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The Holocaust in American Life Paperback – September 20, 2000
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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?
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"...has already established itself as one of the most controversial and thought-provoking discussions of the Holocaust and Jewish identity to date." --JEWISH TRANSCRIPT
"The history book of the year."
The Nation —
About the Author
Peter Novick is professor of history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Resistance Versus Vichy and That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession, which won the American Historical Association's prize for the best book of the year in American history.
- Publisher : Mariner Books; None edition (September 20, 2000)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 382 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0618082328
- ISBN-13 : 978-0618082322
- Item Weight : 15.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.88 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #971,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #598 in Historiography (Books)
- #1,848 in Jewish Holocaust History
- #3,528 in Discrimination & Racism
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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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. Rich with example and documentation--the footnotes and endnotes should be read, too--the book is one I expect to return to in the future. Broad in its scope and well-written, it is generally quite persuasive in the arguments it advances.
I would concur with those critics who fault the author's occasionally overly colloquial style, especially when he is discussing Holocaust deniers. His dismissal of them as "kooks" and "nut cases" detracts from the generally strong case he makes against them.
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.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
It shows how the Holocaust, relatively little discussed in public in World War II and the 1950s and 1960s, has become the leading feature of Jewish identity in the US, and has become central to the way many Jewish organizations in the US present themselves and to the way that Jews are perceived: they have, in effect, become the People of the Holocaust, though Novick does not use this phrase. At the same time, the Holocaust has been `memorialized' as an ahistorical cult in the form of Holocaust remembrance within the context of a broader celebration of victimhood, which is very easily exploited for political ends. Others have, unsurprisingly, jumped on to Holocaust bandwagon, appropriating aspects of its imagery and status.
The first half or so of the book, dealing with developments up to c. 1970, is excellent; the second half, which describes later developments, is also very good, but inevitably more controversial.
Although the book is concerned with the US, many of the more general points apply much more widely. More than a decade after its publication it is still valid and well worth reading.
For me, it answered many questions about the rise of Holocaust cult and its manipulation.
For many, many decades, Canada has been a vassal-state of the U.S., but this intensified with the signing of the Free Trade agreement back in the Mulroney days and intensified even more with the signing of NAFTA. But I think it was with the beginnings of the "war on terror" and the SPP (now apparently abandoned) that our policies and some of our institutions have become indistinguishable -- including our lobbying institutions. In Ottawa, as in Washington, a pro-Israel lobby appears to have politicians from both major parties (and even the NDP) by the short hairs, and a big part of that lobby's ammunition is accusations of something called the "new antisemitism," which is in fact the trend among Canadians of getting fed up with Israel's role as the spoilt brat of the Middle East. Americans bankroll Israel's periodic massacres of Arabs -- as in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09 -- and Canada, along with other nations, gets to pay for the cleanup. Novick's book provides essential background for understanding how Israel gets away with this -- and why it will continue to get away with this indefinitely.
As Novick explains, by permanently securing the gold medal in the "Victim Olympics" of the 1960s (it wasn't hard to get this medal, since the Jewish establishment was the only competitor), Jews have inherited perpetual innocence from their ancestors who perished in the Holocaust. In addition, the Holocaust has been sanctified and made unique -- i.e., no other genocide is as important or as sacred as the Shoah. Therefore, no other genocide really counts in the Victim Olympics.
This sanctification of an atrocity seems to me very Christian. While the Christians have their tortured and bloody prophet nailed to a cross and dying in the blast-furnace of a Middle Eastern afternoon, Jews have their 6 million cadaverous ancestors shuffling into the gas chambers. The Christian tradition never stopped anyone from slaughtering innocents -- indeed, Christians since the time of Constantine have ridden into battle under the sign of the cross. Holocaust religion appears to be following in that bloody tradition, if the massacre of innocents in Lebanon and Gaza is any indication. The scriptural lesson of the Holocaust -- "Never Again" -- clearly exempts Arabs.
I would recommend Novick to anyone seeking to understand these issues.