A scholar argues that Americans are obsessed with the Holocaust

By making the Nazis’ crimes the benchmark for oppression, he writes, we risk trivializing other atrocities

Hermann Göring never intended the death camps to act as classrooms, and people weren’t sanctified by gas chambers, they died in them. Not even David Duke would argue otherwise.

But try proposing that the Holocaust offers no lessons at all, and that most Americans know more about this European event than know that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, for reasons that have as much to do with the Cold War as World War II. Then declare that many American Jews today use the Holocaust to win the gold medal in a “victimization Olympics.”

Now you’ve got fighting words.

Peter Novick, who makes those arguments in his new book, The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin), insists he’s not looking for trouble.


He admits he knew from the first day of his research that a book arguing that Americans pay too much attention to the Holocaust would make a lot of people angry. Not just survivors still haunted by the event, but also those for whom the Holocaust serves as an organizing tool.

That is a big and diverse group: fund raisers for Jewish organizations who use the Holocaust as a scare tactic; Middle East hawks and Balkan bombers who claim it as a justification for contemporary U.S. policies toward Israel and Yugoslavia; Cold Warriors who defend questionable steps taken in the cause of anti-Communism 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 call attention to issues as varied as abortion, big government, the death penalty, the right to bear arms, and animal rights.

Mr. Novick has a warning for them all: The Holocaust makes a dangerous political football, and an even riskier moral cudgel. In fact, he seems to suggest, it is most similar to a boomerang, one that is likely to fly in the face of whoever throws it.

“The desire to find and teach lessons of the Holocaust has various sources,” he 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.”



The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 28, 1999