I recently watched the PBS documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, created by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, among others. It is a three-part presentation, each part about 2 hours and is available on-line. I am advocating everyone watch this documentary because I believe it is important for all of us to understand this period in history.
The story of the holocaust is, in essence, the killing of over 6 million Jewish people by Adolph Hitler and the Germany regime preceding and throughout World War II. This is the part of the story you already know. But beyond the actual killing of these individuals, this documentary reveals how the German population was slowly convinced that the Jewish people were their enemies and responsible for all things going wrong it the world. It shows how atrocities against the Jewish people started slowly but gradually increased, ultimately leading to the death chambers. As these events were occurring, the news organizations around the world were reporting them but these stories were not the most important topics to most people. In America, the ongoing depression, joblessness, and the overall economy were front page stories, while the plights of the Jewish people in Germany were relegated to later pages of the news.
Bigotry contributed to this crisis in the making. Interestingly, some of the German actions were modeled after America’s history. The conquering and displacement of the American Indians is analogous to Germany’s slaughtering of people to the east, including Russian peasants. New German laws to restrict the rights of the Jewish people, and make life difficult for them, were modeled after Jim Crow laws doing the same thing to Blacks in America.
The documentary illustrates how some individuals, in America and other counties, were reluctant to “get involved”. This included many prominent individuals as well as ordinary citizens. Many Americans also “echoed” some the rhetoric that the Germans were espousing. And while we can be proud of many things about our country and its citizens, this documentary reveals our shortcomings and many failures to live up to the standards of liberty and freedom we, as Americans, claim as part of our history. Too often, too many ignored our “better angels”.
This documentary was personally very moving to me. In fact, it brought me to tears several times. I will never see the issue of immigration and the plight of refugees in the same way. I understand now how democracies can be destroyed by people with intent, despite the efforts of others to save them. I now appreciate, how tyranny, when ignored, will grow.
Today, the United States and other countries are challenged by forces and groups that advocate oppression of groups that are not like them, and threaten the future of our country. Collectively, we need examine the world we live in, our own beliefs and convictions, and find our “better angels” as we navigate choices of what is important. To ignore this history, especially as we examine current events, makes us all more vulnerable to repeating the cruel and inhumane aspects all too common to human nature.
I recognize this story goes beyond my typical “save the planet” message. But I believe sharing this history touches on some of the most basic elements of human nature that are so important as we address critical problems, like climate change.
I encourage you to invest the hours in watching this to better understand this period of history and how it relates to us today. I’m glad I did.