This is by no means a quick watch, or an easy one, but I made my way through all three episodes of The US and the Holocaust over the last week, and it really made an impact on me. There’s a story we like to tell ourselves about America and its history. How we’re essentially the good guys, out there making the world a better place. And when you bring up anything from history that casts that into doubt, some people get upset. As if by not being 100% good, we’re somehow 100% bad. Or that it’s unpatriotic to look at the mistakes we’ve made over the years. It’s a sentiment I’ve never really understood. Only by acknowledging our flaws can we overcome them. If we choose to consistently ignore them, we’ll have no chance of correcting them.
I think this Ken Burns series should be required watching. I consider myself fairly well informed when it comes to the Holocaust. I lived in Germany for two years. I’ve read and watched multiple documentaries and accounts of what happened, but none of them brought to light many of the things this series focused on.
For example, I hadn’t realized how much Hitler had viewed America as a role model. We’d done such a good job with Manifest Destiny, shoving the Native Americans to the side as we focused on ourselves first and viewed them as subhuman. We’d also successfully treated Blacks as less than equal in the south, banning them from restaurants and public facilities. Seeing the “No Jews” signs all around Germany and then connecting them with the “Whites Only” signs from our history made the connection clear.
I hadn’t realized how much our immigration policies had been crafted to specifically minimize the number of Jewish refugees that could come to America during Hitler’s reign. Watching how the Holocaust unfolded, and how desperate so many people had been to escape, was just heartbreaking. Yes, our closed doors mirrored the doors of many others, but for a nation that prides itself as the “good guys,” we fell far short of the mark. It’s easy to point the finger at Germany and blame them for the Holocaust, but when you then consider that America could have gone a long way toward making that Holocaust so much weaker, it doesn’t feel as clean cut.
The fact is, Hitler and the Nazis didn’t want the Jews in Germany. They purposefully made life difficult for them in an active effort to get them to leave the country. And many, many Jews would have left, if they’d had a place they could go. The rest of the world had essentially bricked them into a burning building, and that’s tragic. Does it excuse the Nazis? Not at all. But it’s important to realize we had a hand in history, as well.
I don’t have time or space to go into everything the documentary highlighted. It’s over 7 hours long. But it did a tremendous job connecting America’s past before WWII, its role in WWII, and its current state today. I blamed Trump for fanning the flames of racism in America, but after watching this, it’s clear what he did was more turning over a rock to let the creepy crawlies run around more freely. Like I began with: we can’t get better at something until we acknowledge we have a problem to begin with.
And America definitely has its share of problems, even eighty years later.
10/10. Brutal, but so important to watch.
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