Ken Burns Gets at the Nasty Underbelly of American History

Ken Burns Gets at the Nasty Underbelly of American History

Ken Burns Gets at the Nasty Underbelly of American History

David Nasaw in conversation with Jon Wiener on the new PBS documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust.


Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, is streaming now on the PBS app and other platforms. David Nasaw is a historian and biographer whose most recent book is The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Nation. This interview, originally broadcast on the Start Making Sense podcast, has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Wiener: Before I saw the new Ken Burns documentary, I thought, “We already know this history. We’ve been reading about it our whole lives.” Ken Burns knows that. He’s got one of his historian experts, Daniel Mendelsohn, saying, “You think you’ve heard it all, but trust me: you haven’t.” I ended up agreeing with him completely. I found the show riveting. What did you think?

David Nasaw: I agree totally. I began watching it almost as a duty. I didn’t think I was going to learn anything, or be nearly as moved as I was. It is an extraordinary accomplishment. It comes at the right time. I hope it gets the widest possible viewing, that it makes its way into high schools and colleges. It’s remarkable, especially because it gets at the nasty underbelly of American history.

JW: What makes it different from other Ken Burns documentaries is that it’s about what America could have done, and should have done, but didn’t do. It’s about American apathy, and—let’s face it—American hostility to immigrants in general, and Jews in particular. And it’s also about the malevolence of some powerful Americans, not just supporters of Hitler like Lindbergh but high officials of FDR’s New Deal like Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state. The documentary also tells the stories of people who did the right thing, especially a young Treasury Department lawyer named John Pehle, along with his boss, Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr. They pushed Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board in 1944.

DN: Ken Burns and his collaborators had a difficult task. They’ve got to find heroes, and they overreach to do that. Pehle’s a good man. Morgenthau does his best. The War Refugee Board is created, but it’s much too late. By 1944, more than 5 million Jews had already been killed. The only Jews that survived to that point were those in hiding, those who joined the Partisans in Poland, a quarter of a million Polish Jews who escaped into the Soviet Union, and the Hungarian and the Romanian Jews—because their Nazi-allied rulers would not give up their Jews. That changed in 1944 for the Hungarians. But by the time the War Refugee Board was established, the worst has been done.

JW: What about FDR himself? How much responsibility does he bear? How much blame? Ken Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor. He made a previous documentary about them. I wonder if you agree with the critics who say he treats them here with kid gloves, he gives FDR the benefit of the doubt every time.

DN: I think that’s unfair. The focus can’t be on Roosevelt. It should be the American public. Maybe Ken Burns doesn’t do enough of that. Men and women could have spoken out against the quotas, from the 1920s when they were established through the ’30s. But they did not. The problem is with the American people as well as their leaders. Elected representatives who passed and the enforced discriminatory quotas and refused to change them to let the Jews into this country were following the voters’ wishes.

Roosevelt decided early on that the first priority was defeating Hitler. If diverting resources to rescue Jews detracted from the war effort or from war morale, it could not be allowed. Roosevelt is not a villain here. If we want to look for villains, we have to look at churches, at educational institutions, at the press, at people of privilege and responsibility who should have spoken out and did not.

JW: Ken Burns makes it clear that the American public overwhelmingly did not want to fight a war to save Europe’s Jews. He has one of his historians saying the War Department didn’t want the soldiers to know much about the persecution of Jews because they worried they wouldn’t fight hard if they thought they were being sent to save Jews.

The failures of the press is one of Ken Burns’ continuing themes, showing how the press downplayed and created doubts about reports documenting the killing of Jews. He also cites some notable exceptions, including The Nation magazine and its editor, Freda Kirchwey, who wrote early in 1943: “You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the 2 million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people, but we did not lift a hand to do it. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits and a thick layer of prejudice.”

DN: One of the great features of this film is the way it makes clear that what Hitler was doing to the Jews was not a secret. For a long time Americans have gotten away with saying, “We didn’t know anything about it,” exactly as the German citizenry did. But it’s false. Americans in government and in the press and large segments of the public knew what was going on—and nothing was done.

JW: Ken Burns ends the story of the Holocaust with the liberation of the camps. Is that the way you would end it?

DN: No. The story can’t end there. And there’s a little bit of misrepresentation in the documentary. There’s film of Rabbi David Eichhorn leading a service at Dachau. It’s filmed by George Stevens, who’s attached to the army at the time. But we see only half the story. Eichhorn had planned to hold this service on the first Sabbath after the liberation. He arrived at the camp on Saturday morning and discovered that nothing had been set up. He was told that the non-Jewish Polish inmates had threatened that, if a Jewish service were held in the square, they would break it up by force. George Stevens went to the American commander and said, “If you don’t allow Eichhorn to give this service, I will let the world know.” Without Stevens’ threat, there would have been no service.

Another instance: we hear part of the famous radio broadcast from Buchenwald by Edward R. Murrow. If you listen to the entire speech, or read the full transcript, you find no mention of Jews. Eisenhower does not mention Jews. Time magazine and the newspapers and the press and the newsreels, in reporting about the liberation of the camps, do not mention the Jews. At war’s end, Americans celebrate the defeat of this evil empire, but with no recognition of the 6 million that have been killed.

The neglect of the Jews continues long after the war. Jewish displaced persons did not come into this country in large numbers until after 1950. Before that, they were moved from the concentration camps into displaced persons camps, where they spent from three to five years. The state of Israel was recognized by Truman in 1948 because the Americans didn’t want to let the Jews into the United States and they couldn’t remain in Germany indefinitely. These are realities that are lost in this documentary.

There’s another problematic ingredient in a Ken Burns documentary: people speak with sadness, with remorse, with melancholy, but not with anger. And I want anger. I want someone to cry out, “Hey, it’s 6 million Jews! It’s almost all of European Jewry!”

JW: We also have to talk about the way Ken Burns ends his history of the US and the Holocaust. He ends it on January 6th. The last segment is a fast montage. Police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham in 1963, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Then Trump supporters demonstrating against Muslims, Trump at a rally saying, “My first day in office, these people are gone!” White Nationalists marching in Charlottesville chanting, “The Jews will not replace us”; a neo-Nazi killing 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. And finally, the attack on the Capitol January 6th. We see, again, the guy carrying a Confederate flag inside the Capitol, the flag of slavery and treason. We see that the mob includes neo-Nazis; we focus on one guy wearing a sweatshirt that says “Camp Auschwitz.”

Then Daniel Mendelsohn returns to say that something like Hitler could happen again, this time in America. “Don’t kid yourself,” he says. Unlike every other Ken Burns special, this one ends almost with a call to arms: We have to stop the neo-Nazis and the White Nationalists in America. We can’t let them win.

DN: I think that ending should be there. But I also think that, with that ending, we lose sight of the fact that this is a unique moment in history. There are other genocides. There are other massacres of innocent people. But this is 6 million Jews who were killed. I don’t want that lesson to be lost. I don’t want the fate of European Jews to be reduced to a lesson and a warning. It is a lesson, it is a warning, but it’s also a singular event in our history and has to be recognized as such.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation