We, the People Did Next To Nothing

Ken Burns’s recently released film, The US and the Holocaust, is, as anticipated, an excellent addition to his growing library of documentaries on American culture and history. As the film’s title implies, Burns is delving into the less-investigated role of the American government in responding to the events that became known as the Holocaust. It attempts to mollify Jews and the PBS middle class of pledge donors by offering up example after example of how the US government failed to intervene in the growing humanitarian crisis in a Europe inflamed by Adolf Hitler’s spreading venomous nationalism, as well as painting a picture of indifference from the American public who steadfastly shrugged as reports of atrocities came through that were treated like the ravings of conspiracy theorists.

Holocaust is a 3-part series is told with the usual black-and-white period photos and the informed commentary of historians who use the passive voice. These include Guy Stern, Deborah Lipstadt, Rebecca Erbelding, Eva Geiringer, as well as Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006). The series features interwoven and parallel personal accounts of survivors and their descendants. The story of Otto Frank and his family,including the well-known mythologized narrative of Otto’s daughter, Anne. The soundtrack features dark, poignant string works, especially by Kinan Azmeh, Johnny Gandelsman, and Shanir Blumenkranz (sample the soundtrack here). Peter Coyote narrates. It’s a Ken Burns joint alright.

And the storyline for The US and the Holocaust can be succinctly summed up this way:

Americans consider themselves a “nation of immigrants,” but as the catastrophe of the Holocaust unfolded in Europe, the United States proved unwilling to open its doors to more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge. Through riveting first hand testimony of witnesses and survivors who as children endured persecution, violence and flight as their families tried to escape Hitler, this series delves deeply into the tragic human consequences of public indifference, bureaucratic red tape and restrictive quota laws in America. Did the nation fail to live up to its ideals? This is a history to be reckoned with. [IMDB]

It needs to be reckoned with, indeed. It needs to reckon-balled and freed of its cozy delusions of grandeur.

But Burns never goes for the jugular — the FDR administration’s recalcitrance is protected with references to political realism and there was no teeth for another fight in Europe among Congressmen, and a deeper probe of America’s incipient racism never boils over (although it is repeatedly noted as an inspiration to Hitler’s steady rise to power from 1933, when he was appointed Der Führer to 1945 when he shot himself like an unworthy, mein-mein-mein camp Young Werther). This may be, for some, the most notable flaw in the work of Burns — and PBS in general — the buffering rationality and emphasis on the so-called better angels of our nature, and distancing, and decency. It never gets vulgar or catty.

This distancing from the lousier angels featured in Burns’ last documentary, too, Benjamin Franklin. But it was at odds with the portrait of Ben that I have been drawn to since reading (and reviewing) Ed Asner’s The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right Wing Hypocrites and Nut-Jobs. Ken emphasizes that better angel of Ben, but Asner wants us to know how Ben was seen by his fellow Fathers: “The Life of Dr. Franklin was a scene of continual dissipation” (John Adams). And, the “hard-to-be governed passion of my youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way.” (Ben Franklin). Ken would emphasize the kite and the key and the electricity. That compare/contrast would be enough to see a difference in documentary styles, but then add this from Ed: “The Convention is really an assembly of demigods” (Thomas Jefferson, living a Hunter Biden lifestyle of dissolution in Europe at the time of the Convention). Irrelevant? No, not really. Plutarch’s histories versus Howard Zinn. Mind the gap, is all.

At the end of the series Burns alludes to the events of January 6, 2021, seemingly suggesting that the farce we witnessed, replete with phantasmagorical pizza delivery boys from the QAnon element, was an insurrection on the scale of the brutal Nazis rising to power. Please, pass the bing you’re using, Ken. I see no equivalency. I feel I’m being asked to believe that this guy could head our government one day, if we’re not careful. No, I find that a rising QAnon is not the problem in America. I like Burns’s oeuvre, but let us not honor the growing Banana Republic by slipping on its banana peels of propaganda.

