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There are now more than 100 Holocaust museums and research centres throughout the US and a Holocaust monument in nearly every major US city.

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
Saturday, March 3, 2001


No business like Shoah business

Until prime-time television rammed home the story, most Americans cared little about the genocide of the Jews. Now, writes Detlef Junker, the Holocaust belongs to Uncle Sam and his mission to save the world

ANYONE travelling through the United States in search of the American culture of remembrance would be well advised to carry along Friedrich Nietzsche's famous 1872 essay "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life". Therein he warned Germans against exaggerating the usefulness of an academic history that strives for supposed objectivity. He argued that only a "pre-academic" history, one that arises from present necessities, can help in establishing national identity, as it would be called today.

As an anti-Enlightenment philosopher, Nietzsche recommended that nations acquire history foremost in a monumental and heroic, then in a critical and, finally, in an antiquarian manner. In the first, peoples and individuals enshrine their own great past as an inspiration for the future. In the second, they condemn the past and criticise its deficiencies, again as a way of gaining the impulse for new action. In the third, they preserve and conserve the past as a reminder of their roots.

Nietzsche's view may provide the key for explaining one of the most fascinating phenomena of the present culture of remembrance in the United States: the omnipresence of the Holocaust in American politics and culture in other words, the Americanisation of the Holocaust.

During the past 30 years the Holocaust has moved from the periphery to the centre of American culture. Foreign visitors encounter almost everywhere Holocaust-related products of research and education, as institutionalised in museums, memorials, research centres, universities and schools. In the process, however, the Shoah has been politicised, trivialised and commercialised.

From New York Post after Sept 11Above all, the Holocaust has become the centre of Jewish identity in the United States. In a poll published in 1999 by the American Jewish Committee, 98 per cent of American Jews said they consider the Holocaust to be an important or very important part of their identity, whereas only 15 per cent said that they observe Jewish religious obligations and traditions.

The Holocaust has gained a totally new meaning in American society, due in large part to this shift in the self-perception of what, since 1945, has been in many ways America's most successful minority.

It was predictable that the tension between the Americanisation of the Holocaust and its meaning to the identity of American Jews at some point would initiate a new wave of reflection and criticism. Exactly this reaction now seems to be developing among American intellectuals.

In the past, individual Jewish authors began objecting that the Americanisation of the Holocaust amounted to a "dejudaisation" of the mass annihilation and that the term "Holocaust" was being used to describe any evil visited upon anyone, anywhere. In recent years, works by Tim Cole, Hilene Flanzbaum, Edward Linenthal, Peter Novick, Jeffrey Shandler and James Young have presented an empirical basis for this criticism. Norman Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry recently garnered headlines by exaggerating certain dimensions of this very complex process.

A few examples should serve to illustrate the many aspects of the Americanisation of the Holocaust. Inaugurated in 1993, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, has become one of the most successful museums in American history. It now draws more than 2million visitors each year. Initiated in a gesture of appeasement to American Jews in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, who hoped to make amends domestically after supplying Saudi Arabia with F-15 military aircraft, the museum has become a national shrine. It shows Americans what it means to be American by drastically demonstrating what it means not to be an American.

Hot-dogs stand outside the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

At the outset, critics doubted whether it made sense for a museum in the US capital to document the worst crime ever committed by a foreign nation on a foreign continent. The advisory board responsible for detailing the museum's mission replied:

"This museum belongs at the centre of American life because America, as a democratic civilisation, is the enemy of racism and its ultimate expression, genocide. As an event of universal significance, the Holocaust has special importance for Americans: in act and word the Nazis denied the deepest tenets of the American people."

There are now more than 100 Holocaust museums and research centres throughout the US and a Holocaust monument in nearly every major US city, including New York, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Houston and Dallas. The trend seems to be growing. Americans seem to have in a sense taken trusteeship of one of the worst crimes -- many believe the worst crime -- in European history.

The omnipresence of the Holocaust is evident in the coverage devoted to the subject in the two most politically influential US newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. In 1996, for example, The New York Times published more than 500 Holocaust-related articles, The Washington Post more than 300. And the trend seems to be growing.

