“The US And The Holocaust”: Perfect Timing, But View With Care

Has an eagerly-anticipated prestige television project ever been so perfectly timed as  PBS’s Ken Burns documentary, “The US and the Holocaust,” which began last night with “The Golden Door” (Beginnings-1938)? I can’t think of any. Burns is either lucky, diabolical, or psychic. He is also, like all documentary makers, political, and so is his work. Burns still deserves praise for restraint: though “The US and the Holocaust” can be accused of subtly (and occasionally blatantly) advancing Democratic Party and progressive talking points, it also can be used to support opposing positions as well.

The legitimacy of either exercise is debatable, and will be a great debate topic. True, history repeats itself, but context and details matter. As I watched the first episode of Burns’ opus last night, I felt myself being drowned in striking analogies, many of them seductive and likely to be abused. There is so much summarized history and and so many factoids in just the first episode of this epic that it’s impossible to know when one is getting the truth, sort of the truth, part of the truth, intentionally-manipulated facts, cherry-picked data, ideologically motivated propaganda, or objective, fair analysis. Checking the series would take any individual at least as long as the years it took Burns and his team to make it. I got chills a few times thinking about how completely the typical PBS Democrat would swallow everything that was said last night whole, responding with a hearty, “Yum yum!The most obvious parallel that really isn’t a parallel? Just as pro-illegal immigration fanatics (aka Democrats) are fuming over The Horror of illegal immigrants being deposited at the metaphorical doorsteps of grandstanding “sanctuary cities” and communities, forcing them to, as the saying goes, put up or shut up, Burns hits our TV screens with this, as described by PBS’s marketing department: “After decades of maintaining open borders, a xenophobic backlash prompts Congress to pass its first laws restricting immigration. Meanwhile, in Germany, Hitler and the Nazis begin their persecution of Jewish people, causing many to try to flee to neighboring countries or America.”

Other facts that can’t avoid pinging ethics alarms: I had almost forgotten about the U.S.’s repatriation and deportation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans between 1929 and 1939. It is easy to sympathize with the imposition of stricter immigration policies when so many Americans were suddenly out of work, but 40-60% of the those forcibly sent to Mexico by Republican President Herbert Hoover’s draconian policy were American citizens. As usual, FDR fanboy Burns emphasizes that Good Democrat Roosevelt greatly cut back on this policy, but he didn’t end it.

Of course (and I say of course knowing that a lot of people will deny it) comparing the 20s and 30s with the current day is fraught with peril. It’s fine to echo Tolstoy about the “lessons of history,” but those lessons are almost always far more complex than those spouting them will admit. As I listened to Peter Coyote’s carefully modulated dead-pan tones tell one provocative historical tale after another about Hitler’s rise, the deteriorating situation of the Jews, and the response and non-response in the U.S., there were the usual “Holy crap!” revelations as well as a dizzying parade of facts and apparent parallels both sides of the ideological divide could cite or spin. A few examples:

  • Avery Brundage, the Olympics chief who kept the Olympics going after Palestinian terrorists murdered the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Munich Olympics, was also in charge when the Olympics allowed Hitler’s Germany was allowed to host both the Winter and Summer Games in 1936, even as the Nazi persecution of Jews was well underway. This was a massive gift to Nazi public relations. Brundage, we are told, was a Nazi sympathizer.

Where was it that the most recent Olympics were held? Oh, right. China.

  • Hitler specifically cited the U.S.’s Westward expansion as the template for his planned eastward push to displace “the inferior races” in Poland and the Soviet Union, just as the U.S. had swept away the Native American tribes.
  • The Nazis looked to the Southern U.S.’s Jim Crow laws as models for its Nuremberg laws.
  • In the years approaching World War II, many U.S. corporations discriminated against Jewish executive and employees in order to develop business relationship with Germany. (What US corporations have ostentatiously sucked up to China?)
  • Hollywood studios gave Germany virtual veto power over film scripts and, in some cases, casting. Again, the China parallels are striking.
  • Coyote’s narration takes a swipe at journalists who were intimidated into reporting on Hitler and the Nazis with “neutrality,” nicely bolstering current journalist arguments that covering “both sides” is irresponsible journalism.
  • Hitler’s Nazi principles called for a single party and unanimous agreement on political goals, means and principles. Dissenters were denounced as threats to the health and safety of the nation. Sounds familiar, somehow….
  • Meanwhile, when FDR raised the possibility in a speech of using sweeping “executive powers” to deal with the Depression, the crowd cheered wildly. Eleanor wrote that their apparent enthusiasm for a potential dictatorship for the greater good made her “uncomfortable.”
  • The powerful Roosevelt State Department was stocked with anti-Semites, and worked to undermine or counter FDR’s international objectives. That’s odd, since we have been told that the “Deep State” is a recent Right Wing conspiracy theory myth.

And so on. It is a rich, complex and tragic story; Burns is right to tell it, and as always, he tells it well. The challenge to audiences will be to remain skeptical of the lurking agendas, be ready to check facts,  try to separate the right lessons from the propaganda, and to fight the temptation to accept, or make, bad analogies.