No, what we needed, maybe in a prelude episode, was reference to the growing 19th century anti-semitism in Germany, and how it swelled out of a poisonous teutonic needful pride. Nobody was more outspoken, in a philosophically whispered way, that Friedrich Nietzsche. His antipathy toward Christianity and its weakening of the will is well-known, but what had become of Germany in his time was on his mind a lot. He noted around 1870 that its thinkers and poets had been replaced by beer-guzzling dummkopfs who yawled, “Deutschland uber allees!” — even back then, trading in, as he saw it, a life of mind for one guided by the state. How did Nietzsche put it in Twilight of the Idols?

What the German spirit might be–who has not had his melancholy ideas about that! But this people has deliberately made itself stupid, for nearly a millennium: nowhere have the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity, been abused more dissolutely. Recently even a third has been added–one that alone would be sufficient to dispatch all fine and bold flexibility of the spirit–music, our constipated, constipating German music. [pp. 506-7]

They were one Führer putsch-coming-to-shove away from a 1000-year Reich. Theoretically, they’d already enjoyed a millennium of oompah, stomping stupidity. So, really, we’re looking down the barrel of 2000 years of stupidity, according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche has been seen as having anti-semitic tones; things he’s said; gestures; tics. But, really, he spent a lot of time admiring Jews — Heine and Spinoza were two faves. Nietzsche has often found anti-semites appalling. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes:

I have never yet met a German who was favourably inclined to the Jews; and however decided the repudiation of actual anti-Semitism may be on the part of all prudent and political men, this prudence and policy is not perhaps directed against the nature of the sentiment itself, but only against its dangerous excess, and especially against the distasteful and infamous expression of this excess of sentiment;—on this point we must not deceive ourselves. [p.250]

This curbing of excesses only reminds one of Jim Crow; abuse is fine, but let us be moderate.

Nietzsche’s understanding of the Germans now seems almost prophetic. And he adds in Human, All-Too Human,

…[T]he whole problem of the Jews exists only in nation states, for here their energy and higher intelligence, their accumulated capital of spirit and will, gathered from generation to generation through a long schooling in suffering, must become so preponderant as to arouse mass envy and hatred. In almost all contemporary nations, therefore — in direct proportion to the degree to which they act up nationalistically — the literary obscenity is spreading of leading the Jews to slaughter as scapegoats of every conceivable public and internal misfortune…

[T]hey have had the most painful history of all peoples, not without the fault of all of us, and when one owes to them the noblest man (Christ), the purest sage (Spinoza), the most powerful book, and the most effective moral law in the world…

We owe it to their exertions, not least of all, that a more natural, more rational, and certainly unmythical explanation of the world was eventually able to triumph again, and that the bond of culture which now links us with the enlightenment of Greco-Roman antiquity remained unbroken…Among the spectacles to which the next century invites us is the decision on the fate of the European Jews. [481, pp. 62-63]

And lest he be regarded as naive, even in his own time, Nietzsche does acknowledge a distaste for usurers, citing “the young stock-exchange Jew is altogether the most disgusting invention of mankind,” a point even JC seems to be making when he knocks over the tables of his fellow Jewish money-changers. And even today, nobody shouts anti-semite when Gordon Gecko gets his comeuppance in Wall Street or when Bernie Madoff gets his in prison.

But nobody spoke for the bombastic and bloated national socialism on the rise in Nietzsche’s time better than the brassy Richard Wagner, who Nietzsche would, at first, worship as musical genius, but repudiate over time. Wagner detested Jews. He wrote:

Blood crossings have led to the nobler races being tainted by the ignoble. There is no virtue in, no hope for, any but a “pure” race of which the German could be the shining exemplar if it would only rid itself of the Jews. . . .

The Germans, of course, are by nature the flower of humankind: to fulfill their great destiny they have only to restore their sullied racial purity, or at all events to achieve “a real rebirth of racial feeling.” [Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1974), Walter Kaufmann. p.40]

Nothing could sum up the rampant anti-semitism and racial supremacy of the Germans the turn of the 19th century better than Wagner’s tuba blasts. Talk about Nietzsche Contra Wagner.

