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The Holocaust in American Life Hardcover – June 1, 1999

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin; First Edition edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395840090
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395840092
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,234,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

In the first decades following World War II, Americans rarely discussed the Holocaust. Now, remembering the Holocaust has become a fundamental part of Jewish identity; gentiles, too, view the Holocaust as a touchstone of moral solemnity. In The Holocaust and American Life, Peter Novick asks why, and his answers are both sensible and shocking. He explains the immediate postwar silence about the Holocaust by reviewing the basics of cold war politics: just after the liberation of the concentration camps, Americans were called upon to sympathize with "gallant Berliners" who resisted the Soviets and built a wall against Communism--an "enormous shift from one set of alignments to another," Novick notes. Novick then leads readers through the series of events that brought the Holocaust to the forefront of American consciousness--the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Six-Day War, the Carter administration's Israel policy, and the construction of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Among Novick's most controversial ideas is his assertion that American Jews spoke softly of the Holocaust at first because they didn't want to be seen as victims; later, Jews decided that victim status would work in their best political interest. Or, as Novick puts it, "Jews were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics." The Holocaust in American Life is as carefully researched and argued as it is polemical and probing. Novick does not suffer Holocaust deniers lightly, and he is empathic toward victims and survivors, but he has no tolerance for false sentiment. One wishes that more people would ask, as Novick does, what kind of a country would spend millions of dollars on a museum honoring European Jewish Holocaust victims instead of a monument to its own shameful history of black slavery. --Michael Joseph Gross

From Booklist

Why has the Holocaust, five decades after its conclusion, remained such a burning issue in the consciousness of Americans, both Jews and Gentiles? After all, most historical events fade from memory with the passage of time and the deaths of those who directly experienced the events. Yet, despite the occurrence of more recent and certainly quite horrific mass atrocities, from Cambodia to Rowanda, the Holocaust continues to play a central role in American public discourse. In this unsettling and fascinating work, Novick, a Jew and a professor of history at the University of Chicago, examines how a variety of domestic and foreign events have moved Holocaust consciousness to the center of American life and kept it there. The author unhesitatingly probes touchy subjects, including the role of Holocaust consciousness in cold war politics, the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust, and even the supposed "obsession" of American Jews (few of whom are Holocaust survivors) with the Holocaust. This is an important work that is bound to irritate, even outrage, many readers. Jay Freeman

Customer Reviews

An invaluable work.
Novick in this regard as both books appear to be well done academic works and the subsequent "debate" could add to the understanding of the controversial topic.
R. Leslie Turbeville
All in all, Novick's book is interesting, thought-provoking and actually a quick and easy read.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Cassandra on August 24, 2006
Format: Paperback
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 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.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Richard E. Hegner on July 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the most intellectually stimulating books I have ever encountered. While few people with probably agree with everything the author has to say, he has written a thoughtful, thoroughly researched examination of how the idea of the Holocaust--and popular thinking about that tragedy among both Jewish and Gentile Americans--has evolved over the 60 years since the outbreak of World War II. He also has the courage to challenge conventional thinking as well as the beliefs of generally revered leaders like David Ben Gurion and Elie Wiesel.
The book does an excellent job of linking popular thinking about the Holocaust with concurrent historical trends and developments, including the more intense American focus on the Pacific as opposed to the European theatre for much of the war, the lack of appreciation during and immediately after the war for the immensity of the Jewish genocide, the emergence of the Cold War (together with the "discovery" of common totalitarian threads between Nazism and Stalinism), the "rehabilitation" of Germany after Stalin took over Eastern Europe, changing views about "victimization" in American popular culture, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and Hannah Arendt's controversial analysis of it, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973, as well as the decline in American anti-semitism in general at the same time that radical black activists were employing anti-Jewish rhetoric.
One of the most important contributions of the book is its discussion of the alleged "uniqueness" of the Holocaust, which the author shows to be both historically inaccurate and dangerous in leading down the slippery slope where any other more recent catastrophes and disasters are minimized in comparison.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By R. Leslie Turbeville on December 9, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This excellent book could have only been written by an historian with ties to Judaism and much of it was destined to fall on deaf ears on both sides of the political/cultural divide. Being a non-Jew but interested in politics, this book seems to mesh well with other books that are nominally on the subject and my own experience. My favorite, aside from this one, is Culture of Critique by Kevin MacDonald which appears to have been received as a mixed blessing, like this one, by the "Jewish community" judging from some of the reviews and the author's comments in an update. It would be good to hear from Prof. Novick in this regard as both books appear to be well done academic works and the subsequent "debate" could add to the understanding of the controversial topic.

Several books could help a serious reader, and Paul Johnson's History of the Jews, especially the last part on Zion, is among others in that category. The Holocaust Industry by Norman G. Finkelstein, Salvation is from the Jews by Roy H. Schoeman and The Politics of Anti-Semitism by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair are not academic works but provided this writer with some good background of the diversity of Jewish opinions on the subject.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By George on December 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Professor Novick has written a superb critique of the extent to which an preoccupation with the Holocaust dominates American-Jewish organizational agendas and priorities, along with a rigorous historical account of how we got here. This is really a book which should be read by all Jews who care at all about the activities of those organizations that purport to speak for the American Jewish community--and indeed, by all Jews who are concerned about American Jewish culture and society.
I'm afraid that Jew haters will find a certain amount here that will be useful to their cause.
A determination not to write anything that might potentially provide ammunition to Jew haters would only lead to a paralysis that prevented one from writing anything about Jews. Rest assured that Novick, a secularist Jew and University of Chicago historian, is the farthest thing one could imagine from a Holocaust denier. He quite properly dismisses them as "a tiny band of cranks, kooks, and misfits". Historians do not need to concern themselves with refuting Holocaust deniers any more than they would need to concern themselves with refuting Civil War deniers, slavery deniers, Roman Empire deniers, or flat-earthers.
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