Brace for hard lessons in Ken Burns’ new documentary

Originally published as opinion column in The Chattanooga Times Free Press)

To all of you who, like me, have been long time Ken Burns fans, his documentaries have been mesmerizing: Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, Vietnam and The Roosevelts. And while I eagerly await his upcoming movie, The U.S. and the Holocaust, I have a certain amount of dread about its release. We’re living in a time when even The Diary of Anne Frank is controversial. The banning of Maus demonstrated how divided we are over telling the stories of the Holocaust. Given Ken Burns’ focus, I suspect the outcry is going to be loud and vicious.

The focus of Ken Burns’ movie is America’s response to the evil of Naziism, specifically our response to Jews and immigrants. In this three-part, six-hour documentary that will air on Sept. 18 on PBS,  Burns highlights the admirable, and the not so admirable. He celebrates the good works of organizations like the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, War Refugee Board and the individuals who saved lives. 

But he also points out that America had a strong antisemitic and anti-immigration climate that limited assistance to the victims and rejected refugees. The famous aviator Charles Lindbergh urged America to negotiate with Hitler and not fund the war, decrying “the British, Jewish and Roosevelt administration as instigators of American intervention. And Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest in Detroit, defended Nazi antisemitic violence as well deserved in his influential radio broadcast.  Appealing to isolationists trying to recover from the Depression’s economic chaos, Coughlin promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism.

This cult-like trend seems cyclical, surfacing in chaotic times, including the present. How else can we account for a Republican running for a House seat in New York who recently praised Adolf Hitler as inspirational to his followers? He described the fascist dictator as the kind of leader we need today” and was endorsed by Representative Elise Stefanik, a member of GOP party leadership. The frequent appearance of swastikas, including here in Chattanooga, should give us all pause about the growing influence of this “semi-fascism”. 

Burns knows that he can’t convince people with facts and data. History has proven that. The death of 6 million Jews by the Nazis doesn’t always register with folks today and some deny that it ever happened. But stories can be influencers and not just the stories we know come from German and Austrian Jews, more than half of whom escaped. But the 3.3 million Polish Jews, and the millions of Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Latvians, Hungarians, and Romanians who were impoverished, isolated, and not rescued. 

I agree with Burns’ co-creator, Lynn Novick, who said, I think this will be, for the general public, somewhat surprising and a little hard to ingest. That we could be both the liberators of freeing the world from tyranny and fascism, and unwilling … to do much to rescue the victims of fascism.”

If this movie is upsetting, why watch it? Ken Burns answered that in comments to journalists about why he made this movie. “If youre going to be the most exceptional country on Earth, then you have to hold yourself to the highest possible standard. You will very quickly not be the greatest country on Earth if you do not do that. I cant control anything a Texas or Florida school board does, but I can continue to make the films that we make, and theyre big stories, and they live in schools for decades after.”



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