Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.


27 thoughts on “Fiction v. History”

      1. Not interested in documentaries — I never have been. Much rather engage directly with materials produced by trained historians (not meant as a dig against Burns as he probably has historians as consultants). But I’ve certainly read more than enough monographs on the topic.

          1. I understand that a transfer of genre will result in reinterpretations of the past, etc. Same thing goes with historical fiction. But gross errors do frustrate me.

        1. To be clear, rarely do high school students have a teacher with a PhD in their field so I like to think I know what I’m talking about and design real assignments without sugar-coating the past… I am a bit of an anomaly due to the current state of the liberal arts and the few historians who find purely academic jobs. Alas.

    1. The Ken Burns documentary paralleled much of the information at the link above to the Holocaust Museum, but the documentary with all its film clips and with over six hours of narration had way more impact.

  1. Yes, we’ve all done shameful things, historically speaking. Not just the white nations but pretty much all nations have a chequered history of murder, war, racism, injustice etc. Plus some achievements I suppose. Humans are not a delightful species, in the round.

  2. “Winners” get to write History and they tend to ignore “inconvenient” facts. The College I retired from did not teach History. There were plenty of Social Science courses that may have included some History, there was no History curriculum. I tried to reach the History of Business in my BUSINESS ORGANIZATION course, but that segment got squeezed because of all the other topics I had to cover in that course. Irish statesman Edmund Burke is often misquoted as having said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” while British statesman Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

    1. Never understood the phrase “‘Winners’ get to write History” — there are tons of examples of historical writing (and of course archeological evidence) written/created by the “losers.” One of those silly cliches about the past that’s relentlessly circulated… you might have to dig a bit but there’s often a footprint to be uncovered. I mean, there’s an entire theoretical framework in the historical field called “subaltern studies.”

  3. Many thanks for this overview, Jim, and your references to those various other works. I haven’t seen this latest documentary, although I’ve seen Radio Days and read The Plot Against America. But I wondered about your remark here: “The U.S. and the Holocaust give[s] a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.” Aren’t there books and movies–even from earlier years, well before The Plot Against America—that deal with racism and fascism in American society? I’m thinking, for instance, of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here and the 1947 book and film Gentlemen’s Agreement.

  4. More than a few comic books are quite complex and deal with realistic themes even more poignantly than the media that’s supposed to tell us the bitter truth, but as you quite rightly say, keep us in a happy state of delusion. You only have to look at the stuff that Marvel and some DCs did in the late 1960s and into the ’70s, to realise that this is true. Marvel even touched on the Holocaust theme as early as 1969. There’s also the underground comics of course.

    Science fiction authors such as Harlan Ellison have also dealt with themes relating to the bitter truth with unswerving honesty. I thought you liked SF for for more than the happy state of delusion you seem to say above.

    Thank you for an excellent article James. You can’t say all comics [or SF] are responsible for “filtering reality out” though. You’re right in what you say however about not seeing reality and history as it really is. If “we” had done in the past, the Holocaust and other sad events wouldn’t have happened.

    1. Richard, there are plenty of exceptions, but for the most part comic books take a very simplified view of things. And the exceptions are usually graphic novels. Length matters. One of the reasons The U.S. and the Holocaust had so much impact was because it was over six hours long.

      1. It’s alright James, I understand. Marvel, and to a lesser degree, DC., ushered in a new period of decline and gloom in the late 1970s, either changing comics to their detriment or replacing their more mature comics with new ones that would appeal to a more general audience. This would include very shoddy ones adapted from TV or films. I’ve bought very few comics and graphic novels since then and don’t know how many of them approach themes concerning realistic issues. More recently, I’ve read comics on YouTube.

        Comics have very rarely been extended to the length of a graphic novel over a number of issues. One was “Jungle Action”, featuring the Black Panther in a series of bi-monthly comics subtitled “Panther’s Rage”, about the battle for power in an African kingdom between T’Challa [Black Panther] and a very evil adversary named Erik Killmonger, that ran for two years. I think it can be called the first graphic novel. It was also significant for featuring the leading characters as black.

        Comics [and SF] and their fans have endured prejudice and persecution, such as the witch hunts in the 1950s that nearly got rid of all of them before their revival in the 1960s. The bigotry and ignorance that caused this to happen, is reminiscent of what caused racism and the Holocaust and the blanketing of history to suit public taste that you describe. Such attitudes are dangerous and I can’t help feeling sensitive that comics are being treated in the same way. It is an excellent article though.

    1. I hope you like them. But you might should have just got one to start with to see if you like her approach to history. I do. I like how she brings in literary, religious, and anthropological sources.

        1. Well, let me know what you think. I plan to read another book by her, The Well Educated Mind. She’s some kind of expert on home learning and self learning. She was some lecture videos on YouTube. Her history books have given me a new philosophical attitude about humanity, but it’s not very positive. We really do keep repeating ourselves despite advice not to.

          1. I just retired from a career in the emergency services. I’ve spent decades watching human beings make bad choices and dumb decisions. That’s why my moto is “stupidity is cash for life”. I imagine it’s the same for historians.

          2. Bauer’s history books is like The Game of Thrones played out thousands of time, over and over. In each case an individual’s ambition gets tens of thousands killed.

            I plan to reread the books because there are so many lessons to learn from them. I wish I could remember them better so I could quote historical examples.

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