Peter Novick

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C. Vann Woodward (review date 20 February 1989)

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SOURCE: Woodward, C. Vann. “Truth and Consequences.” New Republic 200, no. 8 (20 February 1989): 40-3.

[In the following review of That Noble Dream, Woodward questions Novick's success in addressing the “objectivity question” and offers his own evaluation of historians' duty to represent the past.]

A thesis, or better a theme, does run in and out of this large volume from beginning to end. It is proclaimed in its title, That Noble Dream, borrowed from Charles A. Beard, who used it for one of two essays renouncing faith in objectivity in historiography. As developed here, the theme deserves attention on its own, and I shall return to it later. But it is also used as an idea around which to organize an informal history of the American historical profession. Since the latter is of more general interest, I shall take it up first.

It was only in the 1880s that academics set about claiming professional status for historians, and it took some time and a bit of doing. So a historian of ripe years and more than a half century of active involvement can have known or encountered at a distance members of all the generations participating since then. There were still a few founding fathers around in the early 1930s. One's mentors take charge before this volume is half done; by midway one's contemporaries are past their prime and fading out, and junior colleagues are taking over; by the last chapter one's students are rivaling them for attention. These are people one knew, or knows, some of them quite well, and these pages are filled with what they were saying and thinking, often in private, about each other and each other's work.

Relativist or not, Peter Novick works, like most of us, on the assumption that there is truth, or some of it, to be learned about the past by research in documents. He turns over millions of them, many of them private papers never before used, on that rather old-fashioned objectivist assumption, and his researches produce a perfect flood of information: call it truth, fact, theory, what you will. A fully engaged and reasonably informed member of the guild for some years (first book, 1938), I admit that I learned a lot about four generations of my fellow craftsmen that I did not know—some I never suspected. Much of what I learned has little if anything to do with “the objectivity question” or any thesis about it, but it is no less interesting for that.

Among the “telling” truths, for example, are such mundane ones as those about salaries, textbooks, productivity, teaching loads, student patronage, appointments, tenure, and security. In all these aspects, wide variations occurred from one period and one place to another, and the fluctuations had their impact on the teaching and the writing of historians and on their conduct toward each other. Rivalries abound. One early definition of a historical scholar was “a man who has a quarrelsome interest in his neighbor's work”; another called them “more or less cannibals: they live by destroying each others' conclusions.” Squabbles and vendettas often got more attention than work of merit. J. Franklin Jameson's classic on the Revolution sold fewer than a thousand copies, and it took 17 years for John Hicks's book on Populism to sell 1,500 copies. And all this while pandering amateurs like Claude G. Bowers commanded large sales for his travesty on Reconstruction.

Professional history started, and for a good while remained, an Anglo-Saxon enterprise, with members largely of that breed, with a theory holding that institutions and ideas of any great...

(This entire section contains 2827 words.)

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value came of Anglo-Saxon origins. Anglophiles apologized for the Revolution against “race brothers.” Racial biases of various kinds were “near unanimous.” Acceptance of Jews was rare and long resisted. The amount of casual slurs and over anti-Semitism in correspondence regarding the appointment or the promotion of Jews is little short of incredible, and the victims were not confined to the obscure.

In the two decades following World War II American history enjoyed what I have called a “boom period,” a period of unprecedented expansion and prosperity that was followed immediately by a sudden and rapid decline. Neither boom nor collapse is adequately pictured in this book, but both had profound effects. The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in history in 1970-71 reached the all-time high of 44,663, then rapidly plunged in the next 15 years to a low of 16,413 in 1985-86. The barometer of confidence, optimism, and vitality in the profession rose and fell accordingly. At the peak of the boom, just before the fall, with enrollments, publications, and periodicals soaring to new heights, the assurance manifest in the history profession verged on complacency. That mood has long since vanished, but while it lasted it produced striking results.

The expansion brought job opportunities not only for Jews, but for other underrepresented ethnic groups as well. Some considerable number with unorthodox views, including assorted leftists and Marxists, also found a footing in the guild during this period. Novick is especially informative about the so-called “New Left,” a term he rightly dismisses as a “misleading designation” because of the multiplicity and the diversity of opinions it covers. The diverse wings of the New Left usually rallied together for mutual support, but without common policy or doctrine. He is most helpful in sorting out and identifying by origin and school members of the leftist cohort of historians. There were not only “red diaper babies” but “red romper toddlers,” with and without Communist Party attachments, and endless varieties of Marxists. Novick, for example, identifies himself as starting in “the ‘Shachtmantide’ Young Socialist League” when it was “evolving from dissident Trotskyism to the left wing of social democracy.”

We are treated to inside stories and revealing episodes from the McCarthy era of persecution. In the early and mid-'60s, there followed a climate of tolerance in which “leftist historians had good grounds to see bright prospects for their eventual acceptance … an era of good feeling, both within the left, and between left and center.” That era ended with the outburst of militant student protest that not only divided leftist and liberal historians, “but polarized the left itself.” Among issues at stake were questions of whether destruction of the university was required or total disruption was sufficient. The book includes a priceless report of a doctoral oral examination in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia in October 1968, written by the student under examination, who was in complete sympathy with the protesters. The professors, he wrote:

began their questioning amidst the sounds of breaking furniture, shouts of rage and pride, fragments of falling plaster and chants of “shut it down.” … The behavior of the faculty members was curious. … Every time plaster fell on their heads they felt a strange thrill; they alone stood between America and Totalitarianism. … I sensed, during the whole awful comedy, that they were more interested in their own performance than in mine. … I played the game by all the rules.

Unlike the new Jewish recruits to the profession, who were integrationist and usually assimilationist, who were historians who happened to be Jews, the new black historians were separatists, nationalists of some sort, scornful of assimilation. They came on organized as black historians, who shared some of these characteristics, usually presented themselves as feminist historians. Both claimed distinctive styles of perception and thought. But black radicals struck a militant pose against white radicals who ventured onto what they claimed was exclusively their turf. They repeatedly shouted down and insulted white intruders of the left. As it became institutionalized in black studies departments, however, the separatist movement declined as rapidly as it rose, and only half of the departments survive with dwindling support.

Women started earlier in the profession than blacks, but until recently their numbers and influence were marginal, and are still quite low. Novick finds “striking parallels” between new black and new women members. Some similarities do exist, though feminist history and women's studies have not shared the decline that black studies have undergone. The new women were as particularist and exclusionist as blacks, and those whose subject was women's history were opposed to integration and supported separate departments or “studies.” Both stressed the neglect of their subject, the overlooked contributions of their group, oppression and its consequences, and some measure of cultural and institutional separatism. To illustrate the harshness with which feminists could treat women historians whom they regarded as apostates, Novick cites the treatment accorded Rosalind Rosenberg when she appeared as a witness for the company in the Sears case regarding charges of discriminatory employment practices.

All this and more of the history of professional historians is related without much reference to the conflict between objectivists and relativists. That theme is implicit in some of the discussion of individual historians, however, and explicit in a separate treatment of ideology.

Confronted with the “demand to know if I am ‘for’ or ‘against’” historical objectivity, Novick declares that he does not think the idea “true or false, right or wrong: I find it not just essentially contested, but essentially confused.” And it is “not a single idea, but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies … the exact meaning of which will always be in dispute.” Once a term as sacred to historians as “health” to physicians, “valor” to men of arms, or “justice” to men of law, “objectivity” has fallen in and out of favor of late among historians and philosophers of history. Neither a celebration nor a jeremiad, this book, according to its author, “is not a call to arms, nor even a plea for reform,” but rather an effort to expand the historians' awareness of what they are about and their readers' understanding of what historians present them and the claims they make for it.

The American conception of historical objectivity leaned heavily on a rather faulty reading of von Ranke's phrase, wie es eigentlich gewesen (“as it really was”), and a translation of the word Wissenschaft as “science.” Borrowing the inflated prestige of empirical science, the fledgling professionals of history gained confidence and pride in their craft. No mere storytellers or propagandists they, members of the Johns Hopkins historical seminar called it “a laboratory of historical truth.” Founding fathers of the new profession built the doctrine of empirical objectivity into its foundations and hammered it home. For the first two generations it remained an article of faith.

World War I shook 19th-century certitudes in all realms of thought and culture, but less in history. Among historians “applied common sense” still claimed the mantle of science and continued to claim it for quite a while. The foremost challengers of “that noble dream” of historical objectivity in the '30s were Carl L. Becker and Charles A. Beard. The doctrine they shared was that historical interpretation was, and always had been, relative to the historian's time, place, views, prejudices, interests, and circumstances. Their heresy was promptly named “relativism” by their objectivist detractors.

Sharing a Midwestern, Republican, Progressive background, Becker and Beard were also united by bonds of mutual affection and esteem. Becker had the lighter touch and the quicker wit, but was more shy. Both enjoyed making fun of the pretensions of the objectivists. Becker gravely assured them that the pasts men created were “perhaps neither true nor false, but only the most convenient form of error.” Such levity about the founding myth of the profession evoked from the old school a response that resembled the excommunication of heretics. Indeed, “the horror of relativism resembled the common horror of atheism.” Apprentices in the mid-'30s enjoyed the dismay of their elders; but the old school continued to prevail generally through the interwar years.

The exigencies of the cold war helped to strengthen the defenders of objectivity, and so did the upsurge of confidence and optimism in the profession that accompanied the history boom in the universities. Beard was in disfavor for his opposition to American intervention in the War, and his relativist heresies were unfairly associated with fascism; his views were denounced by Lewis Mumford, Allan Nevins, and Samuel Eliot Morrison, among others. A mood of consensus, affirmation, and reconciliation of extremes proved congenial, or at least tolerant, toward the objectivist posture.

The collapse of that consensus occurred during the turmoil of the '60s, and it is attributed by Novick chiefly to the lurch toward the left in political culture, the increase in the number of leftist historians, and the cynicism about truth and objectivity in the criticism of the Vietnam War. If everyone was lying, went the reasoning, why not simply believe whatever one found congenial and convenient? A crisis in objectivity swept through virtually all the disciplines in the academy (including the sciences themselves, provoked by Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigms). Some variety of radical relativism seized the social sciences, literary criticism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and jurisprudence. History departments were certainly not left alone to weather the crisis. A few quantifiers joined with the humanists to speak up for the faith in objectivity, but their voices were sometimes drowned out. Fragmented beyond hope of unification, “The historical profession of the 1980s would have been unrecognizable to those who had established it in the 1880s.”

From the start, Novick is at pains to dissociate himself from partisanship as between objectivists and relativists. He also attempts to maintain that neither position has “any clear, permanent political valence,” and that both are “defended from a variety of points on the political spectrum,” far left to far right. He has no trouble finding examples to support his point, from Marx on down. Yet he is obliged to admit that the defense of objectivity often came from the right, and the criticism from the left. In the nature of things, objectivity is frequently associated with the status quo, and relativity with the maneuverability of attack and change. If logic be pressed, Novick's claim that neither position is “true or false, right or wrong” is itself essentially relativist: it is the more congenial with his generally leftist sympathies.

It might help to declare my own position on the matter. While I reject the evasive solution of one group of historians who claim to be objective relativists, I do hold that valid needs exist for both of these views. In this, as in many important historical controversies, it is not the existence but the comparative importance of the disputed phenomena that is the real issue. That is certainly true of another historical controversy with which I have some familiarity, that over continuity and change in history. However passionate the advocates of the one or the other, they would end (if they lacked the wisdom to begin) with the admission that there would be no history at all without some of both. So it is also with all but the most extreme partisans of objectivity and relativity.

In his final chapter Novick chooses, for reasons not clear, to illustrate the ideological issues of the “Objectivity Question” with the case of David Abraham's book, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis (1981). The reasons are unclear because the issue at stake in this case is not objectivity, but integrity in the use of evidence. A highly controversial dispute over the scholarship of Abraham's book on the relation of German business to the rise of Nazism, the case has divided the profession bitterly. With his usual candor, Novick writes that “David Abraham was my student, and is my good friend,” and that “the reader should know at the outset that I am not at all ‘neutral’ about David Abraham, his persecution, or his persecutors.” Abraham himself admits “there are simply too many errors in my work,” that some of them are serious—“inexcusable” is his word; his critics say “flagrant”—but that they are errors of carelessness, not deviousness, and do not affect the validity of his argument. His critics maintain that his errors are tendentious and do support his thesis. His defenders draw distinctions between “facticity” and “truth” that suggest the independence of historical truth from the faithful use of valid historical evidence. All this may in Novick's eyes support the view that objectivists are inflexible in method and conservative in outlook, while relativists are liberating and forward-looking. But if so, it does seem a more felicitous and less dubious illustration might have been brought forward.

On the whole I believe historians and their readers owe rather more to Peter Novick's efforts than the above illustration might suggest. He has made us more conscious of the confusion that prevails in the history profession, where, as in Israel, to use his quotation from the Book of Judges, there is no king and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” The old dispute between objectivity and relativity will never be settled to the satisfaction of doctrinaire extremists on either side. In the meantime, in spite of their cries of woe and chaos, much honest and productive work in history goes forward.

Geoffrey Elton (review date September 1989)

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SOURCE: Elton, Geoffrey. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Journal of Economic History 49, no. 3 (September 1989): 775-77.

[In the following review, Elton describes That Noble Dream as a “fascinating book” that provides a “splendid story” of the history of academic historical scholarship in the United States.]

Nowhere do historians go in for so much self-examination as they do in America: it is a part of American culture to examine the self. The same conglomeration of habits also accounts for American historians' exceptional willingness to listen to self-appointed guides, some of them sane but more of them not evidently so. The profession therefore lends itself well to the sort of analysis that Peter Novick has undertaken in [That Noble Dream,] this fascinating, if rather overlong book. (Excessive length in books is another American habit.)

This passion for commitment, however, this accumulation of fretful worries and serious night thoughts, has made a splendid story. Novick has chosen the recurrent desire of American historians to provide an objective account of the past, in the face of contemptuous complaints that such a thing is impossible, to structure his description of a century of learned endeavors. That is the noble dream of his title, a dream which again and again, just when it looked likely to turn into a waking experience of reality, turned into a nightmare. He opens the story in the late nineteenth century, when a first generation of American historians aspiring to professional status learned their trade in Germany, returning full of Leopold von Ranke and the cult of the objective study of the past. Their preoccupation with the search for a pure truth then suffered two setbacks. The “progressive” historians (James Robinson and Company) demanded that the historian subordinate everything to providing a social service to his time, and World War I demonstrated that even the much-admired champions of the unprejudiced study of the past, on both sides of the divide, were only too willing to discard their principles in the service of nationalist propaganda. The noble dream was gone for a time, to be replaced by the long ascendancy of relativist views propagated elegantly by Carl Becker and thumpingly by Charles Beard: it became axiomatic that the historian always writes under the direction of his own day and his own personality. The moral certainties of World War II enabled scholars to return to a more positivist stance, and in the 1950s they labored under the sign of a somewhat anodyne “consensus.” This collapsed crashingly in the upheavals of the sixties. Between them, rebellion against authority and the passionate search for new prophets among the practitioners of various social sciences produced the present state of rudderless confusion or at least multiplicity of tactics. Novick, wisely refraining from turning prophet, leaves things there, though he seems to regret a state of affairs which strikes me as healthily devoid of assertive authority.

Along the way we meet many seductive byways as well as moments of high comedy. Novick has found some fairly amazing cases of brutal anti-Semitism, usually among eminent scholars willing to adopt Karl Lueger's principle of claiming the right to decide who is a Jew. The fortunes of black Americans have meandered around since the days of Social Darwinism, with its certainty that there are inferior races, through the separatist days of Black Studies, to the peace created by the present conviction that skin color has nothing to do with intellectual equipment and that history equally attends to the fortunes and labors of everybody. (John Hope Franklin emerges as the one man who throughout adhered to the only right principles.) And then there came feminist history, about which it may be best for a mere male to say nothing. We get a very frank account of David Abraham's battle with Henry Turner and Gerald Feldman, a battle from which none of the combatants emerges with his honor untarnished. Novick has searched both public prints and private archives, unearthing many remarkable statements of bigotry as well as long-suffering, and much of the book is strikingly funny. If the noble dream of objectivity at times disappears behind the billowing smoke of the battlefields, it always returns in time to give the story continuity and coherence. At the end, it does so by evidently having ceased to be the central aspiration: if Novick is right, American historians have now given up even the ambition to tell it wie es eigentlich gewesen.

But is this so? Of necessity, only a minority of the thousands of scholars who have studied history in the United States make their appearance here, and the sample is biased by two built-in conditions: it consists of people who have involved themselves publicly in these debates about methods and ends; and it is virtually confined to historians of the United States, that is to say, scholars who have never concerned themselves with any aspect of the past more than 200 years distant from their own day. Indeed, in the main debates—about, for instance, Reconstruction, the causes of World War I, or the nature of the New Deal—they dealt with matters which impinged directly on their own times. Novick himself is a student of fairly recent French history, a fact which assists the predominance in these pages of modernists' thinking about issues close to their own lives. Among the many nonhistorians parading as influential thinkers Americans again predominate, with Frenchmen looming across the Atlantic; English historians who have tried to think about the nature of history escape unmentioned. (Novick does cite a curious trio of writers from England—Imre Lakatos, a conservative social thinker, Terry Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic, and Mary Hesse, a philosopher of science—none of them at all influential among English historians.) Moreover, economic history proper, not to mention cliometrics, puts in hardly any appearance. The whole analysis applies much more to modernists and to social historians than to Americans involved in medieval or early modern history, or engaged in the less fashionable aspects of the game.

Yet the much-despised demand that the past be studied for its own sake makes much better sense for people who need to consider times more distant from their own experience—who have to think more historically. In any case, American historians regularly seem to misunderstand that demand. They have from the first to the present been subjected to pressure to do service to their own society, a pressure made only more severe by the absurd passion for supposed relevance brought up by the 1960s. Studying the past for its own sake does not mean forgetting the present or overlooking the fact that historians are human beings equipped with personal experiences and preferences which render the noble dream of total objectivity an unattainable ideal. It does mean trying to understand the past from within itself and not by the standards and fashions of one's own day; it does mean respecting the past and its people ahead of oneself and one's own concerns. Hayden White, for instance, and too many feminist historians have never grasped this last point. It is in these duties that so many present-day historians, not only in the United States but more regularly there, have gone astray, under the influence of two somewhat pernicious misunderstandings.

The first of these imposes a moralizing duty on the historian: he is instructed to assist in one way or another his contemporaries' desire to be thought just, socially involved, and morally improving. Unless, it is held, he gives a leg up to the conventional virtues of his day he is not doing his social duty. But his real duty is to the past: he must make that past and its inhabitants comprehensible to the present rather than use that past and those people in order to offer to the present day consolation or exhortation. The other error, again very flourishing among Americans, arises from the conviction that other people's generalizing theories should guide the historian's posing of questions and offering of answers. This review cannot fully explore the consequences of these two aberrations. But is it not remarkable that the claims of so many dubious prophets obtain deference from historians needlessly troubled by the well-established fact that their own proper concerns do not yield great general schemes to interpret, and perhaps to forecast, the human experience? Thus, to take two wildly different examples, Marx and Foucault continue to command adherence in a great many quarters when even they, like many such, have time and again been convicted of merely abusing historical evidence by employing it selectively and inaccurately to underpin what can only be called lies. History should be skeptical of theorizers and should not submit to mere human dictate: it is here that its proper “service to society” lies.

The first professionals of the nineteenth century very often, for understandable reasons, gave an impression of childlike simplicity. The idea of total objectivity was a product of immaturity and inexperience, though it did provide a measure of self-confidence and a suitable start to the enterprise. The harmless impossibility of knowing all the truth emerged quite naturally from the conflicts of understanding which are an essential concomitant of advancing historical comprehension. Unfortunately, too many of the scholars discussed in this excellent book seem to have advanced from childhood only into adolescence—into that condition which thirsts for universal theories and will fit the past into them. Procrustes marks no improvement on Herodotus. Has not the time come to grow up? The claims of the people of the past to be understood in their own right must come before the claims of the operator to promote his own self. And the proliferating gurus of the day call for critics, not for disciples.

Stephen Turner (review date September 1989)

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SOURCE: Turner, Stephen. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. American Journal of Sociology 95, no. 2 (September 1989): 539-43

[In the following review, Turner asserts that That Noble Dream is itself a model for the history of an academic discipline.]

Academic sociology in the United States was born into an already thriving family of disciplines; it was the runt of a litter in which history and economics were the older siblings. History was the academic origin of such pioneer sociologists as Albion Small, and Giddings, for most of his career, had “history” in his professorial title. Yet, like rival siblings, the social science disciplines developed by defining themselves in relation to one another. Peter Novick's account of the history of American history in That Noble Dream concentrates on one of the defining differentia, the historian's concept of objectivity, and traces its shifting course of development from the era of Francis Parkman and historical amateurism to the still-simmering David Abraham affair.

The differences from sociology were quite striking. The historians of the early years of professionalization, especially from 1890 to World War I, were for the most part ultraconservative, and the great historical issue of the day was the healing of the wounds from the Civil War and Reconstruction. Differences, notably sectional differences, were buried under a gentlemanly ethos of comity (quite in contrast to the personal bitterness between the members of the founding generation of American professional sociology) that lent itself to a prosouthern bias. The German academic roots of the founding “professional” historians made the discovery of a long series of continuous institutional developments a standard theme and, under the influence of the problem of national healing, led to the brief dominance of “Anglo-Saxonism,” the doctrine of the ancient Teutonic origins of the distinctive political and juridical institutions of the United States and England. “Objectivity” was equated with fidelity to the sources and with an often-expressed horror of “philosophy of history.” (The rejection of the philosophy of history was a spur to the creation of a sociological society; “Anglo-Saxonism” in heterodox forms was essential to the background of several early American Sociological Society presidents.)

World War I sharpened “a most genteel insurgency” by the younger generation of James Harvey Robinson, James Shotwell, Carl Becker, and Charles Beard, who challenged the ideal of objectivity (particularly the idea that the historian could, by attending closely to the sources, become free from bias). The excesses of war propaganda, in which historians actively engaged, put paid to this idea and also reminded historians of the importance of history in the schools and the need for a usable past. Thus in the 1920s, as the rest of the social sciences, especially sociology, became objectivist and hyperempiricist, many “Progressive” historians became skeptical and mildly relativistic about historical truth. The professoriat in general was in the doldrums; the relative purchasing power of academic salaries dropped, as did the quality of students and the quality of the positions in which they were placed. Regional academic markets developed, dominated by departments such as Chicago's, and a kind of bland, back-scratching “professionalism” took hold. Yet the 1920s were enlivened by a bitter dispute over the “war-guilt problem,” in which Harry Elmer Barnes, wearing his historian's cap, was a leading “revisionist” figure. Comity also broke down over the standard picture of slavery, as Progressive historiography assaulted the older prosouthern views of the peculiar institution.

The “relativism” promoted by Beard and Becker defined the dispute over objectivity in the interwar period. Fascism, at the end of the period, discredited it: “war admits of no relativism,” as one writer put it in 1940. The Cold War was equally uncongenial to historical relativism, and this, combined with the intervention of foundations and the CIA to prevent a revisionist dispute over World War II and the consequent anathematizing of academic “isolationists,” many of whom continued to oppose the expanding American world role, led to a “consensus” historiography of American history dominated by former leftists, such as Richard Hofstader, who had moved Right. The consensus these writers developed on American history was much the same as Parsons's, and shared such idiosyncrasies as his intense antipopulism. It was very much a history congenial to the attitudes of urban northeasterners: “asphalt-oriented” as one critic put it (p. 340). The McCarthy era both inspired and reinforced these developments. Major topics such as the Civil War were neglected, and the problem of race was resolved by consensual antiracism. History became intensely professionalized, captive student audiences replaced the larger public as the primary audience, Ph.D. production increased, internal technical questions became dominant, methodological disputes such as the relativism dispute of the 1930s were not pursued, and history as an autonomous, universalistically oriented profession was made secure.

Then the 1960s and the Vietnam War came. Radical historians challenged many of the tenets of consensus historiography, and this challenge combined with the ordinary give-and-take of historical analysis and the availability of new documents to undermine the standard view of Cold War origins and the optimistic version of American history that was key to the older consensus. Out of all this came several kinds of fragmentation. One was the racial and gender particularism of historians who claimed that only blacks could understand the black historical experience, and women who claimed that the history of women should both serve feminism and reflect distinctive nonmale cognitive styles. Another was the result of the rise of history for hire, “public history” paid for or otherwise sponsored and controlled by organizations that wanted their histories written. A third was the particularism that arose between historical paradigms, especially the methodological paradigms of quantification and textualism. A fourth was rampant specialization. The present situation is summed up by the title of one of Novick's last chapters: the center did not hold. The current situation is one that sociologists should find familiar. The machine of text production grinds on, “standards” are more or less upheld but not seriously examined, but the sense of an enterprise with a common purpose has vanished.

This story should be of special interest to historians of sociology, in part because of the peculiar bond of siblinghood. Just as comparisons between national sociological traditions reveal the distinctive, but usually unnoticed, solutions to generic problems that constitute particular sociologies, cross-disciplinary comparisons reveal the distinctive responses to great national events, such as the two world wars and the differences in conception of such common problems as objectivity, which is the theme of Bannister's recent history of the interwar years in American sociology. The text itself is a model history of disciplines, but it is also written in an engaging informal style. Anyone with an interest in history as a discipline will find it an enjoyable read.

Carl Degler (review date December 1989)

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SOURCE: Degler, Carl. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Journal of American History 76, no. 3 (December 1989): 892-94.

