Bigger Than History

A U. of C. historian is trying to put the Holocaust in perspective.

By Jeff Sharlet

Hermann Goring never intended the death camps to act as classrooms, and people weren’t sanctified by the gas chambers, they died in them. No one would argue otherwise.

But try proposing that the Holocaust offers no lessons at all, or suggesting that most Americans know more about it than they do about the bombing of Hiroshima–that will raise hackles, for reasons that have as much to do with the cold war as World War II. Then try declaring that many American Jews today use the Holocaust to win the gold medal in the “Victimization Olympics.”

Those are fighting words. Yet Peter Novick–who makes those arguments in his book, The Holocaust in American Life, recently published by Houghton Mifflin–insists he’s not looking for trouble. “I hate–hate–bad-tempered argument,” he says. “Makes my stomach churn.” Novick swats the air as if discord were a fly he could shoo out the window. He scowls, then grins. Bad-tempered argument seems to have flown off into the sunshine outside his office at the University of Chicago, where Novick is a tenured professor of history. “But I also hate the idea of being the kind of person who wouldn’t say what he has to say because there are people who are going to give him shit.”

Novick slices the air to bits as he talks, dismissing questions he considers foolish with good-natured curses and guffaws. “Look,” he says, “a young person who didn’t have tenure could make excuses. But I’m here.” He gestures around the room he’s occupied for 25 years–he’s been at the U. of C. for 33–which is personalized with a poster pantheon: Marx, Marilyn, Kafka, Bogart, Einstein, Mickey Mouse, Billie Jean King. “I don’t have those excuses,” he says. And, he concedes, he’s sometimes “delighted to pursue disagreement.”

Novick admits he knew from day one of his research that his book would make a lot of people angry–and not just survivors. There’s a large and diverse group for whom the Holocaust is a tool: fund-raisers for Jewish organizations who use it as a scare tactic; Middle East and Balkan hawks who claim it as a justification for contemporary policies in Israel and Yugoslavia; cold warriors who defend questionable steps in the cause of anticommunism by equating the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany; exceptionalists who insist that attempts to compare the Holocaust to other events border on sacrilege; and universalists who use the Holocaust to frame issues as varied as abortion, big government, the death penalty, the right to bear arms, and animal rights.

“The desire to find and teach lessons of the Holocaust has various sources,” Novick writes. “Probably one of its principal sources is the hope of extracting from the Holocaust something that is, if not redemptive, at least useful.” But, he adds, “I doubt it can be done.”

Novick was certainly not looking for a fight when he began research on The Holocaust in American Life ten years ago (it came out early this summer). For most of his career and life, hot-button questions in the Jewish community haven’t concerned him. In fact, he doesn’t believe such a community exists: American Jews, he says, have almost nothing in common. They don’t share religious or political beliefs; their cultural traits are more determined by where they live than by their ancestry; they’re not united against anti-Semitism because, despite Benjamin Smith, it’s diminished over the decades; and Zionism, once a unifying principle, is for the majority of Jews now a pretty abstract concept. The only thing American Jews share, he writes, “is the knowledge that, but for the immigration of near or distant ancestors,” they too would have suffered the death sentence of European Jewry.

Novick is himself the product of the assimilated Jewish world. He grew up in Jersey City, where his family lived above his father’s paint store. He was bar mitzvahed, but only, he says, so his grandfather wouldn’t have a heart attack. His first book, a study of the purge of Vichy collaborators in liberated France, skimmed Jewish history but didn’t make contact. His second–That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, published in 1988–diagnosed the state of his own scholarly community.

He says now that there was “never any ambiguity about the fact that I’m Jewish. It just has never been a central defining factor.” But around the time he was finishing That Noble Dream he began to notice that the Holocaust had grown om-nipresent in America–a situation he thought led to “a circling of the wagons” among American Jews, “a posture of moral superiority.” It bothered him. “For some-body who is not a victim to think of themselves as a victim in a culture in which, in a perverse way, that’s a high-status position–that just seems to me grotesque,” he says.

