In New Holocaust doc, Ken Burns traces culpability of US corporations

By MARTINE PARIS, Bloomberg, August 24, 2022. Click for full report.

Click for report from KPBS with videos and photographs.

A Q&A with the famed filmmaker ahead of The US and the Holocaust.

relates to In New Holocaust Doc, Ken Burns Traces Culpability of US Corporations
Illustration: Claire Merchlinsky

What US leaders knew about the plight of millions of Jews escaping the Nazis during World War II—and when they knew it—is the subject of Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein’s searing documentary The US and the Holocaust. From 1933 through 1945, fewer than 250,000 visas were granted by the US as 6 million Jews perished across Europe; of his almost 40 films over the past 40 years for PBS, Burns has said he’ll never work on one more important than this.

It wasn’t just a few powerful men at the top responsible for the lack of aid, the film argues. Antisemitism was rampant in the US: Jews were barred from employment, education, and housing as leading capitalists such as Henry Ford called for their marginalization.

The six-hour, three-part series premieres on Sept. 18. It shows an America that knew the fate of those it turned away, including the family of Anne Frank, who couldn’t get a visa.

Acclaimed for such documentaries as Brooklyn BridgeBaseball, and The Roosevelts, Burns talked with Bloomberg Pursuits about how a nation built on welcoming the tired, poor, and huddled masses could do the opposite. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What compelled you to make this film?
We wanted to give a sense of the fragility of the human condition and how possible it is for people, institutions, and governments to go bad. If you wanted to be in the most cosmopolitan place in the world in the early 1930s, where creativity was exploding in music, cinema, architecture, painting, and ideas, you could do no better than to be in Berlin. And then, in January 1933, Hitler came to power.

How did this project come to you?
We had made films on the war that raised questions: Why didn’t the US bomb the rail lines at Auschwitz? Why did the US turn away the refugees on the St. Louis? Was FDR antisemitic? Then, in 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum came to us and said they were doing an exhibition called “Americans and the Holocaust” and provided us with leads, archives, and scholars. So we dove in and made this film in association with them.

One of the shocking things in the film is the support US companies gave the Nazis. It’s mentioned that the Ford Motor Co.’s plant in Germany supplied trucks to their army. How complicit was corporate America?
I don’t know whether they were doing that to satisfy the shareholders and the bottom line because it was a more lucrative contract, or whether their sympathies were with the German ideals, but it was a quandary like the one American corporations find themselves in today with Russia. Some companies pulled out, while others did not.

America is still polarized on immigration. Is reconciliation possible?
Immigration has always been a political football. Between 1870 to 1914, millions of people arrived to build this country. Then, in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act shut it down. The 1965 Immigration Act made things better in some ways and worse in others. Sometimes there is a sense that immigrant energy can transform and reinvigorate, and there are times when there’s this “America for Americans” fundamentalism. The tension is ongoing.

What’s your biggest fear right now?
I’ve covered the great crises of the United States—the Civil War, the Depression, World War II—and the current crisis of democracy is equal to, if not bigger than, all of them because of the lack of truth, the usurpation of an entire political party in the service of a lie, and the assault on institutions across our republic. These are the conditions that make it possible for bad things to happen.

Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?
There’s so much capacity for evil. Human nature doesn’t change.

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