[In the following review, Degler praises That Noble Dream as “brilliant,” noting that Novick's central argument is presented with “force, understanding, and subtlety.”]

Do historians in the United States care about “the objectivity question”? Peter Novick does not think they do, but that is precisely why he has written this book [That Noble Dream] “to provoke my fellow historians” (he is a historian of France at the University of Chicago) “to greater self-consciousness of our work; to offer those outside the historical profession a greater understanding of what we're up to.” His way of achieving this goal is a brilliant, if closely argued, wide-ranging history of the transformations in the concept of objectivity in the profession from its founding in the 1880s to the present.

Do not be misled. This is no dry-as-dust professional history. The book is witty, engaged, elegantly written, and sometimes mildly titillating, as when the author quotes at length from the private papers of well-known historians, some of them still living, who reveal not only their views on history, but their foibles, their prejudices, ethnic and otherwise, and sometimes their politics. As the use of such sources suggests, this is admittedly elitist and impressionistic history, rather than being quantitative or systematic in method. (Novick tried to quantify his numerous sources, but found that approach led him nowhere.) The breadth and depth of his research in published and unpublished sources are admirable.

The form of the book is largely chronological, guiding the reader from the early days, when historians saw themselves as scientists of past human actions—making “bricks,” as J. Franklin Jameson put it to Henry Adams, that would eventually be used to construct the edifice that was the actual past. Novick's story is the decline, revival, and persistence of the founding ideal of the profession: Leopold von Ranke's “how it actually was.”

Within this narrative, Novick clearly and persuasively documents the questions that led to the relativism of Carl L. Becker and Charles A. Beard. (The title of the book comes from Beard's devastating answer to Theodore Clark Smith's criticism of Beard's relativism.) Although Novick recognizes the scholarly questioning of formalism before World War I, he identifies the war as the catalyst for erosion of faith in the Rankean ideal. Among other things, the secret treaties and the dubious activities of erstwhile “objective” historians on both sides during the was spawned disillusion and doubts about the ideal Long after the war, the dispute between historians Bernadotte E. Schmitt and Sidney Fay over the origins of the war only multiplied the questions. For, as Schmitt himself remarked later, he and Fay had drawn on the same sources and documents, yet “came up with quite different interpretations. … Is there something wrong with our methods of historical study and training?”

If there are heroes in this coolly critical book, they are Becker and Beard. Novick confesses at the outset that he does not think “that the idea of historical objectivity is true or false, right or wrong”; it is essentially meaningless. Yet he does not ignore the philosophical limits in Beard's and Becker's relativism any more than he ridicules the positions of those who believed they were working toward a true and final history. His aim is to understand, to reveal the meaning and implications of the historical debates and controversies he treats. Carefully, he notes that despite what Becker and Beard were charged with believing, neither was a skeptic who denied the existence or the knowability of truth. Their relativism was no more than a denial of a timeless and universal history and the assertion that all history “would be ‘relative’ to the historian's time, place, values, and purposes.” Indicative of Novick's intention to uncover internal sources of historians' philosophical beliefs is his observation that for the energetic, publicly active Beard, relativism served to justify activism; for the mild-mannered, skeptical Becker, it offered protection from unwanted calls for public participation.

In Novick's reading, the efforts of Beard and Becker were only the personal side of circumstances undermining belief in objectivity between the two world wars. Their sapping activities were reinforced by unsettling developments within the profession, such as the loss of influence over history in the schools with the rise of social studies and the replacement of professionals in the writing of history for the public by amateurs like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, and James Truslow Adams. The amateurs books sold in the thousands; John D. Hicks's Populist Revolt (1931) required seventeen years to reach total sales of fifteen hundred copies.

Novick quite properly puts the relativists' challenge to objectivity in a broader intellectual context. The cultural relativism of Boasian anthropology, the legal realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the new awareness of the indeterminacy in physics, and a fresh interest in the pragmatism of Charles S. Peirce and William James all pressed in the same direction. (As late as 1910, J. Franklin Jameson, the doyen of the profession, could write privately that he would have nothing to do with pragmatism “until I can remember from one day to the next what it is.”)

The two world wars do more in Novick's story than simply frame the years in which objectivity came under broad attack. The wars themselves were catalysts: the first raising the issue; the second reviving a belief that perhaps, after all, history could resist sliding into the fearsome abyss of relativism. Thus when, soon after the war, Beard pressed his relativism upon the profession in the famous Social Science Research Council Bulletin No. 54, most historians would have little to do with the idea, despite the doubts raised in the twenties and thirties. The self-confidence and optimism that victory had bestowed upon nation and profession alike were reinforced during the Cold War. A new belief in the power and value of history came close to obliterating any doubts about the possibility of its being objective. One president of the American Historical Association in 1962 carried the flag of self-confidence to new heights when he warned his colleagues that “a great people's culture … begins to decay when it commences to examine itself.”

Yet it was just that kind of self-examination, Novick reminds us, that caused the objectivity question to flare forth again in the late 1960s, when a “substantial and systematically ‘oppositional’” historiography came into being for the first time. The eruption of black, ethnic, women's, and public history put an end, at least for the foreseeable future, to the dream of a unitary history. Here Novick's brilliance shines. He describes crisply and sensitively the emergence of these new subfields even as he exposes their weaknesses and excesses. He is less deeply informed on the rise of public history than on the others, but given his outsider status in discussing Americanist developments, those pages are indeed impressive.

Himself a historian of radical provenance, Novick is also adept in appreciating the power, unraveling the complexities, and admitting the confusions in radical history. “How many epicycles could one introduce into the Marxist taxonomy of class identity,” he asks at one point, “before it collapsed into Ptolemaic overload?”

Are there no flaws? Some. His interpretations of the literature or of professional controversies are sometimes off center or just wrong. For example, he misreads Rosalind Rosenberg's motives in his discussion of the Sears case; he overemphasizes the belief in objective history in the minds of those who drove David Abraham out of the profession. (Novick tells us that he was Abraham's graduate teacher.) He also fails to recognize that there might be quite sound reasons some historians during the 1950s were anticommunist. But these and some other misreadings—including that of my own view of objectivity—do not threaten the validity of his story. His implicit case, constructed with force, understanding, and subtlety, is simply that historians have generally not been interested in analyzing what they do, but they ought to be. And if they did, they would probably be relativists, as Novick seems to be, and as I am.

David W. Noble (review date December 1989)

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SOURCE: Noble, David W. “Perhaps the Rise and Fall of Scientific History in the American Historical Profession.” Reviews in American History 17, no. 4 (December 1989): 519-22.

[In the following review, Noble argues that That Noble Dream provides “a rich and powerful narrative” surrounding the “objectivity question” in the American historical profession.]

[In That Noble Dream,] Peter Novick has written an unprecedented and invaluable study of the idea of objectivity among American historians. Starting in the 1880s, when historians established their professional identity, he carries his narrative up to the immediate present. To illuminate what objectivity meant to each succeeding generation during this century, he has analyzed the personal papers and major publications of many of the most important historians. When young American historians in the 1880s rejected the authority of the previous generation of amateur historians, they found legitimacy for themselves in the German ideal of scientific history which they brought back from Europe along with the doctoral degree. The scientific historian was supposed to have a “commitment to the reality of the past, and to truth as correspondence to that reality; a sharp separation between knower and known, between fact and value, and, above all, between history and fiction” (p. 2).

For Novick the commitment to scientific history steadily gained strength until World War I as the first generation of professional historians consolidated their power in the academic world. When he explores the social patterns facilitating this consensus, he establishes a theme of irony which continues throughout the entire book. These new professional historians were overwhelmingly male Anglo-Protestants. They monopolized the term “American” for themselves and were certain that no other social group living in the United States was capable of rationality and objectivity. They excluded American Indians, African Americans, Mexican-Americans, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and all women from their narratives.

Novick does find some challenge to this consensus in the writings of James Harvey Robinson, Charles Beard, and Carl Becker, who found the works of their colleagues irrelevant to the needs of society. But Novick does not clarify the problem that national loyalty had always posed, namely, the claim of American historians that their ability to be objective depended on their ability to express universal truths. Middle-class historians in every country were committed to the superiority of their national history. Robinson, Beard, and Becker wanted to fuse history with the social sciences because they hoped to return to the Enlightenment affirmation of universal natural laws that transcended national boundaries. For these “New Historians” the recently accepted authority of evolution pointed to such universal laws. For them the evolving patterns of nature were always ahead of cultural adaptation to the environment. They were “relativists” in the sense that they believed that there was always culture lag; culture always represented an adaptation to a natural environment which had now changed. The “New History,” for these “progressive” historians, would locate where the laws of nature were at the moment; it would also demonstrate what aspects of current society were irrelevant to the new natural environment. Like Karl Marx they defined industrialism as a force in harmony with the universal patterns of evolution. For them, American democracy must be liberated from concepts of exceptionalism and linked to the universals of industrialism and evolution.

Because he does not focus on the hope of the “New Historians” that they could replace national with universal history, Novick does not see how completely different their “relativism” was after World War I. He writes that “whereas before the war, American historians were largely isolated from modernist currents in philosophical, scientific, and social thought, after it, these currents became a significant factor in the rethinking of historiographical issues” (p. 111). Beard did become interested in these currents because he violently rejected his commitment to universal patterns of world history, a commitment which had led him to urge the United States to go to war against Germany. For Beard, in 1917, the universal force of industrial progress was being blocked in Germany by a reactionary political system. American destruction of that system would free the forces of economic progress. But by 1919 Beard believed he had failed to comprehend the influence of capitalism in causing the war. He no longer hoped that the irrationalities of capitalism would be overcome by the victory of universal reason. He turned, therefore, to a celebration of national tradition—the uniqueness of every nation—as the best way to thwart the corrupting influence of capitalism. He now explicitly defined national historians as artists who evoked the spirit of their nations' traditions. As a social scientist before 1919 he had believed he must be objective in his description of universal law. But he was a self-consciously artistic historian after 1919 as he evoked a national tradition which was unique because it sprang from a particular landscape.

Becker joined Beard in rejecting this reality of the universal laws of nature associated with the Enlightenment. But in the 1920s he also rejected Beard's new belief in the reality of national traditions as well as Beard's attempt to fuse a progressive narrative to that tradition. By the early 1930s he had rejected every element in the historian's creed of objectivity. The entry of the United States into World War II, however, abruptly reversed the doubts about historical objectivity that had been caused by the disillusionment of many historians in 1919 when they became aware that they had acted as emotional propagandists for a particular national viewpoint in 1917 and 1918. The continuing theme of irony in Novick's narrative now reaches its greatest intensity as he describes how the critical mass of the historical profession restored the mood of 1917 by claiming that the particular national interest of the United States represented the objectivity of universal natural law. But in 1917 there had been an overwhelming consensus among historians to support World War I. In 1941, however, many of Beard's generation desperately wanted to stay out of the war. Novick is most devastating here in his use of historians' letters to reveal the systematic campaign to convert the opposition or, failing that, to coerce them into silence. He uses the letters of many from Richard Hofstadter's generation to show that they believed they would lose their opportunity to become academic historians if they did not repress their criticism of the war. And this pattern continued into the Cold War. The result was a counter-Progressive consensus in the 1950s that was both powerful and fragile. It was fragile because there was so much suppressed resentment waiting for a chance to express itself. It was also fragile because of the unanswered questions raised by Beard and Becker about how historians, loyal to their nation, could claim an objectivity based on a relationship with the universal.

The criticisms of capitalism made by Beard and Vernon Louis Parrington in the 1920s and 1930s had been based on the distinction made by the republican tradition between virtuous and corrupt private property. Novick does not focus on the way this tradition lost its authority at the same time the relativism of Beard and Becker was linked by pro-war historians to both Nazi and Soviet ideology and thus dismissed as un-American. But the appearance for the first time of a significant Marxist voice in the American historical profession in the 1960s must have a relationship to the collapse of Beard's position which he had held throughout the 1930s. Beard had argued that the critique of capitalism must come only from the indigenous republican tradition. The young Marxists of the 1960s used, however, the logic of Beard's argument that national history and scientific objectivity were antithetical to argue that only Marxist historians were capable of scientific objectivity because only they transcended the provincialism of national history.

But counter-Progressive historians had also committed themselves, as part of Cold War politics, to cultural pluralism. When it became legitimate for historians to study American Indians, African Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian Americans, and women, they soon became aware of how male Anglo-Americans had monopolized the identity of “American” for themselves. It became increasingly clear that the male Anglo-Americans who had dominated the profession from the 1880s had written history which expressed their particular gender, class, and racial values.

Novick is correct in emphasizing that the collapse of the Cold War consensus was much more profound than the collapse of the World War I consensus. The Marxist critique is unprecedented as is the critique of cultural pluralism. There is no American history now, only American histories. But Novick also emphasizes the unprecedented critique coming from the academic field of cultural criticism. These developments in linguistic theory have reached the conclusion that the distinction between fact and value is purely arbitrary. Becker had said this in 1930, but his was an isolated voice. Now in the 1980s there are many scholars writing books and editing journals which present this position. Hayden White and Dominick La Capra are the two historians who have been most strongly influenced by this literary scholarship.

Although the narrative structure of Novick's book is the rise and fall of the ideal of objectivity in the American historical profession, he refuses to conclude with such a prophecy. He has written a rich and powerful narrative. No other scholar has made such a marvelous contribution to our understanding of the history profession during its first century. Historians who read this book will be forced to confront their tacit assumption that they are a privileged group always able to escape the complex, ironic, and often frightening lives which they observe as the experience of those humans who are mere mortals.

Alexander Kedar (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: Kedar, Alexander. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Poetics Today 11, no. 3 (1990): 717-18.

[In the following review, Kedar praises That Noble Dream as an excellent work of intellectual history, noting the volume's “extraordinary range of scholarship.”]

For Peter Novick, telling the story of the “noble dream” of historical objectivity [in That Noble Dream] was like “nailing jelly to the wall” (1). With much erudition and humor, Novick has achieved an impressive account that keeps a great deal of this fuzzy stuff in place. In this long, dense, and massively documented book, Novick traces the paths of the idea of objectivity in history within the American historical profession from its foundation in the 1880s until the present. He substantiates his multicausal argument that “the evolution of historians' attitudes on the objectivity question has always been closely tied to changing social, political, cultural, and professional contexts” (628) with an extraordinary range of scholarship. In the first of the four chronological sections, Novick traces the rise of the historical profession between the end of the nineteenth century and the First World War, and the simultaneous creation of the myth of objectivity in history. The new profession distanced itself from the lay, amateur historians and the idea of “history as literature.” Instead, it opted to model history according to a Baconian image of science, and enthroned Ranke as a mythical founding figure. Representing “the actual facts” became the key term in defining progress in historical scholarship as a neutral, autonomous, and cumulative discovery of the past. The authority to promulgate this past rested exclusively within a rising, homogeneous, middle-class profession which told a “conservative evolutionary” story about the English germs of the American institutions and traced how “freedom [was] realized and stabilized through the achievement of national solidarity” (72). In the second section, covering the interwar period, Novick argues that although historical relativism did not dominate the profession, several factors weakened objectivist orthodoxy. New approaches in neighboring academic fields, such as the general theory of relativity, pragmatism, legal realism, and cultural relativism; the involvement of many historians in the production of war propaganda; the decline in status and output of historical production; the dependence upon private patrons; the split between divergent political affiliations; and the emergence for the first time of sweeping opposing historical interpretations all undermined the belief in the objectivity of the collective enterprise. Part Three, encompassing the years from World War II to the Vietnam War, is the story of the reconstruction of a new objectivist synthesis. As relativism was blamed for enabling the rise of totalitarian societies, various intellectual disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, and law, were busy reconstructing objectivity. Karl Popper's epistemology heavily influenced the profession. Although historians' belief that the collective work would finally converge in one single truth was weakened, there was a sense that the boundaries of controversies would continually narrow. The experience of historians, employed as intelligence analysts during the war, convinced many that objectivity and involvement were compatible. The profession experienced an increase in power, status, and confidence. New emphasis on the history of the “Atlantic community” (termed by an ironic observer, “NATO history”) replaced prewar concerns with the “uniqueness of America.” Novick asserts that the acknowledgement of the moral superiority of the West became the key to a consensual history, just as the acknowledgment of black inferiority served this function during the formative era of the profession (453). In the last and longest section, “Objectivity in Crisis,” Novick brings us to the present period of uncertainty. The experience of the Vietnam War led many historians to doubt any truth. Everywhere, postmodernist attacks upon objective norms were biting deep. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions immensely influenced the profession; Foucault emphasized the relation between knowledge, power, and discipline; philosophers envisaged the possibility of multiple truths; Derrida and Fish undermined the assumptions of the determinacy of meaning. Geertz and other anthropologists emphasized the relative and “constructed” nature of reality. The Critical Legal Studies movement challenged the depiction of law as a science. Simultaneously, the profession sensed a decline in power, status, and salary. Attempts to recreate common criteria, based on the “community of the competent,” could not succeed in a profession increasingly fragmentized into diverse communities sharing little common language. Black, feminist, and public historians introduced strong particularistic currents. The insistence of some historians that history should abandon its scientific aspirations and become a branch of literature was, in a way, a reemergence of preprofessional concepts. These developments, Novick concludes, “constituted a sweeping challenge to the objectivist program of the founding fathers of the historical profession. Ideological disarray replaced the consensus on which ideas of objectivity had always depended so heavily” (573). Ironically, as Novick tells the story of the demise of the dream of objectivity in history, he simultaneously demonstrates how excellent intellectual history can be written after the collapse of the dream.

Robert Cuff (review date April 1990)

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SOURCE: Cuff, Robert. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 1 (April 1990): 143-45.

[In the following review, Cuff argues that That Noble Dream draws on a wealth of research to provide “an outstanding book of great value” for historians and readers alike.]

Can historians be objective in their work? Peter Novick uses impressive research in manuscript collections and published historical scholarship, as well as wide reading in other academic disciplines, to describe and analyse how notables within the U.S. historical profession have dealt with this question over the past one hundred years. The result is an outstanding book of great value, especially to graduate students and university teachers in the field of U.S. history.

That Noble Dream provides at once a social and intellectual history of the American historical profession; a discerning guide to several of its major historiographical controversies; and a close analysis of the epistemological assumptions of its major figures. It may also be read as a personal meditation on professing history in the 1980s.

The book's “plot,” as Novick comments, is easily summarized, but its complicated story is not easily told. In part one, which focuses on the period from the origins of the American Historical Association (A.H.A.) to World War I, Novick describes how the discipline's founders successfully established historical objectivity as the key norm of the new profession. That ideal, and the model of scientific method that informed it, held several advantages. It could be used to distinguish university-based professionals from their amateurish forebears. It could be operationalized to provide a method for training students in historical technique. It could also be appealed to as a sign scientific disinterestedness, and, as a result, as a source of ideologically neutral and hence authoritative knowledge.

In part two, Novick shows how Carl Becker and Charles Beard challenged this ideal during the interwar years. They advocated “historical relativism.” Becker's scepticism about history as science had been evident before the first war, but the challenge he represented peaked in the 1930s, symbolized perhaps by his and Beard's presidential addresses to the A.H.A.—the former's “Everyman His Own Historian” in 1931, the latter's “Written History as an Act of Faith” in 1933.

American historians had demonstrated a patriotic fervour during the first war that belied their claims for disinterested objectivity. Their subsequent failure to agree on the war's origins, despite much “objective” professional research, also shook the view that careful empirical work would somehow eventually accumulate into one objective truth. Nor could exponents of the objectivist creed find comfort in modernist current of thought in such fields as physics and psychology. Exponents of relativity and psychoanalysis implied that knowledge could not exist independent of the frames of reference, or values, or intentions of historical investigators. The interwar decline in the social status of the professoriate compounded the chastened mood.

Though shaken by the challenge, the profession's opinion-makers recovered in the 1940s, and, after partially incorporating elements of the relativist critique, boldly reasserted the promise of objective history through the cold war years. Novick traces the results in part three. Many of the historians who enlisted in the wartime Office of Strategic Services continued to move between Washington and the campus in the postwar years. Proponents of historical objectivity wielded the idea in the fight against Communist ideology. The promise of a value-free social science captured American academe. Novick quotes business historian and socialist Thomas Cochran, writing in 1951 “I guess what I've done is to build an ivory tower called the Social Science Approach to History where I can live wrapped up in social roles, and protected from reality by sanctions, basic personalities and cultural themes” (p. 325). The celebratory historiography of the nineteen fifties, and the cultural consensus it reflected, promoted confidence in the objectivity of the work produced.

By the mid-sixties, however, the world of professional historians had turned once again. The ideological consensus that under wrote the objectivist synthesis of the nineteen fifties began to unravel, and Novick discusses causes and results in part four. He offers an even-handed discussion of the emergence of left-orientated historians, particularly those from the Wisconsin History Department, and their impact on various historical controversies. He also comments insightfully on the particularistic perspectives represented by the emergence of “black” history, women's history, and public history. (The book is a helpful primer for Ph.D. comprehensives in the U.S. field). Novick is also good on intellectual currents in other disciplinary areas, such as history of science and literary theory, that chipped away at the epistemological foundations of objectivist hopes The social outcome—“every group its own historian”—enlivened debate over the meaning of the U.S. historical experience. But it has left a profession in “confusion, polarization, and uncertainty,” in matters of method and purpose; and it has rendered the idea of historical objectivity “more problematic than ever before” (pp. 16-17).

As this brief summary suggests, Novick argues that the evolution of historians' attitudes towards the objectivity question has reflected changes in social, political, cultural and professional contexts. Novick takes ideas on their own terms. He offers close scrutiny of such concepts as “pragmatism” “perspectivalism” and so on. He also attends to debates internal to the discipline itself. But shifts in conditions external to the profession hold the key to attitudinal changes within it.

Exactly how these causal factors interact Novick must leave unspecified in a broad narrative of this kind. He must also side-step the question of how representative the sensibilities of his professional notables have been of the profession as a whole. As he observes at one point, most historians in the United States, (and Canada for that matter), have had absolutely no interest in the philosophical questions that animate this study.

Novick hopes his book will raise self-consciousness among historians about the nature of their work. And this may happen. But whether it affects practice is problematic, since it remains unclear exactly how one can respond to the tough questions he poses. If That Noble Dream is any guide, moreover, any major change in the status of the objectivity question within the American historical profession will depend to a considerable extent on events that transpire outside it.

John Higham (review date June 1990)

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SOURCE: Higham, John. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Journal of Modern History 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 353-56.

[In the following review, Higham compares Novick's central argument in That Noble Dream to the thesis of his own book History.]

The title of Peter Novick's big, compelling book [That Noble Dream] comes from a bleak address that Theodore Clarke Smith delivered to the American Historical Association in 1934. Responding to sledgehammer attacks that progressive scholars were making on “the ideal of the effort for objective truth,” Smith suggested gloomily that the way things were going this “noble dream”—the basic creed of the historical profession—might in the coming decades be irretrievably lost. While making no such prediction himself, Novick nonetheless casts his monumental story of change and challenge as a pattern of decline. From about 1910 to the present the ideal of objectivity has undergone increasing attenuation and seems now to rest on hollow foundations, or none at all.

This is to note immediately a major difference between Novick's narrative and my own telling of the same story in part 2 of History (1965).1 Novick employs almost the same periodization that I used: first, the founding of a historical profession in the United States and the articulation of its central norm (“Objectivity Enthroned”); then the development in the interwar years of a relativist movement that put the older scientific school on the defensive (“Objectivity Besieged”); third, an effort in the 1940s and 1950s to integrate relativist insights into a more flexible orthodoxy (“Objectivity Reconstructed”); and finally, moving beyond my time frame, the widespread discrediting of any unifying ideal in the midst of confusion, fragmentation, and uncertainty (“Objectivity in Crisis”). While Novick and I agree on innumerable particulars, he sees my interpretation of the first three stages as Whiggish and celebratory. Whiggish it was—excessively though understandably so. From the vantage point of the early 1960s, when the study of history was prospering at every level, the story of an evolving professional creed fell persuasively into a pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Adding a fourth stage, especially as Novick defines it, throws what came before in a different light. From the disarray of the 1980s, the preceding stage is easily read as an unmitigated failure, a temporary co-optation rather than a fusion, and the resulting four-stage pattern becomes a sequence of deepening disintegration. We have here an instance of a limit—insuperable though not absolute—that the historical process sets on the truths of historical inquiry.

The methods of the two books as well as the time of their composition contribute to the contrasts between them. Novick writes the history of a “question,” that is, a dispute which is best understood by standing outside the arena to observe how contestants deal with one another in rephrasing a given proposition and by restating their many answers. I wrote the history of a belief, so I wanted to get inside the principal players to grasp empathically how each of them felt and perceived a problematic situation. Novick seeks distance: I sought identification. His approach reveals complexities of strategy and maneuver that often escaped me. Mine offered a more sympathetic view of ambiguities within various perspectives and of linkages and continuities between rivals and successors.

Consider, for example, how the two books depict the first generation of professional historians. In writing mine, I had discovered to my surprise how much the early professionals had in common with the leading amateur historians of the late nineteenth century, both in theory and in practice. In contrast to previous historiographers I stressed the professionals' typical acknowledgment of the unattainability of complete objectivity along with their resolute belief in moving toward it and their enthusiastic enlistment in the broad late nineteenth-century movement to strengthen tradition and authority in American high culture. Novick, on the other hand, begins not with the cultural aspirations of the early professionals but with a highly restrictive definition of what he calls “the original and continuing objectivist creed” (p. 2). In it he includes the propositions that truth is unitary, that facts are independent of interpretations, and that the “meaning” of events never changes regardless of shifts in attributed significance. From these desiccated absolutes Novick can move easily into the American professionals' intellectual shortcomings, namely, their naive understanding of science and their misunderstanding of the German academic model they adopted. Later he notes in passing what I featured, just as I had noted (though perhaps more prominently) the professional egoism he dwells upon.

