“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the latest big PBS documentary from Ken Burns, is a different sort of film for him in that — unlike “Baseball” or “Jazz” or “Benjamin Franklin” — it seems very much a response to current events, made not just as a commemoration but as a warning. American nativism, xenophobia and white supremacy, having been given cover by the previous president, are renascent; the Anti-Defamation League found a 61% increase in attacks on Jewish institutions from 2020 to 2021.
Burns (with co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein) will make that point explicit at the close of six emotionally demanding hours — spread across three episodes, airing Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday — but it is always there, not far from the surface, in this thorough history of the American response, and lack of it, to Germany’s criminal war on the Jews. Still circulating are the same bad ideas about a singular national identity, racial purity and authoritarian rule; then, as now, conspiracy theories deform political discourse. This is not Nazi Germany, but to judge by the news, there are some who wish it were, and from recent attacks on libraries to the failed putsch of Jan. 6, 2021, there are echoes enough. (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s Hitleresque imperial fantasies give the series a separate, incidental resonance.)