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April 16, 2016 7:55 PM   Subscribe

What did Americans know as the Holocaust unfolded? How did they respond? A new initiative of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "History Unfolded" is using crowdsourcing to scour newspapers across the country for articles that ran between 1933 and 1945 on the plight of Europe’s Jews. The project focuses on 20 historical events from the time period.

The project doesn't just focus on the brutal implementation of the Nazis' Final Solution during the war—it looks at Americans' awareness of Hitler's growing power, anti-Jewish laws and growing violence before the Holocaust began.

Interview with the "History Unfolded" team at History Buff.
USHMM: This is not the first “citizen history” project that the Museum has tried. Back in 2007, we launched a project called  Children of the Lodz Ghetto: A Memorial Research Project. This project was an experiment, and it never really left its beta stage. We learned a lot from the experience that has informed how we have approached the  History Unfolded  project. That said, there are not many precedents for “citizen history” (a few notable exceptions are the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center and Zooniverse’s Operation War Diary). The Museum has looked to “citizen science” (which is more established) for inspiration. Many citizen science and citizen history projects tend to limit participation to transcription, data collection, and similar efforts, which require a minimum level of effort (and knowledge) from would-be participants. Our approach has been slightly different. Philosophically, we’ve favored an approach that is fundamentally educational and demands a lot of participants. Think of it as a contract between the Museum and participants in which we agree to work and learn together. We ask a lot of our citizen historians, and offer a rewarding learning experience in return, including the opportunity to make a real contribution to history. (Whether this philosophy bears out is something that we look forward to evaluating.) First and foremost, citizen history is  not  busywork: it is work with a purpose, to answer a question that could not be answered completely without the contributions of a broad range of participants.>
An exhibition is planned for 2018, which will incorporate the project's findings.
posted by zarq (12 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously on MetaFilter, Operation War Diary.
posted by zarq at 8:06 PM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


One could also look to Hollywood and elsewhere: how were current events reflected in popular entertainment? I thought the movie Mr. Skeffington was daring for its time (SPOILER ALERT: part of the story involves a Jewish banker injured in a concentration camp), being released in 1944.

As noted in one of the movie's IMDB comment threads, the extent of what happened in the camps may not have been fully known. I still find it important that the film's makers had some measure of daring to let the movie-going public know something, somehow.

Nothing will ever mitigate the damage done.
posted by datawrangler at 6:36 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is really great. A lot of people tend to focus on "well, no one knew the details of the concentration camps", which, okay, but there was still a lot of other horrible actions against Jews that were practiced in the public eye.
posted by corb at 7:14 AM on April 17, 2016


Americans knew about the anti-Semitism and decent people deplored it. But you can understand why they didn't see the Holocaust coming, or do the arithmatic to figure it out while it was going on.

Civilized humans back then could understand the oppression, persecution, exile, or even enslavement of a despised people, since there was unfortunate historical precedent. But no one could imagine the wholesale extermination of a whole category of humanity.

No one had the vocabulary or conceptual tools to comprehend its possibility.

(Look at the way that almost no one in the first three quarters of the 20th century ever predicted the most important development that era: the internet. All the pieces where there to figure out that something like the internet might happen, but we simply didn't have the conceptual framework to foresee it, even as it was assembling itself right before our eyes.)
posted by Modest House at 7:25 AM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


There is strong evidence that the US knew about what was taking place but what they knew was in classified document. Now many of these documents are DECLASSIFIED
posted by Postroad at 7:46 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


This June 1941 article in The Atlantic, while a bit verbose, paints Americans in a less noble light as well as predicting terrible calamity. It is particularly unsettling to read in the context of what the first WaPo link obliquely refers to as "current events".
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:01 AM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


But no one could imagine the wholesale extermination of a whole category of humanity.


I think the Armenian Genocide had been covered by the mainstream media of the day, including The New York Times. While not as organized as the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jews and other "undesirables," I would guess that the Turks' actions had already clued in an informed segment of the American public regarding the possibility of ethnically targeted, large-scale slaughter.
posted by the sobsister at 9:44 AM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


Or, you know, Manifest Destiny.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


Let's also not forget that anti-semitism was a fine thing as far as a lot of Americans were concerned, and there were prominent Americans who advocated entering WW2 on the other side.
posted by adamrice at 2:11 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


You can get a feel for the nature of genteel American antisemitism from the Atlantic story that RobotVoodooPower linked, especially its conclusion.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:11 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginning of World War II and the End of Civilizationis a similar project in which he searched newspaper stories, speeches, diaries etc. to trace the discourse around how Americans perceived the events that led to WWII and the Holocaust.
posted by Miko at 7:27 AM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


"Human Smoke" is the most disturbing book I've ever read.
posted by Modest House at 2:47 PM on April 18, 2016


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