Where Novick's disenchanted eye is most penetrating is in his numerous chapters on the political ideologies professional historians have espoused. The special ideological service of the first generation was to the deepening of national unity, healing the wounds of the Civil War and overcoming the rampant localism and sectionalism of earlier historical writing. What Novick calls a “deliberate negotiation of a mutually acceptable version of the sectional conflict” (p. 74) came about partly through the low-keyed, unemotional tone that the ethic of objectivity mandated and partly through northern scholars' acquiescence in southern views on race relations. The ideological homogeneity that the American historical community thereby attained, Novick believes, was essential in establishing objectivity as its accepted norm.

The progressive scholars of the early twentieth century who began to question objectivist convictions remained much too confident of the progress of scientific knowledge to push their questions very far. For many, especially among the progressive avant-garde, World War I shattered that confidence. The nationalistic zeal that the war excited first plunged them back into the hyperbolic language they had collectively repudiated and then, in the disillusioned aftermath of the war, left them perplexed and deeply disturbed over the betrayal of their vaunted objectivity. Fierce scholarly quarrels ensued in the interwar years, particularly over the “war guilt question” and over the causes and consequences of the American Civil War, all of which dramatized the breakdown of an ideological consensus and formed the immediate context of the relativist movement of the 1930s.

Novick provides discriminating, impressively knowledgeable chapters on redefinitions of science and on new philosophical and social scientific ideas that also impinged on the objectivity question. Nevertheless, ideology remains the center of attention as he turns to the reassertion of a qualified objectivity after World War II. Relativism, Novick tells us, became a prime target in the ideological mobilization against “totalitarianism.” The defense of the West called on one hand for reassertion of underlying ideals and supposedly universal human values and on the other hand for pride in disinterested scientific inquiry. Consequently, historians followed a middle-of-the-road course. They claimed a partial autonomy for ideas while forswearing ideological crusades and denying that the past is best handled as a weapon. There is much truth in Novick's assessment, although labeling such a nonactivist position as “ideological mobilization” seems distorting. Fascinated as he is with conflict, Novick almost completely overlooks the enormous fear of conflict that the atom bomb introduced into the postwar world. For many historians, including myself, the retreat from aggressive relativism sprang not from mobilization but from demobilization, that is, from alarm at the danger ideological fanaticism posed to everyone.

The eruption of sharp dissension in the 1960s did not immediately bring the objectivity question to the fore. In contrast to the 1920s, when an ideological rift spread downward from the leaders of the profession, carrying with it an explicit epistemological challenge, the upheaval of the sixties came from below, chiefly from rebellious students. Unencumbered with philosophical baggage, the young radicals spoke in the name of objective truth, which they thought they could discern better than established scholars because they had no vested interests to protect. The new crisis for historical objectivity arose because different groups in the profession no longer agreed on a common agenda and no longer wanted to talk to one another. As the noise level escalated, comity collapsed, and with it went the sense that a diversified community of scholars can resolve arguments by rational means. Novick's discussion of this turning point is a graphic, sympathetic narrative of the rise of a new left in the historical profession, its early scholarly initiatives, and its rapid fragmentation into warring factions.

Gradually historians became aware of new forms of relativist theory, beginning with Thomas Kuhn's concept of the paradigm and extending through movements in literary criticism that repudiate determinate meanings, texts, and authors. As Novick suggests, this diffuse epistemological pluralism or subjectivism has undoubtedly confirmed and perpetuated the crisis in historical theory. But why, if there is a crisis, does hardly anyone seem to care? Why have the ideas agitating other disciplines not aroused among historians a new, urgent debate like that of the 1930s and 1940s? Novick gives us no answer, except to say that sensibilities and interests have become too disparate; the historical profession no longer constitutes a community of discourse.

I do not think that will do. Thomas Haskell has noted “our obstinate tendency to continue striving for objective knowledge … even in the face of our own skepticism.” This striving still constitutes the great community of historians, whose commitment to justifying beliefs “by reference to realities that extend beyond language and communal solidarity is a wholesome discipline and a deeply human practice, the value of which is quite independent of the likelihood that it will ever yield incontrovertible Truth.”2 That center still holds, and the multilayered honesty of Novick's disillusioned book is an unintended testimonial to it.

In concentrating on the argument of the book, I have given a most inadequate sense of its range, depth, and richness. The bibliography lists sixty manuscript collections. Novick has also drawn heavily on books, reviews, and speeches through which major historiographical controversies and minor professional scandals were fought out. Many readers will find the garrulous footnotes as fascinating as the text. Quite a few of us will encounter unauthorized quotes from our letters, preserving youthful postures and private effusions never intended for posterity. Is there not an irony here? Novick's extended critique of the delusions of historians relies on the strength among them of a communal code that rightly bars assertion of their private rights against a pursuit of truth.


  1. John Higham with Leonard Krieger and Felix Gilbert, History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965). A second edition in 1983, bringing up to date the story of substantive scholarship in American history, left unchanged a midsection of the book which treated Novick's subject—the underlying rationale of the profession.

  2. Thomas L. Haskell, “The Curious Persistence of Rights Talk in the ‘Age of Interpretation,’” Journal of American History 74 (December 1987): 996, 1011.

Charles Tilly (review date July 1990)

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SOURCE: Tilly, Charles. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Contemporary Sociology 19, no. 4 (July 1990): 535-37.

[In the following review, Tilly asserts that Novick's central argument in That Noble Dream is problematic, due to several methodological shortcomings.]

Coolly skeptical about the possibility of historical objectivity and wittily contemptuous of the ways that aspirants to historical objectivity have articulated their claims, Peter Novick traces what he sees as the rise, fall, second rise, and second fall of the idea in American history [in That Noble Dream.] He finds little reason to hope for future reliability. While sociologists might at first feel impelled to rub their hands at a rival discipline's discomfiture, Novick's inquiry matters crucially to sociologists, who have long supposed that they could rake up historical facts from historians' fields in order to incorporate them into sociological analyses, and who have more recently aspired to introduce reliable social-scientific methods into historical practice. If Novick is right, neither enterprise has much chance of success.

Novick builds his case by examining the careers, private papers, major writings, and obiter dicta of scores of historians—chiefly historians of the United States—from the latter half of the nineteenth century to the 1980s. Nineteenth-century American historians, Novick argues, returned from their heady German sojourns bearing colossal misconceptions of Leopold von Ranke's historiographical ideas, tearing them from their idealistic roots and fashioning them into straightforward positivism: History, for them, should identify and array indisputable facts and, in true Baconian induction, draw from them scientific truths just as powerful as those produced by Newtonian physicists and Darwinian biologists.

The profession's organizers, in Novick's account, considered themselves builders of a Science as they sought to create American universities on the beloved German model and, not incidentally, to enhance their own prestige through claims of objectivity. University-based Herbert Baxter Adams and his Johns Hopkins student J. Franklin Jameson looked with dismay or condescension at the partisanship and rhetoric of such great amateurs as George Bancroft and John Lothrop Motley. The ploy worked: objectivist orthodoxy prevailed, Novick holds, until somewhere after World War I, when the relativisms associated with Charles Beard and his allies began to produce sharp divisions among historians. Up to that time, professionalizing historians even gained the esteem and material comfort they sought. The 1930s ended all that. A second, shorter, and more disastrous cycle of objectivism's rise and fall began when historians started blaming relativism for fascism and for the West's weakness at the start of World War II; the second illusion exploded more spectacularly than before in Cold War mobilization and then in 1960s activism.

That Noble Dream offers both less and more than it promises. Less, in that Novick repeatedly compromises in detail the argument he offers in general. Although historians do the great bulk of their work in the form of monographs, the writings that Novick analyzes are almost all syntheses or programmatic statements, which are especially open to the Zeitgeist effects he is at pains to document. Timing, furthermore, repeatedly goes awry; Carl Becker's History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, published in 1909 in the midst of what is supposed to be the first triumph of objectivism, serves Novick as a prime specimen of the relativist history that is supposed to have come into its own after World War I. Novick simply does not show that workaday history followed the two cycles of his major argument.

As Novick's own sprightly narrative shows, furthermore, gifted amateurs and partisans never disappeared from American historiography; compared with sociology, history professionalized slowly, hesitantly, and incompletely. (Indeed, he does not hesitate to offer Woodrow Wilson, on page 65, as an example of the subservient orthodoxy promoted by history's professionalization, only to quote Wilson's criticism of scientific history on page 71.) Even today, most American historians hanker for mass audiences and public forums. Purported sea changes turn out to be eddies and swells.

Novick's book also delivers more than it promises. It makes a recurrent, shocking point of the racism and anti-Semitism of historians who claimed objectivity for their writings. It traces the famous phrase “history from the bottom up” back to a letter of March 1923 from Frederick Jackson Turner to Carl Blegen. It contains thoughtful, well-documented accounts of such episodes as historians' service to wartime antifascism and postwar anticommunism, the irruption of New Left historians into professional decorum, and the recent controversy over historical testimony in the EEOC's sex discrimination case against Sears, Roebuck, and Co.—not overly relevant to the main theme, but fascinating in their own right. The book offers, among other things, tidbits concerning the political careers of such well-known recent historians as H. Stuart Hughes, Herbert Gutman, Carl Schorske, Thomas Cochran, Richard Hofstadter, and Lee Benson. It describes the means by which Henry Turner, Gerald Feldman, and a few others drove leftist German historian David Abraham out of the profession during the 1980s. Its stories will nourish the conversation of many a faculty lunch.

What has Novick shown? That American historians have commonly adopted presuppositions from their political settings; that the fundamental questions historians reward each other for attempting to answer bear on enduring moral and political issues, such as the origins of the Civil War and the place of equality in American history; that critics frequently complain of their opponents' political biases while vaunting their own impartiality; that authors justify their works by asserting relevance to current political and moral issues; that prefaces and conclusions to historical monographs frequently feature large and vulnerable claims; that all these difficulties multiply in historical syntheses and programmatic statements. The simultaneous pursuit of authority, validity, relevance, and fame inevitably involves historians in contradictions and oscillations.

So what else is new? That Noble Dream provides no coherent explanation of these characteristics, no convincing account of their variations, and no careful examination of their implications for the very possibility of cumulative, reliable historical knowledge. The lengthy final survey of consonances between today's relativist currents in literature, anthropology, philosophy, and history makes many useful connections, but in no way establishes the disintegration of an earlier consensus; that consensus never existed. Novick's own relativism eventually undermines his ability to frame and document a compelling analysis of history's changes.

To be sure, my discussion has borrowed excessively from Novick's own method, leaping from point to point without establishing the balance of evidence systematically. Perhaps my justification should come from Novick's admission that

I tried to count and failed. Some time ago I spent the better part of two years coding the evaluative language used in thousands of historians' book reviews, punching IBM cards, and attempting to correlate the language used with dozens of other variables having to do with historians' generation, field, status, etc. It was a total waste of time, producing nothing intelligible and permanently dampening my enthusiasm for introducing quantitative rigor into intellectual history.

(p. 8)

Novick's inductive positivism at that unhappy stage of his career clearly exceeded any enthusiasm of his objects of study, not to mention violating the advice any experienced quantitative analyst would give him. But it does confirm a principle on which all the objectivists I know would agree: that without both a preliminary theory and procedures that can, in principle, falsify the theory, no one advances toward reliable knowledge.

Hugh Brogan (review date October 1991)

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SOURCE: Brogan, Hugh. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. English Historical Review 106 (October 1991): 1073-74.

[In the following review, Brogan observes that That Noble Dream has much to teach historians about their own “intellectual fallacies.”]

Nothing could be more elegant than Peter Novick's performance in That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Taking up the theme of the nature of historical knowledge (Is it objective or subjective? Are a historian's categories determined by his researches, or imposed by him on his material?) he uses it to make intelligible the development of academic history in the United States during the past century or so. Historiology is not everyone's cup of tea, but it can safely be asserted that this is a book which no one interested in the modern history of the United States can afford to ignore (for one thing, it is in part a chronique scandaleuse of the profession). And any historians reflective enough to be interested in the philosophy of their subject will also find this volume absorbing. It is perhaps both a little too long, and not long enough: I could have done with slightly less theoretical exposition and rather more sociological explanation. I also disliked the assumption, explicit in the language used, that anyone not an academic historian must be an ‘amateur’ (so much for Thucy-dides, Tacitus and Gibbon). There my objections cease. It is a long time since I have been so intellectually aroused by a book. Professor Novick leaves his readers in no doubt that the American historical profession, in spite of its enormous achievements, is today in extreme difficulties. He touches on the problem's political and social roots, but shows that it is primarily intellectual. For the historical discipline in the United States has always been grounded on the belief that history was, or at any rate ought to be, an empirical science; and now that the notion of empirical, value-free science has collapsed under the assaults of intellectual historians such as Thomas S. Kuhn, historians who are honest enough to face the issues are at a loss. Their great common enterprise has splintered into a myriad of sub-disciplines, each of which is being smothered by its overproduction of research; they have little fame among the public at large, and no influence at all on the schools, where their subject is vanishing, as it is beginning also to vanish in the universities; worst of all, they are losing confidence in the meaningfulness of their work. If no agreement on important truths about the past is attainable, even in theory, what is the point of the undertaking? The author does not, perhaps, realize how culturally specific his story is: certainly the scene is somewhat different in Britain, even though we have our own crisis. As one who has long believed that historical writing is a branch of rhetoric, I am not disturbed by proof that it is not a science; and so far in this country links with the schools, journalism and the general public of enthusiasts are still strong. But I do not doubt that many of the intellectual fallacies that Novick discusses are rife among us, and I know that our structural problems are the same or worse. For that reason I hope his book gets wide attention on this side of the Atlantic. It has much to teach.

Joseph M. Levine (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Levine, Joseph M. “Objectivity in History: Peter Novick and R. G. Collingwood.” CLIO 21, no. 2 (winter 1992): 109-27.

[In the following essay, Levine observes that That Noble Dream is both “useful and timely” for historians as a reminder of the current state of crisis in historical scholarship.]


Peter Novick's That Noble Dream is useful and timely, for it reminds us that the historical profession is indeed in crisis, that its traditional convictions about the point and purpose of history have been challenged and cannot be left to stand in their original formulation, and that some sort of answer may be required. Novick himself doesn't attempt one; he is content to describe how the problem arose, and if anything seems to enjoy the prospect of uncertainty that it suggests. Since he doesn't believe in objectivity, he cheerfully takes sides with the dissidents, though he proclaims his own fairmindedness. Whether this makes a difference and whether it matters we shall have to see; suffice it to say here that Novick has amassed a great deal of evidence to show what no one will easily deny: that among contemporary historians—and even more among contemporary theorists of history—there is no consensus about objectivity, and perhaps little about anything else.

Novick defines the conviction in “objectivity” as embracing several notions. The early members of the profession held that there was a “real” past and that a truthful description of it corresponded to that reality; that there was a sharp separation between the historian and his subject, between fact and value, and, above all, as he says, between history and fiction; that facts were prior to the interpretation which must try to explain them; that historical truth is one and not therefore “perspectival”; and, finally, that patterns in history are found in the past and not simply made by the historian. Objective history was thought to be neutral and disinterested, balanced and even-handed, pledged to truth not party. Novick finds much of this confused, some of it naive, and all of it empty. But he promises to set out the arguments on both sides, “fully and I hope fairly.”1 He is quite sure that another historian with a different point of view would write a different account. The trouble is that intellectual history (apparently more than ordinary history) is like “nailing jelly to the wall.”

Perhaps Novick is right. Certainly, trying to pin him down about his own views on this matter is a little like that. It is not only that he tries so hard to be fair to his miscellaneous cast and their various ideas, but that he commits himself throughout to all the devices of “objective” historiography: from the scrupulous citation and evaluation of evidence and the hearing he gives to alternative explanations, to his avowed purpose of reconstructing an argument that must have taken place before and apart from Peter Novick. I think he would be offended (or would he just be amused?) if he were accused of invention, of writing fiction rather than history, of imposing an imaginary pattern on the past, of writing propaganda, or of any other attempt to doctor or distort the record. For the fact is (if I may be permitted the expression) that Novick has done none of these things; on the contrary, he has written a history, a good history that accords to the generally agreed-upon standards of modern historiography, and that is bound to give it credence among contemporary historians. No doubt some will object to its conclusions. Novick himself finds it puzzling that so many historians today still accept some or all of the convictions of objectivity, despite the projected extinction of that noble dream. He does not seem to notice, or to think that it matters, that somehow or other there remains a large consensus about some fundamental aspects of method, even while there is a large dispute about matter.

Indeed, it is one of the puzzling features of this big book that Novick should have chosen to write about what historians say they are doing rather than what they are actually about. He himself points out that historians are not very good at theory and usually disinterested. He has chosen therefore to write about what they do badly rather than what they do well (15). Exclusions are inevitable when we slice up the past, and Novick is entitled to choose his subject. But this peculiar omission seems to me fatal to his concerns. If it is true (!) that the majority of historians still compose their histories with a method not unlike Leopold von Ranke, that is to say, still based upon a method of source criticism that was invented and extolled in the graduate seminars of imperial Germany, then it is at least anomalous that modern theory should offer no good reason for such a procedure. If it is not true, then what is Novick (and the rest of us) doing employing it?

But of course the consensus, if such it is, about modes of research and criticism among practicing historians, does not by itself lead us out of the historicist dilemma or the quagmires of theory. What it does do is raise a problem scrupulously avoided by Novick and that would seem to require explanation. If objectivity is dead in theory, and if modern historiography was created in its thrall, how is it that we are still practicing its receipts? Should we submit to relativism (Novick's alternative) and relax the methodological standards of evidence and criticism that have gripped the profession since its founding? Should the practices of modern historiography be seen as the mere conventions of an authoritarian profession, or as Novick suggests (following some of his sources), the particular devices of a group of WASP insiders intent on preserving their privileges? At the least, we are bound to ask what was the relationship between theory and practice, then and now.

Because Novick pretty much excludes the historical writing of his period, he looks almost entirely to external influences on historical ideas, either to theorizing in philosophy, physics, and anthropology, for example, or to politics both in the profession and outside. He seems to think that internalist explanation means explaining how the ideas of historians are a result of the ideas of others, rather than, as one might have supposed, of their own dilemmas. Since he altogether denies the autonomy of history, it does not occur to him that historiography might be affected to some extent by its own concerns, by a desire to solve problems that arose within its own borders from its own practices and problems. For Novick, thinkers like Werner Heisenberg and Clifford Geertz, or events like the great depression and the Cold War, matter more to historical thinking than the collected papers of Thomas Jefferson or the excavations at Ur. Yet even so, and despite himself, once or twice Novick does venture into that parlous area where theory is allowed to confront practice directly. And it is interesting to see what happens when he does.

Toward the end of his book, Novick recounts at length the tale of David Abraham, offering for once an extended narrative set-piece of his own. In brief, he tells how the young historian was accused by others of a series of errors in his popular and well-received account of business in the Weimar Republic. In the fracas that ensued, Abraham was prosecuted by Henry Turner and Gerald Feldman and successfully hounded out of the profession. Though some historians were upset, and the American Historical Association looked into the matter, the profession closed ranks and covered over the affair. Novick presents the incident as his climactic example of the prevailing confusion among historians about objectivity.

But that is the one thing it is not! Even if we confine ourselves simply to Novick's account, to the facts that he presents, it is clear that apart from disagreement about Abraham's moral culpability and ultimate fate, everyone—including Abraham himself—agreed that some errors had been made by him and should be corrected. Abraham argued in his favor that the errors that he had made did not affect his argument, not because they were irrelevant, but because they applied equally to both sides of his argument.2 Novick is right to find this convincing as to Abraham's intent, and wishes to exonerate him of bad faith, especially since he promised not to do it again, but he is quite wrong to imply that the errors did not matter, or that anybody could justifiably think so. No one it seems (either in or out of the profession) approves a shoddy historian who plays fast and loose with the facts and does not know how to do careful history. And it seems plain that if there were indeed “facts” to be discovered by Abraham on both sides of his story, then somehow those facts must have been there beforehand, independent of Abraham's interpretation. The only way to get around this apparent difficulty is for Novick to deny their importance and to trivialize their discovery as “hyperempiricism.” Be that as it may, neither Abraham nor Novick seems to have had any relish for “factual errors” and both seem to share the general embarrassment of the historian (any historian) who is caught making them. In any case, it is clear that neither would carelessly license their invention—though presumably neither would object to their appearance in a work of fiction. (There is a difference then!) Yet Novick is surprised to discover that many historians even today still cling to outmoded notions of objectivity.

Now it would be just as foolish to pretend that the ideas of the founding fathers in these matters must hold unamended as to suppose with Novick that they must be banished altogether from the scene. Novick presents a fair case for the opposition, and anyone who tries to take stock of historiography today must take into account the endless refutations of objectivity that have shaken the confidence, if not the practice, of contemporary historians. Whatever its pretensions to autonomy, it is true that history is written in a larger intellectual world, a world of physics, anthropology, and literary criticism, among other things, and a world of practical politics and political ideology, a world frequently indifferent or hostile to its pretensions to know the past—and Novick has well described the assault. What he leaves unexplained however, is why anyone should want to go on writing history, writing, say, about the history of American infatuation with objectivity, having lost the conviction that it is possible to know and describe something like what really happened. If the chief result of his great labor is to be largely Novick and little about the American historical profession in the twentieth century, who will care?

But clearly Novick doesn't intend that; he wants us to believe his version of what happened, no doubt because he believes that it happened that way. And he is right. When he confesses in a footnote that Abraham was his student and is a good friend, he adds that “I do not believe that the account which follows is biased and tendentious” (612n). He means us to believe his story even though he tells us he is not neutral, and I for one am prepared to accept it. He asks us to endorse his facts anyway, even if we do not accept his values. Is it naive then to think that his narrative may accord with some sort of reality out there that is not a fiction? And that his perspective (which he honestly divulges and which may not be ours) may not necessarily pervert his tale beyond belief? In short, is Novick not conceding more than he is willing to allow to that very idea of objectivity that he defined at the outset of his book and declared dead? And is he not trying his level best to conform to its procedures? He knows that unless he does, he will not convince us; and that if he does, he may convince us despite ourselves. We still may not agree to hire Abraham after reading Novick, but we can be made to agree about what happened in the Abraham case. At worst, we may have to go back to the sources ourselves. Shades of Leopold van Ranke!

Of course this is much too simple; at this point I would like merely to reopen the case for objectivity. When Novick comes to consider the actions of Abraham and his accusers, he worries especially that his explanation and evaluation of what took place will not persuade everyone. Was Abraham, as a Marxist, wilfully manipulative of evidence because of his preconceived opinions? Were Turner and Feldman defending a conservative ideology and/or a personal and professional territory in their prosecution? Is the case really emblematic of the condition of the American historical profession? Clearly, it is in the realm of explanation and evaluation that perspectivism and relativity have gained their greatest plausibility. Everyman knows that historians rarely agree about these things; and everyone has heard by now that everyman, as a consequence, is his own historian.

The dilemma, then, for Novick and for the rest of us, lies, or so it seems to me, in this disparity between theory and practice, and it will not easily be resolved by separating the two. Is it possible to reconcile the general procedures of the historian intent on recovering the facts with the peculiar attitudes of the historian shaped by personal idiosyncracy and social convention—the objective with the subjective? Novick assumes with most of his protagonists that the two are hopelessly antithetical and beyond theoretical reconciliation, even while he, and most of his subjects, go on practicing a history that seems to combine the two. He seems to be unaware that there was all along, and still is, a philosophical tradition abroad that was attempting to reconcile the opposites. I am thinking of such “hermeneuticists” as Schleiermacher and Dilthey in the nineteenth century, and Betti and Gadamer more recently.3 It is, in any case, a problem that would seem to require either a philosopher who had actually done some professional history, or a historian with true philosophical competence, no easy matter. But there was one writer anyway who more than filled the bill. R. G. Collingwood was a hermeneuticist who was an Englishman and who died prematurely before he could fully develop his ideas, but he had a keen American audience. Novick mentions him once or twice, but he might have attended to him more. Better than anyone else, it seems to me, Collingwood proposed a promising alternative to an old antithesis.


Let us put the problem again. On the one hand, historians have for generations collaborated on a vast enterprise meant to recover the whole of the human past. They have proceeded, since the Renaissance anyway, to invent new techniques of research and criticism in order to secure a more accurate and reliable description, under the illusion that the past existed in some exterior and comprehensible way. In the early modern period, historical erudition came to be regarded as cumulative and progressive, better and better able to apprehend the past, and many previous historical convictions were discarded along the way as mythical or fictional, the prevailing notion being that there was a radical difference between those inventions and a true account of the past.4 Thus, the whole legendary history of early Britain, to take one example, from its founding by the Trojan Brutus to its climax in the exploits of Arthur and the knights of the round table, was gradually discarded as false by historians wielding the critical knife of a new historiography, and a new one was substituted. The very success of modern scholarship, however, carried with it new problems of understanding; for even as the past came more closely into view, it began to be perceived as more and more foreign. Thus the Celts turned out to be far more exotic than the ancient Britons. And even as historians believed that they were coming closer to the historical truth about their subjects, they were forced to become increasingly self-conscious about themselves. By the end of the nineteenth century, when Novick picks up the tale, both tendencies had developed in Western thought until a collision was inevitable. On the one hand, historians were teaching a critical method that was demonstrably superior to any that had gone before and revising wholesale all previous descriptions of the past. They naturally welcomed a positivist theory that arose after the fact and that sanctioned their efforts by declaring their activities scientific—and objective. On the other hand, historians and philosophers were also discovering historicism, the notion that historians as well as their subjects were a part of history, and that everything human was relative to time and place, i.e., perspectival and subjective. Novick's book shows us how the profession was slow to recognize a conflict, but that it has since come to dominate the theoretical scene. Was there any way out?

