Someone, possibly Mark Twain, once said “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does often rhyme.” The meaning of this is the idea that while history cannot really repeat given the linear nature of time, variations on a particular theme can definitely happen.
We are in a period where the threat level of fascism is probably the highest we have ever seen in American history. Rising anti-semitism, Republican efforts to sanitize how history is taught in schools, and clear attempts by the GOP to squash voting rights and delegitimatize our elections are creating a very dangerous environment for America.
Enter into all this the latest documentary from Ken Burns, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which he directed with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. Originally slated for release in 2023, Burns has said that he rushed this production to debut it this year because of the current situation.
The documentary certainly does not feel rushed and is defintely one of his best. Right off the bat, the documentary hits us with Anne Frank’s family being prevented from immigrating to the United States and takes on the myth that Americans were unaware of the terrible situation in Nazi-occupied countries.
From there, the documentarians raise some very uncomfortable truths about America. For starters, anti-semitism and xenophobia was rampant in the United States in the 1930s, anti-immigration sentiment was high, and many Americans were not interested in fighting Nazism. Also, the Nazis admired and shaped policy around American Jim Crow laws, and were impressed by the eugenics movement.
The documentary also points out America stopped Hitler and sacrificed thousands of lives to save Jewish people and other targets of the Nazis. So, the story, like so much of American history when told truthfully, is complicated. Honesty is not demonization.
When Republicans, often driven by thuggish behavior at school board meetings, pass state and local laws that are designed to teach a mythological, whitewashed version of American history, they are burying this truth. It is nothing but cowardice. A truly great nation sees the complexities, the good and the bad, about its history and learns from it.
Teaching a false history enables people with less than decent motivations to declare the past as anything they say it was. It also helps to enable Republican politicians to pass laws based on nothing but hate and cruelty, as a public that is not taught the truth will not recognize the mistakes of the past.
While watching the documentary, the parallels to the current time are evident. The anti-immigration sentiment that we are seeing right now. The idea held by German conservatives in the early 1930s that they could control Hitler, similar to the thinking of Mitch McConnell that he could control Trump. And so on.
What Burns, Botstein, and Novick have done is given us a gift for our times, a way to recognize what is happening right now, and a thumbing-of-the-nose at the far-right who do not want this history told to the masses. It is difficult, enraging, and unnerving viewing at various times, but it is a must see. Even if it makes us uncomfortable.
The last word goes to Vampire Weekend, with the closer to their excellent album The Father of the Bride, “Jeruselum, New York, Berlin” which is a song about judaism’s recent history by lead singer Ezra Koenig. It includes this lyric:
So let them win the battle
But don’t let them restart
That genocidal feeling
That beats in every heart
Hard not to see what he means there (Trump getting elected is “win the battle” and the rest is self-evident).