Has America got the Holocaust all wrong?

Replica of a Holocaust train boxcar to transport Jews and other victims. Image: Holocaust Memorial Museum Washington, Wikipedia

JVL Introduction

While the Board of Deputies (without a vote of its members) is strongly in favour, as is the self-appointed Jewish  Leadership Council, many Jewish people who would normally not be out of step with the “mainstream communal membership” are deeply opposed as are some Holocaust survivors.

We intend to cover the debate in the near future.

Meanwhile Noah Berlatsky’s views from the States raise interesting questions overall about the nature and purpose of Holocaust memorialisation.

As he remarks in the essay below “if remembering the Holocaust was supposed to preserve democracy and prevent an upsurge of bigotry and fascism in America, then how we remember the Holocaust hasn’t worked very well at all.”

[Amended: 9 Aug at 22.20]

This article was originally published by Haaretz on Thu 15 Jul 2021. Read the original here.

Has America got the Holocaust all wrong?

In America, fascism is rising. And all our talk about the Holocaust, that it would ward off bigotry, hatred, and totalitarianism, all our museums, memorials, movies and school curricula, hasn’t stopped it

America loves to talk about the Holocaust.

The Nazi genocide is commemorated in numerous museums and memorials, not least the much-revered, federally-supported United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC – which recently made headlines again, thanks to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who used a visit to the museum as a backdrop to half-heartedly apologize for comparing facemasks to the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear.

Numerous works of art about the Nazi genocide have become cultural touchstones for the English-speaking world: Anne Frank’s Diary (1947); Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man (1959); Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960); Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus (1980); Lois Lowry’s YA novel Number the Stars (1989); Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993). Arkansas just passed a law making the Holocaust a required component of the curriculum in public schools, joining 18 other U.S. states.

The art, the curriculum, and the museums are all justified on the same grounds. Remembering the Holocaust, Americans agree, is important; we must not forget Nazi atrocities lest we repeat them. That argument has been made so often it seems both natural and unquestionable.

A limestone head of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Wiesel, carved into the Human Rights Porch of Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral. Danielle E. Thomas/Washington National Cathedral

But historian Peter Novick questioned it. His classic 1999 study, The Holocaust in American Life, argued that America’s fascination with the Holocaust was neither particularly logical nor morally enlightening. Two decades later, in the middle of a right-wing resurgence in both America and around the globe, it’s worth considering whether the U.S. focus on past fascist threats have actually helped us deal with current ones.

Novick’s remorselessly good-humored and even-handed monograph begins by arguing convincingly that during and immediately after World War II there was no real concept in the U.S. consciousness of the Holocaust as a distinct, standalone genocide of Jewish people in particular.

Some 75 million people died in World War II; for those who lived through it, the targeting of Jews was one horror among many. Even the role of U.S. troops in liberating the concentration camps didn’t focus attention specifically on the fate of Jews – in part because it was followed so quickly by Hiroshima, and in part because most of those freed were in fact non-Jewish political prisoners. It was Soviet troops in the East who liberated the death camps and their few Jewish survivors.

In the immediate post-war period, Jews themselves weren’t so keen to highlight their acute loss. In both the U.S. and Israel, Jews were reluctant to see themselves, or to present themselves, as helpless victims. Instead, they were determined to link Jewish suffering to the total U.S. war effort to defeat fascism.

When they discussed the genocide of Jewish people, they did so in universal terms, as one more sign of Nazi inhumanity and evil. “Jews have become the victims of the Fascist terrorism because they are the unbowed protagonists of freedom, faith, democracy,” Rabbi Stephen S. Wise wrote in 1943.

It wasn’t until the 1961 Adolph Eichmann trial, and especially until Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, that Jews in the United States really began to embrace Holocaust memory. Before that point, many American Jews had not been especially interested in or focused on Israel, Novick says.

But the sudden fear that the country would be wiped out led to an upswell of Zionism, which was often linked to the experience of the Holocaust. “Never again,” took on a pointed meaning when Jews in Israel were facing what appeared to be an existential threat.

The centrality of the Holocaust to Jewish identity flourished in the ensuing years, as a disillusioned, post-Civil Rights Movement, post-Vietnam America began to confer less blame and more virtue, solidarity and empathy in victimhood. As Novick drily notes, “There has been a change in the attitude toward victimhood from a status all but universally shunned and despised to one often eagerly embraced.”

Like Italian-Americans who successfully lobbied for Columbus Day, white American Jews were very much assimilated and had few remaining barriers to success in the United States. Paradoxically for that reason, they were in a position to enshrine their own past history in museums, art, and national consciousness in a way that Black people, native people, and Armenian Americans rarely could.