It seems unlikely that a solution could be found by adhering merely to one side of the quarrel. It must be an unusual body of thought that is so misguided that whole centuries of deliberation contain nothing of value. It is one of the disappointments of Novick's book that, despite disclaimers, he has chosen to line up with the critics of objectivity alone and tell the story largely from their single perspective. The story of an argument should certainly take into account both sides, but Novick can only show puzzlement and incomprehension in dealing with the proponents of objectivity. And we have seen that in his own history he writes as though it were possible to describe an exterior reality accurately and dispassionately. It seems never to have occurred to him that it might be possible to combine the insights of both sides: to reconcile the objectivity with the subjectivity of history; to accept the vast labor and achievement of historical scholarship in the early modern period, as well as the relativity of modern and postmodern historicism.

At least Collingwood understood that much. In The Idea of History he defended the method of modern history as new, as autonomous, and as compelling as any other means to knowledge. He objected to positivism as adopting a false analogy with natural science; but he insisted that historical understanding was at least as secure and persuasive (i.e., as true) as any other form of knowledge. He used the analogy of a detective story to describe the method of the historian and the prevailing belief that detectives (often) do get their suspects beyond a reasonable doubt. A crime committed was a historical event which could with the proper evidence be apprehended exactly and convincingly—objectively if you will. Yet the detective-historian appeared to solve his puzzle by reenacting the events in his own mind, by rethinking the thoughts of the criminal—subjectively. Historical thinking was somehow both objective and subjective at the same time!

But was it possible to have one's cake and eat it too? Can one really think objectively and subjectively at the same time? According to Collingwood, who echoes the old hermeneutic tradition, that is exactly what we do when we think someone else's thoughts.5 The thoughts belong to another. They are therefore in the object or the event; in that sense they are objective. But the thoughts occur to me. I think them; they are therefore also subjective. I do not become the other person; I remain conscious that I am myself even while I think his or her thoughts. That is what happens in ordinary life, and that is what happens when we do history.

A student comes to me with an excuse. “I was sick last week,” he says plaintively, “and could not take the examination. May I take a make-up?” He hands me a slip from the infirmary corroborating the event. I understand his meaning at once; his language is unambiguous in this context and I know what he means by simply thinking the same thought. It is not just that I review his words; with the help of the context and the document, I am able to put myself in his place even while I remain fixed in my own and think exactly as he does. But is he telling the truth? I can soon find out with a phone call or two, or by some other research. A new context will certainly alter, but it will also clarify the intended meaning of his statement. (He may want me to think he was sick, even though he was not.) In recovering the full context of the student's words, I discover their original meaning; and I find out whether he was indeed ill at the time of the examination, what in fact happened. In either case I remain fixed in my own context, endeavoring to find out what took place by reenacting the events and rethinking the thoughts of the student. Carl Becker was right to think that the historian is just like everyman, trying to apprehend somebody else's thoughts, and like everyman, trying to figure out a reliable way of recovering them.

Since it was Becker who insisted on the analogy between everyman and every historian, it may be useful to take up the example he offers. Becker is one of the heroes of Novick's account, an early critic of positivist objectivity, who somehow stopped short of a complete relativism even while he hovered on the brink.6 Becker argued that history belongs to everyman, not just to professional historians, and that the problem of reconstructing the past is an aspect of ordinary thought. Mr. Everyman (he proposes) must pay his coal bill, and momentarily forgetting the circumstances, does some research. He examines some documents—his own memoranda and two coal-sellers' accounts—in order to recover the facts, and when he discovers conflicting reports there, he makes a critical comparison of the texts in order to eliminate the error. Having done so much, he forms in his own mind a picture, “a definitive picture let us hope, of a selected series of historical events,” and he pays his bill.7 For Becker this is an imaginative personal creation fashioned out of individual experience and practical need. But even Becker recognizes some limits to this; Mr. Everyman might well wish to invent a convenient past to accord with his heart's desire, but he has to live in a world with others, and this teaches him “the expediency of recalling events with much exactness.” Without reading Bernheim's once famous rule-book, he knows that “the relevant facts must be clearly established by the testimony of independent witnesses not self-deceived” (243).8

Of course, Mr. Everyman, like the ordinary historian, is not concerned about the whole truth of the past, merely that part of it that he wishes to know. He selects what is convenient. This personal interest in the events, Becker finds a “disturbing bias,” and his whole account is ostensibly an attack on positivist objectivity in favor of a relativist point of view. But in conceding the necessity of exactness which is imposed by the collaborative nature of the enterprise, and of the possibility of resolving historical problems by the critical examination of documents, Becker was confirming the experience of nineteenth-century historiography. Once Mr. Everyman is committed to his undertaking—the discovery of what took place when he ordered his coal—he must recover the relevant evidence and come to only one conclusion: what exactly happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Moreover, it must be a conclusion acceptable to all the others interested, even though their personal concerns (in collecting or not collecting the bills) are different and indeed mutually exclusive. Historical truth for Becker may be contingent and relative; for Mr. Everyman, however, it must be, as Becker himself suggests, definitive.

If Becker had hewed a little closer to one of his sources, the Italian teacher of Collingwood, Benedetto Croce, he might have seen a way of resolving the apparent paradox.9 As Mr. Everyman goes about his business, it is clear that his main object in resurrecting the past is to determine what happened vis-a-vis his coal bill by recovering the thoughts (his own and the two coal-sellers) that went into the events. As Croce—and Collingwood—remark, the historian is not content merely to describe events from the outside, which would leave him with a simple chronicle, but must enter into them by recapturing the thoughts within, thus transforming the chronicle into history.10 The records that Mr. Everyman discovers must be read and understood as revealing his own and the merchants' intentions. And so they do, in Becker's account, clearly and unmistakably, so that in the end all parties are satisfied. How nice that the evidence in this case, as in Collingwood's detective story, should prove conclusive, for we know that Mr. Everyman, just like Mr. Historian, must often be frustrated in his attempt to recover the truth and settle for something less. But perhaps it is enough to suggest that there are at least some instances when a past event may be recaptured—reenacted—in the historian's mind, exactly and persuasively, so that it is hard, perhaps impossible, not to believe that it happened that way.

Since it is in the historian's mind, it is subjective; since it was once in his subjects' minds, it must also be objective. Mr. Everyman does not for a moment lose his identity when he comes to understand the motives and the actions of the coal-sellers, when he discovers from the ledger that Mr. Smith did not have the coal he wanted and turned the order over to Mr. Brown. He is able to recapture his own past thoughts, as well as their past thoughts, and so reconstruct a succession of past events, even while retaining his own present perspective. He thinks at one and the same time the past thoughts of others and the present thoughts of himself. And we who were not a party to any of it, and who may or may not have a stake in the outcome, will probably be convinced as well, if the evidence is at all sufficient. Thus we too may hope to understand Mr. Everyman, Carl Becker, even Peter Novick! No wonder perhaps that Becker never gave up his allegiance to traditional Rankean historiography, even though his faith was shaken in its objectivity.

But how is such understanding to be achieved, exactly and persuasively? The problem, as always, was practical before it was theoretical. Both Collingwood and Becker, like the positivists they decried and many who wrote before them, believed that it could be done, that indeed it was the ordinary business of the historian (like everyman) to try to do it. And they both suggested the way. In each case, the historian has to recover the evidence that is sufficient to describe the event both in its exterior aspect as a deed done and in its interior aspect as a deed directed by human intentions. The facts are discovered and selected, but never invented, by the historian. The thoughts in the events are always inferred from the evidence; and the circumstantial case is always the rule. In this sense the historian's activity is clearly subjective. If however, upon investigation, and by a cross-examination of the evidence, a web of circumstances can be constructed by the historian so that thought and deed are shown to fit precisely, then no reasonable person will want to deny that the event happened just that way—and not only in the mind of the historian. The positivist view of objectivity by correspondence must give way to the practitioner's view of objectivity by identity. The historian's thought is not like his subject's, it is his subject's! It is not the exterior description of an event; it is the interior reenactment of that event.

The detective in pursuit of his criminal is thus bound, like Mr. Everyman in pursuit of his bill, to a reconstruction of events based upon evidence. Just how this can be done is known best to those who do it, to the detectives and historians who practice their craft and who use the accumulated techniques of the centuries and their own practical experience. Every historical problem is in a way unique and dictates its own evidence; it generates its own facts. History is autonomous in the sense that its method of criticism and reconstruction is peculiar to itself and cannot easily be formulated in a set of rules, or as the positivists attempted, reduced to any other form of knowledge—whether it be the natural science they preferred, or religion, or whatever. If you have not done it—that is to say, attempted to solve a historical problem by recourse to the evidence—you will not be in a good position to evaluate its pretensions; but if you have done it successfully—that is to say, solved a problem neatly and conclusively—it will not be because you have a philosophy to support your conclusions, indeed (as Novick shows) it will probably be in spite of all philosophy.11 How nice it would be then, how reassuring at least for the practicing historian, if someone were to come along and devise a theory that addressed itself to what he or she was actually doing—and thus incidentally to refute the skeptics!


Don't ask me to provide one; I'm just a practicing historian. Give me a historical problem, and I know how to go about solving it. I know that I am able to rethink the thoughts of the past or the specious present (to use Becker's phrase) and reenact the event. I do it all the time. I understand my student's plea without the need for much research because I have sufficient evidence in his words and the familiar circumstances of the event. Collingwood at least made an effort toward explaining this, though he may not have quite succeeded. He saw that the first problem of a philosophy of history was to describe what historians do, not what they (or anyone else) say.12 In The Idea of History Collingwood admits that an act of thinking always occurs in a particular context—other thoughts, emotions, and so on. This context he calls its immediacy. But he argues that thought also has the possibility of sustaining itself so that it can survive a change of context and revive in a different one (297). This he calls its mediation. He thinks that it is wrong to believe that thought is purely one or the other, tied completely to one specific context or free completely from all context. A thought surely arises in the immediate context of a thinker's life; but it may be revived exactly by another in a new context, although Collingwood adds significantly that the new context “must be as appropriate as the old” (300). This double character of thought, thought in its immediacy and thought in its mediation, is what gives it its historical character, is what allows the historian to retrieve the past.

But is it true that a thought can survive identically in two different contexts? Collingwood gives as his example Euclid's act of thinking that the two angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal. It seems clear that I too can think this thought for myself; and that when I do so, knowing that it was once Euclid's, I am thinking historically. Collingwood argues that although we do not know the original context of Euclid's thought, certainly not his total experience—“including such things as his being in a good temper and having a slave standing behind his right shoulder” (298)—and we do not know even the immediate context of his geometrical thought (did he think, “this theorem enables me to prove that the angle in a semicircle is a right angle?” or whatever), we can nevertheless understand, that is to say, rethink, what he wrote. “To restrict the being of thought to its own immediacy, to reduce it to a case of merely immediate experience,” Collingwood writes, would deny it to us altogether and lead to solipsism, and that would make all history (and for that matter all discourse) impossible (288).

Of course, by itself this example is a little misleading. Collingwood did not mean to abandon context altogether, or to deny its role in recovering meaning, and he hastily adds that such a denial would make history just as impossible as the opposite. He has employed Euclid's theorem here as an extreme example to make his immediate point: that thought can survive its context and revive in another. A mathematical example is particularly convenient because its abstract character allows it to live easily in a variety of different situations. When, earlier, Collingwood considers the Theodosian Code, he comes to a different conclusion. Here it is crucial, if we want to understand its meaning, that we “envisage the situation with which the emperor was trying to deal … as the emperor envisaged it.” The historian must see the ruler's alternatives and the reasons for his choosing one over the other. Only after reenacting in his own mind the emperor's experience will we have a historical, as opposed to a merely philological, knowledge of his language (283). In this case (and more usually) it is the recovery of the context that will have made this possible.

To repeat: historical knowledge is possible because thought can be repeated, though necessarily in a different context than the original; but the new context must be as congenial and appropriate as the old. Collingwood does not pretend that the historian is able to understand all past events; he can only know that thought in the past which has survived in a way that can be resurrected by him. His subjectivity, if you will, thus helps to determine what he can know objectively about the past. The likes and dislikes of the historian, his values and prejudices and his point of view, are all part of his present context, and there is not much point in trying to banish them, since it would be impossible anyway. Instead, the historian should bring them deliberately to the past. At the least they will determine his choice of subject and, if they are congenial, they may actually help him to understand what happened—though if not, they may keep him from knowing that particular subject.13 The historian cannot tell in advance how successful he will be; he may find himself in his subject and to that extent raise his own thoughts to the level of self-consciousness, or he may not.14 But either way, his inquiry into the past becomes a voyage of self-discovery. For only in this way can he fully discover his own perspective and prejudices, the possibilities and the limits of his own thinking. And by doing history—by making what is subjective in his thought, objective—he can come to reconcile the two. Novick's sympathy for Abraham does not disqualify him from understanding what took place; as long as he remains true to the evidence, it may actually help him to determine what happened. On the other hand, his antipathy to Turner-Feldman does not necessarily blind him to their views, though it makes it less likely that he will give them equal attention or understand them correctly. Thomas Haskell is probably right to argue that neutrality is neither possible nor desirable, though detachment (that is to say, perceiving one's own bias) undoubtedly is;15 to write without fear or favor is one of the oldest maxims of objectivity in the literature. But any genuine effort to recover a past event will undoubtedly help the historian to see and understand his own values more precisely.

In short, Collingwood saw the philosophical problem of retrieving the past—or of understanding one another—as the need to discover what there is about thought that allows it to be reenacted. Collingwood always put practice before theory, and with his detective story he tried to show first that it could actually be accomplished.16 The detective must find a way to reenact the crime; or as Mr. Everyman, figure out just what and to whom he owed his coal-bill. He asks questions and he seeks out the evidence. The questions are meant to restore the problem, which provides the immediate context and for which the act or assertion is an answer; and the evidence is whatever the detective-historian can find in the way of words and things that is relevant to the case. The historical imagination is what the historian employs to determine the facts and infer the meaning and purpose of the action. If he has done his job well, that is to say asked the right questions and discovered the necessary evidence, he will be able to reenact in his own mind the exact thought in the past event and in this sense satisfy one of the principle conditions of objectivity. One may wish to deny that the evidence is always or even usually conclusive; it is enough to maintain that there are at least some instances where such a reenactment will seem definitive. It is the possibility of knowledge, not its inevitability, that Collingwood insisted on, and that may be enough to restore some conviction in that noble dream.

For the philosopher of history, therefore, the first problem is to determine whether or in what way thought may be both tied to context and independent of it. As we have seen, what Collingwood says is that the two contexts, the original one and the historian's, must both be congenial to the thought in the past action that is his subject. However, since he accepts the historicist claim about the malleability of human nature and the ceaseless change of circumstances, it would seem necessary to establish some sort of continuity, some association of circumstance other than mere repetition between past and present. This he tried briefly to do in the Autobiography by suggesting that history is concerned not so much with events as processes, not with a succession of static things but of things which turn into one another. The past, or some part of it, continues to live in the present and may be retrieved by the traces it leaves behind.17

Unfortunately, Collingwood did not develop this notion very far, although he did suggest something about the way that past ideas may be “encapsulated” in it (Au. [An Autobiography] 96-99). Encapsulated thought, he wrote, was not the thought of “real” or present life, but thought in another dimension, a secondary life beneath the surface of mind, incapable of overflowing into primary life because of the surface knowledge which keeps it in place, but capable of being self-consciously reenacted (Au. 113-14). It is, he supposed, like the smoker who gives up smoking but never loses the desire; out of sight on another plane, the desire lives on and under certain circumstances may well start up again. So Collingwood was able to explain the Celtic revival in ancient Roman Britain after a gap of centuries, as the best example in his own historical work of the fact of encapsulation and the rapprochement he was preaching between philosophy and history (Au. 137-45).18

Whatever we may say about Collingwood's ideas on this matter, they do not seem to account for everything. One wonders, for example, whether it would be possible to understand anything from another culture which is not encapsulated in our own? Is the historian (or anthropologist) to be barred from understanding the thought of non-Western societies? May it not be possible to supply from one's own context an analogy close enough to something alien to become comprehensible? After all, Collingwood himself argued that the two contexts, past and present, must simply supply something congenial enough to an idea that it might live in both. Moreover, Collingwood does not explain another feature of what seems to be real historical practice, namely that the history that I discover in my enquiry into the past may not only become a part of my present but, in knowing it, transform it. The circularity of the process by which I approach the past with some knowledge which then gets altered by what I discover is a familiar paradox of hermeneutical thinking.19 I not only bring a context to the past and read it accordingly; I make a context from what I discover in the past even as I investigate it, and it can become more and more congenial to the original as I learn more. The historical imagination is thus bound not simply by the present, by what is continued or encapsulated there from the past, but it can be enlarged by vicarious experience. We not only discover ourselves in the past, therefore, but someone else too, and we may be transformed by the discovery. It is true that some bridge must first exist to allow us to enter the thought of another; but new bridges may be built after an extended familiarity with a foreign terrain. Collingwood successfully showed how the first might happen, but he seems to have overlooked the second. Knowledge of the past discloses both the sameness and the otherness of historical events, and modern historiography has found ways of making both accessible.

Circular thinking, needless to say, is not the philosopher's noble dream; but the philosopher of history must, it seems to me, make some effort to figure out what is happening there, if he wishes to understand what a historian actually does.20 The fact that historical method seems to defy the ordinary rules of logic should be no surprise, if indeed its truth and method are autonomous; the historian is neither a scientist nor mathematician, philosopher, or theologian; he has his own problems which he attacks in his own way. This is an old idea, beginning perhaps with the Italian, Giambattista Vico, and culminating—though Novick neglects to mention it—in the nineteenth century, even at the same time as its alter ego, positivism. (Collingwood's first work, it may be remembered, was a translation of Benedetto Croce's study of Vico's thought.21) Could there be a better time to dust it off and try it out again?


To conclude: we could still use a philosophy of history, a dose of theory; but not one that begins by denying the practices by which historians go about their business. It is no use dismissing the achievement of the centuries in recovering large tracts of the past and distinguishing them from the fictions that once ruled. We cannot go back to the ancient Britons or the historiography that produced them; nor do we want a history that is willfully manipulated and confused with fiction. On the other hand, it is clear that the belief in objectivity that used to govern the historical profession is now naive and needs replacement by something that will account for the modern experience of relativity. Still, if written history is an act of faith,22 it is a faith grounded upon real experience, the experience of historians (and everyone else) solving problems of ordinary history and ordinary life. That we cannot always know the past with certainty does not mean we can never know anything about it. That philosophers and others may be puzzled about the condition of historical knowledge (not to say every other kind as well) does not mean that we must despair either. The fact is that the American historical profession has much to be proud of in its actual historical accomplishments, if not its theoretical convictions. In the end, as Novick himself would probably say, it matters more what we do than what we say. That Noble Dream gives us an interesting if somewhat one-sided account of the latter; but the former still awaits its historian. In the meantime, I have tried to suggest something here about how the theoretical problem might be addressed along the lines of the old tradition that runs from Vico to Collingwood. Let us hope that someone will arrive soon who will extend it to present practice and bolster the continuing conviction of most ordinary historians that what we do matters because it is more than mere whimsy and prejudice, more than pure subjectivity. If we must indeed abandon the notion of positivist objectivity, let us beware of throwing out the baby with the bath, and try to find a way to keep to our ancient pledge of discovering the truth about the past as once it happened.


  1. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), 6.

  2. “As I have said repeatedly, I deeply regret the errors in my book and apologize to my readers for them. … There is no difference between Feldman and myself on the importance of the norms of accuracy”: David Abraham, “A Reply to Gerald Feldman,” Central European History 17 (1984): 240; Novick, 616-17.

  3. The literature in English is by now enormous. For a useful collection of texts with a full bibliography, see The Hermeneutic Tradition from Ast to Ricoeur, ed. Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift (Albany: SUNY P, 1990). For the historian, the work of Emilio Betti may be most appealing; see his Teoria generale della interpretazione, 2 vols. (Milan: Giuffré, 1955); abbreviated in the volume above, 159-97.

  4. For this and what follows, see my Humanism and History: Origins of English Historical Thought (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987).

  5. See now John P. Hogan, Collingwood and Theological Hermeneutics (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1989), the first book, I think, to place Collingwood squarely in this tradition. For Collingwood, see his “History as Re-enactment of Past Experience,” The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1946), 282-302, cited hereafter as I.H.

  6. See Noble Dream, 105-7, 154-56, 252-58.

  7. Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian”—his presidential address before the American Historical Association (1931)—in Everyman His Own Historian (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1935), 259.

  8. The reference is to Ernst Bernheim, Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie, which had reached a sixth edition by 1908. Bernheim was a student of Ranke.

  9. Becker wrote in 1938 (for a symposium entitled “Books that Changed our Minds”) that Croce's ideas had “helped to shape my ideas about history, which I set forth in my address, ‘Everyman His Own Historian,’” see Noble Dream, 154-55n. For Collingwood's relation to Croce, see my “Collingwood, Vico and the Autobiography,CLIO 9 (1980): 379-92.

  10. See Croce, “History and Chronicle,” Theory and History of Historiography, trans. Douglas Ainslie (London: George Harrap, 1921), 11-26.

  11. If any reader wishes to rise here on a point of order and protest that a philosophical question, which ought to be settled by reasoning, is being illegitimately disposed of by reference to the authority of historians, and quote against me the good old story of the man who said, “I'm not arguing; I'm telling you,” I can only admit that the cap fits. I am not arguing; I am telling him.

    Collingwood goes on to defend himself by urging that the way to find out whether an argument works is to attend to it, to learn to argue that way, in short to do some history and find out. The only other recourse is to take the word of someone who has done it (I.H. 263).

  12. “It is always with a sense of relief,” Collingwood wrote in 1928, “that, after arguing the hind leg off a donkey, one goes out into the field and looks for oneself”: “The Limits of Historical Knowledge,” Journal of Philosophical Studies, rpt. Collingwood, Essays in the Philosophy of History, ed. William Debbins (Austin: U of Texas P, 1965), 96.

  13. Edward Gibbon's anticlerical bias made him a good interpreter of the Emperor Julian, but a bad exponent of the Church fathers. On the other hand, R. H. Tawney's Christian socialism gave him the key to understanding the moral teaching of both Calvin and Adam Smith. Bias or point of view may work either to enable or disable the historian, but we cannot specify in advance how it will turn out; we can only discover it in concrete instances. What is essential is that the historian try to comprehend the problem or situation of his subject, regardless of whether he endorses or condemns the solution. He may or may not succeed, depending both on what he brings and what he finds.

  14. “This book's aim,” writes Novick, “is to provoke my fellow historians to greater self-consciousness” (17)

  15. Thomas Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream,History and Theory 29 (1990): 129-57.

  16. See Collingwood, “Historical Evidence,” I.H., 249-82, esp. 266-82. I have tried to spell out (and defend) Collingwood's views more fully in “The Autonomy of History: R. G. Collingwood and Agatha Christie,” CLIO 7 (1978): 253-63. The whole passage has been characteristically disregarded by Collingwood's many (philosophical) commentators.

  17. If P(1) has left traces of itself in P(2) so that an historian living in P(2) can discover by the interpretation of evidence that what is now P(2) was once P(1), it follows that the “traces” of P(1) in the present are not, so to speak, the corpse of a dead P(1) but rather the real P(1) itself, living and active though in capsulated within the other form of itself P(2). And P(2) is not opaque, it is transparent, so that P(1) shines through it and their colors combine into one.

    Collingwood, An Autobiography (London: Oxford UP, 1939), 97-98, cited hereafter as Au.

  18. See the chapter on art in Collingwood, Roman Britain and the English Settlements (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1936), 252-60.

  19. The philological or hermeneutic circle is sometimes attributed to Friedrich Schleiermacher; for the continuing tradition, see Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1969), 87-88, 118-21; David C. Hoy, The Critical Circle: Literature, History and Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978).

  20. The unmasking of forgeries and correcting of misattributions offer particularly good examples of circular thinking and a measuring rod for the advance of historiographical practice. See Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990). See also my essays on the Donation of Constantine and the Stonesfield Pavement in Humanism and History, and “Et Tu Brute? History and Forgery in Eighteenth-Century England,” in Fakes and Forgeries, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Winchester: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1990), 71-79.

  21. Benedetto Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, trans. R. G. Collingwood (London: Macmillan, 1913).

  22. The reference, of course, is to Charles Beard's “Written History as an Act of Faith,” American Historical Review 39 (1934): 219-31. Becker and Beard, who were friends, are often coupled as early relativists, as by Novick, Noble Dream, 252-58. But see Charlotte W. Smith, Carl Becker: On History and the Climate of Opinion (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1956), 111-20.

Hilda L. Smith (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Smith, Hilda L. “Women Historians and Women's History: A Conflation of Absence.” Journal of Women's History 4, no. 1 (spring 1992): 133-41.

[In the following review, Smith discusses Novick's problematic treatment of female historians and developments in the field of women's history in That Noble Dream.]

