Greg Brozeit is a valued reader of the blog who is deeply knowledgeable about German history. In a private communication, he expressed to me his disappointment about Ken Burns’ “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” We agreed that Burns’s singular focus on Hitler’s Jewish victims slighted the other categories of people that he targeted for annihilation. They included Communists, socialists, trade unionists, the disabled, homosexuals, and Roma, as well as priests and nuns who opposed his monstrous regime. I invited Greg to write about his objections, and he did. Greg reminded me of the famous lines spoken by the German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was initially a supporter of Hitler but turned against the Nazi regime as he realized Hitler’s murderous ambitions:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

—Martin Niemöller

Greg Brozeit wrote:

The story of the Holocaust is about how the “other” could be created and marginalized through inhumane policies and practices supported by large swaths of people.

Or, if they were not supporters, they had been conditioned over years to live in fear and had little-to-no sense of civic duty or civil courage. That is a complex story in which Jews were specifically targeted, the most numerous of many contrived “groups” of victims. A large number of those classified as German Jews, who were eliminated or driven out of the country, viewed themselves as Germans first and Jews second. Both identities were equally important to many of them. The distinction was lost and later imposed on them.

I often cite the diaries of Victor Klemperer for one reason -they are the only personal, contemporary observations of what actually happened by someone who was “fortunate” to be last on the list of Jews who were to be eliminated in the
final solution. He was one of the latter; one thing few Americans know and his publishers do their best to hide from Americans is that Klemperer returned to Dresden and became a professor and loyal citizen of East Germany until his death. It would have been interesting to read his view of the Berlin Wall had he lived long enough to witness it. He knew he was persecuted by Nazis because they imposed the definition of Jew on him, one he never internalized. He was almost a victim of the Holocaust, but he would have classified himself as not being Jewish long before others would make him a Jew.

After watching the PBS/Burns program on the U.S. and the Holocaust, I was disappointed that he missed so many opportunities to tell a larger story. Burns rarely veered from the “Holocaust = six million Jews” argument and consequently undermined the message that I (and perhaps the producers) had hoped for. The term “Holocaust” is also used for political, not humanitarian or historical, purposes—the definition Burns’ narrative (naively or intentionally) underscored. And therein lies my problem. A casual viewer might easily get the impression that from the 1930s to the end of WW II, Jews were the only victims of the Holocaust. The actual history is more complex.

By focusing only on Jews we risk serious dishonor to the memory of the six million—a view confirmed in my mind after reflecting on the title of Malcolm Nance’s book, “They Want to Kill Americans.”

Nazis claimed they were eliminating Jews and other undesirables to strengthen Germany. They started out by killing Germans: communists, trade unionists, social democrats, writers, artists, ethical conservatives, Protestants, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, gays and lesbians, persons with developmental disabilities, political opponents, those who weren’t acquiescent to the new order, AND Jews, both those who identified themselves so and those who did not. Focusing almost exclusively on any one of these groups risks breeding resentment and isolation. It certainly diminishes the broad inhumanity of the Holocaust.

An accurate recounting would never gloss over the genocidal priority the Nazis tragically bestowed upon Jews, but neither would it underplay the fate so many others were consigned to in this tragedy. And in fairness, Burns occasionally hinted at this reality. In the film’s final hour a doctor who took pride in the T4 program to eliminate persons with developmental disabilities was highlighted.

But the narrative all too quickly returned to the storyline of “aggressions against only Jews.” While Burns gives an excellent introduction to US policy on Jews and the Holocaust, the series title, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” is misleading and inevitably expands (and eventually disappoints) the expectations and hopes for viewers who are not novices. The real story of the wide compass of inhumanity subsumed under the Holocaust is a profound lesson relevant to our present circumstances. Sadly, the program missed this larger opportunity.