The Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb: Fifty Years Later Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."