In his book Novick asks, Why do many American politicians tell their constituents that watching Schindler’s List is a kind of moral duty? Why do college students oversubscribe courses on the Holocaust while they neglect nearly every other episode of Jewish history? Why do Jewish adolescents report “that they were never so proud to be a Jew” as during visits to Treblinka or Auschwitz? Nazi Germany’s mass murder has become a “collective memory,” he says, a recollection of the past as much determined by the present as by what actually happened. And collective memory, Novick writes, “is in crucial senses ahistorical, even antihistorical.” By detaching the Holocaust from history, he argues, Americans have been able to think of it as an experience with immediate relevance for themselves rather than one lodged in the European past. By the same token, they can speak of it as incomparable, even as sacred.

But to Novick there’s nothing sacred about mass murder. And the claim of uniqueness is vacuous: “Every historical event, including the Holocaust, in some ways resembles events to which it might be compared and differs from them in some ways. These resemblances and differences are a perfectly proper subject for discussion.”

So Novick decided to look at the history of our perceptions of the Holocaust. What’s odd, given how much anxiety there is today about how and when to talk about it, is how little anyone cared to do so for many years afterward–it wasn’t even known as “the Holocaust” until the early 1960s. When the war ended, there were supposedly two major but contradictory responses to Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry. First, motivated by guilt over their inaction during the war, the nations of the world helped Israel establish itself. Second, the recent trauma of the war led Americans to repress discussion of the atrocity.

But neither of these attitudes is substantiated by history, Novick argues. He points out that the majority of United Nations votes in favor of partition came from Latin American countries–which, given their location and poverty, could hardly have felt guilty for not having done more to intervene in World War II atrocities. The Soviet Union’s support was most likely motivated by a desire to weaken British power in the Middle East, not by concern for Jews. And Great Britain–which arguably had good reason to feel guilty about the Holocaust–did not support the resolution.

Just as other nations’ guilt did not play a large role in the foundation of Israel, so American Jews remained silent after the war, writes Novick, because of “revolutionary changes in world alignments.” As of 1945, Germany became a key ally in Americans’ new fight–against the Soviet Union. The concept of totalitarianism, until then infrequently used, allowed the United States to conflate the old enemy and the new, focusing on supposed similarities between the Nazi and Soviet regimes. It was essential to that process to play down specific Nazi villainies in favor of the sin of an all-encompassing ideology–a sin from which democracy had allegedly rescued Germany. Time, Novick notes, warned that the deaths of Hitler’s victims “would only be meaningful if we drew the appropriate anti-Soviet moral.”

Meanwhile American Jewish organizations labored to differentiate their memberships from the victims in Europe–in part because they were politically suspect among communist-fearing Americans during the cold war. Such groups pursued a course of silence: no mainstream organization gathered oral histories from survivors, none sponsored academic scholarship, almost no one spoke out when the United States quietly dropped its denazification efforts in West Germany soon after the war ended. The Holocaust was in the past–and so, hoped American Jews, was anti-Semitism; ahead lay assimilation.

It wasn’t until 1960 and the Israeli trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann that the massacre of European Jewry caught America’s attention. Even then there was nothing close to a consensus on it. Mainstream publications such as the Wall Street Journal editorialized that prosecuting Nazi war criminals would benefit communism by provoking anti-German feeling and distracting from anti-Soviet sentiment; the paper smeared the effort as an instance of “Old Testament retribution.”

Then came the Six-Day War of 1967. Novick argues that although the war put Israel in no real danger, it evoked fears of a second Holocaust that made contemplation of the first seem an imperative for Jews and gentiles alike. When the 1973 war turned much of world opinion against Israel, the Holocaust became a crucial fund-raising tool for Jewish organizations: Israel was increasingly divorced from Jewish-American life, but the Holocaust could be presented as everyone’s concern. And yet it set Jews apart–which, after years of assimilation, suddenly seemed necessary. By the late 1970s, Novick writes, most Jewish groups were using the specter of mass murder as the surest way to build membership. As one of the philanthropists who started the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California noted, “The Holocaust works every time.”

Since the 1970s, Novick writes, the Holocaust has been viewed as “not just a Jewish memory, but an American memory.” The turning point, he argues, was the 1978 television miniseries Holocaust, viewed by 100 million people. Several more specials followed, all with high ratings among gentile viewers, and movies, Broadway musicals, and novels came after, all featuring a pantheon of morally pure survivor-heroes. In effect the mass media transformed the Holocaust from a terrifyingly complex historical instance of rare evil into a universal lesson plan about the unquenchable human spirit.

