Why, Despite Good Intentions, Ken Burns’s "The U.S. and the Holocaust" Fails

Focusing on America’s failures to save more Jews in the Holocaust unintentionally strengthens the forces that would threaten Jews today. Here’s how.

Oct. 13 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Among those excited by the announcement that America’s leading documentary filmmaker had produced a three-part series on the Holocaust were sectors of the Jewish community that have long insisted on the need for all Americans to learn about this subject. Who better suited for this task than Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, known for their well-crafted, carefully researched historical projects? Not only could they be expected to produce a reliable—if not definitive—treatment of the extermination of the Jews of Europe, The U.S. and the Holocaust would also bring the subject home, answering a question that lay at the heart of the matter: why should Americans, specifically, care about this genocide?

Aired on PBS in early September, the series’ episodes were duly admired by critics for their content, their staging, and their message. Of central significance, it was said, Burns, Novick, and Botstein had effectively dramatized America’s shameful failure to help save the European Jews from the fate awaiting them.

In this connection, Exhibit A was the futile attempt made by Anne Frank’s family in Amsterdam, who could easily have been accommodated in the United States, to secure a visa. One was introduced to the various internal American forces, some actively pro-Nazi but many simply opposed to foreign intervention, that had delayed an active American response to Hitler’s mission, as well as to the domestic conditions, political and economic, that worked against admitting Jewish refugees to the country. Altogether, this showcasing of Anne’s iconic status as the most famous chronicler and moving exemplar of the millions of Jews hunted, betrayed, and systematically killed made it seem that America itself, by refusing a visa, had been party to her and their fate.

The Public Broadcasting Service’s regular appeal for support to “Viewers Like You” speaks not just to those who contribute financially but to a much larger audience that is assumed to share its views and values. Burns, Novick, and Botstein, who are not historians or political thinkers but filmmakers who satisfy that audience, have mirrored their eagerness to do good and to atone for past iniquities. Just as Burns’s documentary series on baseball highlighted the all-American sport’s exclusion of black players, and tried to correct that injustice by telling their story, so this series on the Holocaust sets out to expose America’s inadequate responses to Hitler’s war against the Jews as it unfolded. Having paid insufficient attention to the rise of Nazism once, the message goes, Americans today must not repeat the error.

True, several critics, for their part, faulted the documentary for trying to insulate President Franklin D. Roosevelt from its indictment of the rest of America. The series’ apologetics for this Democratic icon—absolving FDR of accountability for the people whom he installed, the policies he administered, and the country he led—appeared in sharp contrast to its unsparing exposure of the home-bred fascists who drummed up support for Hitler. In doing so, the series paid far greater attention to those who kept Jews out than to those who helped secure their entry—or who focused on winning the war.

Above all, the program was widely understood as a contemporary warning against what President Biden has called the “semi-fascism” of MAGA and its followers. According to Robert Lloyd, the TV critic of the Los Angeles Times, “American nativism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, having been given cover by the previous president [i.e., Donald Trump], are renascent,” and the producers “make that connection explicit.” Although research for the project began before the 2017 march in Charlottesville, the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, or the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, such events could only have confirmed for the filmmakers that America today faces a replay of the 1930s.


In that last respect, most striking to “Viewers Like Me” and others more familiar with the subject than the average PBS viewer is how faithfully this documentary follows the rationale of the exhibit and “narrative” of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In telling their story, the filmmakers include no questions, information, or political considerations beyond those already calcified in the American version of “The Holocaust.” This documentary, like others before it, warns us against the enemy that America most decisively defeated but that ever since the end of World War II has continued to figure as the archetype of human villainy. Reinforcing this paradigm of black-booted evil is the assumption of America’s partial responsibility for not rescuing more of its victims. Who could possibly object to that?

Here is one who did. Long anticipating this documentary, the American Jewish historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz covered much the same ground, minus the vivid film footage, in a 1985 essay titled “Could the United States Have Rescued the European Jews from Hitler?” Ten years earlier, in her book The War Against the Jews 1939-45, she had boldly cast Hitler’s attempt to eliminate the Jews as a covert but no less furiously pursued war than his openly declared war of territorial conquest and subjugation. Now, as the first historian of the subject to study both sides of that unilateral conflict—that is, the German attempt to cleanse Europe of the Jews and the Jewish response to it—she was troubled to see the target of postwar recriminations moving from the perpetrators to America, and even to American Jews:

In the United States, where the Puritan ethic has made moralism something of a national trait and moralizing a national posture, Americans have . . . preferred to address themselves to the eternal verities, the large questions of good and evil, rather than to understanding how Nazi ideology and racist prejudice were embodied in the [German] state’s institutions and how the Nazi state enlisted those institutions in the murder of the Jews. During the Eichmann trial in the early 1960s, for instance, the American press, secular and religious, moralized a lot about man’s capacity to sin and his propensity for evil, but did not give much thought to Eichmann himself, the deeds he did, and the system that created him. Blaming themselves for harboring racist prejudices and for being sinful creatures, the editorialists intoned as one: “We are all guilty.”

