Book Reviews: The Shoah, in Its Time and Ours
Holocaust Historiography Seeks the Context for Moral Inquiry
The Forward June 29, 2001
by LEONARD ZESKIND
The Holocaust in American Life
By Peter Novick
Houghton Mifflin, 350 pages. paperback $15.
Rethinking the Holocaust
By Yehuda Bauer
Yale, 319 pages, $29.95.
The Holocaust Encyclopedia
Walter Laquer, Editor, Judith Tydor Baumel, Assoc. Editor.
Yale, 733 pages, $60.
Hitler’s defeat meant the death of Western civilization. So say a small number of racist ideologues, drawing a straight line from the Nuremberg Laws to Jim Crow, from the so-called mischlinge in Germany to “racial mongrelization” in the United States and from the triumph of the Allies to the fight for civil rights. William Pierce, a [one-time] physics professor who wrote the how-to race war novel “Turner Diaries” (1978), lamented in
1981 that “a morality which damns the Germans for attempting to rid themselves of a pernicious infestation” will also “equally damn any attempt by White Americans to disinfect the cesspool of mongrelization.”
Lest anyone think this is of merely historical interest, consider the fact that earlier this month, one of Mr. Pierce’s acolytes—recently convicted of a hate crime for attacking a black woman—shot two state troopers in the Chicago suburb of Lindenhurst before being fatally wounded by return fire. The racists’ fears, as it turned out, were realized. The American establishment could not justify denying full citizenship to black people in Mississippi after black soldiers fought against Nazism abroad. Housing covenants in upstate New York that excluded Jews were difficult to maintain after defeating Hitler’s attempt to make Germany Judenrein. The term Holocaust may not have immediately come into wide usage, but the lessons of Hitler’s genocide became an enduring moral point of reference in the postwar period.
All three books reviewed here address the link between understanding past history and current morality, each to differing effect. For Peter Novick, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago, the Holocaust has been badly exploited by American Jews. Now out in paperback after last year’s publication in hard cover, “The Holocaust in American Life” has irked many a reviewer, but there is no gainsaying how deeply researched and empathetically written it is. Certainly the endnotes themselves testify to Mr. Novick’s scholarship. Briefly put, he argues that the singularity of the “Holocaust” was a postwar construction, sewn more from the fabric of American life than the facts of history. This Holocaust emerged after 1967 as a (Jewish) foreign policy weapon supporting Israel. Further, he writes, American Jews have ill-used the suffering of their European cousins as a trump card in competition with other groups in the “victimization” game. Whether or not the Holocaust is incorporated into high doctrine, Mr. Novick says, it has become the sacral center of “folk Judaism” in the United States.
His thesis has much to commend it. Memorialization of any history is, of course, contingent on the society in which it occurs. The Alamo may mean one thing to Texan Anglos and another to Santa Anna’s descendants. This reader remembers visiting Terezin-Therienstadt with an East German friend prior to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Ordinary Czechs lived, worked and planted gardens on most of the concentration camp’s grounds—it held little meaning to them. At a small museum, my friend was given a German-language tour emphasizing the detention of communists, while my English-language tour guide focused on the relocation of Prague’s Jews to this camp. The camp’s directors (falsely?) believed anti-Semitism mattered less to Germans and more to Americans.
Mr. Novick’s argument, however, begins with a major flaw. How did it happen, he asks, that a specific “Holocaust consciousness” developed so late among American Jews? Why was so little said prior to Eichmann’s capture? “Generally speaking historical events are most talked about shortly after their occurrence, then they gradually move to the margins of consciousness,” he writes. Finding the most common answers untenable, Mr. Novick thus starts his search.
But what if he is wrong and historical events are not always most discussed shortly after their occurrence? Consider the case of World War II veterans, who 55 years after the war’s end have yet to be appropriately memorialized in Washington D.C. Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” (1948) may have sold more than two million copies in the years immediately after its publication, but current films such as “D-Day” and “Pearl Harbor” have not moved to the “margins” of consciousness. Mr. Novick should drive through the South and look at the statues commemorating Confederate war veterans that stand on the grounds of so many county courthouses. Almost all were built by Confederate Daughters and Sons organizations after 1890, when the last of the Civil War generation was nearing death. Perhaps the late onset of Holocaust qua Holocaust consciousness is less related to foreign policy imperatives and more the result of the age of the survivor populations and the demands of historiography.
In “Rethinking the Holocaust,” Yehuda Bauer, arguably the dean of Holocaust historians, does indeed cite the demands of historiography. (When Holocaust deniers asked Ernst Nolte, the German nationalist and conservative historian, to attend a conference, Mr. Nolte replied that he would attend only if Mr. Bauer also attended. Presumably, Mr. Nolte needed the cover that only someone such as Mr. Bauer could provide.)
“Rethinking the Holocaust,” published earlier this year, climbs to analytical heights over material that can sink the reader to emotional depths, all while contending with every serious school of thought. Contra Elie Wiesel, for example, Mr. Bauer believes the Holocaust can ultimately be explained, even if it has not been, to anyone’s satisfaction. And it is best understood, as all history is, in comparison with other events. “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms,” he writes, using italics for emphasis, “the horror is that it didn’t.” Genocide is the human condition.
Nevertheless, much of “Rethinking” delineates the Holocaust’s historical singularity. First, abstract ideology motivated its perpetrators, rather than the “pragmatic” concerns “central with all other genocides.” Second, it was “global” in scale rather than geographically limited. (Mr. Bauer cites Turkish indifference to Armenians in Jerusalem as a counter-example.) Third, the Nazis intended to round up and eradicate Jews of every age and description, without exception. He does not attempt to compete in the Victimization Olympics, but Mr. Bauer’s dissection of the Holocaust’s uniqueness must figure heavily into all of its historiography— including Mr. Novick’s.
Consideration of gender, Jewish resistance during the war and the virtually complete marginalization of Bundists in the displaced-persons camps afterwards round out this intellectual tour-de-force. “Rethinking” is not a substitute for other Holocaust studies, however. Indeed, it is a consideration of these histories in their totality. Unlike Mr. Novick’s claims that the American discourse is fatally flawed, Mr. Bauer calls for more, not less, discussion of the topic.
Aiding that effort is the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” released by Yale University in April. Editor Walter Laquer marshaled 95 contributors to this 733-page volume. Accessibly written, it covers matters of large historical import and details that all of us would probably rather not think about. How many Jews were killed in Yugoslavia? The entry breaks down the death toll by region, including the Macedonian, Serbian and Croatian territories, as well as a relatively detailed summary of Ustache policy. Separate entries on Jewish resistance in Eastern and Western Europe contain discrete subsections on resistance in the ghettos, in the forests and in the camps. An equally copious entry on gas chambers refutes the thousands of pages of nonsense published by those who deny that the industrial murder machinery existed. The fates of major ghettos are separately delineated. Large entries detail the arcana of racial-citizenship laws, including a chart for dissecting so-called racial lineage.
No entries exist for the Hitler Jugend, the “Horst Wessel Lied” or Sudentenland. There are, however, significant sections on historiography and education. Historians differ over the role of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, the reader is reminded, as well as over the use of a capital “H” in Holocaust. On the other hand, everyone seems to agree that Holocaust education works. Longitudinal studies of students from the Facing History and Ourselves program, for example, demonstrated “more complex thinking about moral issues.”
Universal or particular, genocide or Holocaust (or both), badly understood or completely misunderstood: The murder of Europe’s Jews must be morally understood as evil, incarnate. Mr. Pierce was right about one thing, after all. This discourse’s final point is to damn forever the pernicious evil of Hitlerism.