“The US and the Holocaust” review: Ken Burns’ latest PBS series connects history to the present

Directed by Burns and frequent collaborators Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, the six-plus hours sharply connect US isolation and xenophobia with the barbarism unfolding in Europe, as historians determine exactly what Americans knew and when — to borrow a well-worn phrase. they knew about the atrocities of the Nazis.

For President Franklin Roosevelt, humanitarian concerns were certainly an issue. However, they took a back seat to the more serious struggle against Hitler, first in quiet support for England, and then in America’s entry into the war.

Understanding America’s role in the Holocaust requires going back to its predecessors, the anti-immigrant sentiment that spread throughout the 1920s, the virulent anti-Semitism of auto magnate Henry Ford, and his interest in eugenics and racial supremacy. As historian Timothy Snyder notes, Hitler expressed admiration for the brutality of the Native Americans in seizing their lands, seeing it as “the way this racial supremacy presupposes.”

Divided into three chapters, the first covers the pre-war period, the second 1938-42 and the third the end of the war and its aftermath.

Sympathy for American Jews only went so far. After the violence of Kristallnacht in 1938 made it clear that there was little hope for those remaining in Germany, Congress rejected proposals to accept yet more refugees, including calls for 10,000 children a year.

At the same time, the filmmakers detail the stories of individual Americans and government officials who helped Jews escape Nazi persecution, saving thousands of lives.

As is customary with Burns productions (again written by Geoffrey Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote), cleverly curated clips — such as Charles Lindbergh speaking in support of his America First agenda or footage of German concentration camps — abound. the main actors speak for the most important historical figures, with Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and German filmmaker Werner Herzog voicing the effort.

What really comes out, in the end, is how complicated history is — a mix of heroism and honesty, horror and hope — and the need to tell these stories, warts and all, at a time when how to teach US history is so important. many topics of discussion.

“Although the Holocaust happened physically in Europe, it’s a story that Americans should consider as well,” says historian Rebecca Erbelding.

The filmmakers forcefully drive that message home at the end, including footage of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, as well as the January 6 riots, and an image of a participant wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.

Addressing such modern examples, historian Nell Irvin Painter discusses the current of white supremacy and anti-Semitism that has run through US history. “It’s a big stream, and it always is,” he says. “Sometimes it bubbles, and surprises us, and gets slapped. But the stream is always there.”

Few people have made that history more commercially viable than Burns, whose wide-ranging contributions to public television — including more detailed projects devoted to Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali — have continued with surprising regularity since “Civil War.” in 1990

Although this influence is fleeting, today, perhaps especially, “The US and the Holocaust” (which will be accompanied by an outreach program for students) emphasizes the importance of chronicling history in all its complexity and confusion. As Snyder says, “we must have a vision of our history that will allow us to see what we were.”

“The USA and the Holocaust” airs September 18, 20 and 21 at 8:00 PM ET on most PBS stations.