Spinning the Holocaust

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Elie Wiesel visited the refugee camps in Macedonia last week, a few days before the prospect of peace broke out. Wiesel explicitly refused to compare the Kosovo tragedy to the Holocaust, saying, "I don't believe in drawing analogies." But there can be little doubt that the Clinton Administration, which has repeatedly invoked parallels between Kosovo and the Shoah, had exactly that in mind. As a U.S. embassy spokesman in Macedonia told the New York Times, Americans were losing focus on the reasons for our Balkan mission, and so "you need a person like Wiesel to keep your moral philosophy on track."

Perhaps. But as Peter Novick recounts in his provocative book The Holocaust in American Life, the century's signature cataclysm has been regularly applied in places as diverse as Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia, to mixed effect. Some may argue that the Holocaust talk regarding Kosovo was justified, rallying support for a long bombing campaign. Now that this particular Hitler is at the bargaining table, however, the rhetoric, and its harsh implications, will most likely be quietly dropped as inconvenient.

Should there be some sort of penalty for promiscuous use of the Holocaust? Or does it exert such a hold on us that merely suggesting its limits as a model seems a sacrilege? Novick, a University of Chicago historian and a self-described secular Jew, is no Holocaust denier. But he is a ferocious chronicler of the way various agendas and accidents have conspired to make the Shoah ever more central to our consciousness. And he wonders whether this attention "is as desirable...as most people seem to think it is." It's a controversial thesis, made more so by the book's intensely polemical tone. Says James Young, a University of Massachusetts Holocaust expert who is advising the city of Berlin on its much disputed memorial: "Peter's a very good historian, and he wants to close the gap between the knowledge of historians and of the public. And to that I say, 'Great. But good luck.'"

Novick takes on a formidable list of received truths. The claim that America could have saved hundreds of thousands of Jews from death, but chose not to, he says, is "simply bad history." The estimate that the Nazis slaughtered 5 million Gentiles in addition to the (well-documented) 6 million Jews, for a total of 11 million, is arbitrary, probably "invented" to combine "maximum inclusiveness with the preservation of a Jewish majority" in the death camps. Contradicting reports that the Nazis killed 500,000 homosexuals, Novick puts the number murdered because they were gay at a startlingly low 5,000.

Novick asserts that the Holocaust as we know it today--a transcending event with unique world-historical significance--is largely a "retrospective construction" that would have been unrecognizable just after World War II, when both Jews and Gentiles had reasons to avoid focusing on it. (Jews didn't want to be perceived as victims; America as a whole had embraced West Germany as a cold war ally.) Our current concept of the term, he writes, began to emerge with the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann and became ingrained when American Jewish organizations found it a potent metaphor for their fears about Israel's survival following the Six-Day War in 1967 and the October War in 1973.

Later, as Israel's policies became more controversial, the Holocaust was left as "virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late 20th century." It was dragooned in support of such Jewish preoccupations as the (bogus, claims Novick) "new anti-Semitism" of the 1970s and the real (but bloodless) threat of intermarriage. Its appeal to Americans at large grew as the nation's post-Vietnam mood turned dystopian and identity politics put a premium on victimhood. The best example of the resulting crossover appeal was the influential nbc mini-series Holocaust in 1978, intensively promoted by Jewish agencies but originally intended by its network as an answer to the seminal identity-promoting TV event, Roots.

Novick criticizes the bloating and misuse of the Holocaust in the 1980s and is scathing on what he calls "deeply offensive" claims of Holocaust uniqueness. He agrees with author Leon Wieseltier that survivors have become "the Jewish equivalent of saints and relics," and suspects that the growing cadre of "Holocaust professionals" assures that such trends will not reverse anytime soon.

Attending Schindler's List, Novick writes that he wept along with everyone else, but wondered "why the eliciting of these responses from Americans is seen as so urgently important a task." The remark betrays a certain tone-deafness. The Holocaust's memory, in this country far from the death camps, may be inflated and abused. But it seems perverse to argue on that basis that it is unworthy of American tears. This book should be read as a corrective to dutiful hype and dubious comparisons, not as an injunction against feeling.