The U.S. and the Holocaust is a three-part, six-hour series focused on the Holocaust from the American involvement leading up to, during, and immediately following World War II. This Ken Burns series stirred a lot of discussion, certainly on the Holocaust, but more importantly, on the United States’ failures in responding to the Final Solution. The series was directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein.
Why is the Holocaust important discussion in 2022? World War II changed life on the planet and the Holocaust was the greatest crime against humanity, murdering two out of three European Jews, in addition to millions of others. Ancient history to many. Some preach that it never happened.
Perhaps the most stunning revelation of the series to me was this: “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as a nation of immigrants, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, like segregation and the brutal treatment of indigenous populations, were influential in Hitler’s Germany.” The quote is from Burns and the reality of this statement should burn a hole in every American reading it.
It is a fact that the U.S. turned away hundreds of thousands of desperate people fleeing the Nazis. Immigration quotas, bureaucracy and anti-immigrant policies denied entry to many Jews, who navigated the laborious paperwork process, only to be denied, put on the waitlist, and later murdered. Not too many years earlier, the U.S. borders were fairly open. The expanding country, and growing economy, needed the inexpensive labor, but soon the backlash began in the late 1800’s against these foreigners. At first it was the Chinese, then Asians, and then other ethnicities and nationalities.
The Burns series traced the origins of immigration backlash. The early 1900’s saw the beginning of “replacement theory” and the easy blame of society’s problems on the large waves of non-English speaking and impoverished peoples crowded on boats at the shore.
Eugenics became the new order philosophy being touted across the country, and overseas. Universities, politicians and the wealthy grabbed ahold of this thinking: Keep these lesser, and undesirable, people out; and stop their procreation. Eugenics is an ugly term, and points out that a little bit of science, deep fried in prejudice and moral superiority, is more dangerous than bullets.
Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent of eugenics (https://www.history.com/.amp/news/teddy-roosevelt-race-imperialism-national-parks), but in fairness, Roosevelt had complication views on race and equality. There were many in America that believed the influx of these lesser (or inferior) people diluted or destroyed the American gene pool. Those opposed to immigration began to associate nations with race.
After World War I, antisemitism intensified, industrialist Henry Ford was a proponent of this wave, blaming Jews for America’s problems and playing on negative stereotypes. His beliefs were the basis for publishing a newsletter, widely distributed in America and abroad, including Germany. The KKK enjoyed a resurgence, espousing anti-immigration rhetoric, and along with many labor unions lobbied Congress for immigration restrictions and establishing quotas, which passed in 1924. The new law provided no exceptions for refugees or those escaping persecution. Jews were not defined as a nationality so they were no named in the legislation.
Coincidentally, Adolf Hitler was imprisoned at the time, for his failed coup attempt, and applauded American immigration action, which aligned with his own broader, more sinister philosophy of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Hitler also studied American history, and as the Burns series states, just as the Americans conquered the West, Germany would conquer the East and provide living space for Germans. The Nuremberg statutes, stripping German Jews of rights, were patterned after Jim Crow laws in America.
The Great Depression tightened immigration, and the federal government even deported thousands of Mexicans, suspected of being here illegally. Caught in the wide net were many who might have been legal residents. Ingrained in immigration policy was the fear of immigrants becoming dependent on the U.S. government, particularly at a time unemployment was high and Americans were suffering.
In Germany, and expanding elsewhere, violence against Jews increased, as Jews were stripped of freedoms and protections. American newspapers and radio networks did cover the Nazi terror against German Jews, and it sparked denouement and protests. Some American Jewish leaders were reluctant to speak too loudly against Hitler’s actions, for fear of fanning the violence. Nazis denied the stories and threatened action if American Jews didn’t stop the demonstrations and rallies.
President Roosevelt was under pressure from all sides. According to Burns, Jewish advisers told the President not to criticize Hitler. Hollywood, despite having a large European Jewish community, many have fled as the Nazis took over, refused to make anti-German films. Warner Bros. was the only studio willing to make anti-Nazi films. American companies were still doing business with Hitler.
The U.S. State Department possessed great authority over immigration from the 1924 law.
New bureaucratic requirements were roadblocks to Jews seeking to leave Europe for America. The quotas were tightly enforced despite calls to loosen them. State Department officials would use their power to deny visas, bury diplomatic reports from Germany and mislead Congress during WW II. To emigrate to America, a sponsor had to pledge $5,000 which was three times the average American annual wage.