In That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick has given us a key to understanding the evolution of professional historians from the 1890s to today. By focusing on questions of objectivity, he has identified a problem that concerns each of us as historians, whether expressed explicitly in our writing or not. Following the appearance of his work, which received reviews marking it as a work of singular importance to the profession, a panel of critics discussed it at the 1990 American Historical Association meeting. Their commentary was ultimately published in the American Historical Review, where Novick was given an opportunity for defense and rebuttal.

This review seeks to build upon concerns raised by Linda Gordon in her published critique of Novick's work.1 While noting Novick's overly simple representation of the binary opposites of objectivity and relativity as characterizing individual historians, groups of historians, or historical specialties, she was especially critical of his treatment of women's history which she considered inadequate and even “disrespectful” (p. 687). Novick devotes only nineteen pages in a work of over six hundred to women's history, and the bulk of this discussion focuses on the Sears case and pays little attention to the scholarly or theoretical contributions of women's history.

In responding to what he believed an incorrect attribution—namely his focus on a binary opposition between objectivism and relativism among historians—Novick offered, I think, an indication of what was especially troubling about his work concerning women historians and women's history. He contended that objectivity was treated as a goal and not a methodology or epistemology, as Gordon and others had contended. He then followed that explanation with the following sentence: “This is why the question is so highly charged: it goes not to the [methodological] issue of how we do our work but to who we are, what we're doing, and what we've done when we've done it” (p. 700).

What Novick manages to do in his work is clarified in its defense in the American Historical Review, namely, he conflates the historian and the history he or she writes in ways that obscure the identity of each. It is not merely that he presents a brief and inaccurate understanding of women's history; he also provides an inadequate understanding of women in the historical profession. Women are often not a part of his story at all, and when they do arrive, they mostly arrive in tandem with the field of women's history. For much of a very long book, he has given us a great deal of information about the professional roots of current-day male historians, but these analyses provide little or no understanding of the professional roots of women historians.

Most historians today, either male or female, have trouble tracing their professional or intellectual ancestry back to the few great historical minds who dominate the early portion of this work. However, for those men teaching at “the best” schools whose work is thought of as expanding the theoretical or historiographical boundaries of the discipline, they may in some recesses of their souls trace their intellectual origins back to Adams, Becker, or Beard. They may still be concerned whether their institution might be harmed financially or experience a decline in national standing by an imprudent embrace of overly radical or unscholarly standards of historical research. But for women, their professional roots lie elsewhere. When Novick conflates the evolution of professional history and historians, as he does in his narrative of That Noble Dream, he finds no place for women's professional development. And, just as he finds no place for that development, so he finds little space for women's history or for the political movements and causes that influenced and activated women's scholarship throughout the twentieth century.

For most of the period up to World War II, historical scholarship and most postbaccalaureate training were for the wealthy, the near-wealthy, or the fortunate few who were tapped as potential holders of college and university positions. Even so, women of similar social and economic classes were not excluded from historical training and research or, later and to a lesser degree, teaching and research. By a number of measures, they held positions in ratios more favorable to their male counterparts than did later generations. But they held them at women's colleges, institutions overlooked by Novick in tracing the evolution of the profession. Their work certainly did not gain as much attention, except for the great importance of women to the field of medieval Europe and for the work Mary Beard coauthored with her husband, as the work of influential male historians.2 Yet they provided the professional and intellectual roots and were often the teachers and role models of the postwar generation of women historians who entered the profession in increasingly larger numbers and who later did become intellectual leaders among their sister and fellow historians. If we are to understand how these scholars who were crucial in establishing the new social history, as well as women's history, viewed themselves as historians, why they chose the historical topics they did, and why they turned overwhelmingly to tracing the past of their own sex, we need to know about the Sylvia Thrupps, the Caroline Robbins, and the Julia Cherry Spruill who preceded them.

As I read through That Noble Dream, especially its early pages but in many ways throughout, I returned to a professional language I thought we had left behind, where a department had to replace their “Ren-Ref man” or find “a bright young fellow to carry on the work of _____ in Reconstruction.” While guarding against anachronism, and realizing the men of the circle at the heart of this work certainly did see this as a male profession, I decided what was most upsetting about the omnipresent use of “man” and “he” was its indication that the work ignored the intellectual, professional, or political origins of a third of the profession while continually conflating the historian with “his” scholarship and the intellectual direction of “his” profession.

On page 71, Novick turns to Lucy M. Salmon of Vassar, a member of the AHA's Committee of Seven, which established many of the early professional standards for teaching, and quotes from an article by her on the teaching of history. When she wrote, “The ultimate object of history, as of all sciences, is the search for truth, and … that search entails the responsibility of abiding by the results when found,” she did not employ sex-specific language. Nor in a following sentence, also quoted by Novick, focusing on heroes, does she mention their sex, but draws attention to “a great work accomplished and a noble life lived.” Her language resonates in this work whose intellectual assumptions and words of those who peopled it so seldom manage to move beyond history as equated with masculine identifiers and experience. In another example, on page 63, Novick lists a range of progressive political and social movements that influenced historical scholarship, while omitting that movement that attracted more members and consistently more attention than any other. There is a clear link between ignoring women's path of development as professional historians and their path to political and legal rights, not to mention their leadership in the temperance and settlement movements.

The point here is not Novick's omission of women as historians or as subjects of history, but the mind-set that equates the profession with what a few men at a limited number of schools were saying, thinking, and writing. Such an approach will never provide an accurate understanding of women's current standing in the profession, their intellectual interests or career paths, or the development of the field of women's history, which evolved into one of the most important if not the most important new field(s) of scholarship over the last two decades. While Beard and Becker were debating the future of their profession, women were being excluded from all-male regional meetings, which exclusion led to the formation in 1929 of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians for those teaching in the New England region. Often in their own lives, but certainly in the lives of those who taught them, women historians learned that their relationship to their profession was always problematic; to understand them as professional historians and to understand the field of women's history, one cannot lose sight of that awareness.

More useful treatments of women historians' professional and intellectual origins are presented in Barbara M. Solomon's In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America, Kathryn Kish Sklar's “American Female Historians in Context: 1770-1984,” Joan W. Scott's “American Women Historians, 1884-1984,” or Natalie Zemon Davis's AHA presidential address that includes women along with men historians to help delineate “History's Two Bodies.”3 One can find it in Ann Firor Scott's introduction to Julia Cherry Spruill's Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies or in the works attesting to the importance and influence of Mary Beard that Berenice Carroll, Ann Lane, and Bonnie G. Smith, among others, authored.4

Novick's list of manuscript sources excludes any collection of a woman historian or any of the extensive college records available from women's colleges in the formative years of the profession or later. Lucy Salmon's papers are held at Vassar, and as a member of the Committee of Seven, one would have thought they were worthy of review, since Novick—in addition to the major male historians—did include archival materials from the department of history at the University of Illinois, as well as materials from historians who were not of the rank of the luminaries who dominated the early portion of his work. Contrary to the impression given by this omission, it is difficult to over-stress the importance of women's colleges in both training women students and in providing employment for early women historians. For example, dealing mostly with collegiate education, Barbara Solomon discusses the role of faculty as well as students at women's colleges at the turn of the twentieth century. She documents the percentage of women in higher education (as a proportion of all students): 1870: 21 percent; 1990: 36.8 percent; 1920: 47.3 percent; 1950: 30.2 percent, and 1980: 51.8 percent. Of course, in the early years they represented a small fraction of the total female population, but by 1980 they comprised 37.8 percent of all women between the ages of 18 and 24 (Solomon, pp. 63-64). In Margaret Rossiter's study of women scientists she calculated that of those women listed in the first three editions of Men of Science (1906, 1910, and 1921), 41 percent graduated from women's colleges (cited in Solomon, pp. 82-83). The importance of women's colleges is confirmed for historians in Sklar's and Scott's treatments, as well.

Kathryn Sklar based her 1975 essay on an analysis of the women identified as “historians” in Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, and she deals with women as historians over a lengthy chronological stretch, 1770 to 1930. As Novick focused on only professional historians from the late nineteenth century to the present, much of Sklar's earlier pages are not relevant to his treatment. However, she discusses nine of thirteen women noted as historians who were born after 1850 and who attended graduate school. That number included Lucy Salmon; Nellie Neilson, who served as president of the American Historical Association in 1943 and had been a founder of Speculum; and Mary Williams, who was for many years on the editorial board of the Hispanic American Historical Review. Certainly their importance as individuals and as professional forebearers of current women historians makes their treatment essential to any work claiming to capture central questions for the development of the profession (Sklar, pp. 177-179).

Joan Scott, in her study of women historians from 1884 to 1984, addresses the conflict between “Universal Man” as the subject of history and the role of women as professional historians. She sees gender as not excluding women from the profession but as contributing to a hierarchy of who counts. Space has been made for a few women at the top, but these women were often perceived as isolated representatives of their sex and explicitly rejected as individuals who constituted an opening wedge for other women. Lucy Salmon's career is illustrative. Salmon's appointment at Vassar was considered sufficiently significant for its president, James Taylor, to inform Herbert Baxter Adams that he had appointed a highly qualified scholar, whose appointment “will doubtless result in the satisfactory reorganization of the entire department” (Scott, pp. 181-182). While working to democratize the profession, its early leaders still viewed their female colleagues as different, as female appendages who required social gatherings, with groups such as the Colonial Dames, unnecessary for themselves. Lucy Salmon was offended by such segregation, and she wrote in 1905 that “We do not care for afternoon teas where we meet society women, and deprecate entertainments that separate the members into two classes, men and women” (Scott, pp. 183-84). Salmon often served as the only woman on council or committees and wrote repeatedly to gain appointments for her sisters to AHA committees. Yet, Adams, in response to her request for another woman on the Committee of Seven, expressed a view that hardly died with his generation, that he was “inclined to think one woman is enough!” (quoted in Scott, p. 184). Such underrepresentation continued through the 1960s. The most recent CCWHP newsletter notes the dramatic shift from 1969 at 0 percent to the present in which currently a majority (53.7 percent) of AHA officers are women. Again, more reason to understand their professional roots.

The interaction between Novick's treatment of women historians and women's history reflects his vision of women on the periphery. Women's history is treated in a chapter entitled, “Every Group Its Own Historian,” and he considers such treatment as representing “particularist interests” (see pp. 469-472). He contends that women's history has been written by feminists who make claims “for distinctive and cognitive styles” for their own sex (p. 471). Little attention is given to the substance of women's history, and much coverage is given to a discussion of the Sears case.

Most troubling about this account is its slight resemblance to the development of women's history as a specialty. The sense of women as being essentially different in regard to “discursive and cognitive styles” had nothing to do with the founding of the field and is still rejected by a majority of those pursuing women's history today. Women's history began, as did most efforts to expand the definition of who was historically significant, by generating a great deal of information regarding women's past. Following that early phase of recapturing the past, various foci developed among women's historians: detailed social and demographic accounts of working-class women, accounts of African-American women under slavery and through later historical epochs, the treatment of women's private existence, including their relationships with each other and within the family, to name a few. Growing attention was then given to understanding sex or gender (depending upon the stage of the field's development) as a significant social relationship or category of analysis for historical scholarship more broadly. In so doing, women's historians developed in greater depth concerns that had been raised from the beginning concerning the biased judgments as to what was historically significant and how that assessment was influenced by language, cultural assumptions, and the personal and professional circumstances of the historian.

By focusing on the Sears case, and contending that Rosalind Rosenberg had been compromised there by her efforts as a feminist while Alice Kessler-Harris had raised doubts concerning her adherence to scholarly standards, Novick ignored the intellectual progression of women's history and gives a very questionable reading of the involvement of historians in the Sears case itself. Kessler-Harris spoke for the plaintiffs in an area where she is leading scholar while Rosenberg offered expert testimony in an area where she had done little personal research. One might raise questions as to which action most conformed to professional norms. Second, Kessler-Harris is criticized for not accepting an absolute interpretation of women's choices, so if any personal desire to avoid competitive employment affected a woman's not being employed by Sears, discrimination did not occur. This seems precisely to apply historical “nuances”—in Alice Kessler-Harris's language—to the nonhistorically precise setting of the courtroom. In pushing for women's differing personal and work goals as undercutting the statistical case offered by the EEOC for female absence in commission sales positions, Novick states: “Rosenberg in this view, emerged as the spokesperson for the disinterested historical truth, in all its sometimes painful complexity” (p. 506). Whatever the merits of the arguments over “difference,” it does not seem immediately clear that Rosenberg represented the professional high ground while Kessler-Harris held forth for the feminist low ground (for Novick's discussion, see pp. 502-507).

However, as Linda Gordon noted in her critique, the Sears case does hardly women's history make (American Historical Review, 687). A great deal of the remainder of Novick's discussion, other than over-stressing the dominance of “work which emphasized women's autonomy and a distinctive women's culture,” deals with the politics of women's place within the profession and the attitudes of male historians. Except for the Sears case, there is little analysis of how scholarship in women's history relates to the “objectivity question.”

In many ways, Novick's treatment of women's history—and its relationship to women's standing within the profession—is tied to the continuing and tired issue of why the history of white men is universal and that of African Americans, women and others is particularistic. One could study conflicts among members of a presidential cabinet and not be particularistic, but studying women, in broad historical categories and over an expanse of time, equates with particularistic concerns. Explaining the struggles within a president's administration to explain the operations of a political structure overwhelmingly dominated by white men is not seen as particularistic or self-serving or even as self-focused. And, if one argues it is, that is seen as a political and not a scholarly or intellectual assessment.

One of the reasons this seems to be the case, in Novick's example but certainly more broadly as well, is that when discussion of the historical profession, central historical questions, or issues of controversy arise, women historians or their work do not emerge. Examples of this are clear in Novick's treatment of African-American history, as written by white and African-American historians. Early on, when discussing the historians' lengthy and intensive attack on the pathology of the black family thesis offered by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he speaks of Herbert Gutman and Lawrence Levine, but ignores the early and crucial work of Elizabeth Pleck on the two-parent household in Boston as undercutting Moynihan's vision of the decline of the black family based on an ineffective nuclear unit during slavery. And, when listing white historians and their study of African-American life, he ignored work such as Jacqueline Jones's Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present. And an African-American woman historian such as Nell Irvin Painter appears not for her own work but as a commentator primarily on the work of white men.5

Again, the point is not that Novick ignores these works, or that he concerns himself with the highly visible debates of white male historians, but that he has on blinders concerning gender as influencing his understanding of importance in the past and hierarchy in the profession. For instance, again in his analysis of African-American history, when assessing Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution, Novick writes, “He acknowledged that there were some slaves who lost their manhood, but for the most part their appearance of subservience was a disguise assumed to deceive the owners” (p. 480). Novick makes no comment as to the equating of the slave with manhood, nor does he comment elsewhere on the general pattern of defining the slave as “he” or of discussing slave women for the most part to document their sexual abuse at the hands of white masters. Yet certainly the failure to see such a perspective as “particularist” must contribute to his omission of works on African-American women such as that by Jacqueline Jones and Nell Irvin Painter.

Just as objectivity or relativity are ambiguous terms used by different individuals and groups of historians at different points in the evolution of the profession to hold quite different and often obscure meanings, “particularities” can also lie in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes they can signify class differences, at other times gender or racial identities. But they are not particularities only of those groups who have now become their “own historian[s].” They also pertain to the group that has been its own historian for an even longer period of time.


  1. “Comments on That Noble Dream,American Historical Review 96 (June 1991) 3: 683-87.

  2. Susan Mosher Stuard, Women in Medieval History and Historiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 87-96, esp. 88-89.

  3. Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Kathryn Kish Sklar, “American Female Historians in Context, 1770-1930,” Feminist Studies 3 (1975): 171-84; Joan W. Scott, “American Women Historians, 1884-1984,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 178-98; Natalie Zemon Davis, “History's Two Bodies,” American Historical Review 93 (1988): 1-13.

  4. Julia Cherry Spruill, Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies, Introduction by Anne Firor Scott (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1972), v-viii; Berenice A. Carroll, “Mary Beard's Women as Force in History: A Critique,” in Liberating Women's History, ed. Berenice A. Carroll (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 26-41; Ann J. Lane, ed., Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook (New York: Schocken Books, 1977); Bonnie G. Smith, “Seeing Mary Beard” Feminist Studies 10 (1984): 399-416.

  5. Elizabeth H. Pleck, “The Two-Parent Household: Black Family Structure in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston,” in The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, ed. Michael Gordon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), 152-77; Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985); Nell Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: Knopf Press, 1977); “Sojourner Truth in Life and Memory: Writing the Biography of an American Exotic,” Gender and History 2 (1990): 3-16; “Bias and Synthesis in History,” Journal of American History 74 (1987): 109-112.

Daniel Scott Smith (review date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Smith, Daniel Scott. “Noble Dream, Dead Certainties, Sophomoric Stance: Historical Objectivity for Adults.” Historical Methods 26, no. 4 (fall 1993): 183-88.

[In the following review, Smith compares That Noble Dream to Simon Schama's Dead Certainties.]

“Pure objectivity is a will-o'-the-wisp,” warns Simon Schama, a prolific historian of Western Europe, and “chasing it is insanity” (MacNeille 1991, 3). Implicitly endorsing the central theme of Peter Novick's That Noble Dream, a massive treatment of the professional context and political milieu of the academic study of history in the United States, Schama was commenting here on his motivation for mingling fact and fiction in Dead Certainties, two accounts connected by the thinnest of circumstance. Francis Parkman, historian of the first episode—General James Wolfe's death in the Battle of Quebec in 1759—was also the nephew of George Parkman, a physician and speculator, whose murder in 1849 set in motion the other action: the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of John White Webster, a Harvard chemistry professor.

Under the rubric of objectivity, Novick includes the emphasis on “the reality of the past; a sharp separation between knower and known, between fact and value, and above all between history and fiction” (1-2). Following the ideal of objectivity, the historian acts as a neutral judge who has no prior investment in reaching any particular conclusion. The historian's loyalty is to “‘the objective historical truth,’” an orientation policed by other professional historians sharing that norm (2-3). The competing view, called subjectivity or relativism, is not an independent position but a dissent from or critique of one or more of the set of objectivist beliefs.1

Both works have attracted considerable comment, favorable and unfavorable. The American Historical Association awarded Novick its annual Beveridge Prize for the outstanding work in American history, and scholarly journals have featured lengthy critical discussions of That Noble Dream by other experts in the field of intellectual history (Kloppenberg 1989; Haskell 1990; Hexter et al. 1991). Schama currently is the most visible historian present in the pages of the New York Times, which published two reviews (Lehmann-Haupt 1991; Lewis 1991) of Dead Certainties as well as two reports on the views of its author (Bernstein 1991; MacNeille 1991). In its Magazine, Schama has recommended exciting narratives as the solution to disparate problems of history in American culture—the woeful factual ignorance of Harvard seniors majoring in history; the bland, episodic, and incoherent texts for secondary schools that are written by teams of authors and approved by committees constrained to offend none; and narrow, arid academic history, illustrated by the articles in scholarly journals and by footnote fetishism (Schama 1991). In a leading intellectual publication, Dead Certainties garnered a review hostile to its fictional aspects (Wood 1991).

It is easy to discern why Novick's volume gained the attention of intellectual historians. A historical study of the professors of history by a professor of history has obvious relevance for the professors of history who specialize in such matters. Resting on a prodigious reading of the programmatic statements of historians and their unpublished correspondence, That Noble Dream has saved many passionate sentiments, ancient quarrels, and obscure incidents from perishing from the academic earth. If you want to know what Samuel Flagg Bemis privately thought about the New Deal or what were the issues in the controversial 1969 business meeting of the American Historical Association, this is the place to look. Only a scholar devoted to academic history could have the patience to undertake the research so thoroughly recounted, even though Novick is irreverent and reports on more than a few incidents that evince pettiness, bigotry, or hysteria.

Novick pays some attention to the two largest professional societies, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) (formerly Mississippi Valley Historical Association), preferring the engaged, left-liberal orientation of the OAH to the stodgier professional style of the AHA. The treatment of history by economists, sociologists, and other social scientists is not germane to his inquiry. No mention is made of the Social Science History Association, possibly deservedly, because its distinctiveness depends on the subjects studied and methods employed rather than on the motivations of its members for doing history in the first place.

Novick's main focus is on historians employed by the major graduate programs in the discipline. The strengths and weaknesses of the volume are those of intellectual history as currently practiced in the United States. Novick is effective in placing the evolution of research-oriented academic history in the last century into general climates of opinion inside and outside the universities. Other commentators have noted the evenhandedness with which Novick lays out various viewpoints in controversies and have called attention to the apparent irony of “objectivity” exhibited by an author who finds the ideal meaningless. Underlying what Novick terms his “historicist” approach is his belief that all viewpoints are profoundly shaped by historical circumstances. Hence there can be no right or wrong perspectives. How to justify the writing of history is all a matter of taste, so the history of that enterprise resembles other topics in the history of fashion. To use another analogy, sometimes the mood is to prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate; at other times, this preference within the ice-cream eating population reverses. Novick is not interested in, indeed would question the possibility of, developing a science or esthetics of taste, whether in historical writing or flavor preference.

An important difference exists between defining the problem as what historians have thought about the nature of history rather than what is the nature of history. The sources for an investigation of the latter are the actual histories they write. For this second subject, the ideas, concepts, and methods authors used in their historical studies become central. For example, although Novick mentions the economic historian Robert Fogel on several occasions, he omits any reference to the controversy over counterfactual propositions used by Fogel and others in the attempt to illuminate one course of history by systematic contrast with another that did not happen. In another definition of the subject, the juxtaposition of one historical record seemingly grounded in the words and numbers of the past with an imagined alternative, however systematic, would illuminate important aspects of the meanings of “objectivity.” Similarly, Novick covers Eugene Genovese's role and positions in several controversies but does not refer to the essentialism that is the most pronounced feature of his writings on Southern history. In Genovese's Marxism, deciding how to categorize the South comes close to being identical with interpreting Southern history, a taxonomic orientation that strikes this non-Hegelian as peculiar.

These comments are unfair to Novick's intentions as an intellectual historian, for he is far more interested in the producers of history, especially as political beings, than in their historical products. Indeed, elsewhere, in a flippant, playful response to his critics, Novick (1991, 700) claims that the history written by relativists and objectivists is, with a few minor exceptions, indistinguishable in practice. Even beyond its historicist evenhandedness, That Noble Dream is thoroughly conventional in method. In a brief footnote (8) that many Historical Methods readers will find amusingly native, he reports that he abandoned a quantitative study of the evaluative language of historians in thousands of book reviews because nothing intelligible appeared between the language used and such variables as age and field of the author.2 Instead of being disheartened by the lack of positive results, presumably meaning the failure to reject null hypotheses of no differences, Novick might have explored other possibilities: that the use of distinctive language does not differentiate among subcommunities, a finding potentially worrisome for conventional intellectual history; or that all academic historians, for whatever reasons, form a single community with respect to the issues by which Novick defined his subject, suggesting possibly that he needed to reformulate his conception.

Novick (540) concurs in rejecting the view of the philosopher Richard Rorty's freshman, who asserts “that two incompatible opinions on important topics are equally good”; but Novick would also join Schama (322) in accepting “the rather banal axiom that claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator.” Not a hypothetical freshman, I think that the more interesting issues for delineation and discussion should be the criteria that can be used to choose between incompatible opinions (logical coherence, parsimony, and congruence to empirical data have all been suggested) or, better, how to arrive at a formulation that subsumes both previous competing views.

Historical publications, as Schama has put it in his sophomoric axiom, do perish. So what? No longer a banal sophomore, I think it is quite possible to discern and, if need be, to adjust mentally for the prejudices of other historians. I am rather more engaged by Schama's use of fiction as well as by other imaginative devices and clever schemes to do history than by his dark worries about fatal circumscriptions.

Still, historians should be open to Dead Certainties as an imaginative step toward escaping from the bounds that have resulted from the exaggeration and reification of the rules of objectivity. As noted above, Novick's definition of objectivity includes a stress on the distinction between fact and fiction. Indeed, it is the mixing of these elements by Schama that most disturbed Wood (1991). This objection would be more compelling if the proponents of postempirical history were to gain greater support for the assertion that a line between fact and fiction cannot be drawn effectively.

If such efforts are to be more than an occasional foray, historians reviewing them will likely be stumbling about for some time before arriving at useful criteria for making judgments. What can historians who are unpracticed literary critics say about literary devices used to enhance the understanding or appreciation of history? My judgments on Schama's two episodes are based necessarily on inchoate tastes in literature but more systematic and settled views about history.

Schama's claims for the implications of his accounts for objectivity in the writing of history are the least successful dimension of Dead Certainties, a flaw particularly marked in his treatment of the murder case. Who or what, one must ask, put the Un- in the parenthetical Unwarranted Speculations on the title page? Not the criminal law or the jury that in 1850 operated under a test for conviction of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The extremist criterion of Absolute Certainty that Schama rails against plays a small role in the actual world of human affairs. Not most of the ambiguous or contradictory evidence in the case, as, for example, with the seemingly reliable witnesses who swore they saw Dr. Parkman walking about Boston after the time of his alleged murder. Such sightings are a commonplace occurrence; the validity of the forensic testimony identifying the dismembered victim as Parkman is far more crucial.3 Not even the oppressive weight of orthodox academic history can be blamed. In the handbook of Schama's own department, published in a period that Novick in That Noble Dream identifies as one of sharp reaction against relativism, historians are advised by the authorities at Harvard that

a judge and jury, indeed, would go mad if they had to decide cases on evidence which will often seem more than satisfactory to the historian. But there is no escape; the historian, if he is to interpret at all, will try and convict on evidence which a court would throw out as circumstantial or hearsay.