Of course, the influence of the written word is far surpassed by that of the visual media: cinema, television, comics and the Internet. The most outstanding example of recent years is Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List, which won seven Academy Awards and was, during its American network broadcast in 1997, accompanied by a statement that there would be no commercial breaks -- an exceptional event for the US. Several other major Holocaust projects are being prepared, including a Spielberg film about Anne Frank.

The Holocaust has become an integral part of American infotainment and political soap operas. Survivors of the Holocaust tell their stories on the trashy Jerry Springer Show. Members of the pro-life movement draw parallels between aborted foetuses and those murdered in Auschwitz. Even a cookbook of recipes from a concentration camp has found a public.


THE present focus on the Holocaust in the United States presents a radical contrast to the situation from World War II, when the genocide was actually taking place, through to the 1960s, the peak of the Cold War. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke often to the American people about the menace unfolding around the globe in the '30s and '40s, he never once publicly referred to the threat confronting the Jews in Europe and in the Third Reich. He was convinced he could not afford to do so, in part because of the anti-Semitism then widespread in the United States. This was also one of the reasons why immigration quotas were never raised to allow Jewish refugees into the US.

Nowadays it is often overlooked that during World War II American attention was drawn primarily to the global conflict being fought on five continents and seven oceans, a conflict that cost 50 million to 60 million lives. The concept of the Holocaust as a unique event had not yet entered the American consciousness. In May 1945, a majority of Americans estimated that a total of only 1million people, Jews and non-Jews, had been murdered in the Nazi concentration camps.

By the early 1950s, about 100,000 Jewish survivors of the genocide had moved to America. Yet they remained practically invisible. In a culture of victors, war heroes and faith in progress, no-one was interested in their stories of suffering. The majority of American Jews did not want to be regarded as victims. Their main goal was to be accepted as equal American citizens. In the late 1940s the leading Jewish organisations rejected a proposal to build a Holocaust memorial in New York, arguing that it was not in the Jewish interest to be eternally depicted as a weak and defenceless people.

The emergence of the Cold War did not make Holocaust memories more opportune. The theory of totalitarianism posited Nazism and communism as a common front against the democratic West. In the course of Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt against communists in America, it transpired that quite a few of the country's fellow travellers were Jewish. Especially in the Southern States, "commies, niggers and Jews" were often denounced in the same breath. During this time, the genocide against the Jews was seldom mentioned in political debate.

The Cold War, moreover, made West Germany an important American ally. Although, from 1945 to the present, the memory of the Third Reich has always played an outstanding role in American policy toward Germany, Washington felt compelled to suspend its initial policy of de-Nazification in light of the growing East-West conflict. Between 1949 and 1955, Allied policymakers gradually ceded control over the way German politics dealt with the past, preferring instead to control the politics of the present. The more pressing issue, in the Allied view, was to oversee the re-armament of West Germany and its integration into the West.

Starting in the early 1960s, a series of events and developments served to reverse this situation and initiate what can now be called the Americanisation of the Holocaust. In the beginning was the picture. If it had not been for television, such a transformation would not have been possible.

A turning point came with the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which received heavy coverage on American television. For the first time Americans were exposed to the devastating accounts of survivors and became aware of the full dimensions of the genocide. Presumably just as important were the threats to Israel's survival during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Arab-Israeli conflict served to associate more closely the two until-then largely separate pillars of the Jewish-American "civil religion": Israel and the Holocaust. The fear of a new disaster for the Jewish people reinforced their resolution never again to remain silent, never again to stand by and watch. For many Jewish communities, that fear provided a new raison d'être. The Holocaust became an ecumenical movement a source of unity within the great diversity of the Jewish-American people.

In practical terms, the newly aroused interest in the Holocaust proved useful in raising donations for Israel, in increasing membership in Jewish organisations and in demonstrating the necessity of their programs. In the words of a spokesman for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in California: "The Holocaust works every time."

