The Holocaust in American life

by Peter Novick

Book, 1999



Call number

736 NOV



Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999.


Prize-winning historian Peter Novick illuminates the reasons Americans ignored the Holocaust for so long -- how dwelling on German crimes interfered with Cold War mobilization; how American Jews, not wanting to be thought of as victims, avoided the subject. He explores in absorbing detail the decisions that later moved the Holocaust to the center of American life: Jewish leaders invoking its memory to muster support for Israel and to come out on top in a sordid competition over what group had suffered most; politicians using it to score points with Jewish voters. With insight and sensitivity, Novick raises searching questions about these developments. Have American Jews, by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience, given Hitler a posthumous victory, tacitly endorsing his definition of Jews as despised pariahs? Does the Holocaust really teach useful lessons and sensitize us to atrocities, or, by making the Holocaust the measure, does it make lesser crimes seem "not so bad"? What are we to make of the fact that while Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars for museums recording a European crime, there is no museum of American slavery?… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member marialondon
Before anything else, I'd like to comment on some previous (negative) reviews on this book, which said that it was, among other things, 'trite' and 'boring'. The word 'trite' in particular has been mentioned several times by previous reviewers. These 2 characterizations puzzle me, since they seem
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far from what anyone could say about 'The holocaust in American life'. Could this book be called controversial? Sure. Provocative? Perhaps. But trite and boring? No way. The book is interesting and fascinating. This just goes to show how, when lacking arguments, one can just accuse someone or something of being 'trite' and 'boring' and think they've expressed an opinion. What they have done in actuality is express a great big 'nothing'.

Other reviews mention inaccuracies in Novick's book, or accuse him of discussing the representations and discourses of the holocaust, and not the holocaust itself in its historical details. But surely they're missing the point: Novick is looking at the American collective memory of the holocaust, he's looking at the way the discourse around the holocaust is shaped today, including how it was shaped in the past and how and why it has changed. So one could say Novick is a historian of the present moment, interested in how certain ways of talking about the holocaust contribute to the shaping not only of Jewish identity, but also of the identity of the victim, of what suffering means, of what an atrocity is etc. I fail to understand why this is criticized by some reviewers. It seems to me a perfectly legitimate goal, to document the way a discourse is shaped, separately from the actual historical facts of the holocaust as it happened in the '40s.

Furthermore, what Novick does, he does very well. On a subject that is full of minefields and strong emotions, Novick manages to express his arguments clearly and persuasively. His main point (discussed by previous reviewers) is that the way the discourse around the holocaust is shaped in America today is far from self-evident: it was different in the past and could be different in the future. He stresses that a historical understanding of the events of world war 2 & of the holocaust do not lead to only one way of representing it and understanding it in today's culture.

The Holocaust as historical event is one thing. The Holocaust as discourse today, as representation in cultural life, is another. Novick discusses the second, and is very critical of the uniqueness, unrepresentability, incomprehensibility discourse that seems prevalent today. He is also critical of the emphasis on the identity of victim which seems central not only to Jewish Americans, but also to various other groups. His critique is not at all a conservative one, i.e. 'get over it and get on with things'. Far from it, he stresses the importance of memory and history. What he does is question the way this memory and history of the holocaust is shaped and implemented, especially when people end up comparing different historical instances of suffering, always putting the holocaust on top, as the instance of suffering par excellence. Novick insists that such an approach is not only meaningless but also morally problematic: because, as he says, even if there had been 2 or 3 genocides of equal horror before Hitler's one, we would still have to say that what happened in Europe in the '40s was terrible and unique in some ways, similar to other catastrophes in others; we would still have to remember it and fight against anything like it happening in the future. Because really- do we need something to be unique in order to fight against it? The idea of uniqueness, Novick argues, is often used to really talk about an hierarchy of catastrophes, with the Holocaust on top, which can really only serve other goals, far from the actual historical understanding of the Holocaust.

One important point to stress here: this idea of 'serving other goals' does not mean that there is any kind of conspiracy, any far fetched group which plans and plots about how the holocaust will be discussed. This couldn't be further from Novick's point. What he argues is rather more everyday. How all of us, you and I, discuss and understand the holocaust today, has to do with present needs and desires that we have: for example, the need to have a clear moral compass, a guide to show us what the absolute good and what the absolute evil is. It is to an understanding of these needs and desires of all of us that lead to certain ways of understanding the holocaust that Novick addresses his book.

All in all, Novick's book is interesting, thought-provoking and actually a quick and easy read. Its main points are explained well, and I think anyone interested in this subject would find it a very good read.
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LibraryThing member FPdC
This is an outstanding book about the uses (and abuses) of the Holocaust in American life. The author, an american Jew and professor of history at the University of Chicago, traces the way the murder of the European Jewery by the Nazis has been perceived, described, interpreted, and
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instrumentalized in the US since the final stages of the Second World War until the present. He identifies three basic stages: a first two decades period, until the late sixties, when both the cold war conditions and the general optimism of the age was reflected in the slim attention then paid to the Holocaust; a second period, after the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, which coincided with the setting of a generally pessimistic frame of mind after the debacle of the Vietnam, as well as the rise of a culture of victimhood and particularism in American society. These circunstances, together with others more closely related with the thoughts, perceptions, and actions of the leaders of several American Jewish organizations, led to the gradual increase in the importance and centrality of the Holocaust in American public life and discourse. In the last stage, from the eighties onwards, the Holocaust have achieved centre stage and became an event of paramount importance and visibility, translated in pratice in scores of monuments, museums, movies, schools and Universities curricula, books, TV's and newspapers' news, and the ever present political uses by both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and lobies in furthering their particular agendas or in support of Israel. This book, at times angry, at times funny, always brilliantly argued and carefully researched and written, deserves to became a classic.
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Original publication date

2001 (German translation)


0395840090 / 9780395840092
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