Filmmaker Ken Burns says he and his co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein are storytellers, not polemicists. But who gets to write history — and when — is inherently controversial. Their new documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” examines how racist policies and practices in the United States informed the Nazis and added to the suffering of European Jews before and after World War II.
The film has a contemporary coda. It serves as a warning that the signs of fascism abound today, and that we would be lying to ourselves to deny the threat. I spoke with the filmmakers about their concerns. Our conversation has been abridged and edited for clarity.
Kate Woodsome: There were moments when I was watching the film and I would close my eyes, and the historical analysis felt like it was a contemporary news report, which was chilling. Was that the intent?
Ken Burns: I don’t think it was the intent. Every film we’ve worked on has sort of rhymed in the present. As we were working on this, we began to realize how much things were resonating with what’s going on now. The assault on the Capitol, the insurrection and other events in which we felt the institutions of our democracy were challenged enough that it was important for us to take this story and remind people what the consequences are of yielding to the various kind of nefarious aspects of the [authoritarian] playbook.
When Hitler came to power, he downplayed for a moment antisemitism and the platform of the Nazis and stepped up street warfare to give the German people a sense that civil war was imminent and that the causes of this were the communists and the socialists. He’s already in power because other conservatives think they can handle him. Those conservatives are worried that there is now what we would call a new progressive majority. And so they are doing everything to subvert the democratic process because they realize, in fact, in a democratic society, these things won’t hold. And so out of this comes the monstrous regime of Adolf Hitler, and one of the many horrific things — the most horrific — is the attempt to exterminate all of the 9 million Jews of Europe.
Lynn Novick: We’ve been thinking a lot about authoritarianism and what are the warning signs. I don’t think when we started on the project that I fully grasped what these warning signs are and how it’s been happening while we’re living and we’re studying what Ken was just describing. Do we have free and fair elections? Do we have a peaceful transfer of power? Do we have a rule of law? Do we have a cult of personality? A leader who associates themself with the state? So if you criticize the leader, you’re criticizing your country. And if you criticize your country, you’re criticizing the leader, and this sort of messianic faith in that leader and this cult of personality. Populism and authoritarianism don’t have to go together, but when they do, that is doubling down on the threat that we all face. Then you have the demonization of somebody. And the calling into question whether the press is legitimate. The threats were there before, but it does feel to us that we’re living in a pretty different world and we have to understand it so we can name it. And then, hopefully, motivate ourselves to do something about it.
Woodsome: I lived overseas in an authoritarian country and seeing it happening here, I feel like I’m screaming, “The sky is falling!” So I’m relieved you’re using your platform to join the chorus.
Burns: You know, we’re still not polemicists — we really want to stress this. We’re still storytellers. But in order to set the table for what happened in the United States and in Europe at the time of our story, we had to deal with anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism with rampant antisemitism and obviously racism and a history of dispossessing native peoples of their land and murdering them and isolating them into reservations — something Hitler admired. To understand all of that stuff, that essentially required us to make the dismount of our film more contemporary.
Woodsome: Every country tells lies about itself. What were some of the lies that you uncovered in making this?
Sarah Botstein: We open the film with the famous Emma Lazarus poem and then we play right after that a poem by the then-editor of the Atlantic magazine, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, basically saying we shouldn’t be a land of immigrants in a land of refuge. We should lock our borders and lean into our more xenophobic, nativist tendencies. For me, that’s the myth of, and the tension for, the whole film.
Burns: The lies part of it is difficult because it’s not binary, right? We are a nation of immigrants. We do do good things. We have aspects that are exceptional. We are a good people, as [historian] Nell Painter says. But these other things can also coexist. And the darker things that go unacknowledged can in a binary system appear to just be lies. But what they are is the inevitable complexity of human interaction.
Novick: We’re very much aware of just how contentious history is right now. But history has always been contentious. Who gets to tell the story, and who writes the words that describe what happened, or who points the camera where they point it, and how they choose to leave things out and put certain images forward — that is nothing new. We’re always in this conversation with the past.
