At war over the camps

The Holocaust and Collective Memory by Peter Novick (Bloomsbury, £18.99, 373pp)
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The Independent Culture

Why has the Nazi mass murder of Europe's Jews become so central a feature of our historical, political and moral consciousness? Why has this happened mainly since the 1970s, becoming more intense as events start to pass out of living memory? And why has that all-pervasive memorialisation been most prominent, not in the countries where the slaughter happened, nor where most survivors live, but in the distant United States?

Peter Novick's answers are both complex and, often, combative. As his impressive, iconoclastic book points out, the Holocaust was astonishingly little discussed in the first years after 1945.

The word itself, or equivalents like the Shoah, were hardly used, and the Jews' fate often not distinguished from that of other victims. Today, the Shoah is everywhere from museums to cinema screens, school curricula to politicians' posturings. The genocide and its supposed lessons are invoked - sometimes with high moral purpose, sometimes with vile opportunism - in debate on every issue from Kosovo to animal rights.

Novick sees the change as stemming mainly from the cultural politics of the US and, above all, of American Jews. For some of them, "collective memory" of the Holocaust came to be the main basis for group identity when other sources of bonding - above all faith itself - were in sharp decline. This happened amid a wider shift in American life, with affirmation of ethnic distinctiveness increasingly replacing "melting pot" ideals; and with the status of victimhood, previously despised, becoming something to prize.

Holocaust consciousness also helped rally American support for Israel. In a closely related book, The Holocaust Industry, about to be published by Verso, Norman Finkelstein argues that this was the reason for the Shoah's new prominence after the 1960s. Novick has little time for that simplistic, and semi-conspiratorial, interpretation.

Nor does he express much beyond peremptory scorn for some other widely held views. It isn't plausible, he suggests, to explain the rise in awareness of the Shoah as a reaction to resurgent anti-Semitism, or a counterweight to the propaganda of those who deny it ever happened.

There is, happily, almost no hard evidence that anti-Semitism has revived in the US, nor that the lunatic fringe of deniers commands any influence. Although Novick sometimes - maybe too often - lets loose his anger at some of the sillier, or more manipulative, uses of the Holocaust, his is a careful historical investigation rather than a crude polemic.

That hasn't deterred some critics: in this sphere, almost any sceptical analysis is going to cause anger and distress. The storms have been mainly US ones, for this is very much a study of the Shoah's impact on American collective memory (the US title was The Holocaust in American Life, and it's a bit naughty of the British publishers to have changed it).

But there have already been British echoes, too. Thus the historian David Cesarani recently engaged in a peculiar - and uncharacteristic - exercise in guilt by association. Behind Novick's arguments, he claimed, lay "an assimilationist agenda", associated with "a continuing, stubborn resentment of Jewish difference"'. More, "there is a danger of an inadvertent coalition" between Novick's arguments and those of figures like David Irving.

For someone as thoughtful as Cesarani to spread such a smear only highlights Novick's claims about the quasireligious aura that has come over the subject. Novick, as a secular person and equally as a historian, is bound to feel uncomfortable with this. He clearly dislikes mystically-tinged proclamations (like Elie Wiesel's) that the Shoah is beyond understanding, and theological musings on what it tells us about humanity's relation to God. As Novick argues, it's really not possible simultaneously to proclaim the Shoah beyond the reach of reason, and to say that that it has "lessons" to teach us all.

As for the crucial notion of the Shoah's "uniqueness" - held by some to imply that it is wicked or anti-Semitic ever to compare the Holocaust with anything else - Novick is angrily dismissive. Of course, this mass murder was, in crucial respects, without parallel. But to insist on its uniqueness is either vacuous or damaging. Vacuous, in that all historical events are unique, just as all snowflakes or fingerprints are. Damaging, if the claim is used to underpin exclusivism and dismiss others' suffering.

"What else can all of this possibly mean except 'your catastrophe, unlike ours, is ordinary; unlike ours is comprehensible; unlike ours is representable'", he asks. Again, you can't proclaim something to be without parallel and argue that it holds great lessons today. Novick is sceptical about the whole idea that Holocaust commemoration arms us against oppression in the present and future, as the newly-instituted memorial day in Britain is aimed to do. He worries that it can have precisely the opposite effect, trivialising other crimes.

Some controversies are far too quickly dealt with. The clamour evoked by Daniel Goldhagen's book deserves far more than the couple of sentences given here: not because Hitler's Willing Executioners is a major event but precisely because the massive sales and intense media attention given to so weak a book make it a troubling event in the shaping of "collective memory". Overall, Novick's material gets thinner as he comes nearer the present, with all of the Eighties and Nineties - and bits of the Seventies too - covered in just 56 pages.

But that's to complain that, to do justice to its theme, this book should have been twice as long - a complaint which is, of course, a great compliment to its author.

Stephen Howe's new book 'Ireland and Empire' is published next month by Oxford