This three two-hour episode Ken Burns film made for some very uncomfortable viewing at times, and was clearly meant to. I don’t think it was meant as direct criticism of the US, but it certainly raised some questions about isolationism and tight immigration controls at a time when the media’s full of reports of terrible persecution. Viewers were informed that, even after the war, when people had seen the newsreels showing what had happened at the concentration camps, polls showed that most Americans opposed admitting refugees. It also reminded the viewer of some of the less savoury elements in parts of American society, ending with footage of recent hate crimes and the storming of Congress. There was certainly a great deal to think about.
The first episode, about the situation up to 1938, didn’t say anything that I didn’t already know. I studied US immigration history in depth at university, so I knew all about the quota-based system and the eugenics-based arguments behind it. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the WASP-only clubs, hotels and even housing estates, the German-American Bund, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic propaganda, Charles Lindbergh’s American First movement … it was all familiar. But hearing it all together, in this context, was definitely food for thought. It was even pointed out that Hitler admired the Jim Crow laws and the deportation of Native Americans from their homelands.
The programme did try to present a balanced view, and it was made clear that, the majority of people in the US were horrified when reports of persecution began to come in, especially after Kristallnacht. And the US did take in more refugees from Nazi-controlled lands than any other country, and there were some major anti-Nazi protests. As the programme pointed out, organisations in the US which wanted to help were in a difficult position, with Hitler claiming that anything they did showed that Jews controlled American politics. There was, however, also a fear that too much open protest by Jewish groups would lead to a rise in domestic anti-Semitism.
It was Roosevelt who called the Evian Conference to discuss the refugee crisis. Pretty much every country represented there refused to do any more to help.
There were some absolutely heartrending accounts, mainly told through first person interviews with elderly people who’d been children at the time, of desperate attempts to bring loved ones to safety in America, only to be thwarted by red tape and demands for unaffordable financial bonds. There were also accounts from Holocaust survivors, including Anne Frank’s stepsister. It wasn’t just the quota system: it was the need to prove that the individual wouldn’t be a burden on the state. It was a far cry from “Give me … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”. What vision of America did people actually have? Or do visions not matter, only practicalities? Unrestricted immigration isn’t practical, but should exceptions be made when people are clearly refugees, not economic migrants? These are difficult subjects, and there was a lot of food for thought in this. And of course it wasn’t just America. Other countries did little to help either.
You got the feeling that FDR, left to himself, might have eased immigration controls, and brought the US into the war earlier. But he was working in the face of overwhelming isolationist feeling amongst the American public. Given the loss of American life in the Great War and the problems caused by the Depression, that was understandable. It’s not the United States’ job to be the world’s policeman. But was it her duty to stand up against the Nazis?
Of course, Pearl Harbour brought the US into the war, against the Nazis as well as against Japan. By 1942, reports of mass killings were coming in, from prisoners who’d managed to escape and from the Polish Resistance, and then from Soviet forces as they advanced westwards. There were some calls to prioritise trying to rescue prisoners, but the authorities felt that they had to concentrate on winning the war – and, at that point, Allied planes would have to have left from Britain and wouldn’t have been able to reach Poland. Once the Allies were in control of Italy, the planes would have been able to reach the concentration camps, but didn’t have the precision to guarantee that they’d hit the gas chambers and not the housing blocks.
A poll in early 1943 showed that over half of Americans didn’t believe the reports of mass killings of Jews. Even when the Soviets liberated Kyiv and American photographers took pictures at Babyn Yar, some of the American press presented the reports as Soviet propaganda. It was stated by the programme that the government didn’t want people to feel that the war was being fought for Jews, in case that damaged morale. I was expecting someone to point out a parallel with the Union side in the Civil War there, not making it a war about slavery – “Let us die to make men free”?? – but no-one did. Most shocking was the attitude of the State department, which deliberately suppressed reports of atrocities which the Polish Resistance managed to smuggled into Switzerland, and stalled moves by the World Jewish Congress to send funds to help Jews in Hungary and Romania, then not under direct Nazi control.
By this point, the programme showed us, American Jewish groups were lobbying for action to stop the mass murder of European Jews, including a number of large scale rallies. Eventually, in 1944, Roosevelt set up a War Refugee Board, which worked with diplomats from neutral countries to gain their protection for Jews in Hungary, and also bombed Hungary in a move to stop deportations. After US reporters sent home pictures from Majdanek, liberated by the Soviets, people accepted that something truly horrific was happening, even if they couldn’t quite take in the scale of it.
When it came to the liberation of the camps and the end of the war, the programme did move away from American attitudes and focused on the accounts of the survivors, and of veterans who’d been amongst the liberators and one of the men who’d been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. But then it told us that, even then, public opinion in America was against admitting refugees, and reminded us that the quota system didn’t end until 1965.
Then it finished with footage of some of the hate crimes and extremist marches which have taken place in the US very recently, and of the storming of Congress. I honestly don’t think that this was meant as an attack on the US, which I love, which I’m sure Ken Burns, his fellow film makers and all those involved in the making the programme love, but it was a reminder that we – in the UK and everywhere else, as well as in the US – don’t always see what’s happening abroad as our problem, and that there are dangerous elements even within our own societies. If you’ve read all that, thank you. If you want to watch it all, it was shown in the US last year, and has been shown in both the UK and Australia, and possibly elsewhere as well, in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow. It’s long and sometimes chilling, but it’s worth watching.