Woodsome: Do you consider this film and its educational curriculum critical race theory?
Burns: No, we don’t subscribe to any of that stuff. We’re just storytellers. Telling a complicated story. I don’t know what critical race theory is. It’s essentially a graduate school legal concept of how to frame certain arguments that has been appropriated by people to use as a cudgel to to beat them up over these various things.
I made a comment about the [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis play in Martha’s Vineyard as being a kind of an authoritarian response, just as it was when Disney says we don’t agree with you, he punishes them. When a state employee doesn’t do what he says, he fires them. That’s the authoritarian thing. It’s not the democratic way that you handle it. But the right-wing media has said that I’ve equated what DeSantis did with the Holocaust, which is obscene. I mean, literally obscene to do that. But it is also classic authoritarian playbook to sort of lie about what somebody just said in order to make it so outrageous that then you can deny the complexity of what’s being presented.
Woodsome: One of the things that resonated with me was the articulation of how illogical the racist belief systems are, and that people are clinging to contradictory values and ideas.
Novick: That was so helpful because I found myself confused when it came to antisemitism and other forms of racism. The idea that you can be afraid or malign someone for being both a Bolshevik and a capitalist. Or being sexually weak and sexually attractive. Too virile.
[Historian] Danny Greene does such a beautiful job in the film of saying that you can hold these contradictory beliefs because it’s not actually about logic. It’s about a deeper emotional or maybe a different part of your brain that’s keying into reasons why you are scared of someone or don’t like them. It’s fear. And it’s othering.
Burns: That would be the reptilian part of the brain.
Botstein: When we talk to Timothy Snyder — he was describing that part of how these regimes dehumanize people and torture them is to make them naked before they kill them so they’re as animalistic as they can be. I find it very moving how even with all of that, the Jews are looking in the cameras and have incredible dignity and stand up and fight against this whenever and however they can. But this idea that you can other and dehumanize and perpetrate these crimes to your fellow humans is constantly devastating to learn about.
Woodsome: It’s human nature to look for threats. Fear helps us survive in some ways. But the difference is when the elite manipulate —
Burns: That’s what it is. If you think about poor Blacks and poor Whites and poor Hispanics in the United States who have always been, by those elites, convincing the other groups that they’re the enemy. If you compare notes, you share so much more in common. People end up voting against their self-interest so much because they have not compared the notes of their shared humanity.
So the Confederate Army is still happening, right? The people who were made to fight the war were not the slave owners. You know, for the most part. They were people who did not really participate in the benefits of the plantation society. Their leaders went off flamboyantly and were the generals and lead it. But the people who did the — the ordinary soldiers — are still fighting that battle because nobody has told them that the enemy is not those poor Black people or the people who are interested in liberating them.
Woodsome: What is the intervention that we can do on an individual basis now?
Burns: Guy Stern says it in the last word of the film. By studying this, by telling these stories, you have one ability to avoid its recurrence. You have an opportunity to not polemicize this, not argue with people, but to say, here’s a story, this is what happened. Then people may or may not be changed at the edges or in their core or whatever it is. But … you cannot become what we are saying we despise.
Botstein: You have to be more active in a democracy. You have to push against the forces. I’ve gotten way more involved in my local school board election, my local politics, in my little village, the congressional race where I live. It’s shocking when you see how few people vote and how many people scream. Basic civics feels important.
Novick: We have to recognize why we’re vulnerable to all of this. I’m very concerned about rising inequality and that our democratic system, first of all, is imperfect, and second of all, has not delivered for most Americans a kind of security and quality of life, health care, education, security, safety. The things that people need from their community. To have the conversation more broadly about what is just and equitable in a society will, in some ways, tamp down on the fear, which is the driving thing right now. The fear is real because people don’t trust that there’s anything that’s going to take care of them.