The Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb: Fifty Years Later
The Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb: Fifty Years Later
The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II has sparked renewed interest in the Holocaust and in a reexamination of the United States's use of atomic weapons against Japan. Foremost among the new works about the Holocaust is the plethora of personal accounts published in recent years, including the definitive edition of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (1995). Many of these personal accounts search for an explanation or self-knowledge and some raise the theme of identity for Jews who survived by passing as gentiles. Though most of these works center on the Jewish experience, a growing number address the experiences of non-Jews, including aggressors, bystanders, and victims. Death Dealer (1992), for instance, is the memoir of the commandant of Auschwitz; "The Good Old Days" (1991) collects letters and diaries of German soldiers who witnessed or took part in atrocities; while Gordon Horwitz's In the Shadow of Death (1990) examines the lives of the Austrians living near Mauthausen, a concentration camp whose inmates were not primarily Jewish. Remarking on this interest in non-Jewish actors and victims, István Deák has stated that it "is not the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust that is being challenged but the tendency of earlier writers to remain strictly within the confines of the Jewish tragedy." Lawrence Langer's collection of essays Admitting the Holocaust (1994) and his anthology Art from the Ashes (1994) have been the focus of debate concerning Langer's definition of proper responses to the Holocaust. While some critics have praised Langer for focusing on the physical reality of Jewish suffering and for dismissing attempts to find hope or metaphors of transcendence in the Holocaust, others contend that Langer's criteria for appropriate modes or techniques of representation are too strict. Michael André Bernstein, for example, argues that "the basic premisses and arguments of Admitting the Holocaust … are both seriously flawed on their own terms and potentially harmful in the ways they seek to circumscribe the range of appropriate discourses about the Shoah."
Recent literature on the atomic bombing of Japan tends to fall into two categories, those that address the human side of the tragedy and those that analyze the decision to use the bomb. Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell's Hiroshima in America (1995), for instance, offers an account of why the bomb was used and suggests that the effect on the American public can be described as denial and psychic numbing—closing one's self off from painful emotions and memories. Other works, such as John Whittier Treat's discussion of Japanese literature on the bomb in Writing Ground Zero (1995) and Michihiko Hachiya's Hiroshima Diary (1955), discuss the Japanese reaction to the bomb. As for the American literary response to the atomic bomb, Lifton and Mitchell have argued that "Hiroshima is everywhere in postwar and contemporary fiction—in its themes of futurelessness and absurdity, and its predilection for violent or vengeful behavior by heroes and antiheroes alike…. [T]he 'usual place' for Hiroshima in Western literature is 'the unconscious.'" Although few works of fiction specifically address the American attack, a number of poets have found a direct means of expression; common themes in their poems, which have been collected in Atomic Ghost (1995), include despair and the need for collective guilt. The debate over the rationale and the morality of America's use of the atomic bomb focuses on two arguments: on the one hand the need to force Japan to surrender and thus avoid an invasion of the mainland, which, it is argued, would have resulted in unacceptably high numbers of American casualties; on the other hand, the contention that Japanese surrender was imminent regardless of the bomb and that the attack was carried out primarily to display American strength to the Soviets. Historians have offered explanations based on the analysis of decisions represented in documents as well as the personalities of the major actors. However, considering the controversy over a Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay, the B-29 used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, the American public is far from reaching a consensus on the decision's motivation and morality. Remarking on the numerous attempts to explain the attack, Michael Sherry has stated: "Why, then, did the United States use atomic bombs in 1945? The truth is that no single reason prevailed, in part because no single individual prevailed."
Representative Works Discussed Below
Allen, Thomas B. and Norman Polmar
Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan—and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb (nonfiction) 1995
The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (nonfiction) 1995
Outwitting the Gestapo (autobiography) 1993
Wartime Lies (novel) 1991
Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall [editor] (nonfiction) 1995
Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age [editor] (poetry) 1995
Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (memoir) 1990
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (short stories and interviews) 1982
Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust (nonfiction) 1979
Fermi, Rachel and Esther Samra
Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project (photographs) 1995
∗Het achterhuis [The Diary of Anne Frank] (diaries) 1947; also published as The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition [enlarged edition], 1995
(The entire section is 586 words.)
