'The road down authoritarianism': What Ken Burns’ Holocaust documentary can teach Americans in 2022
Ken Burns’ new three-part documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which will air on PBS September 18-20, comes at a time when a variety of political figures — from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described “democratic socialist,” and leftist author Noam Chomsky to arch-conservative Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and former Nancy Reagan speechwriter Mona Charen — are sounding the alarm about the state of U.S. democracy and a far-right authoritarian movement within the Republican Party. Burns’ documentary, directed and produced with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, focuses on events that occurred during the 1930s and 1940s and is full of old black-and-white footage. But in an interview with Axios’ Mike Allen, Burns warned that his Holocaust documentary has a lesson for Americans in 2022: Democracy should never be taken for granted.
Burns told Allen, “We're not unmindful that, as Mark Twain says: 'History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.’ As the film progressed through the last six or seven years, we began to realize just how terrifyingly rhyming these stories and moments and individuals and actions were with our present moment."
In the early 1930s, near the end of the Weimar Republic, some of Adolf Hitler’s critics in Germany were dismissive of the threat that he posed and failed to realize how bad things could get. And Burns warns that it is a huge mistake to believe that Germans were somehow more predisposed to authoritarianism.
“You just have to understand that the things that became so intolerably out of control with the Nazi regime are not alien to any other culture," Burns told Allen. "The road down authoritarianism doesn't end well for people. We want to remind people of the frailty and the complexity — and, at times, the majesty of the human project, and that it's really important to be self-aware.”
Burns is clearly troubled by efforts to ban certain books from public schools in the United States. Republicans have been waging war against books that address the history of racism in the U.S., pushing to keep them out of public schools.
The documentarian told Allen, “We're in an age where we're proscribing how much history we can teach. We're limiting what subjects we can teach. We're trying to shield people from an actual powerful and, at times, very disturbing truth about us…. We have to be careful. It was hoped that the Constitution would be a machine that would go (on its own). There is no guarantee of that. We are the guarantors. We are the mechanics of democracy.”
Watch a preview of “The U.S. and the Holocaust” below or at this link.
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