(Handlin et al. 1954, 24-25)

As Schama frames them, the implications of uncertainty in the Webster-Parkman case for historiographical objectivity are trivial or absent.

There is an Uncertainty Problem quite distinct from Schama's postmodernist musings. In my opinion, admittedly extreme among academic historians, particularly those in the mainstream, the incompleteness and messiness of the historical record are not the important sources of uncertainty in dealing with the history of an event. After an event, these do sometimes present difficulties in particularizing it adequately, much less ideally, as it actually happened, to invoke the famous Rankean rule. By particularizing, I refer to explanation when generalization (the understanding or extension of a case in the context of a broader set) is not applicable.

The more profound uncertainties arise through the absence of necessity or predetermination of the event in the first place. Using the reasonable doubt test, I am convinced that Webster killed Parkman; convicting him of murder is not quite so easy, but the evidence for premeditation seems plausible enough. On the other hand, if Webster had not been in debt to Parkman, if Parkman had not been so insistent on repayment, or if Webster could have found some other source of funds, no killing would have occurred. Alternatively and hypothetically, there were others who had a nonzero probability of terminating Parkman. A priori, the killing or murder of Parkman must be seen as possibility only. Contingencies merged, the foul deed was done, and the historian then strives to reconstruct it. In particularizing, the historian learns nothing valuable outside the chain leading to the event.

Fogel (1983, 42-43) illustrates the particularizing method of historians by comparing it with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of airplane crashes. Although frequently difficult—because accidents can result from a complex series of contingencies and because the crash obscures the data—the goal is to determine the cause of this singular event. Two rationales are obvious. First, an airplane that crashes closely resembles others of the same model, and it is possible that a flaw implicated in the accident could cause another; a potential lesson of this history is possible. Second, the consequences of failing to minimize the chances of future airplane disasters are substantial. These pragmatic justifications do not exhaust the scope of the approach. The outbreak of World War I deserves the most imaginative and rigorous particularizing, for it had large consequences.

By contrast, the killing of Parkman and similar events are not, for historians, typically interesting in themselves. It can be argued that a historian's research could exonerate Webster, but obviously this revisionist verdict could only restore his reputation, not rescue him from the gallows. To be sure, human interest is aroused by the unusual, including dismemberment of corpses, and Webster is the only Harvard professor in history to have been convicted, much less executed, for murder.4

For a historian more is needed than human interest, however compellingly bizarre. The meaning of this dimension of the action could be explored by using a recent murder case or, with even more imaginative possibilities, by writing a completely fictional murder mystery. Thus the sense of history to be conveyed must in-here in the depiction of the implications of the murder for the people who shared the past with Webster and Parkman. In this assignment, Schama is somewhat more effective (see also Thomson 1971) than in his attempt to comment on the problems of objectivity and uncertainty. In the first chapter, considering a reprieve, Governor George W. Briggs of Massachusetts mulls over the crime in the context of the weaknesses of and challenges to the Boston elite: the hunger for money and status, passionless Unitarianism, the moral issue of slavery, and the looming masses of Irish immigrants recently arrived in the Commonwealth. Schama writes well, and it is his literary skill that allows a historian-critic to accept the weaker connections along with the stronger.

A possible danger of adopting an effective literary genre is that form overwhelms function, leading to an overinterpretation of the implications of the action. Once Schama had settled on the dramatic possibilities that have made murders and criminal trials so attractive to novelists and playwrights, as a historian he then had to draw historical substance out of the drama. Parkman's murder attracted spectacular notice by the press in 1850. In the years following, other dramatic crimes would titillate the readers of the popular press. In the Parkman murder, there is less there than meets the historical eye of its literary narrator. Schama's suggestion that the crime exemplified some larger failure of Boston's elite falls well short of being persuasive. My judgment, however, involves conclusions about the collapse, subsequent to a furious burst in the 1850s, of nativism in the state, the formation of the Republican party, the role of entrepreneurs in economic development, the contribution of Mugwump reformers after the Civil War, and so on. In terms of creativity and contribution, Boston's elite at midcentury was performing quite well.

Schama's hints at larger failings of the Boston elite are worthy of reflection, and a reader need not agree with a historian to appreciate his or her work. A historian as critic must be perplexed about justifying remarks concerning the historical substance in a story told in major part simply because it is a good tale. Schama's murder story has no strong historical thesis; objections to tangential matters may only be nitpicking.

Schama's multiple perspectives on the death of General Wolfe are more stimulating. The treatment begins and concludes with an account of the Battle of Quebec by an imaginary common soldier. In between are a synopsis of Wolfe and the battle as seen mostly by the general himself, an analysis of the 1771 painting by Benjamin West of Wolfe's death and the enthralled reaction of the British public,5 and, finally, a sketch of the arduous struggle of the neurotic nephew, Francis Parkman, to write the history of the great contest between France and Britain for dominance in North American in the eighteenth century. All this in fewer than seventy small pages bearing large type, with the disjunction of perspectives making the effect of the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The least compelling sections are a soldier's accounts of the ascent of the cliff at Quebec and the death of Wolfe. Perhaps some of my dissatisfaction was due to my training as a professional historian. Having figured out that Schama had constructed these narratives, I could not accept them as documentary evidence. Schama was there but pretended not to be. Although the passages are short, I was impatient to finish them not so much because of their deficiencies as history but because of their weaknesses as literature.

Throughout the twentieth century, academics who have advocated the use of literary models have felt themselves on the defensive against the contention of their “scientific” colleagues within the discipline that literary treatments left something to be desired. That something was the format designed to justify or at least suggest how a writer knows what he or she claims to know. In a preface to an essay on the coming of the American Revolution, Carl Becker (1918, vii-viii) pointed to his use of the device of “telling the story by means of a rather free paraphrase of what some imagined spectator or participant might have thought or said about the matter at hand” in order to attain “the truth and effectiveness of the illusion aimed at” so that the reader can “enter into such states of mind and feeling.” The technique figures most obviously at points in the text when Becker relates the views of the “average Briton.” Historians could publish many articles in Historical Methods on how to define and analyze public opinion in Britain during the 1760s and 1770s. Becker here makes simple a complex and difficult subject in order to convey a different and higher truth to the reader. Although academic historians at the time barely noticed this volume, it is likely that they would have raised questions about the validity of such passages.6

Beyond my rigid training as a historian, a more general explanation exists for my inability to be a receptive member of the audience for these narratives. Although complaining about academic historians pedantically eager to condemn imaginative devices such as the “average Briton,” Becker was willing to accept a tradeoff between the demand for empirical verification and the desire to sustain the truth and effectiveness of illusions conveyed to the minds of readers. The tradeoff aside, my mind did not receive the esthetic benefit of the illusions intended in the accounts of Schama's soldier. Quite bluntly, I do not like the genre. History, specifically developments during the twentieth century, has ruined me more than overeducation as a historian has spoiled my imagination. Rarely do I read anything from beginning to end. Instead, I skip around. In the case of articles, I tend to read the abstract, if there is one, or glance at the introduction. If it is interesting, I eyeball the tables and possibly look at the conclusion. In the case of academic books, I scan the introduction or conclusion, look up a few items in the index, and then leaf through the pages. In the case of fiction, I look for striking sentences or sexy passages, maybe read the first chapter, or alternatively jump around in the text. Eventually I might get around to reading a particularly promising volume from beginning to end.

Furthermore, I lack the time to read long books. Not independently wealthy, nor an employer of a retinue of servants to take care of my nonintellectual needs, I feel pressed: classes to teach, subjects to research, data to manage, regressions to compute, papers to write and revise, missed deadlines to apologize for, one thing after another. I am not alone in this perception; other than retirees, no leisure class exists today. Works of merit that are otherwise suitable to undergraduate or even graduate classes cannot be assigned because of their inordinate bulk. For want of an analytical sensibility or a sensible editor, many readers are lost.

To be sure, lengthy history books in the narrative genre continue to have a relatively large market, and the History Book Club advertises few brief works. One suspects that readers correlate size with substance, and that they seek something of impressive bulk to hold on the beach and to rest upon their book shelf.7

Even if I were an independently wealthy gentleman of leisure, I would not read long books, historical or otherwise. I have been ruined more by the movies than by social science. Academic history today does not resemble work written in the nineteenth century. In several graceful essays, the late John Clive (1989) has argued that the grand narrative tradition in historical writing is valuable beyond its capacity to entertain and to transmit moral lessons. The reader, Clive suggests, can perceive the interaction between author and subject, with the time traversed since the nineteenth century permitting a perspective on history versus historian that these authors sought to obscure in the service of literary form. In this contention, Parkman, Bancroft, and Macaulay are nearly our contemporaries in sensibility. Clive's experience has not been my own, and my reading of these classic authors has consequently been limited.

Critically acclaimed novels of today diverge even more radically than historical stories from those of the last century. Writings of professional historians that aim at higher truths to be unleashed by literary style and method should not resemble the works produced in the nineteenth century. Indeed, it would seem to violate a basic understanding of historians to think that the form of expression should remain static.

There is, in sum, not a single audience either for works of history or for those that intertwine history and literature. Historical development has made them plural. A professional community of scholars insists on arguments and evidence (including footnotes) supporting an interpretation. The minority of historians oriented toward the social sciences demands that the author actively intrude in laying out models, describing data, and so on. Neither group should feel guilty about agreeing that its standards have resulted in a sound basis for scholarship and in making it difficult for those, within and beyond the ranks of professional practitioners, who would seek to bend the rules of their games.

An even larger middlebrow audience seeks factual substance, a good read, and bulk (a good “shelve”). An avant-garde of intellectuals savors unusual vision, small delights in language, concise glimpses of alternative and zany understandings of the past. Poor Schama—so much talent, such an impossible task to please all the constituencies simultaneously. What should he—and others seeking truths different from those forthcoming from the normal practices of historians—do? Clearly, not attempt everything in one work. Instead of trying to reach an undifferentiated audience in a single work, historians should emulate television and narrowcast. No scholarly journal should reject an article because it is too technical for its professional audience. Ph.D.'s in a discipline have no acceptable excuses for not keeping up with advances in techniques.

Writing history for an educated general audience is another matter. If the middlebrow public does not want to be bothered by authorial interventions concerned with method, evidence, or scholarly apparatus, it is also not ready for history written in the distinctive fictional modes of the late twentieth century. Neither will the arbiters of this audience accept a seamless merger of fictional and historical content, particularly if the fiction is radically at odds with “the facts” or “the context.”8 However, there is relatively little need to be concerned about this market, not can much be done about it. Supplied by competitive trade publishers, it can take care of itself.

If one recognizes that audiences differ and consequently that genres differ, the solution for experimentalists would seem to be that suggested and exemplified by the separate treatments of the death of Wolfe by Schama: disjunction, with the reader being informed as to what is going on. This suggestion recognizes the existence of individuals, products of the culture of this time and place, who both know the differences between fact and fiction and would like to play with them. It would avoid any impulse to resurrect the nineteenth-century reader with an artful web of fact and fiction. Patterned after the model provided by science fiction, short pieces—essays, sketches, or stories—rather than lengthy treatises or books would be the dominant literary form.


  1. Temperamentally, I find the objectivist positions more appealing and engaging than the subjectivist critique: intellectually bolder and more challenging to sustain as propositions. Additionally, the pretense that Truth can be known is more productive of substantive statements about phenomena than a view focusing on how problematic it is to know anything. Relativist objections, on the other hand, have often seemed to me to be either fussily pedantic in tone or designed to justify some didactic moralizing, or both.

  2. Can it really be that, say, older military historians in their reviews used discourse as a noun, privilege as a verb, and textured as an adjective as frequently as younger cultural historians?

  3. As a research strategy, perhaps Schama should have hung out in bars with cops or assistant prosecutors in order to learn what kinds of evidence are most credible at murder trials.

  4. Investigating a fatal assault at an Oxford college, Inspector Morse, the erudite, world-weary detective in the PBS Mystery series, is told by one of the academics, “Around here it's the intellectual muggers you have to watch out for.”

  5. For a model, see the splendid chapters reflecting on the 1816 shipwreck of the Medusa and Theodore Gericault's painting in the novel by Julian Barnes (1989, 115-39).

  6. Although Becker is one of the leading critics of objectivity treated in That Noble Dream, Novick does not discuss the literary departure in The Eve of the Revolution. The methods used in the writing of history are unfortunately outside his framework.

  7. Why, for example, did Knopf decide upon the 3-by-5 1/2-inch rectangle of print on the small pages of Dead Certainties?

  8. The recent vehement Op-Ed reaction to Oliver Stone's fictional reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination in JFK is a case in point. Over the years, I have been bemused by Gore Vidal, whose polemics against academic historians who criticize his novels belie his striving for approval as a competent historian.

The author thanks George Huppert for his comments on a draft of this review.


Barnes, J. 1989. A History of the World in 10 and 1/2 Chapters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Becker, C. 1918. The Eve of the Revolution: A Chronicle of the Breach with England. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bernstein, R. 1991. “A Historian in the World of Fiction.” New York Times, 15 May: B4.

Clive, J. 1989. Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Fogel, R. W. 1983. “‘Scientific’ History and Traditional History.” In Which Road to the Past: Two Views of History, edited by Fogel and G. R. Elton, 7-70. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Handlin, O., et al., eds. 1954. Harvard Guide to American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Haskell, T. L. 1990. “Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream.History and Theory 29: 129-57.

Hexter, J. H., et al. 1991. “AHR Forum: Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: “The Objectivity Question and the Future of the Historical Profession.American Historical Review 96: 675-708.

Kloppenberg, J. T. 1989. “Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing.” American Historical Review 94: 1011-30.

Lehmann-Haupt, C. 1991. “History as One Puzzle After Another.” New York Times, 9 May: C21.

Lewis, R. W. B. 1991. “Call the Next Witness.” New York Times Book Review, 13 May: 3.

MacNeille, S. 1991. “We Wander about the Tombs.” New York Times Book Review, 12 May: 3.

Novick, P. 1991. “My Correct Views on Everything.” American Historical Review 96: 699-703.

Schama, S. 1991. “Clio Has a Problem.” New York Times Magazine, 8 Sept.: 30-33.

Thomson, H. 1971. Murder at Harvard. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Wood, G. S. 1991. “Novel History.” New York Review of Books 38(12): 12-16.

Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Turner, Henry Ashby, Jr. “Peter Novick and the ‘Objectivity Question’ in History.” Academic Questions 8, no. 3 (summer 1995): 17-27.

[In the following essay, written as a summary of a talk Turner gave at a panel titled “History: “As It Really Was?” Turner asserts that a major weakness of Novick's That Noble Dream is his failure to make some essential distinctions in his use of the term “objectivity.” Turner also comments that Novick's dire assessment of the state of modern historical scholarship is inaccurate.]

Author's note: Like most of the historians I have encountered in my lifetime, I have always found what happened in the past more interesting than those who write about it. I therefore rarely spend time reading books about historians. But when I learned that Peter Novick had agreed to participate in the panel, I decided I should look at his book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession,1 which is about historians, as opposed to about history as most understand that word. Even though Novick reneged on that commitment by withdrawing from the panel shortly before it was to take place, what I found in his book struck me as sufficiently disturbing to merit extended remarks. What follows here is based on those portions of my talk that bore on Novick's book.

In citing Leopold von Ranke's famous formulation, wie es eigentlich gewesen, Peter Novick, like many others who have invoked it, ignores the rest of the sentence in which those words appeared. He therefore deprives them of much of their original meaning. Ranke wrote that sentence in the preface to his first book, which deals with the histories of the Latin and Germanic peoples in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. His full sentence reads, in the first edition of the book: “The study of history has been assigned the task of judging the past, of instructing the world of today for the benefit of future years. The present attempt does not presume to such lofty functions. It merely wants to say how it really was.”1 As this reveals, the main thrust of Ranke's sentence consisted of a declaration of independence for the discipline of history. He was asserting its autonomy from theology and philosophy, to which it had previously been subordinated. When he eschewed passing judgment on the past, Ranke was rejecting the moralizing use of history that prevailed during the early nineteenth century. When he rejected the proposition that history should provide a guide to the future, he was rejecting the enlistment of the past in a philosophical system that would provide a teleological key to the future, an undertaking on which Hegel was then busy. One of Ranke's great contributions was thus to teach that, in order to function properly, the discipline of history must be free, that it should not be subordinated to some other purpose.

Those who, like Novick, quote only the final four words of Ranke's famous sentence do catch part of its meaning. As those words indicate, Ranke announced his intention to strive for a view of the past that would correspond as closely as possible with what had actually been. As Novick and many others have failed to notice, however, “getting it right” represented for Ranke not a realized achievement but rather an ideal, a goal toward which the historian must aspire even though it could never be fully attained. He professed only to want—in the sense of seeking—to show how the past had actually been; he did not contend he had succeeded. As someone conversant with the works of Immanuel Kant, Ranke was far too aware of the limitations of human knowledge to lay claim to such an exalted achievement. A few pages after the famous passage, he wrote yearningly of his ideal, “to capture the event itself in its human comprehensibility, in its unity, in its completeness,” only to add in humility: “I know how far short of it I have fallen. One exerts oneself, one strives, in the end one has not attained it.”2

Fundamental to Novick's [That Noble Dream] is his contention that the historians who shaped the professional study of the past in the United States got off to a false start as a consequence of “their almost total misunderstanding” of Ranke (26). Mistaking him for an empiricist, they arrived, according to Novick, at a spurious notion of objectivity that long hobbled American historians until recent times, when more perceptive minds liberated themselves from such illusions. As Novick portrays him, Ranke was anything but an empiricist. He was instead a “thoroughgoing philosophical idealist” (27).

There is some truth to this, but Novick throws out the empiricist baby with the philosophical bath water. Ranke was indeed very much a man of his time whose values and worldview were shaped by a combination of Lutheran piety, idealism, and romanticism. He looked for deeper meaning in history and believed that the study of the past could allow one to detect, or at least glimpse, the movement of God's hand in human affairs. But what Novick omits to mention is that Ranke also insisted upon an empirical foundation for that quest. He believed the historian could find divine fingerprints only by first reconstructing the past with the utmost detachment and objectivity. His goal was to prevent the historian from imposing extraneous views on the past, from distorting in any way the true pattern of the past, wie es eigentlich gewesen. For only that could reveal, or at least allow glimpses of, divine purpose. If the historian distorted the true pattern of the past, the whole endeavor would be in vain.

Novick claims that Ranke once wrote of a wish to “as it were extinguish myself.”3 If those are in fact his words, Ranke was presumably expressing his aspiration to serve as a neutral intermediary between his readers and the past, rather than, as Novick argues, reflecting “a widespread romantic desire to open oneself to the flow of intuitive perception” (28). That curious interpretation leads Novick to the arresting assertion that the

young historian who in the 1970s proposed a “psychedelic” approach to history—altered states of consciousness as a means for historians to project themselves back into the past—was thus in some respects truer to the essence of Ranke's approach than empiricists who never lifted their eyes from the documents.


Anyone even casually acquainted with Ranke's methods will recognize that proposition as ludicrous.

In pursuit of the past, the actual past, wie es eigentlich gewesen, Ranke and his school codified a set of principles for historical inquiry quite incompatible with “altered states of consciousness.” Those principles were by no means wholly of their invention; a good many had been developed earlier by philologists and other scholars. What Ranke and his school achieved was a systematization and codification into what became known as the critical method. Since the word “critical” has been stretched out of all recognition of late, I shall refer to the system of historical investigation developed by Ranke and his school as methodological objectivity. That system rests on a number of basic imperatives. It instructs historians to seek out all available evidence on the subject of inquiry, to respect the integrity of that evidence, altering nothing and omitting nothing relevant from consideration. It requires them to exercise skepticism in evaluating the evidence by subjecting it to multiple tests of authenticity and reliability. It calls upon historians to identify the sources of their evidence so that others may scrutinize their use of it. And it enjoins them not to go beyond the evidence in reconstructing what occurred in the past.

It was these standards for methodological objectivity that the founders of the historical profession in this country took from Ranke and his school. They proved separable from Ranke's pursuit of a glimpse of God's hand as well as from the conservative historicism and moral relativism that marred his own writings. And those standards have proved quite compatible with vastly different approaches to the past and varied interpretations of it. To be sure, some historians, both in this country and elsewhere, superimposed on Ranke's method a simplistic positivism according to which the facts about the past, once they were scrupulously established, would in effect interpret themselves. That was a perversion of Ranke's position, since he himself recognized that establishing what had taken place in the past and understanding it were two distinct, if closely interrelated, tasks.4 The standards of methodological objectivity he championed for the first of those tasks survived the positivist vogue, however, and have stood the test of time ever since. They remain today the foundation of the modern historical profession throughout the world. Without them, historians can have no hope of rational discourse or resolution of disagreement. Without them, written history would dissolve into a cacophony of clashing opinions, none more valid than the others.

The methods developed by Ranke and his school do not guarantee agreement among historians, of course. To the contrary, historians' interpretations of the past can and do vary widely within the constraints of Rankean methodological objectivity. Novick emphasizes this in his book, which focuses on disagreements among American historians about interpretations of this country's past. Moreover, he contends that in recent times most American historians reject the possibility of arriving at an objective version of the past. I agree with him on that score but think him wrong to see this as a new development. Novick makes this latter-day skepticism appear novel by contrasting it with the vogue of “scientism” that led some of the early professional historians of this country to believe a century or so ago that they could aspire to achieve an objective interpretation of the past acceptable to all. That was, however, like positivism, a comparatively brief episode. The serious study of history promotes humility and skepticism, and “scientism” soon wilted in the face of the disagreements among historians of the United States about how to interpret their country's past.

American historians have long since emancipated themselves from the “scientist” proposition that the historical record is a kind of unitary, harmonious tapestry that individual practitioners reverentially embellish by adding the threads of their research. They recognize that it is an ongoing conversation about the past, which sometimes gives rise to arguments, even to quarrels. Consensus develops on various issues and reigns for a time, only to dissolve under challenges arising from fresh evidence and revisionist interpretations. The great Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl, effectively illustrated this when he examined what French historians wrote about Napoleon Bonaparte throughout the course of the nineteenth century. Geyl found wide fluctuations in evaluations of Bonaparte's career. During the dull and stodgy Bourbon restoration, glorification of his career prevailed. When his nephew, Napoleon the Third, reimposed dictatorial rule on France, negative assessments predominated. During the prosaic Third Republic, Bonaparte's triumphs again seemed attractive to French historians.5

At first sight, Geyl's findings might appear to demonstrate that history is an exercise in relativism, with every generation of historians writing what pleases it and no one to say who is right. Geyl did not draw that conclusion, however. Instead, he saw an ongoing advance in knowledge about the actual past. “Frenchmen are bound to differ about the great Corsican until the end of time,” he observed, adding, however,

that is not to say that the argument has been and will be fruitless. It has illuminated much that was dark, it has led to agreement on large tracts of that ground, and even where it has not, the points raised by each side, the suggestions and explanations about motives and character, about the immense complications in which that miraculous career was enacted, have enriched the picture. … The argument, in other words, has led to a gradual even though partial conquest of reality.6

Geyl's study reveals how easy it is to give the impression of rampant relativism by focusing on the biases in individual historians' interpretations of the past, as does Novick throughout his book. But if one steps back and looks at the results of the collective efforts of historians—as Geyl did but Novick fails to do—one finds a discernible advance in knowledge about the actual past emerging from the clash of interpretations, as historians challenge and correct each other's work. The professional study of history is, in other words, a slow, multi-voiced, dialogical process that eventually yields an increasingly firm grasp on the past wie es eigentlich gewesen. That process can function, of course, only in the presence of two indispensable prerequisites. First, and most basically, historians must be free to express their own views. And second, they have to abide by the methodological objectivity that Ranke and his school bequeathed to the world. In the absence of the latter, there can be no shared foundation for the communication and criticism that are the essential ingredients of progress in the effort to recapture and comprehend the past.

Although Novick's subtitle focuses on what he calls the “objectivity question,” his book makes it difficult to establish where he stands on that subject, since he wraps himself in a cloud of equivocation. On just one page of the introduction to his book the reader encounters the following statements:

What I can't do is hope to satisfy those who exigently demand to know if I am “for” or “against” objectivity. I don't think that the idea of historical objectivity is true or false, right or wrong. … Many philosophical assumptions of the concept seem to me dubious; some of the key elements in the objectivist synthesis I consider psychologically and sociologically naive. … It seems to me that to say of a work of history that it is or isn't objective is to make an empty observation; to say something that is neither interesting nor useful … in general and on the whole, I have been persuaded by the arguments of the critics of the concept; unimpressed by the arguments of its defenders.7

Despite this barrage of obfuscation, Novick's book seems to me to make it abundantly clear that he believes the idea of historical objectivity is and always has been an illusion. His book, therefore, reminds me of nothing so much as the ancient Greek riddle: “What is an Athenian to believe when a Cretan tells him all Cretans are liars?” Here is an elaborately documented 629-page volume—891 footnotes drawing on 60 manuscript collections, dozens of articles and books—the thesis of which is that we cannot trust what we read in such books written by historians.