Most PBS viewers, like you, won’t have had the background in German politics and history that I touch upon above with Nietzsche and Wagner. Just as few Americans grew up learning about the influence of broad racism, Jim Crow, and restrictive immigration practices on the policies of foreign leaders who viewed such hypocrisy as the dark side of America’s intended manifest destiny. The US and the Holocaust is really about the tightening noose around European Jews — Episode 1 sees a hopeful possibility of a mass exodus of Jews from Europe; Episode 2 sees that hope dwindling quickly as Hitler invades other countries and forces his policies toward Jew on them; and, Episode 3 sees all of Europe as an open prison where they await round-ups and panick-flee and go into hiding.

By the time the US had started taking serious reports of the demise of European Jews, with the FDR administration insisting that it had already taken in 600,000 refugee Jews (“The real refugee number was one third of that,” we’re told.), and polls were taken when action was long overdue. A Gallup poll in the fall of 1944:

Do you believe that Germans are murdering Jews in concentration camps? It runs in The Washington Post. 76% of Americans by that time believe that it’s happening. But then they’re asked the numbers. How many Jews do you think have been killed? And Americans cannot grasp the scale and the scope of the crime. It’s only one in five Americans believe that it’s more than a million Jews who have been murdered. And by that point, it’s more than 5 million.

So that by the time Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower flew in to see the aftermath of the depravity at recently “liberated” Buchenwald for himself, and calling immediately for a Congressional group to visit the site, the horror caused was complete. And at Dachau soon thereafter, Rabbi David Max Eichorn, a sergeant in the US Army, led a memorial service to camp survivors that was pitiable in its futility and dishonesty:

“I say to you that we are proud, very proud to be here. To know that we have had a share in the destruction of the most cruel tyranny of all time.” Morty, did he just say what I thought he said? By this time, the Holocaust was complete.

Episode 1: The Golden Door

Burns employs the familiar story of Anne Frank and her family to open up the series and hook us. We’ll follow the Frank family through each episode, catching up, as it were, on their time-elapsed destruction by the Nazis. Here, we see Edith with her daughters Margaux and Anne in a photo snapped by Otto Frank. The narrator Wokes us:

Otto’s ancestors had lived in Germany since the 16th century. Merchants and bankers, they were not particularly observant Jews. Otto, a proud officer in the Great War, was a patriotic German. But in January of 1933, Adolf Hitler had come to power and everything had begun rapidly to change. Jews, Hitler charged, were parasites, not Germans. Nazi thugs roamed the Frankfurt streets, beating anyone they thought was Jewish.

In any case, the Franks move to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis and eventually make their way to America, but are told, “That most Americans did not want to let them in.”

This is not immediately an evident sentiment you can draw from the title of the series, but Burns makes sure we see it as a guiding motif as we move forward, while events enclose the Jews and cut them off from escape. It’s an effective tension-builder, you might say, that underscores Nazi actions followed by the US response, which is not much.

We begin to learn that Adolph Hitler was a distant and fond admirer of American racial policies — towards Blacks, especially. Turns out that during his years in prison “writing” Mein Kamp (loosely translated: my self pity), Hitler thought Jim Crow was a hoot. Historian Daniel Greene tell us, “Even as the Nazis are writing the Nuremberg laws that stripped Jews of their citizenship in 1935, they’re looking to Jim Crow laws in the United States to understand segregation here.” And the Nazis stick their tongue out at critics of their policies:

Of course, the Nazis will separate folks but won’t worry about the “equality” bit too much.

But it gets worse, and it is tough to handle so early in the series. Burns tells us that eugenics was an idea that was adopted from American racial “pragmatism.” Teddy Roosevelt was a big fan of eliminating bad seeds. He tells us, astonishingly,

I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding. And when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them. (Theodore Roosevelt.)

