Today in America we stand at a peculiar and frightening crossroads.
We are witnessing the growing appeal of authoritarianism abroad and at home, we are being bombarded by social media spreading lies and hatred, and, just two months before the midterm elections, we see our democracy itself under attack.
We’ve spent our careers as filmmakers looking to our nation’s past to deepen our understanding of who we are as Americans and try to build a stronger version of who we hope to become. This business now appears to be in peril. As a country, we seem reluctant, even indifferent, to nurture from the tangled roots of our past a better future.
How else can we describe a time when many Americans cling to blind, unexamined notions of the “greatness” of the nation, but lashed out at schools and teachers, fearing what a thoughtful look on the history of our country could reveal?
The battles we fight today are battles over whether, as a society, we choose an honest understanding of the past over willful blindness.
“Part of our national mythology is that we are a good people, we are a democracy,” historian Nell Irvin Painter told us in an interview. “But that’s not all there is to this story, and I think if we want to congratulate ourselves on our democracy, which I think we should, we also have to face the other side. “
In six years of research for a documentary about the United States and the Holocaust, we weren’t looking for parallels with the present, even though we knew they were there, even before Donald Trump came to power. But now those dark moments in our history resonate all too clearly.
Our country faced a similar crisis of belief in the run-up to World War II, a period marked by a wave of right-wing extremism, isolationism, xenophobia and racism. These impulses reflected fundamental challenges within a society that had not yet resolved the contradictions in its own self-image.
In the 1920s, desperate to restrict immigration to preserve the country’s “racial” makeup, Americans justified their intolerance by championing the nascent field of eugenics, which provided justification for limiting the ability of certain “races” including Jews, to move. The result was a series of restrictive quota laws that immediately slammed the door on waves of immigrants, even though earlier waves had built America greatness in previous decades. This same intolerance later created insurmountable obstacles for thousands of refugees seeking to flee the Reich to America.
In the 1930s, when the Nazis tried to force German Jews to emigrate through a program of physical terror and legal subjugation, Germans could see the United States not as a counter model, but as a prototype of a society that embraced racism and exclusion. When Nazi jurists sought statutes on which to base their own anti-Semitic laws, they turned to the Jim Crow South. The race laws in the United States have exposed the hypocrisy of any American outrage against Germany and undermined our credibility against Nazism on the international stage.
Likewise, some Americans, including prominent and powerful figures, found a creed kinship with Nazi Germany. Henry Ford’s widely read weekly The Dearborn Independent regularly published anti-Semitic bile – including a tract known as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which espoused a false conspiracy theory. Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a radio broadcast reaching millions, advocated for fascist dictatorships. And world-renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh, who lent his fame to America’s first isolationist committee, openly declared, “It is the European race that we must preserve; political progress will follow.
Many American companies—including Ford Motor, General Motors, and Woolworths—continued to operate in Nazi Germany until the war, even if it meant laying off Jewish workers and aiding in German militarization. And while some members of the American press bravely challenged Nazi lies – Dorothy Thompson and Edgar Mowrer stand out – too often American journalists seemed in love with Nazi society, accepting Nazi propaganda and no doubt sympathetic to common tropes. that the Jews were a “problem”. that needed to be resolved.
From 1933 to 1945, the United States admitted some 225,000 Nazi terror refugees – more than any other sovereign nation – but that was only a fraction of those who tried to escape. Despite our eventual victory on the battlefield, our response to Nazism was hampered by our own fears and prejudices, an indictment that does not blame any particular group or individual, but should give us all reason to reflect. our collective responsibility and what we could do differently in the future.
Examining uncomfortable truths about American complicity in the Holocaust doesn’t settle a big question like whether Americans of the last century were good or bad. Instead, the doubt that can be resolved is this: Do Americans today have the courage to look at the mistakes of our past in the interest of our betterment? Courage, in this case, includes our willingness to teach all of our history, to face the difficult while celebrating the positive. Courage would mean recognizing that the less fortunate, at home and abroad, are not a threat to our existence, but people looking for something better for their families, be it security or economic opportunity. .
“If we want to be a country in the future, we have to have a view of our own history that allows us to see what we were,” historian Timothy Snyder told us. “And then we have to become something different if we’re going to get there.”
Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein are documentary filmmakers. Their film “The United States and the Holocaust” will premiere on September 18.