17 thoughts on ““The US And The Holocaust”: Perfect Timing, But View With Care

  1. I’m still not sure I want to watch this.

    * I just learned about the deportation of Mexican-Americans during the Depression in a book I read last week on Company E, 141st regiment, the only Mexican-American Army during WWII.
    * Avery Brundage was played by Jeremy Irons in the excellent movie “Race”
    * There’s a good documentary narrated by Gene Hackman called “Hollywood and the Holocaust” that addresses how Tinseltown didn’t want to lose all those movie-loving German marks. The comparison to the industry’s current behavior with China is apt.
    * Gustave Gilbert, the Nuremburg Court psychologist tried to point out that eradicating an entire group of people is not how one morally expands one’s nation. Goering reportedly quipped that they should go ask the (American) Indians about that.

  2. I had to read the post to figure out what the all-numeric title meant — evidently, a reference to the serial numbers tattooed on the arms of concentration camp prisoners. Was that specific number the number assigned to anyone in particular?

  3. The 41-volume Dillingham Report produced in 1911 was the base document that led to the Immigration Restriction Act OF 1924. The Dillingham report was based on the “science of eugenics”. Principally it restricted immigration from southern Europe ( Italy) and the Balkans deeming those people to be indolent and morally corrupt. Its data also fueled the ravaging anti-Catholic bigotry that led to the defeat of the first Catholic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith. Just wanted to add that to the conversation of the new documentary.

      • Well, you know, those were just laws against orientals, not like it was real immigration.

        That sounds like they think this was the first instance of xenophobia here in the U.S.

        In fact, we have a long history. Weren’t Germans actually first? Then the Irish, then Italians, Catholics weaving in and out all the time, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern Europeans, more recently Vietnamese, Communists, Muslims. I’m sure I’ve missed some.

        But what we’ve also tended to do: Take the Irish as an example. First we discriminated against them, didn’t like them, didn’t want them around. Then they started insinuating their way into our society, grabbed power (political and other) when and as they could. Ultimately they got melted into our pot, and they could begin muttering about and discriminating against the new wave of immigrants. Yep, they’d graduated to being full fledged Americans……

        OK, all sarcasm aside (except that that cycle is real).

        One of the problems with that statement from the documentary is that

        1)The immigration laws were enacted prior to the Nazis taking power.
        2)The quotas that were set up favored European nations such as Germany (that now had the ‘good’ immigrants).
        3)It wasn’t the immigration quota that kept Jews out of the U.S. We seldom filled our quota for Germany during the 30s and 40s.
        4)It was active intervention by anti-semites in the State Department that put up major barriers to Jews emigrating to the U.S. (as well as a reluctance to leave Germany until it was too late).
        5)Jewish leadership in the U.S. was very reluctant to criticize the Roosevelt administration because they supported his other policies and were afraid of a backlash against the Jews.

        I don’t think it was a particularly good era for America, but I also don’t think the immigration laws were specifically or even primarily designed to be anti-semitic. In other words, it was much more the State Department than Congress.

        To sum it up — it was complex.

  4. From a post on powerlineblog, which encapsulates Jack’s reference to how our business community overlooks the abuses in China, but moreso how the march towards these events grow before our eyes; antifa, communism, and perhaps most glaring because of its intensity, the holocaust all start with calling your opponents evil and not worthy of dignity – yet those on the receiving end don’t think it could be that way until it’s too late :

    “Democratic societies demonstrated on this occasion as on many others, before and after, that they are incapable of understanding political regimes of a different character….Democratic societies are accustomed to think in liberal, pragmatic categories; conflicts are believed to be based on misunderstandings and can be solved with a minimum of good will; extremism is a temporary aberration, so is irrational behavior in general, such as intolerance, cruelty, etc. The effort needed to overcome such basic psychological handicaps is immense….Each new generation faces this challenge again, for experience cannot be inherited.”


  5. Burns hits our TV screens with this, as described by PBS’s marketing department:
    “After decades of maintaining open borders, a xenophobic backlash prompts Congress to pass its first laws restricting immigration. Meanwhile, in Germany, Hitler and the Nazis begin their persecution of Jewish people, causing many to try to flee to neighboring countries or America.”

    The diminutive furry documentarian K. Burns really understands the way to subtly pleasure democrats. He is quite adept at locating, followed by some well executed stimulation, of the common proglibot’ pleasure centers. It is no wonder he is so popular. Plus, there will most certainly be a measurable uptick in proglibot sex during and following this particular Burns series. Indeed, he is the master…

  6. What most are missing is that the xenophobic Dillingham Report was initiated under Wilson, a Democrat who was anti-Semitic, anti-catholic, well anti anybody that did not fall into the WASP category. Coolidge, a Republican, executed the anti-immigration laws because of his isolationist stance.
    As others have said it is a complicated issue. When I teach about the Reformation I point out that its history is not straightforward so to understand it is like unraveling the Gordian Knot. The same metaphor can be applied to this issue as well.

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