Ken Burns Draws Parallels Between WWII and Today in ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

TheWrap magazine: “We wanted to remind people of the fragility of the institutions that we take for granted,” the documentarian told TheWrap

President Franklin Roosevelt, in a moment of fury and exasperation a year before America entered the Second World War, confided in Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. “If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this,” FDR said. “I am absolutely convinced Charles Lindbergh is a Nazi.” That is one of many shattering moments in “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” an enthralling, seven-hour PBS docuseries directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein.

Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick and Ken Burns

This is an incredibly knotty, intricate and frustrating part of history, and as directors, you seem to really lean into the maddening quality of it. Is that accurate?
KEN BURNS It is very frustrating to watch because you can understand how, retrospectively, the simplistic among us might say, “The Holocaust happened and there must be an American responsible.” So a lot of the blame goes to FDR when, in fact, FDR was doing many more things than most people. And also not doing things, because he knew the political factors. He had a Congress against him and a State Department filled with antisemites. And many of the American people didn’t want to fight the war. 
LYNN NOVICK The film is probably not nearly as complicated as the true story. But the most gratifying feedback we receive from audiences, ironically, is “This makes me really uncomfortable.” For us, that uncomfortable truth is right in our sweet spot. 
BURNS And while we can find heroes in the cracks of light amid all of this darkness, it’s still a sobering story. The United States was not responsible for the Holocaust — but we know that ideas travel really fast, good ones and bad ones. We have a long history of dispossessing Native people and herding them into reservations, which Hitler knew all about and approved of, by the way. We have a history of unbelievable antisemitism, which is a worldwide phenomenon. And we have our history with slavery, Jim Crow and race. 

There’s a motif in the series about Otto Frank’s failed attempt to flee Europe with his family. That’s not a story we think of as having an American connection. 
SARAH BOTSTEIN Anne Frank is for most people, all over the world, the entry to this time in history. And it came to our attention that the Frank family had tried desperately to get to the United States. And not only had they tried but they had the means and the connections and all the things they needed. They were not able to get here. So that set us on a path to explore the Frank story in a newer way and allowed us to deal with Auschwitz and think about what people Anne’s age experienced. 
BURNS And the Anne Frank story is connected to us. For me, I say, “Wow, if we would have let Otto Frank and his family into the U.S., Anne Frank could still be alive today.” She’d be in her 90s, maybe she became a writer, maybe she didn’t. But she could be here, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then you realize we are talking about lost human potentiality. The loss for humanity is almost unbearable to contemplate.
The U.S. did take in 225,000 human beings who were fleeing the Nazis, more than any sovereign nation in the world. And we did help put an end to the war. But we could have let in easily five times or maybe ten times that number, and then you’re talking about subtracting a million or two million from the number of deaths in the Holocaust. 

We see Holocaust survivors still alive, who did make it to America eventually, who were children at the time. How important were those perspectives?
BOTSTEIN The most important. One of the great privileges of our work is that you can tell this vast epic of an incomprehensible story through the experience of one person. And here we’re dealing with childhood memory, childhood trauma and generational trauma. And so we take very seriously talking to people about important and frightening moments in their lives. 

It’s well known that Charles Lindbergh was antisemitic, but I was most stunned to hear his voice in the series.  
BURNS It’s so grating, isn’t it? That sanctimony, that certainty, that arrogance and that prejudice in his voice — it oozes out of every sentence. 
NOVICK And being able to hear his voice really sealed the deal for us. We had a lot to choose from with Lindbergh, let’s put it that way. He was also the great foil of FDR and they truly hated each other. Lindbergh was an American hero for flying across the Atlantic, but the thing I found most arresting was how popular he remained. Eventually, his antisemitism hurt his reputation, but we do have this interesting relationship between an enormously popular person, hateful beliefs and the public.  

At the end of the series, you show recent clips, including from the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. 
BURNS We couldn’t ignore the present. We accelerated the production schedule for this series. It was supposed to air in the fall of 2023, but two or three years ago, I said, “We’ve got to do it earlier.” Sarah and Lynn, quite rightly, were somewhat disturbed by the workload. But we just had to be part of the conversation a lot sooner. We wanted to remind people of the fragility of the institutions that we take for granted. 
NOVICK And we are not equating America today with Nazi Germany. The sense of authoritarianism and threats to democracy, in the Nazi era, were taken to such grotesque proportions. But speaking for myself, I had to wonder what it would have been like if I was living then. And then the connection to the past, which is our ultimate goal, becomes so much more visceral and meaningful.

Read more from The Race Begins issue here.