch-carrying Charlottesville mob shouting, “Jews will not replace us” in 2017, and of of the murderous 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A montage of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol shows a man in a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.

Maybe our current slide into fascism won’t continue; we don’t know yet, and the answer will be up to us. But we do have reason to believe that “ America First, ” means essentially the same thing to My Pillow’s Mike Lindell that it did to Charles Lindbergh.

“The fragility of civilized behavior is the one thing you really learn” from history, says the writer Daniel Mendelsohn, best known for his book, “The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million.” The World War II-era Germans in fading photographs, “they’re no different — no different — from us. You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaners, the waiters in the restaurant, that’s who these people were. Don’t kid yourself.”

This documentary makes it a little harder to kid ourselves.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. This commentary is her opinion. Send feedback to:

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