In filmmaker Ken Burns’ remarkable documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust: A History to be Reckoned With, the truth about America’s culpability in the slaughter of 6 million Jews is carefully documented in devastating detail.
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It may be the first time the story was told with such excruciating exactness on American television, where human brutality toward fellow humans is usually sanitized before being televised.
Burns, a master at making history come alive, wanted no part of sanitizing this particularly grotesque part of U.S History. In fact, he insisted on moving the documentary’s release date up from 2023 to before the 2022 mid-term elections, “because I felt the urgency that we needed to be part of the conversation.”
Calling “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” his most important work, Burns has not been reluctant to say why. In an interview with The Guardian last month when his documentary premiered on PBS, Burns said:
“We were obligated to do that because the way we mount this series is we begin with anti-Semitism in America and racism and the pernicious slave trade and xenophobia and eugenics. We’re obligated then NOT to close our eyes and pretend this is some uncomfortable thing in the past that doesn’t rhyme with the present.”
Burns and his team had plenty of original material to mine– in 30 race-based Jim Crow laws enacted throughout the US following the Civil War to systematically deny Blacks—state-by-state— federal constitutional rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments; and, the blatantly racist U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Asian immigrants and dramatically reduced the number of Jews, Italians and other non-Nordic people allowed into the US.
Many of those state and federal statutes were drafted by members of the Ku Klux Klan—at their peak of power in 1924, when 50,000 hooded hoodlums marched through the streets of Washington, DC. The Klan’s chokehold on Congress and State Legislatures was eerily similar to how today’s MAGA-made legislators, Governors, and dark-money groups, are behind the drafting, passage and implementation of contemporary race-hate laws and actions against immigrants, voter suppression laws designed to repress the Black vote, and draconian limits on the healthcare rights of women and members of the LGBTQ community.
In fact, Adolf Hitler and his cult of fanatic, anti-democratic criminals—also captivated by Blood Red and black symbols made famous by the Confederate Flag and later mimicked by MAGA imagery—used America’s Jim Crow laws, anti-immigrant fervor, and American genocide against Native Americans, as their inspirations for codifying the Nuremberg Laws against the Jews. If a democracy like the United States could deny legal rights to and murder people on the basis of race, then surely a newly elected Fascist government in Germany could do the same.
In the meticulously researched book by Yale Law School Professor James Q. Whitman, entitled “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of the Nazi Race Law” (Princeton University Press, 2017, Princeton, NJ) the horrifying details are spelled out, of how the Nazis copyied American legal precedence to justify their plan to annihilate the Jews.
Hitler couldn’t believe his good fortune when Nazi lawyers presented him, after his election in 1933, with the evidence that even a “great” democracy like the United States of America, believed in racial purity. Yale’s Professor Whitman shows — through never before published material and verbatim transcripts — how the Nazis, as early as 1920, were inspired by the American States’ Jim Crow laws and increasingly xenophobic Federal anti-immigrant laws.
The Nazis were so inspired by these American laws reflecting our “racial madness” that they based the Nuremberg Laws upon them — sham “laws” which resulted in systematic dehumanization and eventual annihilation of 6 million Jews.
Professor Whitman uncovered the transcripts of debates among Nazi lawyers, drafting early versions of the Nuremberg Laws, which revealed that even the most radical Nazis thought that America’s anti-miscegenation laws against Blacks, “went too far.” Until, of course, the Nazis went even more insane, making interracial marriage with someone even slightly Jewish punishable by death.
Ironically, as Burns illustrates in this explosive documentary—and in his earlier masterpiece entitled The Civil War–the Jim Crow laws were the law of the land in the Confederacy of the U.S. prior to 1865 and formed the basis for a Civil War. That war, witnessed an illegal, violent militia of White Supremacists commit armed treason against the government of the United States, resulting in the deaths of more than 365,000 official U.S. Army troops. That number of deaths almost equaled the number of American soldiers (400,000) killed while battling Fascism abroad, during WWII.
But the U.S. Civil War, and America’s racist Jim Crow laws, weren’t the only inspirations for the Nazis that were made in the USA.
Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf how thrilled he was by the United States willingness to commit genocide against Native Americans in order to achieve America’s “Manifest Destiny” and acquire new territory. The Nazi’s would later use America’s “gunning down of redskins” (Hitler’s own words), the racist slaughter and aerial bombing of hundreds of Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood Neighborhood (“Black Wall Street) in 1921, and the Klan’s Immigration Act of 1924, as justification for murdering Jews.
Burns unapologetically links the spread of authoritarianism, racism, and anti-Semitism with the life and death threats being posed to democracy today. He is unafraid to end his three-part series with scenes from the blatantly anti-Semitic “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, in 2017, or the armed attack on the United States Government and Capitol police by maniacal Trump supporters on January 6, 2021:
“The story of the Holocaust reminds us of the fragility of democracies…Certainly lots of the smoke that preceded the American Civil War is proceeding now: the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric, the isolated, sporadic incidences of violence. That’s true also of Nazi Germany…the time to save a democracy is BEFORE it’s lost.”