Simon Wiesenthal. "The Holocaust works every time"

Many people today argue that the decisive breakthrough in the Americanisation of the Holocaust came with the broadcast in 1978 of the four-part television mini-series Holocaust, which was watched by nearly 100 million Americans. Jewish organisations financed advertising for the series, much to the dismay of Elie Wiesel, perhaps the best-known Holocaust survivor, who condemned this as a "trivialisation" of the Holocaust and an insult to its survivors.

Still, all this might never have led to the present form of the Holocaust's treatment in America if not for the cultural revolution that occurred in the US during the 1960s. That, in any case, is one of Peter Novick's most stimulating theses. The content of this revolution involved a shift from a dominant culture of winners and heroes to a culture that also gave voice to losers and victims. As a result of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the revolutionary changes in US immigration policy, the Nietzschean critical approach to history began to gain ground against the heroic-patriotic version.

This more critical view of the American past has been used ever since as a moral weapon by minorities and women in the political fight for social recognition, privileges and rights. Novick sees in all this a competition for the "gold medal in the Victimisation Olympics", a contest in which American Jews can maintain an insurmountable lead, as long as they can convince Americans of the unique and incommensurable quality of the Holocaust. All other crimes, including those in American history, become secondary.

A number of African-American leaders are indignant at the extent to which Jews have succeeded in anchoring the Holocaust in US public awareness. Even John Hope Franklin, a respected African-American historian and adviser to President Clinton on racial issues, describes slavery as "America's own Holocaust".

Other minorities also want a greater acknowledgment of America's "other side". The murderous consequences of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere were recently termed the "American Holocaust" by a US researcher who is also a native of Hawaii. Equally problematic are the slaughter and dispossession of the Native Americans, slavery and the apartheid system that reigned in the American South until just a generation ago, and the long history of anti-Asian immigration policies.

Novick argues that this new victim culture has contributed substantially to the Americanisation of the Holocaust. The transformation has enabled survivors of the mass murder to open up and share their memories with the public. After the war, they practically hid themselves; now, they are in universal demand as speakers and witnesses to history. The term "survivor" has become an honorary title. Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Al Gore's running mate in last year's presidential election, gained a special aura of dignity and respect by introducing herself to voters as a "child of Holocaust survivors".

While the cultural revolution of the 1960s fortified the critical approach to history and the acceptance of a victim culture, the most important reason for the popularity of the Holocaust among the 98 per cent of Americans who are not Jewish seems to be that it enables the US to reconfirm its old role as the world's saviour.

Recalling the atrocities of a foreign nation, of Germany, helps to externalise evil and confirm one's own heroic-patriotic perception of history. The reason for the Americanisation of the Holocaust can primarily be traced to the fact that the genocide of European Jews offers Americans both a critical and heroic perspective on history.

Despite the new victim culture and the increased popularity of critical historical theory, the overwhelming majority of Americans still view their history in triumphal terms. According to recent polls, 70 per cent of Americans regard themselves as "patriotic" or "very patriotic". While still critical of some aspects of US history, this majority celebrates its past with robust self-confidence, as the progressive development of freedom and a call to future generations to fulfil the American mission.

David Irving comments:

Like all other commentators in the national media, this conformist German history scholar avoids mentioning the one feature that keeps the wheels of the Holocaust industry spinning: Greed. The Holocaust has turned into a huge money-making machine, a means of "bludgeoning" innocent multinational corporations into handing over huge sums of money to people and organisations who do not in the ordinary sense of the words deserve it.

American history is encapsulated in this ideology of mission. To use Nietzsche's term, the country's past is enveloped in a "shrouded atmosphere" that protects it against serious criticism and bestows upon it the ability to contribute to the American national identity and secure it from the "other" or "outsider" and all that is alien to America.

The Americanisation of the Holocaust, the constant struggle against absolute evil, gives the American nation the perpetual opportunity to revalidate the necessity of its liberal democratic mission. The 2 million visitors to the Holocaust museum in Washington experience this dialectic at close range. After confronting overwhelming scenes of inhumanity in the museum, they re-emerge in the commemorative centre of the nation's capital, amid the monuments of the American mission.

Detlef Junker is the Curt Engelhorn Foundation Professor of American History at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. This article first appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.





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