The Holocaust Remembered
István Deák (review date 8 October 1992)
SOURCE: "Strategies of Hell," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 16, October 8, 1992, pp. 8, 10-3.
[A Hungarian-born educator and historian, Deák specializes in Eastern European history. In the review below, he discusses books focusing on gentile bystanders and persecutors as well as Jewish collaborators and survivors.]
Three years have passed since my review in these pages of fifteen books selected from the enormous Holocaust literature published during the 1980s; hundreds more on the subject have since appeared. [For Deák's earlier reviews and commentary, see "The Incomprehensible Holocaust," The New York Review, September 28, 1989, and the subsequent "Exchanges" on December 21, 1989; February 1, March 29, and September 27, 1990; and April 25, 1991.] Writing about the Holocaust has become an industry in itself, one with a terrible and never ending fascination. Perhaps, however, a change is taking place in the general character of such works. While survivors' memoirs, historical accounts, and philosophical, theological, and psychological studies continue to appear, interest has been growing in previously neglected subjects, such as the experience of ordinary non-Jews who were involved in the Holocaust, whether as murderers, collaborators, bystanders, or saviors. Then, too, more writers have felt the need to...
(The entire section is 18775 words.)
Anne Frank Revisited
Yasmine Ergas (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Growing up Banished: A Reading of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum," in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet and others, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 84-95.
[In the essay below, Ergas compares the diaries of Etty Hillesum and Anne Frank, focusing on such themes as femininity, identity, and persecution.]
Memories help us live. Oddly, they need not be our own, seared as they are into the lives of those who were not there. Wars, for example: long after the bombing has stopped and the shell-shocked cities have been reconstructed, children learn to remember scenes of devastation they never witnessed. Persecution, too: age-old fears come to haunt generations born and bred in safety. Partly experienced and partly borrowed, memories are selective—mental notebooks we keep to honor the past, but equally to keep track of ourselves. "Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point," Joan Didion said of her jottings [in Slouching towards Bethlehem, 1981], and the same could well be said of what we choose to recall.
Diaries serve a double function, reminding both author and reader of a past self. Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum tracked their personal routes along transitory moments, and we in turn trace in their diaries the signposts to the present. Although the...
(The entire section is 9772 words.)
The Atomic Bomb And American Memory
Michael R. Beschloss (review date 30 July 1995)
SOURCE: "Did We Need to Drop It?," in The New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1995, pp. 10-11.
[An American historian, Beschloss has written extensively on American diplomatic history. In the review below, he remarks on Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth and Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar's Code-Name Downfall.]
For 20 years after Harry Truman ordered the atomic bomb dropped on Japan in August 1945, most American scholars and citizens subscribed to the original, official version of the story: the President had acted to avert a horrendous invasion of Japan that could have cost 200,000 to 500,000 American lives. Then a young political economist named Gar Alperovitz published a book of ferocious revisionism, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965). While acknowledging the paucity of evidence available at the time, he argued that dropping the atomic bomb "was not needed to end the war or to save lives" but was Truman's means of sending a chastening message to the Soviet Union.
Now, in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Mr. Alperovitz, who is the president of the National Center for Economic Alternatives, writes that "oversimplified versions of my argument (together with some obvious graduate-student errors) were pounced upon by...
(The entire section is 18472 words.)
Bennett, James R., and Clark, Karen. "Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Bomb: A Bibliography of Literature and the Arts." Arizona Quarterly 46, No. 3 (Autumn 1990): 33-64.
Lists bibliographies, historical works, criticism, personal narratives, literature, and films concerning the atomic bombing of Japan.
Creager, Ellen. "Revealing Details." Chicago Tribune (21 March 1995): Sec. 5, p. 5.
Reviews The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition and states that the restored fragments reveal "a new depth to Anne's dreams, irritations, hardship and passions."
Deák, István. "Witnesses to Evil." New York Review of Books XXXIX, No. 17 (22 October 1992): 40-3.
Reviews four books: In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen, a biography of a Jewish survivor who later became a Catholic priest; Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945, a history of the Holocaust; and two books concerning the Holocaust experiences of gentiles, A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis and Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust.
―――――. "Holocaust Heroes." New York...
(The entire section is 699 words.)