Between 1945 and 1947 the United States underwent perhaps the most breathtaking ideological transformation in its history. “The Good War,” which had united America with Russia to save Western civilization from Nazi barbarism, ended, and within two years the incarnation of evil had been relocated: Germany was suddenly our ally in defending freedom from the USSR.
This astonishing ideological shift was accomplished by invoking the theory of totalitarianism, which held that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were “essentially alike.” Whatever the intellectual strengths or weaknesses of the theory, it served to marginalize talk about what we today call the Holocaust: The suggestion that the destruction of European Jewry was the defining feature of the Nazi regime undermined the logic of the cold war by denying the essential similarity of Hitler and Stalin. The dizzying reversal redefined discussion of German war crimes as evidence of disloyalty to the “free world.”
A riveting new book by historian Peter Novick describes how “the Holocaust” as we speak of it today–a singular event–barely existed in Jewish consciousness or anybody else’s at the end of World War II and for many years afterward. American Jews had learned by 1945 about the fate of “the 6 million.” But for Jews and non-Jews alike, it was the overall course of the war and the deaths of 50 million people that were the dominant facts. Jews understood themselves to be one group among many that suffered immense and heartbreaking losses.
During the fifties, Novick shows, the Holocaust was not held up as a source of historical lessons but rather as something terrible that had ended. The principal instruction the public took from the war arose not from Hitler but from Hiroshima–an urgent theme underscored by civil defense drills and bomb-shelter hysteria. Since Americans were both the perpetrators of atomic bombing and potential victims, it made sense that nuclear anxieties should dominate public consciousness about world politics.
So Jews in the fifties weren’t talking about the Holocaust or defining themselves in primary terms as the victims of Hitler. They sought integration into American society and culture; they embraced the fifties liberal “family of man” ethos. Now, Novick poses a simple question: How, then, did consciousness of the Holocaust, evident most recently in the enormous triumph of Schindler’s List, become so pervasive in American culture? Novick, a University of Chicago professor who previously wrote a prizewinning study of the history profession, also examines what is most puzzling to him about this consciousness: The Holocaust didn’t happen here, and survivors and their descendants make up but a tiny proportion of the Jewish population.
Novick’s contention is that “the Holocaust” was constructed twenty-five years after the war in a way that would not have been recognizable to Jews or gentiles in 1945. Indeed, Novick shows that while the Holocaust as such was hardly talked about from 1945 to 1965, from the seventies on it became increasingly central to Jewish self-consciousness. Despite the fact that after World War II Jews became the best-educated, most politically effective and wealthiest ethnic group in American society, official Judaism since the seventies has increasingly drawn on the Holocaust to portray Jews as victims, pitting them against other groups seeking redress–especially through affirmative action–for their own victimization.