According to the authoritative Freedom House rankings, we have seen over a decade of deterioration in free institutions. Outright massacre is the order of the day in countries from Burma to the Levant, and tyrants no less cunning than Mussolini or Franco subvert the rule of law, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech from Warsaw to Ankara, and from Beijing to Moscow. As was the case 80 years ago, many in the United States would rather step back from a world that seems turbulent but not their problem. Their president wants tariffs and walls, while polls show that for many Americans, democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are not values to be defended to the death. Against this backdrop, a new exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—“Americans and the Holocaust”—seems to speak to where America stands today, even though it has been years in the making and thus was not designed as a political commentary on the United States of 2018.
Speaking about the Holocaust Museum (where my wife works as a curator), Elie Wiesel said that it is “a question mark, not an answer.” That is particularly true here. But even so, the exhibit establishes some important facts. In an ingenious display that was crowdsourced from around the country, visitors from anywhere in the United States can discover what their hometown newspapers were saying during the rise of Hitler. The answer is: a lot. Discrimination against, and then persecution of, Germany’s Jews was widely covered. Kristallnacht, the officially sanctioned pogrom of November 9–10, 1938, received particular attention, and was roundly condemned across the country. The sympathy with the Jews of Germany and later Europe was impressive, and is documented by contemporary Gallup polls.