Dawidowicz, who by 1985 had moved from studying the events in Europe to studying America’s role in the war, was shrewdly suspicious of this contrition. She feared that asking the wrong questions and culling the wrong lessons from history could be even worse than ignoring it. Citing the several books that had already addressed what America and its Jews did or failed to do during the war, she trained her disapproval on David S. Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews (1984), the first of these studies that “charged the United States and its people with complicity in the murder of the European Jews.” In rebuttal, she tried to show that assessing responsibility depended on what was being admitted as evidence, and on who was being put on trial.

How, Dawidowicz asks, could one call Americans, as Wyman does, “the all too passive accomplices” of the Nazis if these same Americans were at the same time actively fighting the Nazis? How could one reconcile Wyman’s charge with the plain fact that the United States had mobilized all of its industrial, military, and human resources to destroy those who were destroying the Jews? To stress the failure of rescue over the achievement, she wrote, was fatally to confuse the flaws of an exceptional nation with the evil purposes of a nation dedicated to conquest through methods more horrifying than any previously known to man. For Dawidowicz, Wyman’s emphasis, despite his factual accuracy, had twisted history and dangerously skewed political priorities.

On one point Dawidowicz and “The U.S. and the Holocaust” concur, though not for the same reasons. She, like Burns and co, objects to Wyman’s searing indictment of President Roosevelt and adduces the many domestic constraints he faced and the larger global considerations of which this was but one. She also shows that Hitler’s absolute commitment to genocide became clear only in its final stages, and that the true question to ask is: how could Nazi Germany have enlisted so many into the commission of mass murder? The evidence against Roosevelt and his administration was persuasive, yet she concludes that the president and the country are to be praised for having gradually mustered the political will and the military power to oppose aggressors and win the war. Among the lessons to be learned: “Had the Western powers been better prepared for war, they might have defeated Hitler’s armies . . . sooner than they did.”

As for the responsibility of American Jews at the time, this was even harder to assess. Although they obviously enjoyed greater agency than the Jews in Europe, they lacked any strong political organizations or well-placed leaders to represent them. After working her way through all the “what-ifs,” Dawidowicz concludes that preaching history, as opposed to writing history, turns the record of the past from what it was into a record of what it should have been. She recommends that we concentrate instead on what history has actually revealed: the mobilizing powers of anti-Semitism in whatever form it arises; the indispensable role of military power in arresting it; and, above all, the lesson “which every Jewish child now knows”—namely, that without political power Jews have no chance for survival:

Had a Jewish state existed in 1939, even one as small as Israel today, but militarily as competent, the terrible story of six-million dead might have had another outcome.

And that is the gist of it: none of the lessons that Dawidowicz thinks history teaches us can be derived from either the Holocaust Museum in Washington or from the present documentary series based upon it.


Let’s now widen the lens a bit.

First, although one would never know it from watching “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the 1920s and 30s in the United States also saw an intense concentration by numbers of Jews on the exact same issue raised in the quotation above by Lucy Dawidowicz: the issue, that is, of Jewish power and the lack thereof, and in that light, more particularly, the overwhelmingly urgent need for a Jewish state. Those years also saw the emergence in America of a small cadre of leaders and followers actively promoting the Zionist idea and the Zionist movement; among the leaders were the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis and, less famously, writer-intellectuals Maurice Samuel and Marie Syrkin.

Suppose the documentary had featured the uncoordinated but almost simultaneous arrival in America in 1940 of the three leading and rival figures of the Zionist movement—Chaim Weizmann who became Israel’s first president, David Ben Gurion, later to be its first prime minister, and Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism and of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in the First World War—each of them intent on rousing American support for a Jewish army to fight Hitler. The accounts of American Jews who responded to their call (including the unlikely-seeming Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht) and of their crucial contributions to the eventual birth of the Jewish state, are brilliantly told in the forthcoming book by Rick Richman, And None Shall Make Them Afraid (Encounter, February 2023). Their presence in the story would have demonstrated that the Jews were not waiting for rescue by others; that, against all odds, significant numbers of American Jews were keenly aware of their responsibilities to both America and to the Jewish people, and were organizing to advance their common goals.