U.S. Sec. State Antony Blinken speaks at launch of the U.S.- Germany Dialogue on Holocaust Issues at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany

Jewish leaders and survivors like Elie Wiesel framed the Holocaust as a unique tragedy, giving Jews a singular position as the iconic, peerless victims of genocide. They also claimed America could have done more to help Jews during the Holocaust, though their arguments were historically dicey – Allied planes were completely incapable of precision bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz, as just one example.

Nonetheless, Jewish organizations argued the United States was honor and guilt bound to support Israel. Whether these arguments were effective is another question. Novick doubts that any U.S. government ever really privileged guilt over political and geopolitical concerns; strategic concerns, national interest and an appeal to Jewish and, later, evangelical Christian, votes counted for far more.

In addition to providing an impetus to support Israel, commemorating the Holocaust was also supposed to teach enduring lessons about bigotry, hatred, and totalitarianism. Two decades ago, Novick was already skeptical. “In the United States, memory of the Holocaust is so banal, so inconsequential…precisely because it is so uncontroversial, so unrelated to real divisions in American society,” he suggested.

The Holocaust was someone else’s atrocity; Americans liked remembering it in part because they were on the right side. They fought against the bad guys; they weren’t the bad guys themselves.

And indeed, if remembering the Holocaust was supposed to preserve democracy and prevent an upsurge of bigotry and fascism in America, then how we remember the Holocaust hasn’t worked very well at all.


Donald Trump’s choice of the slogan “America First,” originally associated with pro-Hitler American fascists, was not an accident. Scholars such as Jason Stanley and Timothy Snyder have pointed out the continuities between Nazi rhetoric and current Republican obsessions with conspiracy theories, national betrayal and racist purification. Right-wing attacks on Democratic donor George Soros evoke Nazi propaganda around the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Those attacks were also implicated in the antisemitic massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.

The echoes are even louder from the justifications from the Trump-addled GOP for the violent January 6th insurrection as an expression of the “will of the people” to fix the “big lie” of Biden’s win.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly described Trump’s post-election lies to preaching “the gospel of the Führer,” and that he was leading the U.S. towards a “Reichstag moment.” Even David Frum now warns that America now has “a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power,” and that it’s time to call this fascism.

Violent insurrectionists loyal to former President Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington

But the failure of Holocaust remembrance to ward off fascism has arguably, and paradoxically, made the Holocaust even more relevant to current American politics than it has been since the end of the war.

The U.S. has tried to re-engineer a more nativist national identity; it has (not for the first time) constructed concentration camps; it has experienced a violent right-wing coup attempt. The history of the Holocaust suggests those are warning signs.

The warning, though, isn’t solely, or even primarily, for Jewish people.

It’s easy to dismiss the assimilationist impulse which led Jews in the post-war period to eschew a purely Jewish Holocaust. But Jews and non-Jews at the time also had a point; Jewish people weren’t the only ones Hitler targeted. “First they came for the Communists,” Martin Niemöller wrote, in a section of that famous poem that even post-Cold War not many people even remember, let alone like to quote.

Trump and MAGA target the left, immigrants, Black people, and queer people before Jewish people. But that doesn’t mean Jewish people should ignore the danger. We may be next, given the rising rates of antisemitic crimes. And even if we’re not, Palestinian rights and pro-immigration organizations are surely correct when they argue that if “Never again” means anything, it should mean, “Never again will we let this, or anything like this, happen to anybody.”

Novick points out that the Holocaust is unique only in the most trivial sense. “Every historical event, including the Holocaust, in some ways resembles events to which it might be compared and differs from them in some ways.” We won’t have another Holocaust in the United States.

But the Holocaust is not the only atrocity that has ever happened or will ever happen to Jews or to others. If the memory of the Holocaust can help us fight injustice now, then all those museums and movies are worthwhile. There’s a possibility, though, that they aren’t.

Novick reminds us that memory in itself is not an absolute good; it can be used for ignoble purposes as well as noble ones. History, including the history of the Holocaust, isn’t a talisman that can be invoked to stave off the worst of the future – nor a prophylactic against those who remember history well enough, and are tempted to repeat it.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He lives in Chicago. Twitter: @nberlat

Comments (9)

  • Tony says:

    I think that we do have to remember the Holocaust. But one very obvious criticism that I have is that you hear very little at all about the corporations that profited from it or made it possible. This is a very glaring omission.

  • Yes we should remember the holocaust but the question is how and to what purpose. What Noah Berlatsky doesn’t mention is that holocaust memory has been used to SUPPORT racism and fascism, in particular Apartheid Israel and Zionism.

