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The Uses of Hell


More than fifty years after it took place, the Holocaust seems to have a larger presence than ever in American life. News stories about long-delayed discoveries of Nazi crimes and lawsuits brought by victims and survivors are reported on the front pages of the daily papers. In several states, the teaching of this somber subject is mandated by legislation. Politicians enjoin us to preserve the memory of the tragedy and to heed its message. Directions for observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, have been distributed throughout the American military establishment. Since its opening in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has been the best-attended museum in US history. At the same time, the word “holocaust” is used to refer to such far-flung phenomena as environmental destruction, the availability of abortions, and the oppression of Cubans by Fidel Castro.

How has one of history’s most terrible and complex catastrophes met this strange fate? How has it become both the object of official homage and a shorthand for atrocity? And what are the sources of the American fascination with this essentially European tragedy? These are some of the questions Peter Novick raises, and controversially answers, in his important new book, The Holocaust in American Life.

Of course, the Holocaust was an event of profound importance, whose nature demands our attention and response. But Novick is not the first commentator to be made uneasy by the distinctive preoccupation with that catastrophe in the US. Various observers have from time to time raised doubts about the authenticity of ritualized remembrance and the depth of putative identification with the victims of the Nazi extermination. Others have been disturbed by the disparities between the nature of the event and the kinds of interest it has aroused: the tourism and commercial activity that have grown up around concentration camps, the voyeurism discernible in the widespread popularity of Holocaust imagery, the simplification and vulgarization of Holocaust themes in numerous books and films. Recently, discussion of such questions has become more open, perhaps as the exploitation of Holocaust events has become more flagrant. Several recent books, such as Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler by Tim Cole and The Americanization of the Holocaust, a collection of essays edited by Hilene Flanzbaum, subject various manifestations of the Holocaust cult to close scrutiny.

But in The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick has made the most sustained and challenging criticism yet published of these sensitive matters. His book belongs among the Holocaust studies that concern themselves not with the primary history of that event, but with the character and quality of later reactions to it. Novick’s approach differs in two crucial ways from other inquiries into his subject: first, he emphasizes the political uses and implications of Holocaust memory in America; and second, he recognizes that this memory has by now accumulated its own, heretofore largely ignored, history.

His argument is easily summarized, although its elaboration is highly intricate. The widespread preoccupation with the Holocaust in America, he contends, has not been driven purely by moral considerations; nor has it been achieved by entirely spontaneous means. It has come about through a confluence of sociological needs and available cultural resources, as well as through tactical calculation. The legacy of the Holocaust has been treated as a political issue and deliberately used for political ends. Novick puts the onus for shaping and manipulating Holocaust memory mainly on Jewish organizations and leaders who, for obvious reasons, have been its main inheritors in the US.

This is a provocative premise and, on one level, The Holocaust in American Life is an unabashed polemic. Novick, professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago, and formerly a member of its Committee on Jewish Studies, wants to ask whether the “centering” of the Holocaust in American consciousness is good for anyone, including, and especially, American Jews. He believes it is not. He is openly dismayed by the current forms and applications of Holocaust memory. He deplores the use of transcendent rhetoric about the Shoah, with its implicit sacralization of horror, and is offended by the frequent insistence on that event’s uniqueness—a claim he finds both vacuous and tacitly condescending in its suggestion of superior historic suffering. He thinks the often-invoked “lessons of the Holocaust” are either spurious, banal, or ineffectual.

The Holocaust in American Life has already been criticized for the harshness and alleged “cynicism” of its tone, and it is indeed a tough-minded work, sharp, brusque, and sometimes nearly Swiftian in its acerbities. But the anger is a measure of Novick’s involvement; his candor is part of the argument. Novick is clearly intent on cutting through the circumlocutions of habitual Holocaust discourse, on challenging what he sees as its obfuscations with uncompromising logic and saying out loud what is often intimated in private.

Moreover, he wants to place the current American attitudes to the Holocaust in historical perspective. Much of The Holocaust in American Life consists of a densely documented account of the shifts and changing phases in the American responses to the Holocaust throughout the postwar decades. In his reading of this history, Novick draws on the theories of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who in the 1920s coined the phrase “collective memory” for the processes of communal or tribal remembering. This kind of memory, Halbwachs observed, is, if not exactly false, then tendentiously falsifying. Unlike genuine historical consciousness, which strives to understand the multiple aspects of the past, collective memory “reduces events to mythic archetypes.” It uses the resulting conceptions to support a group’s interests, mobilize its loyalties, or express supposedly eternal truths of collective identity. The Battle of Kosovo in 1389, to give a frequently mentioned example, has been a powerful “collective memory” for the Serbs, and has been used by them, quite apart from the actual circumstances, as the emblem of their martyrdom at Muslim hands.

