Over six hours, [Ken Burns’ new docuseries, The US and the Holocaust] examines America’s flawed response to the Nazis’ persecution and mass murder of Jews, asking what could have been done differently to halt the genocide. Voice actors include Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Joe Morton and Hope Davis.
It may be Burns’s most didactic film yet as it ends provocatively with images of Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine African American congregants at a church in South Carolina; white supremacists marching with flaming torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us!”; the killing of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; and the storming of the US Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump supporters on 6 January 2021.
“We were obligated to do that because the way we mount this series is we begin with antisemitism in America and racism and the pernicious slave trade and xenophobia and nativism and eugenics,” he explains. “We’re obligated then to not close our eyes and pretend this is some comfortable thing in the past that doesn’t rhyme with the present.”
Burns has been sounding the alarm about the threat to American democracy since a commencement address at Stanford University in California in June 2016. Six years and one Trump presidency later, he is more worried than ever.
“After three previous great crises, I think we’re in the fourth and perhaps the most difficult crisis in the history of America. The three being the civil war, the great depression and the second world war, the institutions were not under assault as they are today and that makes the fragility of Benjamin Franklin’s statement, ‘A republic, if you can keep it,’ all the more relevant.
“But I am also talking about Britain. I am also talking about the rise of the right in France. I’m talking about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil and a tendency.”
Burns adds: “The story of the Holocaust reminds us of the fragility of democracies but how, as frustrating as they can be, there is nothing more important than maintaining those democracies – constitutional, parliamentary, whatever they might be – in the world because we see from human history that the authoritarian regimes have killed by a multitude of 100 more of their own citizens than democracies have. Not that democracies haven’t done bad things and will continue to do bad things, but they don’t do them on the scale of autocracies.” [Continue reading…]