How Closed Borders Helped Facilitate the Holocaust

A new PBS series by Ken Burns argues xenophobia, the Great Depression, incredulity toward the media, and State Department antisemitism combined to keep Jewish refugees out of America.


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Two-thirds of European Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II in a systematic, relentless process that still exceeds our ability to comprehend its origins and consequences. The Final Solution, which was the Nazi plan to exterminate all European Jews, wasn't implemented until 1942, but Hitler's government had begun openly dehumanizing, harassing, and attacking Jews upon taking power nine years earlier.

Even when the Nazi death machine kicked into high gear, America kept its doors mostly closed to Jews, as filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein recount in The U.S. and the Holocaust, a new three-part documentary series on PBS. 

Some lobbied to open the country to refugees in the run-up to war, but anti-immigration legislation, the economic devastation of the Depression, incredulity toward a press that had trafficked in false atrocity accounts during World War I, and deep-seated antisemitism, especially in Franklin Roosevelt's State Department, combined to thwart those efforts.

Reason talked with Burns and Novick about why a nation of immigrants remains so deeply ambivalent about newcomers and the lessons that 21st-century America should draw from our country's response in the lead-up to the Holocaust.

Photo Credits: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69919 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons; Bookofblue, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; China Crisis, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Grillo assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Prelinger Archives; Newspapers; Internet Archive: Takkk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; The U.S. and the Holocaust / Florentine Films and WETA.

Music Credits: "Emanuele Errante," by Altered Communications via

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Video editing by Regan Taylor and Adam Czarnecki.