But to return to those odds: two of Hitler’s alliances had been struck with already anti-Jewish regimes that had independently absorbed anti-Semitism and in the postwar years would go beyond it.

In 1945, multiple Arab and Muslim leaders organized the Arab League around the goal of preventing the Jews from recovering their homeland, a homeland that had been under foreign occupation—including by Arabs themselves—since the Roman conquest in 70 CE. The mufti of Jerusalem, who already in the 1920s had launched pogroms against the Jews of Palestine, had joined Hitler to urge the extinction of every Jewish child.

America was not an innocent onlooker to this phenomenon. Pro-Arab civil servants in the U.S. State Department supported the “stronger horse” in the Middle East and, during the war, did more lasting harm to efforts at Jewish rescue than those featured in the documentary. Their successors after World War II helped to thwart the campaign to bring Jewish survivors to Palestine, just as their counterparts today continue to support Israel’s enemies in the Middle East. Here, if anywhere, is the counterpart to the fascist incursion into America of the 1930s.

As consequential, if not much more so, had been the second pact struck by Hitler: the agreement with Joseph Stalin that invited the German conquest of western Poland and the start of the Nazi genocide against its three-million Jews. Meanwhile, on its own, the Soviet Union had fostered anti-Zionism as a “progressive” successor to the earlier (and less reputable) model of openly racial anti-Semitism, curtailing the right of Soviet Jews to their Jewishness and to their rightful place of refuge. With Communists abroad, especially in America where the ranks of party members and fellow travelers included many thousands of Jews, Stalin played yo-yo: from promoting the Jews when doing so was expedient, to presenting himself as their savior once Hitler betrayed him and invaded Russia, to directing their opposition to all forms of American power and Jewish self-determination except when and as he needed American support. Communist influence in America was disproportionately present among the intellectual elites, many of whose descendants (again, including disproportionate numbers of American Jews) would continue to champion hard-left enmity to the state of Israel. To this day, bashing capitalism, trashing liberal democracy, and undermining confidence in America and Israel continue to play out everywhere in American institutions. In the documentary, there is no mention of them.


I am persuaded that in the years since Lucy Dawidowicz warned against it, the exclusive emphasis on Nazism—deliberate in some cases, unthinking in others—has become a means of deflecting attention from the real and very present dangers now assaulting both the Jews and America. Jewish parents should be aware, for example, that those are not proto-Nazis making college life hell for their children from Berkeley to NYU. In the U.S. Congress, those are not proto-Nazis fomenting hatred of Israel. In the State Department, it is not neo-Nazis who are urging treaties and amity with an Iranian regime that has vowed to exterminate the Jewish state and its people. Nor is it neo-Nazis assaulting Jews in Brooklyn, or neo-Nazis at the New York Times maligning the Jews and their homeland. Yet sadly among those last-mentioned maligners are, to repeat, American Jews and even some who pride themselves on repairing the world.

All of this is known to the filmmakers to PBS, which is why they and others have taken such care to redirect any potential anxiety about the precipitous rise in anti-Jewish politics away from such threats toward the more convenient and already disparaged far-right.

Lest we forget, the necessary goal of making America able and willing to confront and defeat the forces that threaten civilization requires the resolve to do it and the power to back up that resolve. When our schools and media emphasize American failure over American achievement, they burrow at the foundations of the Republic. We cannot be a force for good when our voluntary armed forces fall 25-percent short of their recruitment aims, and when our finest colleges continue to devalue the military as they have been doing since the 1960s—and in too many cases practicing and/or abetting anti-Semitism.

Among the questions facing America today is whether it can still muster all the political, economic, industrial, military, and especially moral force that will be needed to resist domestic anti-Semitism and the anti-Americanism that lies behind it. As for American Jews themselves: those who cooperate in the creation of an Oberammergau-in-reverse, a demonizing passion play with homegrown Nazis as its villains, should know that they are helping to promote a world view invented by their greatest enemies; the fact that they are demonizing actual villainy does not mitigate the danger of replacing history with a fossilized morality play. I am certain that Burns, Novick, and Botstein did not deliberately set out to obscure some of the world’s anti-Semites, to undermine Jewish and American self-confidence, or to allow the ongoing defamation of Israel. But their documentary does just that, with a significant segment of American Jewry, wittingly or unwittingly, cheering them on.

More about: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Ken Burns, new-registrations