Novick isn’t buying. “Along with most historians,” he writes, “I’m skeptical about the so-called lessons of history. I’m especially skeptical about the sort of pithy lessons that fit on a bumper sticker.” The problem, as he sees it, is that using the Holocaust as a moral standard undermines the need for worldwide responses to genocide, a need that can be nullified by the Holocaust’s very extremity. One million killed in Rwanda? That’s ten million short of the Holocaust. (That is, if one uses the widely cited figure of 11 million murdered Jews and gentiles–a number that owes more to contemporary politics than to historical fact. Novick points out that the actual number was a few million lower or many millions higher, depending on how one counts the victims.)

Further, ignoring the Holocaust’s historical complexities and looking for “universal lessons” leads to either the obvious–hate is bad–or the specious: abortion is akin to Nazism, for instance. “One of the latent functions of Holocaust discourse is to allow not very bright people to get listened to respectfully when they utter pseudo-profound banalities,” Novick says.

Some critics of Novick’s work agree, but think that’s exactly why scholars need to increase their attention to the Holocaust, not lessen it. “It’s not that there’s too much discussion of the Holocaust,” says David G. Roskies, a professor of literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “It’s that it’s the wrong discussion.” Roskies–whose new book, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past, examines efforts to forge a nuanced Jewish identity out of a wide variety of historical sources–says he hopes Novick’s book will at least “clear the air” for new approaches to the Holocaust. He says “the time is right” for a book like this one, though he dislikes what he sees as Novick’s anti-Zionist bias and believes that many of the book’s best points have already been covered by other scholars.

“People will accept anything that lays the demon of the Holocaust to rest,” Roskies says, though they won’t necessarily buy into the book’s whole argument or realize the Holocaust has been abused for political ends. Rather, “people are tired of the Holocaust, and they’re going to listen to the first person who blows the whistle and says, ‘Too much.'” Roskies also notes that the book is finding admirers among a more discriminating audience–historians–a fact he finds dismaying given what he sees as Novick’s dismissal of many respected scholars.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of religion at Emory University, is one Novick singles out for criticism, citing her work as an example of what he sees as the sanctification of the Holocaust: she argues that it’s unique and that denial of that uniqueness is “far more insidious than outright denial” that it happened. Lipstadt says, “Yes, I think the Holocaust unique. Does that mean there are no comparisons? Of course not.” She does believe, however, that the Holocaust was more severe than other events with which it’s been compared, such as the massacres and starvation in Cambodia and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. The latter crisis is not worse than it is, she argues, because of lessons learned from the Holocaust. “We’ve acted late, but we’ve acted,” she says. “No, we haven’t learned enough–but we have learned something.”

Novick argues, however, that the Holocaust has helped the West evade moral responsibility in places such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Making the Holocaust “the benchmark of oppression and atrocity,” he says, trivializes crimes on a smaller scale. He points out that much of American debate on the Bosnian conflict “focused on whether what was going on was ‘truly holocaustal or merely genocidal,'” an argument he describes as “truly disgusting” but inevitable “when the Holocaust becomes the touchstone of moral and political discourse.”

Knocking the Holocaust off its pedestal may be controversial, but Novick has found allies among scholars glad to see popular Holocaust narratives challenged. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, calls The Holocaust in American Life “long overdue,” and Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of history at Brandeis University, suggests that “it may be the most brilliant, iconoclastic, and controversial Holocaust study since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

But Novick doesn’t want to be a philosopher. “I’m not interested in questions of capital-G Good and capital-E Evil,” he says. “What do you want? I’m for the former and against the latter.” Instead he finds his model in medieval England. “There was an office called the remembrancer,” he says. “What the remembrancer was supposed to do was remember things everybody else had forgotten, or didn’t want to know, or didn’t want to look at.” What Americans seem afraid to look at now, he says, is not the Holocaust itself–we’ve stared at it too long–but the question of how that dark event came to shine so brightly that it blinds us half a century later.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.