And the Americans had borrowed the concept of eugenics from the Brits, of sterilizing or castrating undesirables. This would later backfire for them when they insisted on Alan Turing’s chemical castration to “correct” the great scientist’s homosexuality. Turing is considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. (IMHO, we have no one to blame but ourselves if the AIs eventually turn on us. The ever-expanding LGBTIQA+ phenomenon could be a sign and bears vigilance.)

This race superiority theme grew so intense and serious in America that German-born Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology, was approached to accept a commission to establish a study that supported notions of eugenics and racial superiority. The study would take place in the Lower East Side, aka Kleinesdeutschland. “In 1855, New York had the third largest German-speaking population in the world, outside of Vienna and Berlin, and the majority of these immigrants settled in what is today the heart of the East Village,” writes Dana Schulz for 6SquareFeet magazine. But in the new century it became home for all kinds of immigrants, Jews, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, etc.

Inspired by the “scientific racism” found in such popular reads as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Races, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy, the government was looking to avoid a cultural dilution to America’s Way of Life. But Boas and his anthropologists had some bad news for the blue bloods. These sub-groups easily assimilated. And may, in fact, have displayed all the virtues of the American Way — especially multiculturalism. Boas’s data disputed government assumptions; it revealed fascistic prejudices simmering just beneath the surface of public policy. The reader can imagine how a different set of data might have led to purges.

But that didn’t stop the haters. Burns brings in Paul Giamatti to voice over the thesis of the unhappy eugenicist Madison Grant and his genifest destiny schemes that kept the mighty whitey up at night doing the limbo lit by bonfires. (How low can you go?) Grant (Giammatti) tells us:

The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners, just as he is today being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the language of the American. They wear his clothes, they steal his name, and they are beginning to take his women. But they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals. And while he is being elbowed out of his own home, the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics, which are exterminating his own race. (Paul Giamatti)

Straight out of Mein Kompton, but Americans were already practicing Grant’s eugenics in some of its institutions, Burns tells us. “People in prisons, hospitals and asylums. More than 60,000 Americans would be sterilized without their consent before the last of these statutes was removed from the books in 2014.” So, it ain’t so long ago. Suddenly, there’s an ancient chill on the spine that won’t go away. CRISPRs flash in your mind. Probably eugenics is just taking a ciggy break.

Burns tells us repeatedly throughout the series that FDR privately, seethingly hated the Nazis but was hamstrung by the politics of the day — a largely anti-semitic Congress and a population not particularly empathetic to the Jewish plight, and certainly in no hurry to fight in another European war. And then, the episode ends on a cliffhanger — Kristallnacht! It’s brought about in the fall of 1938, after a Jewish lad living in Paris learns that his family has been deported to Poland and he goes mad knowing he can’t help them, as “He had no papers and no ability to earn a living. Just one more person without a country on a continent increasingly haunted by those who had nowhere to go.” He decides to shoot a Nazi at the German embassy in Paris. Burns tells it like this:

It’s Kristallnacht! Suddenly the Nazis have a reason to defenestrate an entire race.

Episode 2: Yearning to Breathe Free

Episode 2 begins with another hand-wringing over FDR’s tied hands. There isn’t much he can do to save the Jews of Europe. There is enough trouble quelling racists and haters in America who blame Jews for economic woes and for draining the commonweal’s material resources. FDR finally signs an executive order allowing Jews on tour in the US to stay. He continues to gauge support of helping Jews further, but the numbers are bleak for Jews and humanists. Two-thirds of the US population don’t want to allow Jews in, some citing that such an influx might cripple the economic recovery Americans were feeling with the New Deal and recent job growth. Burns turns up the heat.