The fundamental deficiency of Novick's treatment of the “objectivity question” lies in his failure to make some essential distinctions. First of all, he conflates two very different forms of objectivity: process and product. By objectivity in terms of process I mean the application of methodological objectivity to the study of the past. By objectivity in terms of product I mean the notion, to which I have already referred, that there can be an objective version of the past. Insofar as historians in this country ever subscribed to such a notion, it has long since been a thing of the past. Yet, by citing the rejection of that sort of objective product by numerous American historians, Novick erroneously assumes that he has also demonstrated their rejection of objectivity in the process of researching and writing about the past. I do not find evidence in his book to support that view. He deals almost exclusively with what some American historians have said about clashing interpretations of the past. If he had examined how they researched and wrote their histories, he would have found that all those who merited the title of historian sought to practice objectivity in the sphere of process.

A second source of confusion in Novick's book arises from his conflation of objectivity and neutrality. In a perceptive review of Novick's book, Thomas Haskell has observed that Novick equates partisanship—advocacy—with the rejection of objectivity.8 Yet as Haskell points out, as long as methodological objectivity is adhered to, advocacy—partisanship—is not incompatible with objectivity. This is, I think, a distinction that guides the practice of all good historians. Certainly, in everything that I have taught and written about German history of the twentieth century, I have left no doubt that I regard Nazism as a despicable doctrine and the Third Reich as a criminal regime. That, surely, is not neutrality. But such partisanship does not prevent me from attempting to adhere in my scholarship and teaching to the methodological objectivity that Ranke and his school bequeathed us. To do otherwise, I know, would render my work worthless.

As a result, in considerable part, of his failure to distinguish between objectivity in process and in product or between objectivity and neutrality, Novick arrives (628) at what amounts to an obituary for the historical profession of the 1980s in America:

As a broad community of discourse, as a community of scholars united by common aims, common standards, and common purposes, the discipline of history had ceased to exist. Convergence on anything, let alone a subject as highly charged as the “objectivity question,” was out of the question. The profession was as described in the last verse of the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

If, as Novick contends, historians in this country no longer share any standards, they have no claim to constituting a profession. Although it is conspicuously missing from Novick's definition of a profession (48), a commitment to uphold a set of commonly agreed upon standards of competence is a cardinal component of the usual definitions of a profession. Fortunately, Novick is wrong not only about the nature of professions in general but also about the current state of the historical profession in this country. He arrives at his apocalyptic conclusion by generalizing from a handful of egregious but quite atypical deviations from the norms of the profession. The overwhelming majority of America's historians still strive to uphold the standards of Rankean methodological objectivity in their works. Novick's melodramatic obituary lacks, in short, a corpse.

This is not to say there is no cause for concern about the state of the historical profession in this country. The most useful feature of Novick's book is its documentation of what appears to be an increasing willingness on the part of a few to abandon the independence so laboriously achieved for the discipline of history by Ranke and others during the last century. Some American historians seem quite ready, that is, to subjugate their discipline to the pursuit of what they regard as worthy causes. And, as so often happens when advocacy becomes the dominant motivation and the quest for a “useful” past replaces that for the actual past, the result has been the violation of the standards of methodological objectivity established by Ranke and his school. Novick provides some sobering examples of this growing tendency to substitute propaganda for scholarship in the pursuit of “higher” purposes. In some cases, those who have chosen that course have invoked “post-structural” theories borrowed from other disciplines, but in other instances they have simply manipulated evidence to make it serve their purposes. Some of those purposes may be meritorious in themselves, but when the past is manipulated to advance any cause, the result is defective scholarship.

Traditionally, the historical profession in this country, as elsewhere, has rallied to reject offenses against methodological objectivity with something approaching a united front, but there are disturbing signs that we can no longer rely on this in the United States. A case in point is provided by the controversy occasioned a decade ago by the publication by Princeton University Press of a book based on the University of Chicago Ph.D. dissertation of a Novick student who was then teaching in the Princeton history department. Initially proclaimed by a host of reviewers as a major breakthrough on the causes of one of the greatest catastrophes of modern history, the Third Reich, the book proved to be riddled with flagrant and multiple violations of the most fundamental tenets of methodological objectivity. As I and others acquainted with the evidence in question soon established, Novick's student had misrepresented the content of numerous documents and misquoted others, in one case omitting from a key passage the word nicht, whose absence or presence has a substantial effect on the meaning of a German sentence. He had presented loose, inaccurate paraphrases as quotations. By misdating archival documents or attributing them to the wrong persons, he had made it virtually impossible to find his sources. As was the case in his use of documents, his statistics were tendentiously manipulated. The book amounted, in short, to a clear case of pervasive disregard for the most elementary of scholarly standards.9

In itself, the spurious scholarship of Novick's student was not remarkable. There have always been individuals who violate the standards of professions, including history's; otherwise, there would be no need to uphold standards. Disturbing in this instance was a large-scale attempt at a cover-up mounted by other historians who sought to explain away the book's defects.10 Initially, these apologists denied that Novick's student had done anything seriously wrong. When overwhelming evidence to the contrary made that position untenable, they conceded he had made “mistakes,” but pointed out that so had other historians. Some charged that his book had been subjected to undue scrutiny, contending that if those of others were examined as closely, the results would be no different. Some argued that the author's interpretation was so significant that it deserved respect regardless of his misuse of the evidence on which it was purportedly based. Others sought to change the subject from competence to motive. They maintained that as long as it had not been proved that the author had acted intentionally what he had done was not so serious, neglecting, however, to explain how intention can be established in the absence of a signed confession. Some saw the absence of plagiarism as a mitigating factor, overlooking that the plagiarist injures only the one author whose work is stolen, whereas the dissemination of falsified evidence can harm the work of many. Still others sought to deflect attention from the book's defects by imputing ulterior motives to its critics. Because the author was a self-proclaimed “neo-Marxist,” McCarthyism was alleged, although the specialty of the unscrupulous Senator from Wisconsin lay in claiming to have unmasked persons who denied being Marxists. When the book's critics made the evidence on its violations of scholarly standards available to departments where the author was a candidate for appointment, some of those promoting the cover-up charged unethical conduct and called for an investigation by the American Historical Association.

What makes this cover-up effort noteworthy is that those who conducted it were not cranks from the fringes of the historical profession but senior professors at major research universities who are charged with the professional education of the next generations of historians. Their contributions to the cover-up suggest that they have been passing along some very curious standards to future practitioners. One accused the book's critics of confusing “facticity” with historical truth.11 Another, who characterized the critiques of the book as a “witch hunt,” sought to exonerate the author by maligning the entire profession:

When you work in the archives, you're far from home, you're bored, you're in a hurry, you're scribbling like crazy. You're bound to make mistakes. I don't believe any historian in the Western world has impeccable footnotes. Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life.12

Still another, soon thereafter to be elected president of the American Historical Association, reduced the issue to the level of an intramural peccadillo; all was well, since the author of the book had “gone back to check his archives and make correction,” much as a wayward undergraduate “makes up” a botched assignment with the permission of an indulgent instructor.13 None of those who participated in the cover-up expressed any concern about possible harm the book's defective scholarship might have had on the thinking and work of others who had trustingly accepted a volume published under the imprimatur of a major university press that had been in circulation for several years.

Peter Novick's own contribution to the cover-up of his student's spurious scholarship casts additional light on his standards. The ten pages of his book devoted to the case (612-21) are remarkable, if for nothing else, for a footnote in which Novick explains that the author of the book in question “was my student, and is my good friend. I do not believe that the account which follows is biased or tendentious in any of the usual senses of those words, but the reader should know at the outset that I am not at all ‘neutral’ about [the author], his persecution, or his persecutors” (612). Coming from someone whose own book denies the possibility of objectivity, this is a truly remarkable claim (vide supra: Cretan to Athenian). If one subtracts from Novick's contribution to the cover-up his efforts to belittle the “mistakes” in his student's book and his ad hominem attacks on its critics, his own position is summed up in his approving contention that the book demonstrates “the relative autonomy of the argument from details of the evidence” (617). Since evidence usually takes the form of “details,” this leaves little doubt about Novick's rejection of one of the cardinal tenets of methodological objectivity. His student's ill-fated attempt at scholarship, it seems, merely reflected the standards of the mentor.

During a panel discussion of his own book in 1990, Novick revealed still more about his views on the subject of historical methodology. When the paradox of his rejection of objectivity in a book that seems to adhere painstakingly to scholarly standards was pointed out, he announced that his efforts to abide by those standards resulted not from a belief in their efficacy but rather solely from tactical expediency:

I do indeed believe that an argument can possess “relative autonomy … from details of the evidence.” But most of my readers don't share this belief—are in fact suspicious of any such claim. How do I win over those who can be won over and make difficulties for those who, if they could conveniently do so, would like to discredit my findings and conclusions by disparaging my scholarship? The question answers itself: by the most scrupulous adherence to wissenschaftliche (sometimes confused with “objectivist”) norms. If I were addressing a French audience, I'd speak French. … If … the discipline demanded that findings be presented in sonnet form, I'd chop up what I had to say into fourteen-line chunks.14

In the course of that same panel discussion, Novick went on to identify himself as a “nihilist” and referred dismissively to historians who “are, in a sense that seems to me deluded, but not pernicious, concerned with ‘moving toward the truth’ or ‘getting it right.’”15 If a professor of surgery were to announce having come to regard “getting it right” in the operating room a delusion, there would quickly be widespread agreement among professional colleagues that he or she should seek other employment. Novick, by contrast, continues to offer to students at the University of Chicago courses designated as “history” and presumably supervises still more doctoral dissertations; in addition, he received from the American Historical Association the prestigious Alfred J. Beveridge Award for the best book written on American history from 1492 to the present.

It would be misleading to leave the impression that relativistic disregard for scholarly objectivity has become rampant among the historians of this country. Despite Peter Novick's efforts to promote that notion, such is not the case. His attempt, and those of others, to cover up bogus scholarship did not succeed in keeping his unfortunate student in the profession; the latter turned to teaching law, presumably wiser about the uses of evidence for his attempt at writing history. The critics of his faulty book were not subjected to an investigation, as some of its apologists had demanded. In his own book Novick insists that the affair “might, as a result of contingent circumstances, have turned out differently, and there were at least as many participants who voiced their hostility to hyperempiricism and neo-objectivism as there were historians who actively or tacitly embraced them, not to speak of those whose responses were governed by other considerations” (621). There, as so often, Novick falls victim to wishful thinking. The vast majority of American historians continue to believe that the past can only become accessible through the rigorous application of Rankean methodological objectivity. They do not look lightly upon violations of its principles, and they are not easily fooled, even when prominently placed members of the profession allow their own standards to lapse. Although, like Ranke himself, this country's historians fall short of the lofty goal of recapturing the past wie es eigentlich gewesen, most nevertheless work very hard at “getting it right.” And collectively they achieve considerable success in increasing our knowledge of what once actually was, even as they disagree robustly about how to interpret it.


  1. Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1535 (Leipzig and Berlin: G. Reimer, 1824), v-vi. The German text is:

    Man hat der Historie das Amt, die Vergangenheit zu richten, die Mitwelt zum Nutzen zukünftiger Jahre zu belehren, beygemessen: so hoher Ämter unterwindet sich gegenwärtiger Versuch nicht: er will bloβ sagen, wie es eigentlich gewesen.

    In the second edition, published fifty years later, Ranke replaced “sagen” with “zeigen.” The contention of Georg G. Iggers, accepted by Novick (Dream, 28), that the word eigentlich was more ambiguous in Ranke's time than now and could also mean “essentially,” is not supported by the authoritative German dictionary of that era, the Deutsches Wörterbuch of the brothers Grimm. Felix Gilbert also rejected this translation, preferring “actually”: Gilbert, History: Politics or Culture? (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 34. Similarly, Hajo Holborn wrote, “The literal translation would be: ‘It only wants to show what actually occurred.’ But a more correct rendering would be: ‘It wants merely to reconstruct the actual past.’” Holborn, History and Humanities (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 90.

  2. Geschichten, viii.

  3. Novick attributes the quoted words to “the preface of the World History” but provides no citation (Dream, 28). None of the English translations of Ranke's works bears such a title, however. The Vorrede of his nine-volume Weltgeschichte (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1883) contains no such wish, nor does the preface to the one volume translated into English under the title Universal History.

  4. See the Vorrede in the first volume of his Weltgeschichte, ix.

  5. Peter Geyl, Napoleon: For and Against (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1949).

  6. Geyl, Use and Abuse of History (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1955), 70f.

  7. Novick, Dream, 6.

  8. “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream,History and Theory, vol. 29 (1990), 130-57.

  9. The controversy about the book, which was published in 1981, began with disclosure of some of its most glaring defects in The American Historical Review, vol. 88 (October 1983): 1143-49. The most comprehensive catalog of the book's violations of scholarly standards is Ulrich Nocken, “Weimarer Geschichte(n),” Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, vol. 71 (1984): 505-27. See also Central European History, vol. 17 (September 1984): 159-293, and “A Scholarly Exchange,” Perspectives, American Historical Association Newsletter, vol. 23, no. 9 (December 1985): 20-21.

  10. See “History and Ethics: A Dispute,” The New York Times, 23 December 1984, 1; “Stormy Weather in Academe,” Time, 14 January 1985, 59; “Brouhaha over Historian's Use of Sources Renews Scholars' Interest in Ethics Codes,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 February 1985, 1; “Association Accused of Suppressing Criticism of a Controversial Study of Weimar Republic,” ibid., 25 September 1985, 5; “Footnotes to History,” The Nation, 16 February 1985; and Radical History Review, no. 32 (March, 1985): 75-96. The cover-up effort resumed when a ‘revised edition’ of the book was published in 1986 by a commercial house after Princeton University Press declined to reissue it: Volker Berghahn, “Hitler's Buddies,” The New York Times Book Review, 2 August 1987. The revisions failed, however, to correct the book's defective scholarship: Peter Hayes, “History in an Off Key,” Business History Review, vol. 61 (Autumn 1987): 452-72. My own analysis may be found in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, vol. 37 (1989), 538-44.

  11. Carl E. Schorske, quoted in “History and Ethics: A Dispute,” The New York Times, 23 December 1984.

  12. Lawrence Stone, quoted in “Footnotes to History,” by Jon Wiener, The Nation, 16 February 1985, 180.

  13. Natalie Zemon Davis, “About Dedications,” Radical History Review, no. 32 (March 1985): 95f. In this piece, Davis accused critics of the book of attacking its dedication, although none of the critiques contained any such attacks.

  14. Novick, “My Correct View on Everything,” The American Historical Review, vol. 96 (June 1991): 701.

  15. Ibid., 702.

Hillel Levine (review date 14 June 1999)

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SOURCE: Levine, Hillel. “The Decline of the Incredible.” New Leader 72, no. 7 (14 June 1999): 23-5.

[In the following review, Levine questions Novick's methodology and use of sources in The Holocaust in American Life, noting some significant omissions in his argument.]

In 1967 George Steiner, the British literary critic, predicted and also urged:

We cannot pretend that [Bergen] Belsen is irrelevant to the responsible life of the imagination. What man has inflicted on man in very recent times has affected the writer's primary material—the sum and potential of human behavior—and it presses on the brain with a new darkness.

Last year, a Steiner less sanguine about how much that “responsible life of the imagination” could do with the “new darkness”—or possibly overwhelmed by the newer darkness of the 1990s—warned of an epoch defined by the “decline of the incredible.”

Now [in The Holocaust in American Life,] University of Chicago historian Peter Novick has written what will surely long be the most comprehensive, nuanced interpretive account of the periods that preceded and followed Steiner's entreaty. But Novick's concern is different. The question that puzzles (and motivates) him is “why in 1990s America—50 years after the fact and thousands of miles from its site—the Holocaust has come to loom so large in our culture.” To his credit, in pursuit of an answer Novick largely rejects the glib psychobabble about repression and trauma. Regrettably, he does not seem to realize an assumption underpinning his argument made at the outset—that “historical events are most talked about shortly after their occurrence, then they gradually move to the margin of consciousness”—is itself open to dispute. As was true of their expulsion from Iberia at the end of the 15th century, Jews have been known to absorb their catastrophes in a variety of ways over the span of several generations, and the most creative responses tend to come later rather than sooner.

Be that as it may, Novick shows how the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators from 1933 to 1945 eventually came to be called “the Holocaust,” surrounded by claims of uniqueness. He outlines the major phases in the history of the consciousness of the horrific event, and details the complex transformation of reactions to it in this country, particularly among American Jews—with selective comparisons to American Christians and to Israeli Jews when it serves his argument.

During the fighting the fate of Europe's millions of Jews received limited attention. Immediately after the War when some concentration camp survivors were eager to tell the world what had transpired, they were virtually ignored. The focus was already on the danger posed by yesterday's ally, the Soviet Union, and its global ambitions for Communism. Indeed, the Cold War agenda made it difficult to even think too harshly of West Germany, now on the front line of Communist containment.

In Jewish communities, meanwhile, other agendas encouraged the inclination to look ahead. In the United States, Jews were busy trying to emigrate to the suburbs; Israelis were busy gathering in the “exiles”; most of those who were survivors, wherever they happened to be, were themselves preoccupied with rebuilding their lives.

While attempting to explain the “why now” and “why here” aspects of today's interest in the Holocaust, Novick presents an array of contributing historical and cultural factors. Adolf Eichmann's trial of the early '60s, and the debate precipitated in Israel and in America by Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, certainly were important. So were the 1973 Yom Kippur War; a faltering Israeli government trying to secure and legitimate its territorial gains; changing relations between the Israeli and American governments; revised perceptions of Arabs and Jews; the agonizing effects of the Vietnam War; and the implications of all of this for American Jews suffering the insecurities of the newly arrived as well as confronting intermarriage, assimilation and the decline in meaning.

Novick knows the difference between causes and influences. Yet despite all of the impressive evidence he musters for his arguments, and his skill at contextualizing where the record is unclear, he struggles mightily but not always successfully with the same methodological issue he took up in his previous book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession.

In approach and tone, Novick seems to be closer to the soft and humane sociology of knowledge analysis than to the often reductionist and nihilistic postmodernism. He has little to say, however, about the way multiple circumstances interact. Too many of those he cites could very well serve contrary positions. For example, it is difficult to know what he means when he says that “America's elevation of ‘victim culture’” to a high standing is not a “cause” but a “background condition,” or that “the Holocaust as a ‘consensual symbol’” has “mandated an intransigent and self-righteous posture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Frequently one wonders where Novick was when the Holocaust was being Americanized. This may seem an irrelevant, even an unfair question to ask of a historian. But the author places himself in his historical narrative and asserts some first-hand awareness of contemporary events. His thorough literature search is not matched by an intuitive sense of whose views are important and whose are not. Uncritical citations of questionable public opinion polls, and an occasional reliance on the authority of “most people” further detract from the specialist's knowledge Novick should possess. Agonizing discussions, including public conferences on the “Use and Abuse of the Holocaust,” go back to the 1970s. Someone might have failed to invite Professor Novick. Still, his observations at the end of the '90s, long after many “No business like Shoah business” impresarios and their publicists have gone on to other subjects, come across as a bit stale.

One also must ask “Where were you?” with respect to serious omissions by Novick in The Holocaust in American Life. Most glaring is his failure to take into account the role of Elie Wiesel, the one individual who, from the 1960s to the present day, has come closest to being the “leader” of American Jews in this area. In his person and in his writing, among Jews and non-Jews, within the orbit of Jewish organizations, the academy and far beyond, the indefatigable Wiesel has given spiritual and artistic form to the inchoate. In this book, though, he does not qualify as “cause,” or even “background condition.”

For Novick, the Yom Kippur War appears to be the formative moment and turning point in the development of Holocaust consciousness. He thus also tends to scant the Six Day War. Stated but uncaptured is the deep emotional response of a surprisingly broad spectrum of American Jews to the way the United Nations and especially the United States government turned a blind eye to Arab international treaty violations that Israel felt were “life threatening.” Many totally assimilated American Jews were surprised by their own response to what could happen to Jews in 1967, and its evocation of what did happen to them in 1933-1945.

Woefully skimpy, too, is the discussion of the renewal of Jewish awareness in the Soviet Union, and the reclaiming of the Holocaust as a Jewish experience from Communist rhetoric and ritual. In the U.S. the student organized Soviet Jewry movement—with its “Never Again” posters and hardly subtle references to the Holocaust—embarrassed the mainline Jewish organizations, against instructions from Jerusalem, into taking a strong public stand on Jewish rights (or the lack of them) in the USSR.

To be sure, Wiesel is mentioned in the book many times, particularly in regard to his dealings with President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. Holocaust Commission and the ensuing Washington Mall museum—the one instance where he actually assumed an organizational role. Whatever Novick's criticism of the entire undertaking, it only represents a single dimension of Wiesel's leadership in regard to the promulgation of Holocaust consciousness. The spotlight that he has trained on the political vicissitudes and human rights violations of the end of the 20th century, by profoundly melding Jewish particularism and universalism, has been far more influential in universalizing the Holocaust than any intellectual argument for or against its uniqueness.

The depreciation of Wiesel's involvement in the history Novick describes finally goes beyond the limits of fairness and points up the author's poor grasp of some material that he tries to analyze. Novick accuses Wiesel of Christianizing the Holocaust, and thereby gaining popularity among Christians as well. The evidence: Wiesel's “gaunt face with its anguished expression. … Wiesel's carefully cultivated persona as symbol of suffering, as Christ figure.” Novick proceeds to allow the possibility that “this stance is thoroughly authentic,” but he finds other Christian links. The new evidence: Wiesel's describing “the lure of and quest for suffering” during his school days in his recently published memoir. But Novick ignores Wiesel's own questioning of the asceticism of his youth.

Following that insulting distortion, Novick again acknowledges suffering as “authentically Jewish” but maintains it is “quite distant from the mainstream of Jewish thought.” Scholars would disagree. Similarly, the author dismisses perhaps the best-known epigram in the Talmud, made famous by Steven Spielberg—“He who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the entire world”—as originally referring to Jews only. He seems unaware that the leading modern scholars authenticate the more universal reading. He does not demonstrate the respect for scholarship that his own scholarship in many ways deserves.

Ultimately, Novick turns to conspiracy theories. Without presenting very much evidence, he attributes the most significant rise in Holocaust consciousness to the media moguls, print and celluloid, on both coasts. In doing so he joins generations of anti-Semites who have been explaining the business decisions of those moguls as a reflection of their Jewishness. Never mind that anyone trying to publish or produce anything on the Holocaust today can tell you how mercurial as well as Jewishly ambivalent these “elders of Zion” are, particularly after a triple martini luncheon, and how most likely (and incorrectly) they will decide the Holocaust “market” is “glutted.”

Since I'm talking about conspiracies, let me propose my own: containment. There are some “Holocaust professionals,” to use Novick's unflattering formulation, who foster Holocaust memorials, museums and school curricula to preserve our memory of it, to prevent its consuming us with grief and wrong lessons, and to focus our attention on current and future human suffering. At a time when “compassion fatigue” is discussed as a diagnostic category—soon to qualify for Blue Cross/Blue Shield reimbursement—when, as George Steiner warns, we are at risk of losing our sense and indignation that anything can be “incredible,” containment of the Holocaust is the conspiracy that I would like to join.

Elliott Abrams (review date 28 June 1999)

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SOURCE: Abrams, Elliott. “Genocide on Main Street.” National Review (28 June 1999): 54-5.

[In the following review, Abrams discusses flaws in Novick's historical argument in The Holocaust in American Life, but concludes that the book offers an useful discussion of American perceptions of the Holocaust.]

The murders and deportations in Kosovo have brought with them memories of the 1930s, when Europe's Jews were subjected to the genocidal attack we now call the Holocaust. Commentators on the Balkan crisis say we must “learn the lesson of the Holocaust”; an advertisement placed by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith asks us to “respond as you wish the world had responded last time.” Such analogies are familiar nowadays—no matter how dissimilar events in Kosovo may be from the actual Holocaust. Ironically, this impulse to find new Holocausts here and there reflects the all-but-universal recognition of the uniqueness of the Holocaust—the same recognition that leads us, more appropriately, to record its horrors and to offer reverent tributes to those who suffered from them, in history books, films, and the like. But as Peter Novick reminds us in The Holocaust in American Life, despite the prominence that the Holocaust has today attained, our acute consciousness of it is a fairly recent development.

In the immediate post-war years, the Holocaust was rarely spoken of—by Christians or Jews. When The Diary of Anne Frank was produced as a play in 1955 and as a film in 1959, it was lauded for emphasizing universalist themes rather than the Jewishness of Nazi victims. Nathan Glazer's classic work American Judaism, published in 1957, contained no index entry for “Holocaust.”

All this began to change in 1961, Novick writes, with the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The trial was “the first time what we now call the Holocaust was presented to the American public as an entity in its own right, distinct from Nazi barbarism in general.” Furthermore, in the United States, “the word ‘Holocaust’ first became firmly attached to the murder of European Jewry as a result of the trial.” This was an important change. The most commonly used English-language version of the Torah at the time, that edited by Rabbi Joseph Hertz in 1936, employs the term to mean any mass killing. In discussing animal sacrifice, for example, Hertz refers to “the holocausts King Solomon slaughtered when he dedicated the Temple.” Such usage would be unthinkable today.

Another turning point came with the 1967 and 1973 wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which made many Jews wonder if “it could happen again.” In a crucial change of strategy, many Jewish organizations concluded that “Americans could be made more sympathetic to Israel, or to American Jews, through awareness of the Holocaust, [and so] efforts had to be made to spread that awareness throughout American society.” These efforts were largely successful—the 1978 television miniseries Holocaust brought the subject into millions of American homes, and literally thousands of courses on the Holocaust were introduced in American colleges. Finally, in 1993 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened on the Mall in Washington.