    A good example of this is Niemoller’s famous saying “First they came for the Communists”. Of course this presented a problem for cold war anti-communist America which is why, when I visited the US Holocaust Museum in Washington the communists were eliminated! It began with ‘socialists’.

    A brilliant essay on this appeared in Haaretz in March 1988 by Yehuda Elkana, ‘The Need to Forget’. Elkana, a child survivor of Auschwitz and former Rector of the Central European University (which Orban drove out) cited Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that democracy and worship of the past are incompatible.
    As Gideon Levy wrote in ‘On This holocaust Remembrance Day, Let Us Forget’ (May 2019)
    ‘I have yet to hear a single teenager come back from Auschwitz and say that we mustn’t abuse others the way we were abused. There has yet to be a school whose pupils came back from Birkenau straight to the Gaza border, saw the barbed-wire fence and said, Never again. The message is always the opposite. Gaza is permitted because of Auschwitz.’

    That is what has happened. The holocaust has been absorbed by western ideology as a justification for its wars and conquests. Saddam Hussein, Nasser, Yasser Arafat etc. are the ‘new Hitler’.

    The IHRA is a prime example of this.

    It is ironic that in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust it was the left who used the memory of the holocaust. At the funeral of the Rosenbergs, who were executed by a vengeful McCarthyist American state the Song of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance was sung. In those days talk of the holocaust was seen as making you a communist fellow traveller. Today holocaust remembrance is a desecration of the memory of those who perished – Jews and non-Jews.

    [This psot has been edited for length – JVL web]

  • Vaughan Melzer says:

    Question: Is the lynching and public spectacle of lynching black people treated in the same way as the Holocaust? Are there equivalent museums? Because the everyday crimes of torture and slow murder committed against black people who had no power were just as horrific. Numerically perhaps less? But not if one looks at slavery alongside as the cruel racism. It was also a crime against humanity.

  • Jaye says:

    I know you won’t publish this but really JVL team, look into your Jewish souls and our Jewish history, which culminated in the most evil crime of modern civilisation, the Shoah, and think about the fact that you, a group of Jews, publishes the statement “the targeting of Jews was one horror among many”.

  • Stephen Carlill says:

    The experience of every group persecuted by the Nazis was to some extent unique but socialists must always have solidarity in the forefront of our minds and actively seek out similarities. The Roma Holocaust closely resembles the Jewish one. Gipsy, Roma and Traveller communities are under attack from the UK Government at present and deserve all the support that we can give them.

  • Alexander Gavin says:

    When facts and reason are cast aside in favour of anecdotes and manipulated herd behaviour then you end up with events like the holocaust. In the UK the Tory party under Johnson has been ignoring facts and stoking up hatred with the use of anecdotes and utilising herd behaviour. Immigration being perhaps the best example. Johnson also needed the complicity of the media. The USA still seems to have a free media but the UK has no free mainstream media, it doesn’t look good for our future.

  • Mike Kennard says:

    At the Charlotteville demonstration the chant was “The Jews shall not replace us”. US Jewry should look left for solidarity and mutual protection.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Alexander said said that ‘the USA still seems to have a free media’. I don’t know where you got THAT idea from, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

    Anyway, I just happened to come across the following earlier today – ie an article by Moshe Machover with the headline: ‘The real reasons for expulsion’, published in the CamdenNewJournal in October 2017, and here’s an extract from it:

    Last month (September 2017) I was approached by a related group called Labour Party Marxists, asking my permission to reprint an article of mine…. The article, entitled “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism” was well received by many but was met with great hostility by some. I pointed out in it that in the mid-1930s the Nazis welcomed certain aspects of Zionist ideology, which was very much a minority view among the Jews in Germany (as indeed in this country). I quoted the Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich, who several years later was to be a prime planner and organiser of the Holocaust, saying in 1935 nice things about Zionism, calling it “the great spiritual movement within Jewry”. Many people found this very upsetting. So do I. But it is a historical fact that needs to be understood and lessons learnt from it.

    As a matter of fact, there is something even more upsetting that I did not include in my article. Heydrich was actually responding to something unbelievable published by the Zionists. On September 17 1935 the official Zionist paper Jüdische Rundschau, printed on its front page the notorious ultra-racist Nuremberg Laws, which had been promulgated two days earlier, and alongside them it printed an editorial praising these laws as according with Zionist wishes! This was because Zionists agreed that the Jews in Germany were not real Germans, not part of the German nation who differ from other Germans by religion, but a separate nation or race that should not assimilate among Gentiles.


  • Roy Wolfe says:

    RE: Holocaust and corporations -this is useful:
    Bilsky, L. (2017). The Holocaust, corporations and the law : unfinished business, Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, [2017].

    See Google Books for more information

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