Dispatches from the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin warned of events by Hitler, were downplayed or ignored by some in the State Department. Roosevelt was stymied in his efforts to increase Jewish immigration. Two-thirds of Americans felt the European Jews were at least somewhat responsible for their own problems. Roosevelt was unable to persuade other countries to take more Jewish refugees. Ninety-four percent of Americans were against the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, but seventy percent of Americans were opposed to increasing immigration quotas. A bill was introduced in Congress allow an annual allotment of Jewish children, above the immigration quota. Many mainstream groups denounced the legislation, including the German-American Bundt, who echoed Nazi antisemitic philosophy. Most Catholic, Protestant and Jewish group were against expanding immigration. The legislation was withdrawn.
The MS St. Louis was a German ship transporting 937 refugees to Cuba. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/voyage-of-the-st-louis Turned away from Cuba, the U.S. rejected them, as did Canada. A relief organization raised $500,000 to convince four countries to give them sanctuary, instead of being forced to return to Germany. Many of these passengers would perish at the hands of the Nazis.
Pro-German organizations popped up around the country including The Silver Legion of American and The Friends of the New Germany. Radio evangelists preached antisemitism reaching millions of Americans. Isolationists pushed the country away from active involvement in foreign affairs. Roosevelt had little support, despite being overwhelmingly re-elected. The world watched as Hitler disregarded terms of the Versailles Treaty, rebuilt their military and annexed territory into Germany.
America First Committee was started by a group opposing war in Europe. Eight hundred thousand Americans joined. They opposed the Lend-Lease legislation, lobbying Congress against the bill.
Henry Ford built military equipment for Hitler, turning down a contract to build aircraft engines for Britain. Charles Lindbergh led the opposition to involvement in Europe’s war. Most Americans did not want the U.S. involved in war, and a majority did not mind the U.S. trading with Hitler. Lindbergh was impressed with Hitler and the Nazis, and his wife thought Hitler a great man. Lindbergh saw the number of Jews in America as a problem; there were already too many. Lindbergh was an American hero and would clash with Roosevelt publicly over the next several years. Refugees were sought to include Nazi spies. Congress quickly passed legislation that required fingerprinting and loss of some rights.
After Pearl Harbor, the West Coast was declared a military zone by Roosevelt and Japanese-Americans were interned in camps.
Lindbergh accused Jews of advocating for war for profit and controlling the media and films. Finally, he had gone too far and denounced by newspapers and politicians, called antisemitic and accused of being a Nazi. This was just prior to Pearl Harbor, which crushed the isolation effort.
Varian Fry, an American journalist, went to France to find a way to get writers, artists and others wanted by the Gestapo. He carried cash and emergency visas. He was swamped with those needing out. He set up a network to smuggle many across the border to Spain. The U.S. State Department did support his actions and the Vichy government eventually made him leave the country. At least 2,000 people were rescued from the Nazis by Fry’s efforts.
News of the Final Solution was passed on to the State Department, who viewed it as unsubstantiated and impossible. Eventually, reports of wholesale murder of Jews was circulated by the Associated Press. Edward R. Murrow also reported it. Roosevelt emphasized war crimes would be prosecuted. Despite pleas for actions against the killing camps, the push was for victory over the Nazis. Most Americans expressed doubt that the Nazis could have killed as many Jews as reported, which was much less than were actually murdered. The War Refugee Board was created to help surviving Jews of Europe. The Board cut corners of administrative policies to send money to bribe border guards, attain documents and provide aid to those in hiding. Raul Wallenberg working for the Board helped save and sustain Jews in Hungary through influence, pressure and bribery, maybe 100,000 Jews.
This is a staggering statistic from the series: Three quarters of those killed in the Holocaust died in a 20 month period. The death camps were death factories, as camps were expanded and efficiency was the motivation. Think about it, how to make the process mass murder and body disposal quicker, with less resources used.
After the War, the U.S. continued to enforce the immigration quotas. There were remarkable efforts to assist Holocaust survivors, but our government’s policies were still in effect. It wouldn’t be long before attention focused not on Nazis, but on the hunt for communists.
The series has an epilogue of sorts. The hate and prejudice seized on by the Klan and Nazis in America never went away. Segregation and Jim Crow still had deep roots. Despite the voting rights and other legislation, prejudice in employment, housing, education and aspects of society were difficult to eradicate. The ugly tentacles remain. Nationalism has reemerged and gone mad. The series concludes showing recent events around America including Charlottesville and January 6th.
Burns’ series holds up a mirror to our country’s past, and some of it isn’t pretty. We must understand our past, not hide from it, rewrite it or deny it as some would advocate. Banning books, removing parts of the educational curriculum and efforts to punish the messenger, only contribute to the underlying venom that fuels racial and ethnic divide.
Watching this series is tough, and painful, but it’s our history. Understand it, do not relive it.