An anti-Nazi protest in America, seen in "The U.S. and The Holocaust."
An anti-Nazi protest in America, seen in "The U.S. and The Holocaust."

Ken Burns’ Holocaust series reminds us we are an anti-immigrant nation

“What did we know and when did we know it? And what did we do about it?” The United States notoriously failed to do all it could to help Jews escape Nazi Europe, deflecting and denying, ignoring or lying about reports of Jewish genocide. “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a provocative new six-hour, three-part PBS docuseries by filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, captures the nuances of this history.

The series asks us: Does society have an ongoing need for an authoritarian leader? Watching the scenes of Hitler speaking to adoring crowds at rallies reminded me not only of the cult-like adulation for the 45th president of the United States, but also of the adoration of the late Queen Elizabeth II. This last week, the media bombarded viewers with nonstop images of hundreds of thousands of people lining up to shake the hands of Britain’s royal family or pay their respects to the late Queen.

“The U.S. and the Holocaust” is replete with historians, vivid personal stories, archival footage and photos, newsreels and newspaper articles. Eminent Holocaust scholars such as Michael Berenbaum, Peter Hayes and Deborah Lipstadt provide historical commentary. The viewer sees history unfolding as interpreted by the people who experienced it. Enough primary sources are cited to satisfy even the most demanding university professor.

I certainly could have used this well-researched, engaging series in the Holocaust course I used to teach at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. Several segments would have complemented the topics presented throughout the 15-week semester.

The image of the Statue of Liberty serves as a leitmotif, providing coherence to one of the major takeaways from the series: There is a difference between the narrative of what we, the United States, say to ourselves and what our actions convey about us.

The titles of Part 1 (“The Golden Door”), Part 2 (“Yearning to Breathe Free”) and Part 3 (“The Homeless, Tempest-Tossed”) are lines from Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus’s 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus.” Cast on a bronze plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the sonnet describes us as having an open-door policy, beckoning the world’s cast-off refuse.

As the film documents, the reality is that we are a nation of anti-immigrants, both during the Holocaust and now. The docuseries thoroughly establishes the anti-immigration attitudes of the American people at the time. It cites not only legislation limiting immigration, but also public opinion polls, politicians’ actions and inactions responding to those polls and the lack of any consistent support of Jews by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a U.S. State Department permeated with antisemitic personnel.

The series documents the rise of antisemitism and fascism as Hitler ascends to power, echoed in present times by the Charlottesville march of antisemites chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”  Footage of Charlottesville in the series urges us to wonder, “Have we learned anything from the history of the Holocaust?” As Deborah Lipstadt, the famed Holocaust scholar who now serves as the Biden administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, points out, the best time to prevent genocide is before it happens.

Ken Burns speaking at the Library of Congress in 2019 (Photo/Shawn Miller-Library of Congress)
Ken Burns speaking at the Library of Congress in 2019 (Photo/Shawn Miller-Library of Congress)

What I liked best about the docuseries is the clarity with which issues surrounding the Holocaust are made relevant today. In addition to immigration, Holocaust educators can point to problems such as antisemitism, genocide, and propaganda and fake news, all of which remain issues in the world today.

Other important issues that remain relevant: family separation (remember the Trump administration’s southern border policies), the human need for scapegoats and Hitler’s promise to restore German might, echoed by a much later U.S. president’s vow to “make America great again.”

During the rise of Hitler, Germany failed to keep the democratic Weimar Republic strong. That same issue faces America today. Fragile democratic institutions, especially free and fair elections, are threatened by a vocal and violent minority. The docuseries brings home to the viewer that democracy demands work.

Historian Timothy Snyder reminds us that the people who brought Hitler to power wanted to do away with democracy. The Weimar Republic had been incapable of dealing with all the social ills plaguing Germany as a result of its defeat in World War I and the subsequent worldwide depression.

Two months after Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, he bullied the Reichstag into granting him absolute powers by passing the Enabling Act on March 23. It was signed into law the same day by President Paul von Hindenburg, who secretly despised Hitler and thought he could be contained. Anyone watching cannot help but connect history with today’s far-right politicians who secretly despise Trump, but support him publicly.

A balanced review should include any negatives. I can think of none; as a Holocaust educator, I give the series my highest recommendation.

Miriam Zimmerman
Miriam Zimmerman

Miriam Zimmerman is professor emerita at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, where she taught the Holocaust course for 25 years.