But still, Kristallnacht Woke Americans, for a moment at least, as reports from abroad poured in. FDR tells We,the People, “I am shocked,” and, in addition to allowing Jewish tourists to stay, pulls the US ambassador to Germany. “The only global leader to do so,” we’re told by the narrator. But, he adds ominously, FDR can’t change immigration policy, as that is a Congressional matter, and Congress is packed with “people who thought that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe should be highly restricted. They were some of the worst white supremacists in the Congress, and they had deep seated antisemitism. So they were at the forefront of making sure that as little would be done as possible.” It had been such members of this Congress who had approached Franz Boas to conduct a eugenics study for such immigrants.

Episode 2 builds a vision of a synergistic project shared by the Nazis and US white supremicists. We recall Madison Grant and his project. But now we discover that there’s more. A bipartisan bill was presented in Congress that would have allowed 10,000 children to be saved, in an exception to immigration policy. The policy endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt, borrowed from the British, was referred to as The Kindertransport, but American “patriotic” groups opposed the bill and it wasn’t passed. Poland was invaded; the lives of Jews were immediately put in peril, ghettos were established; people were murdered, and a nothing-to-lose uprising was savagely put down. Americans, to Hitler, seemed to be shrugging. And they were. How’s the Statue of Liberty poem go?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Un-huh. Well, that’s what they did, and then you said, No More. Now, would you like to buy a golden bridge? No, really, it’s a Rolex. You believe me, don’t you?

Burns then points to another example of the pathetic response to the outraged cries for help get us out of Europe before it’s too late, when he tells us of the saga of St. Louis. Cubans looking to make a buck offered on behalf of their government passage to the island for a fee; they could wait there until their US visas were okayed. (Here Kitty Kitty.) A shipload of mostly Jewish refugees packed the Saint Louis and sailed with happy faces filled to the brim with freedombound smiles and left Hamburg on May 13, 1939. But when they got to Cuba, the more than “900 people who had paid a corrupt Cuban official back in Germany thousands of dollars for their tourist visas were ordered to stay on board.” No visas awaited them, and the Cubans told them to take a sea hike. The St. Louis headed for America. They were frantic:

Some on board the ship wired an appeal to President Roosevelt, begging him to intervene. They did not receive a reply. Instead, the State Department insisted that the passengers would have to wait their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States. That could take years. Canada wouldn’t take them either. The Saint Louis turned back toward Europe.

Fuck. So, Burns lets us see the tightening noose on the people who gave us the Bible, as Leonard Cohen would say. The world’s symbol of hope (self-proclaimed) turns out to be largely empty rhetoric. Woe is we all, as the last best hope of man drowns in the tears of human misery.

Racism, bigotted immigration policies, eugenics, and social stratification. All America seemed to need, at the time, was the unthinkable possibility that a man might rise up to shake hands with Hitler, and do a little housecleaning of its own. Burns seems to want to make the case in the form of the potential energy of Charles Lindbergh and his militant isolationist stance. A symbol of America’s new ascendancy in the air, Lindbergh was a war hero pilot, decorated at home and given the service cross of the German Eagle by the Nazis, who admired him. And he admired the heck out of the rising Nazis. He, and his wife Ann, “had even considered moving to the leafy Berlin suburb of Wannsee until Kristallnacht made them rethink.” He was populist hero. And, in his own words, he was a racist:

This is sobering. FDR snarked to a friend, “I’m convinced this guy’s a Nazi.”

Author Philip Roth, a Jew, took seriously enough the plausibility of Lindbergh running for the presidency that he wrote an alternate history novel, The Plot Against America (2004), which was made into a TV miniseries. (It’s worth a watch. See my review, “America’s Penis Envy of the Nazis.”) The series sees Lindbergh rise up with his America First platform, get elected, and embrace the Nazis; in one scene in DC their flags sag side-by-side on stage. The America First proclamations, borrowed from Madison Grant, have us thinking of the contemporary MAGA phenomenon, starring DJ Trump.