The Holocaust in postwar America, Novick believes, has been repeatedly used as a similarly potent symbol. At each successive stage, the understanding of that enormous event has been shaped by contemporaneous values and ideological pressures, and at each point, the symbolism of the Holocaust has been used in the service of specific causes and interests. In Novick’s historical account, this thesis is supported by voluminous and detailed evidence. In contrast to most studies of Holocaust memory, which concentrate on literature, art, survivors’ testimonies, or Holocaust memorials,1 Novick is interested in what could be called the politics of the Holocaust in everyday life—in official rhetoric, commonly held attitudes, and public opinion. When he looks at films or texts, he chooses those that are best known, like The Diary of Anne Frank or Schindler’s List. But mostly, he draws his evidence from the press and television, from official statements, and, above all, from the records of American Jewish organizations, such as, among others, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the National Community Relations Advisory Council.

The information Novick has unearthed by examining such seemingly mundane materials throws an unexpected and often disturbing light on familiar aspects of recent history. This is particularly striking in the chapters called “The Postwar Years,” which make up the most intriguing section of the book, and where Novick is doing something both subtle and dramatic in decoding the reasons for an absence.

The fact of that absence, the virtual silence that surrounded the Holocaust for some years after the war, has been often noted. The survivors who came to America were, for the most part, met with seeming indifference; and they became aware, they later said, that they had best keep their painful stories to themselves. The usual explanations for this apparent lack of sympathy have been psychological: American Jews, it has often been said, felt guilty about not having done more to save European Jews or simply having been spared their fate; or the knowledge of the extermination camps was so unbearable that it had to be suppressed or blanked out. Novick dismisses such interpretations as glib psychologizing and anachronism and brings in other, more concrete reasons for the silence.

He rightly stresses that the Holocaust was not at first seen as a distinct atrocity, crucially and qualitatively different from other horrors of the war. It took a long time for the disparate facts about the Shoah to come together in a coherent picture. The word “Holocaust” did not come into usage until the late 1950s. While the impact of the first news and images emerging in 1945 from the newly liberated concentration camps was enormous, the ghastly revelations were not initially understood as touching specifically on Jewish victims. Dwight Eisenhower was deeply shocked by what he saw; but he spoke of the camps as places where Germans “have placed political prisoners.” The emaciated and anguished figures in Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of Buchenwald were perceived not as Jews—as they are today—but as victims of Nazi crimes.

As it happened, Novick points out, most of the surviving inmates of the camps freed by American troops in Germany were not Jewish. And even when information about Jewish victims began to become available, the extermination was understood to include other groups as well. For example, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who invented the term “genocide” and was the driving force behind the United Nations Convention on Genocide, spoke of the Nazi program as the

intent to wipe out the Poles, the Russians; to destroy demographically and culturally the French element in Alsace-Lorraine, the Slavonians in Carniola and Carinthia. They almost achieved their goal in exterminating the Jews and gypsies in Europe.

Such perceptions of what happened in part reflected the assimilationist, “family-of-man” ethos of the time. But Novick adds a more surprising reason for this universalizing approach. The muting of the Holocaust’s Jewish aspects was actively encouraged by Jewish organizations that were made nervous by the postwar political climate. Soon after the war had ended, the Soviet Union was being reclassified from a heroic comrade in arms into a totalitarian menace; Germany was transformed from a despised enemy into a trustworthy democratic ally. As Novick shows through citation after citation, Jewish groups felt they had to accommodate the new rules of the international game and keep to themselves what they took to be politically incorrect views. In memoranda and various communiques, they instructed their members to stop saying “irrational” or hostile things about Germany, including the Nazi record of racial extermination. A staff memorandum of the American Jewish Committee regretted the fact that “for most Jews reasoning about Germany and Germans is still beclouded by strong emotion.”

The cautiousness of mainstream Jewish organizations was reinforced by well-founded fears of a revived anti-Semitism in the US. They were particularly anxious to counter the perception of Jews as perpetual victims—not a popular image at the time—and to answer “the ‘Jews are Communists’ charge,” which had been used in anti-Semitic propaganda before and during the war. The McCarthy hearings, in which many of the people accused were Jewish, did not help; and neither did several spy cases, including that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In leftist publications, such as the newspaper PM, the Holocaust was sometimes used to demonstrate the odiousness of right-wing regimes. But in the postwar atmosphere, the Holocaust became, as Novick puts it, “an awkward atrocity”; making too much of it might only bring unwelcome attention to specifically Jewish concerns. In drafting legislation on behalf of World War II refugees, American Jews played down the presence of Jewish DPs. “We have been spending thousands of dollars to try to get across the idea that displaced persons are not all Jews,” one Jewish activist wrote. Jewish leaders later watched with chagrin as it became clear that the new laws were going to accommodate and even favor, as Novick writes, “Eastern European veterans of the Waffen-SS, pro-Nazi Volksdeutsche…and ‘nominal’ Nazi Party members.”

  1. 1

    See James Young’s The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (Yale University Press, 1993), a valuable study of Holocaust memorials.

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