Culture Commentary: World War II Was a Race War, and It Isn’t Over

By Jon Garelick

It isn’t exactly news that the genocide of Native Americans was a model for Hitler, but it hit with fresh force in The U.S. and the Holocaust.

Father Charles Coughlin, with fists raised, attacks the New Deal in Boston, 1936. Wearing a microphone around his neck, he spoke at the National League baseball field, Boston. Photo: Everett Collection

In the past, I’ve always thought of the Holocaust as another horrible thing that happened during World War II. But The U.S. and the Holocaust made clear to me that the Holocaust wasn’t simply part of World War II — it was the foundation, the basis for it.

Again and again in the new PBS documentary, directors Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein show that one of Hitler’s prime motivations for the war in Europe was to eliminate the Jews from the continent. The war, at least in Europe, was a race war.

It isn’t exactly news that the genocide of Native Americans was a model for Hitler, but here it is again, spelled out. As were the Jim Crow laws of the American South. Burns, Novick, and Botstein relate that when American diplomats objected to German officials about the treatment of Jews as a stigmatized race, harassed, robbed of their rights as citizens, and often murdered without consequence, the Germans had a one-word answer: Mississippi.

There was enough old news in The U.S. and the Holocaust that was familiar, but synthesized, it hit with fresh force: the relentless, blatantly anti-Semitic radio rants of Father Coughlin (broadcast to millions), the anti-Semitic “journalism” of Henry Ford (in the paper he bought, the Dearborn Independent, in 91 issues, later bound in four volumes as The International Jew), and the fascism of Charles Lindbergh (American hero and a promoter of the first “America First” movement). “I think Lindbergh is a Nazi,” FDR confided to an associate.

But mostly it was hard to look at the murderous hooliganism of the brownshirts and not think: “Nothing has changed.” Was the parade of torch-wielding fascists through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” not an exact replica? Or, for that matter, the white supremacists who marched through Downtown Boston on July 2? Or the leafleting of towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with white supremacist fliers? Or the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue or at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the never-ending litany of anti-Semitic vandalism at synagogues and cemeteries? Or even the racist demagoguery of Fox host Laura Ingraham, deftly cut into the film’s final moments.

I was reminded again when reading a review of Four Winters, a documentary about armed resistance by Jews in Eastern Europe during the war. The reviewer posits the film as “an enduring warning” and relates the experience of one of the subjects: “Her neighbors were already anti-Semitic before the war, but with power, they became vicious.”

Daniel Mendelsohn, who has written about his family’s experience in the Holocaust in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, suggests in the PBS film that one of the things that is scariest about the Nazi era isn’t even the blatant murder of innocent people — Jews, the Roma people, gays — but the insidious nature of evil. And he captures it with a beautiful phrase: “the fragility of civilized behavior.”

Don’t we sense that fragility when “free speech” becomes part of a mantra to veil unacceptable behavior? When we sense the erosion of social norms?

It’s been something to contemplate during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what are sometimes called the “Days of Awe.” A time of repentance, but also of renewal and reflection, of summing up.

This has not been a happy time to reflect. But there was maybe one sliver of light. At the sentencing of a Jan. 6 insurrectionist “who often liked to dress as Adolf Hitler,” the presiding judge said that what set his case apart from others accused of trying to halt the certification of the 2020 election by Congress was his “racist and anti-Semitic motivation” — a motivating behavior that has helped encourage other anti-Semitic attacks across the country.

In imposing the sentence, Judge Trevor N. McFadden, a Trump appointee, was also drawing a distinction regarding the formal charges: “entering a restricted building; disorderly conduct in a restricted building; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; and parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a Capitol building.”

This specific kind of “disorderly conduct,” he was saying, was different. Just as a “hate crime” is of a different order, because of the ramifications of spreading fear and encouraging other acts of hate. If there’s any hope of preserving “civilized behavior,” judges and lawmakers besides McFadden will have to be able to see that distinction.

Editor’s Note: For an alternative view of the power of The U.S. and the Holocaust see Bob Israel’s commentary.

Jon Garelick is a writer who lives in Somerville, Massschusett. He is a retired member of the Boston Globe editorial board and a former arts editor of the Boston Phoenix. He can be reached at Follow him @jgarelick.


  1. Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on October 1, 2022 at 9:42 am

    I too was struck by Daniel Mendelsohn’s phrase “the fragility of civilized behavior.” But acutely aware of its irony. For those interested in reading about how European civilization, over the centuries, waged murderous race wars — a succession of state-sponsored genocides — should pick up the magnificent Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist.

    • Tom Connolly on October 6, 2022 at 6:03 am

      As he does with everything else that he writes about, Daniel Mendelsohn makes the The Holocaust about himself. Narcissism masquerading as criticism. George Steiner’s “In Bluebeard’s Castle” is an intellectual discussion of this civilizational crux. Steiner was obsessed with the catastrophic paradox that Germany, the land of Goethe and Beethoven, made The Holocaust. He amplified his thoughts in lectures such as “The Humanities Don’t Humanize.” By so doing he did what Burns fails to do. “The U.S. and The Holocaust” is a self-contained project.

      • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on October 6, 2022 at 9:17 am

        You make a salient point. Though a more important line of understanding, which was missed by Burns and Mendelsohn, is not whether the humanities humanize, but that the ‘civilization’ that made the humanities possible, at least in Europe, was based the systematic, state-sanctioned extermination of others — indigenous peoples, etc.

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