Burns gives us Lindbergh’s (in)famous speech of September 11, 1941 that supposedly upset so many. An especially incendiary comment was this gem: “Large Jewish ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government, he charged, constituted a great danger to our country.” Folks on the Left went apeshit. Folks on the Right heard the whistle, pricked their ears, and began to wonder if Lindbergh wasn’t the one — the Great White Hope — they’d been waiting for. And that was 1941.

Burns closes out the long 2-hour episode by giving us an update on the Frank family. Let’s just say, to quote Bob Dylan, a Jew, it wasn’t totally, totally dark yet, but, damn, it was getting there.

Episode 3: The Homeless, Tempest Tossed

Episode 3 serves up the tragic intransigence and indifference and squandered opportunities to save millions of human beings from being rounded up and murdered by fascists. Burns, throughout the series, makes sure he keeps repeating mantra-like human beings and murdered. No excuse. No rationales allowed. Years and years of chances to help Jews flee for their lives were ignored. The US and the Brits did little to alleviate the suffering. They did nothing when Germany took over Austria, Hitler’s home court. They did nothing when the Germans moved into Austria, France, Belgium, Netherlands, the Rhineland and the Sudetenland. As narrator Peter Coyote tells us,

Just before the United States entered the Second World War, Germany had barred the emigration of Jews from any country it had captured. For them, occupied Europe had now become a prison to which Adolf Hitler held the key. Americans were still in no mood to welcome immigrants.

Burns goes easy on FDR’s administration, and it occurs that he is protecting his other massive PBS project The Roosevelts, in which he often praises both presidents for their outsized contribution to the American Century, sometimes to a fault. And, one could argue, that when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, that the “Allies” responded, not because they finally realized that the war was largely propelled by race cleansing and they had to stop Hitler from ‘throwing the Jew down the well,’ to quote Borat, a Jew, but because they felt an obligation under the Anglo-Poland Alliance (this also dragged in France). The Jews were doomed with this attitude. Mm-hmm.

Arguably, the Lindberg phenomenon led directly to Hoover’s Fifth Column and the post-war national search for “the enemy within.” It led directly to Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen and the circus hearings that saw so many people, especially in Hollywood, lose their livelihoods because of alleged (or otherwise) associations with Communism. Clearly, to most liberal Americans, a violation of Constitutional guarantees against harassment or the criminalization due to association. In one sense, it was a bizarre echo of the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 20s and 30s (watch the award-winning Babylon Berlin to get a taste). The committee got to ask: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a communist?” But, as the Jewish Chronicle tells us,

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), anticipating the “investigations” of Senator Joseph McCarthy shortly afterwards, chose Hollywood for the start of its onslaught against communism. At least, that is what they said they were doing. But any investigation into the investigations, to coin a phrase, reveals it was something else. For “communist,” read “Jew.”

This nonsense after a world war and the Holocaust. Mm-hmm.

Arguably, even the degree of tension and hatred that exists in “Palestine” between Jews and Arabs can be sourced to the world turning its back on Jews — before and after — the War. Burns does not say this explicitly, but it is certainly implied by Peter Coyote’s voice-over summary that includes the fact that America continued to limit Jewish immigration after the war, and after visits to the death camps, and Britain continued to limit Jewish migration to Palestine.

Yeah. So when Burns ends the episode and series by once again alluding to the Frank family, and we hear the familiar optimism and humanity of Ann Frank’s last message to herself: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” The Ann Frank myth versus the colossus of Reality — wouldn’t it be pretty if it was all just a big misunderstanding?

The US and the Holocaust is an excellent series, and this exploration of America’s role in the fate of millions of humans who were murdered is a worthy ‘critical race theory’ entry. The series goes gently into the night sometimes, but is a worthwhile alternative to being saturated with human darkness, such as with Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, and even Sophie’s Choice — all of which should be viewed at least once. Here though, Burns is having Americans face its own monsters in the closet — and, at a time when Trump and his MAGA dogs have have risen from the ancient thawing tundra like Revelation viruses — it can’t hurt, even if it feels like it’s too late to stop them, like that Bob Marley song “Real Situation” describes.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.