I recently finished watching a three part PBS documentary called The US and the Holocaust. While overall I think the program is well done, there are a couple of motifs I found problematic.
The first motif is the filmmakers (Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein) seem to excuse US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) decisions to withhold information to the public and not take direct action against mass concentration camps/ systematic genocide of Jews. The documentary lays the blame on antisemites who surround FDR, like Breckinridge Long. Knowing FDR clearly knew what was happening to Jews in Europe, blaming his advisors seems like a poor excuse for the Commander-in-Chief. Even after he died and the war was won, US leadership still did not change its quota policy (even for Jews affected by the Holocaust).
I say the above as someone who lost family in the Holocaust, and who had family in the US Army during WWII. I agree with Deborah Lipstadt (now Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism) that bombing infrastructure and crematoriums for Auschwitz would have made a clear statement against what the Nazis were doing. Instead, these apologists (along with other historians) feel FDR’s image as a noble leader needs protection. His lack of direct action against the genocide infrastructure was something he decided. Admitting it doesn’t make him a bad person, or less noble. Like past Presidents and future Presidents, he was flawed. We are all flawed.
The second motif was not so subtle. The filmmakers at the end skip to modern day to vilify today’s populists within the Republican Party as being Neo-Nazis. There certainly are such elements within the MAGA party, but they are not a majority and the filmmakers only focus on them. They do this to make a point that antisemitism and nativist views are still prevalent today. However, the filmmakers skip over Hitler’s alliances with Arab regimes, who were anti-Jewish, and the Jew hatred which they cultivated in the Middle East and is now married to today’s left wing intersectional movement, which provides tacit support for Islamist supporters on campus and US Congressional members.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s quote at the end is on target, “The fragility of civilized behavior is the one thing you really learn, because these people, who we now see in these sepia photographs, they’re no different from us. You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaner, the waiters in the restaurant. That’s who these people were. Don’t kid yourself.” The photograph he was alluding to were of normal looking people under a Nazi flag.
The problem with this second motif is the crazy white supremacists on the right are considered by the majority of Americans as horrid, hateful and awful people, meanwhile the intersectional left seem to be accepted by Democrats and not treated as the hateful bigots they are. This omission is a big miss by Ken Burns and team. I think it was lazy, or their political bias was on display.
While I agree with the documentary’s root sentiment that a lot more could have been done regarding Jews trying to escape the Nazis, I am unsurprised looking at how the world has treated Jews for the last couple of thousand years. After seeing the systematic horrors firsthand, you would have thought Jews is displaced camps would have been welcomed by the US or at least allowed to emigrate to British Mandatory Palestine. You would be wrong.
It took a war of independence to create the State of Israel for providing a home for these Jews and for Jews who were driven out of their homes throughout the Middle East. Today we see Israel welcoming people from Europe, fleeing the Islamo-Fascist Antisemitism created by Hitler and perpetuated by Arabs. But it’s the “normal” folks in America who demonize, delegitimize and apply double standards, questioning whether Israel/ Jewish self-determination should exist. They happen to be part of the Democrat Party, i.e. Progressives.
It’s a real head scratcher as to why the filmmakers would hide this tidbit of poison about their own party when the documentary was released two months before an election. A real head scratcher, indeed.