What impact have these measures had? Says Novick, not much. For most Americans, deploring the Holocaust is little more than a ritualistic gesture, albeit well meant, toward Jews who ask them to do so. To Novick, this is unsurprising: The Holocaust occurred not here but in Europe, and its perpetrators were not Americans. Nor does Novick (who is Jewish) believe that Americans do or should feel guilty for their conduct during those years: “The notion that the rescue of threatened foreign civilian populations was an obligation of a country involved in total war didn't occur to Americans during World War II or in its aftermath.” Moreover, he is at pains to discredit critics of American action (or inaction), arguing that during the war there was little that could in reality have been done. Here he sometimes ties himself in knots: For example, he argues that Americans should not feel any guilt about the failure to rescue more European Jews, then absolves the Roosevelt administration of its failures—on grounds that popular anti-Semitism prevented admitting refugees.

For Jews, the Holocaust is a far more salient matter. Recently, the major Jewish organizations have often advocated Holocaust studies as a means of developing or deepening Jewish identity at a time when inter-marriage and assimilation appear to threaten the Jewish future in America.

Novick's book includes a good discussion of why this “sacralization” of the Holocaust undercuts so much of traditional Jewish theology. “Where once it was said that the life of Jews would be a ‘light unto the nations’—the bearer of universal lessons—now it is the … death of Jews that is said to carry universal lessons.” Moreover, as he does not point out, using the Holocaust to promote Jewish identity simply isn't working. The years during which the Holocaust has been at the center of American Jewish life (say, 1975 to now) are those in which intermarriage rates have risen fastest and the identity/assimilation/survival crisis has seemed to grow most rapidly.

What of the future? Novick rightly notes that the Holocaust has been institutionalized—in the museum on the Mall, similar museums in New York and Los Angeles, memorials in many cities, legislative mandates to teach it, and endowed chairs and programs. As Novick says, “there are by now thousands of full-time Holocaust professionals dedicated to keeping its memory alive.” If, as he reports, all this has had little apparent impact on non-Jewish Americans, it may prove dangerous for Jews by making this horrendous period of Jewish suffering more familiar to them than their own religion. In fact, the prospect is disquieting: professionals churning out Holocaust materials for a diminishing Jewish population that learns more and more about the period from 1933 to 1945 and knows less and less about the 4,000 years of Judaism that preceded it.

Sadly, Novick's politics mar his book. His lengthy and unpersuasive discourses about the Cold War (which “led to marginalizing the Holocaust” because the Germans were now our allies) are reminiscent of CNN's notorious series. In fact, Holocaust consciousness grew rapidly during the 1980s, the dreaded Reagan years when “Cold War ideology” haunted the land. Otherwise, The Holocaust in American Life is a useful history and an often acute analysis of a major theme in American Jewish life.

Tony Judt (review date 19-26 July 1999)

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SOURCE: Judt, Tony. “The Morbid Truth.” New Republic 221, no. 324 (19-26 July 1999): 36-40.

[In the following review of The Holocaust in American Life, Judt observes that Novick's account of the historical development of Holocaust-awareness in America is accurate and well-researched, but comments that Novick's treatment of the Holocaust itself is superficial.]

The Holocaust today is as much an argument as a memory. When the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and Marek Edelman, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, expressed their support for NATO attacks on Serbia recently, they did so with an explicit analogy with Hitler's attempted extermination of the Jews. The latter has become a metaphor, a moral lesson, a practical warning, an admonition. The argument-from-the-Holocaust has acquired an almost a priori character: it does not need to lay out its premises because these are familiar and understood. We know and understand what happened, and who did what to whom and how, and who stood by and let it happen and at what cost. To explain the point of an allusion to the Holocaust is usually redundant; in the United States especially, it is sufficient to name the reference to have made the case.

Things were not always thus. The Holocaust is now ubiquitous in American pedagogy and conversation, but in the immediate post-war years most Americans (including most American Jews) had only the sketchiest notion of Hitler's war against the Jews. It was not until well into the 1960s that this began to change. It was then, and with gathering speed, that the Holocaust (not generally known as such until the mid-'60s at the earliest) entered American public life and went on to become a staple of entertainment, moral education, electoral politics, media attention, comparative victimology, and foreign policy debate. There was a time when we were haunted by the fear that Auschwitz would be forgotten; but there are now those, such as Peter Novick, who worry that we remember it too much.

[In The Holocaust in American Life,] Novick has written a dense, carefully researched, and rather irritating account of how the Holocaust came to occupy so central a place in American (and American Jewish) life. His chronology seems to me unimpeachable. In the years after 1945, the “displaced persons” of World War II (the term “survivors” was not yet in fashion) were not at the center of most people's attention, and the sufferings of the Jews among them did not attract special concern. Western awareness of Nazi atrocities drew on images of the camps that were liberated by the Americans and the British—Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen; concentration camps but not, originally, death camps. Although Jews were in fact present there in large numbers, they were not singled out for particular sympathy by reporters or Allied administrators. Films about Nazism made in the late 1940s and in the 1950s treated Jews as just one group of Hitler's victims—the greatest victims, perhaps, but symptoms of the broader criminal character of the Nazi regime. The presentation and the reception of The Diary of Anne Frank (the book, the play, and the film) were indicative: if there were lessons, they were redemptive and universal. The fact that Anne was a Jew was almost incidental.

Those Jews who came to the United States in the post-war years (about 100,000 arrived by 1951) certainly had a different tale to tell, but most people were not listening. The initial post-war disbelief was rapidly overtaken by the onset of the Cold War. The West Germans were, now our allies, the Russians our enemies. The Jewish community, like other, “foreign” minorities with historically left-leaning associations, kept a low profile in the McCarthy years. In any event, the chief victims of what was now referred to as “totalitarianism” were those who had suffered, and continued to suffer, under Stalin and his heirs. Hitler was by no means forgotten, but his victims were not on the agenda of American politics and American culture. The Holocaust was a strictly Jewish memory, and mostly a private one.

The change began in the early 1960s. The Eichmann trial in Israel, which was aired nightly on American television, aroused interest and memory; David Ben-Gurion's success in adapting it to Israeli national and pedagogical objectives encouraged American Jewish organizations to pay the Holocaust more attention in their own publications and pronouncements. By the time of the Six Day War in 1967, Jews in the United States were ready to make the association between the Jewish state (and the dangers facing it) and the experience of genocide just a quarter of a century earlier. In the aftermath of the short-lived euphoria of Israeli success in 1967, and the more enduring anxiety that followed a harder-won and bloodier victory six years later, the transition was completed. Private and public attitudes to the Holocaust and its invocation were transformed. In the eyes of an influential subsection of American Jewish opinion, Israel was a living reminder of Jewish survival in the face of near-extermination. The world owed Israel its support; and the best way to make the case was to invoke at every opportunity the world's earlier failure to assist the Jews, at fatal cost.

At this point, for Novick, the story splits, Official American Jewish spokesmen successfully transformed the Holocaust into a civic theme, as important for non-Jews as for Jews themselves. In the course of the next two decades, funds were raised, films were made, museums were built, school programs were introduced; the Holocaust filtered into American consciousness at every turn. At the same time, however, the Holocaust took on a particular significance for Jews themselves. No longer bound together by community, language, faith, or shared experience, American Jews were “marrying out” and assimilating rapidly. At this rate, many feared, Jews—and Judaism—might disappear altogether. In the words of the president of Yeshiva University in 1987: “Who says that the Holocaust is over? … The monster has assumed a different and more benign form … but its evil goal remains unchanged: a Judenrein world.”

And so, Novick claims, the Holocaust was invoked and instrumentalized as an identifier. If nothing else bound Jews together, they would at least be conscious of one common denominator: the incomparable sufferings of their brethren in the recent past. Transformed into a kind of pride, this consciousness might yet serve to draw the flock together again: if the Holocaust was unique, then so must the Jews be unique. If this worked, Novick suggests, it was because it coincided with the growing American obsession with “identity politics” and competitive victimhood. In the race for sympathy, for a distinguishing tag, and for public and private funds, American Jews might seem to be at a disadvantage: they are an established presence in America, they suffer no discriminatory mistreatment, they are well-represented in profitable and respected occupations. But they do have the Holocaust.

Novick tells this tale copiously, even relentlessly. As a self-confessed universalist of the older school, he confesses a distaste for today's sectarian instrumentalization of suffering; and he is openly nostalgic for the days when Americans (including and especially American Jews) were proud to be Americans and did not feel the need to assert their own hyphenated identity at the expense of some less-deserving group. He has a rather keen ear for specious or exaggerated victim-hood, too: that the few thousand homosexuals killed in Hitler's camps should have comparable standing to the millions of dead Jews (and Poles) rightly strikes him as absurd, as an anachronistic concession to political vogue.

Novick is no more forgiving of the present-day cult of memorialization, whereby every American town of any standing wants its own memorial to the dead Jews of Europe, and money flows to such projects while worthier Jewish causes starve for funds. He has a nice eye for Holocaust kitsch: Ralph Reed prettifying his politics by taking out lifetime memberships in the Holocaust Memorial Museum and in Yad Vashem; Hillary Clinton ostentatiously ornamenting herself with Elie Wiesel at a State of the Union speech; Woody Allen explaining how he coped with his domestic scandals by reading tales of Holocaust survivors who got through by focusing on the daily horror of their experiences; Cherie Brown proposing in Tikkun that there should be support groups for Jews who have listened to Holocaust stories to help them “release the grief.” In all these ways the Holocaust is cheapened and its very distinctiveness undermined. It no longer teaches lessons of its own; it has become instead a vehicle for whatever obsessions and messages people bring to it. It has become banal, sanitized, and uncontroversial, an uncontested morality tale—and so, in Novick's view, it has lost touch with itself. At no cost and with little effort, Americans at large have adopted this memory of other people's sufferings. American Jews have sworn fealty to a death cult. Is this good for America? Is this good for the Jews?

Novick's book certainly has an important subject, and its criticisms would seem to be necessary and trenchant. This, no doubt, is why it has been welcomed in anticipation by so many people, some of whom have allowed themselves to be quoted on its cover with imprudently lavish praise. The book is certainly well-researched: Novick has apparently trawled every archive and every publication of every American Jewish organization for the past half-century, and he has read what must be tens of thousands of pages of periodicals, pamphlets, and speeches by every American Jewish intellectual and spokesperson you can name, and many you could not name. If the result is frustrating and ultimately inadequate to its theme, no one can fault the author for effort. The problems lie elsewhere.

For a start, Novick doesn't write very well. He has a clunky, folksy style: we learn that William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich “resonated throughout American society … the book put Nazism and World War II on the American cultural map in a big way.” (There is a lot of resonating in this book.) Of the decision by Jewish organizations to “market” the Holocaust, he concludes that “the Holocaust looked like the one item in stock with consumer appeal.” Of the “screwballs” who are attracted to Holocaust-denial, he concedes that “the activities of these fruitcakes were irritating, indeed infuriating.” “Resonates,” “consumer appeal,” “screwballs,” “fruitcakes”: leaking through here is the voice of the anxious professor striving to capture the interest of apathetic students.

There are also touches of easy cynicism. Novick concludes a discussion of the vexed issue of the precise number of victims—six million or eleven million, that is, whether or not to treat non-Jewish victims of Nazism as part of the Holocaust—in the following manner: “When looking at discussions of the Holocaust in the media, the use of six or eleven often seems haphazard. Is the line of type too long to fit? Change eleven to six. Is it too short? Change six to eleven.” I detected, too, a tone of condescension—themes and arguments are summarized, recapitulated, and signposted much as a lecturer might remind his inattentive listeners of what they have just been told; and definitions are presented at a level suited to junior high school: “Most of the time, when we say that an event carries lessons that can be applied in another situation, we're doing what's called making an analogy.”

But these are not the book's more serious weaknesses. For much of the time, Novick appears to be engaged in open warfare with American Jewish officialdom for their betrayal of what he calls “the larger social consciousness that was the hallmark of the American Jewry of my youth—post-Holocaust, but pre-Holocaust-fixation.” There is an undertone of pique, even of anger, at the mainstream American Jewish organizations for their obsession with Israel and the Holocaust, their instrumentalization of both for fundraising and influence-peddling, and their transformation of Jewishness into a “culture of victimization.” After 1967, in Novick's view, “the hallmark of the good Jew became the depth of his or her commitment to Israel.” There are hints that Novick feels understandably resentful that his own distance from such an approach makes him less of a “good Jew”; and this book is a catalogue raisonné of that resentment.

The confusion that results is illustrated by the uncertainty with which Novick hovers around the question of whether or not to blame American Jewish institutions for the current place of the Holocaust in American life. He concedes on a number of occasions that there was no conscious or central “plan” to instrumentalize the Holocaust as a device for Jewish mobilization and as a new form of Jewish identity: “No central decision-making body of American Jewry concluded that it was the absence of Holocaust-consciousness that explained the declining Jewish commitment of the young, that the way to keep straying sheep in the fold was through Holocaust programming.” But the whole book is written around the deliberations, the minutes, the decisions, and the actions of various Jewish organizations in such a way as to convey the sense that the whole thing was indeed their doing.

When Novick recognizes that he has gone a bit too far, he beats a tactical retreat. So what if the whole Holocaust “thing” was masterminded by Jewish political pressure groups? “There is certainly nothing improper in any of this; every group does it; American pluralism in action.” On the one hand, on the other hand. The explanation for our present Holocaust obsession presumably lies somewhere between a carefully hatched plan and the Invisible Hand of history; but Novick cannot decide where. Instead we have a steady flow of compensatory overstatements (“From the outset, ‘genocide’ was a rhetorical rather than a juridical device, employed for purely propagandistic purposes”) and easy shots: poor Norman Podhoretz is wheeled out time and again to illustrate the unwisdom of invoking the Holocaust whenever you want to cast aspersions on your critics, and we are reminded that both Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein were “Holocaust-obsessed,” as though there were a slippery slope leading from Holocaust awareness to political assassination and mass murder.

Even survivors themselves come in for censure. Since “Holocaust-obsession,” in Novick's view, has led some to condemn the United States unfairly for its failure to bomb the death camps, he feels the need to discredit any and all such criticism. Of the argument that some of the inmates themselves longed for the Allies to bomb them, even at risk to their own lives, he writes: “No doubt some Jewish prisoners did hope for bombing, though probably fewer than the number who reported this feeling after the Allied failure to bomb Auschwitz had become a standard trope of Holocaust discourse.” At this point, questionable history veers off into poor taste.

If Novick spends so much time settling scores with the more egregious words and deeds of gung-ho American Jewish spokesmen and AIPAC operatives, it is because his real subject, I think, has fundamentally eluded him. He has spent a lot of time thinking about the uses and the abuses to which the Holocaust has been put in modern America; but he has devoted curiously little effort to thinking about the Holocaust itself. He might retort that the Holocaust itself is not his subject. Yet the result of his approach is a disturbingly superficial treatment, in which the Holocaust itself is largely incidental to the narrative.

One could similarly write a history of “The Automobile in American Life” and adduce some of the same themes: conspiracy; influence-peddling; sectoral interest and advantage; a steady increase to the point of omnipresence of the entity under discussion, and its abuse; an accounting of the damage done to the fabric of the community; and so on. I exaggerate, of course. Except for the most extreme environmentalists, a discussion of the place of the automobile in modern America does not raise philosophical first principles or primary moral dilemmas. A discussion of the Holocaust broaches precisely such matters; but Novick never genuinely engages them. In his account, Holocaust awareness is always and primarily about something else: a political agenda, a cultural shift.

Novick notes the paradox that too much Holocaust awareness can make us insensitive to “lesser” crimes, but he fails to follow through on the next question: just how much Holocaust awareness, then, is appropriate, and in what form? The reason for this omission seems to be that he is troubled less by the risk that we (Jews, Americans, anyone) might forget what Hitler did to the Jews than by the assertion that the resulting Holocaust was “unique” and has a special claim upon our attention. Novick dismisses the debate over “uniqueness” with what amounts to a sophistic sleight-of-hand. Since nothing is ever totally “unique”—all events have some features that are distinctive to them and others that they share with comparable events in other places and times—we may conclude, or so he argues, that the Holocaust is “distinctive” but not “unique.” It has something in common with previous massacres of Jews and others, and it has some distinguishing and novel features.

This gets us around analytical categories such as “genocide,” and around normative categories such as “evil.” The latter, Novick characteristically concludes, “is a philosophical (or religious) question we can sidestep.” No more discussion, then, of comparative evil, or of distinctive forms of experience. Since nothing is unique, the Holocaust is not unique, and therefore Jews are not unique because of it; so let us return to the more entertaining subject of internecine Jewish politics.

There has to be better way to sort out the dilemma posed by the Holocaust, to criticize the troublingly instrumental uses to which the catastrophe is put without abandoning the attempt to engage with it on its own terrible and fundamental terms. And this is not just an American story. By confining his attention to the United States, and to American Jewish institutions and organizations in particular, Novick has distorted his material. If it were indeed the case that it was the fate of the Holocaust to rise and to fall in public memory and public discussion at the whims of McCarthyism, American Jewish insecurity, identity politics and hyphenated-Americanism, the allegedly Zionist concerns of major Jewish networks, and the fashions of Hollywood—and these alone—then how should we account for the comparable trajectory of Holocaust (and other war-related) memories in Europe?

The answer, of course, is that there is a larger story here: of forgetting and remembering; of generations and inter-generational communication; of a growing international (and philosophical) interest in the idea of rights, from which has flowed over time an increased concern over the abuse of rights, now and in the past; of steady revisions in the academic analysis and the public understanding of World War II, such that transnational violence and suffering of the kind epitomized by the Holocaust have displaced reassuring national myths at the center of the narrative. Some of these elements apply in more places than others. Some speak to distinctively European memory and experience. But some apply to America, too. And it is only when they, and the overlapping national cases that they describe, are treated as a whole that we can understand why the Holocaust has become what it is today, and why it could not have been that in earlier decades. In this more cosmopolitan version of the story, Norman Podhoretz, the American Jewish Committee, and paranoid Brooklyn rabbis play only a secondary role.

How else to explain, for example, the coincidence in the 1970s of increased American discussion of the Holocaust and a new level of French interest in the treatment of Jews under Vichy, a subject resolutely neglected hitherto? Does Novick think that German debates in the 1980s over the “Unmastered Past” were prompted, shaped, and sustained merely by the showing of the American television series “Holocaust”? How does he account for the interesting parallels between American and British attention to the destruction of the Jews, after 1945 and again in recent years? After all, the Cold War, which plays so crucial a role in Novick's account, was perceived quite differently on the other side of the Atlantic, where anti-Communism, not to speak of McCarthyism, was culturally insignificant; but on the subject of the wartime suffering of the Jews a similar silence prevailed. Obviously the American response to the Holocaust is distinctive; but it is not, as Novick would be the first to admit, unique. A little comparative history would have liberated his book from its parochialism.

Just as attention to the context of growing international interest in the Holocaust need not dilute one's appreciation of its distinctively American contours, so Novick's desire to furnish a historical account of the uses to which the Holocaust is put ought not to have precluded a concern for moral dilemmas. Yet these he steadfastly sidesteps. Is the Holocaust “unique”? In one sense, of course it is. The enterprise of Nazism took place recently and was carried through over a period of years. Its victims were defined by “race” and were hunted down across an entire continent. They were destined not for expulsion or punishment, but for extermination: murder was not the by-product of some vicious political project, it was the project itself. On the way to their extermination the Jews were dehumanized and tortured. “Scientific” experiments were carried out on children. The whole scheme is extraordinarily well-documented, and its victims numbered in excess of five million people. Now, certain features of the extermination of the Jews of Europe remind us of similarly obscene undertakings in other times and places; but surely there is no remotely comparable undertaking known to history, whether measured by intention, scale, methods, or outcome.

And yet the moral enormity of the Holocaust is not a consequence of its uniqueness. Uniqueness here is a descriptive category. If we invest the Holocaust with special significance, this must be because of some distinctive feature, established by quite different criteria. What might those criteria be? The fact that all this was done to Jews? That is not a very convincing argument for most people, including most Jews. The fact that it has special lessons to teach? But what would those lessons be? Man's inhumanity to man, perhaps; but we did not need Auschwitz to teach us that particular lesson.

Does the Holocaust have something positive to offer us? Is there a usable message that may be coaxed out of this hell? American presentations of the Holocaust, whether in museums or schools or fiction, do sometimes lean on this crutch; and even the museum in Washington errs in this direction, though less than its critics have claimed. But it takes a distinctly religious or optimistic sensibility to find uplift in what happened in the camps or the death marches. As Novick rightly suggests, that is the kind of lesson that the listener already brings to the story.

I do not see any obvious lesson in the particular experience of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, though I recognize that some Jews may see it as a warning against living among non-Jews. But even Zionism did not need the Holocaust to be necessary or legitimate. At the same time, it is manifest humbug to speak of the Holocaust as a “universal” experience. It was decidedly not that. It was perpetrated by one group of persons (Germans, with local assistance from collaborators) upon another group of persons (Jews) in a particular time and a particular place. It is a Jewish memory (and, in recent years, a German one). Memorials and commentaries that collapse and confuse the identity of perpetrators and victims alike do a disservice to history and to their own purpose.

But if the Holocaust was something done by Germans to Jews in Europe in the 1940s, what is it about that Jewish experience that gives it, as Elie Wiesel likes to claim, universal implications? Peter Novick would reply, I think, that the answer is merely circumstance. The Holocaust became important because it served a useful role in Jewish life in America after the 1960s. Jews are a significant presence in American public life, after all, and the United States dominates the cultural and economic life of our planet, so the Holocaust and its imputed significance spread in a sort of neocolonial manner.

I would prefer to say that the Holocaust has acquired an iconic status because it captures succinctly and forcibly, at the end of our terrible century, something for which we lack a modern vocabulary, but which lies at the heart of our recent past and thus our present inheritance. That something is the idea of evil. To be sure, this is not an original suggestion. Hannah Arendt saw the point in 1945, when she wrote that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental question after the last war.” Arendt was wrong about the timing; it took thirty years before the question of evil found its way onto the intellectual agenda of the West. But her intuition was unerring.

Efforts to locate the Holocaust in a political or ideological narrative have consistently broken on the rock of irrationality: there is no story of human purposes, of the kind that makes sense to us, into which the behavior of Hitler or his executioners can be convincingly inserted. But those are not the only kinds of stories that can be proposed. We can understand this better by looking at what happens to visitors to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. A strikingly large number of those visitors are children—school groups, families. Many of them are not Jewish. So the awful things that they read and they see at the museum can make little sense as part of a personal or family narrative. They do not know the European history or even the American history into which some of their elders can insert these things. (As Novick disparagingly remarks, many American children—and college students—cannot even place World War II in the correct half of the century.) The only narrative available to such an audience is a moral one: the Holocaust as an illustration of pure badness. As an adult, a historian, and a Jew I may be uncomfortable with this. I may find myself wanting to insert context, to explain, to explicate, to complicate the images and texts that make up such a demonstration of human evil. But I may be mistaken.

The Holocaust is not an irreplaceable reminder of human nastiness; for such knowledge we can look in many places. But it is a rather distinctive reminder—or a distinctive warning—of what happens when the patina of civilized life cracks. It is, ironically, an illustration of something that the great reactionary thinkers of earlier times knew well, but which was forgotten by their optimistic, forward-looking successors: that civil society, public life, open political systems and the forms of behavior that they encourage and on which they depend, are all paper-thin constructions. They are much more fragile than it suits us to believe. In this sense, Nazism and its murderous climax serve as an admonition: think twice before unraveling the threads of convention; do not be hasty in welcoming root-and-branch projects to remake or to undo the unsatisfactory social compromises that history has bequeathed to us.

If the lesson of the Holocaust, then, is that there is evil “out there,” and that we should become a little more adept at recognizing it and combating it, and that at the end of an exhausting and murderous epoch of all-encompassing, all-destroying projects we should learn to be more politically discriminating and more ready to condemn and to do battle with evil when we see it, then maybe the Holocaust does have something “universal” to teach. And those lessons, despite their moral key, are also political lessons. Sooner or later, taking the Holocaust seriously becomes a responsibility of American and European policy.

The Holocaust, in short, is many things. It is a terrible history that we must not forget, for the simple reason that we should not forget the past—ours and other people's. And because it is the past, and things were different then, we must be careful not to exploit it mercilessly for present advantage, lest we abuse the present and the past alike. But there is more. Because the Holocaust, for many people today, can speak to us mainly as a deracinated account of absolute evil, it has a special value in a world adrift on a sea of ethical and ideological uncertainty.

I do not wish to understate the paradoxes of popularized Holocaust-obsessiveness: the risk of sectarian abuse (“my suffering trumps your suffering”); the inclination to measure all other horrors against that of the industrial extermination of a whole people and to find them somehow wanting (“Kosovo is not Auschwitz”); the recently acquired habit of calling every political crime a “holocaust”; the danger of a backlash against over-exposure. Elie Wiesel's outburst against the television soap-opera “Holocaust” had its place—the Holocaust, he said, “can never be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know”; but faced with such imperfect choices, I still share James Young's preference for inadequate and even abused memory over comfortable forgetting.

All in all, the ubiquity of Holocaust awareness today is not a bad thing. Although the compass needle of moral anguish in this country can waver uncertainly across an unnervingly wide swath of public choices, the direction in which it has pointed in recent decades is a clear and sustained improvement over earlier times. To the extent that the obsession with the extermination of the European Jews has contributed to this improvement, public interest in the Holocaust is to be encouraged. Is it good for the Jews? I am not sure. Is it good for America? Absolutely.

Lawrence Douglas (review date 13 August 1999)

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SOURCE: Douglas, Lawrence. “Too Vivid a Memory.” Commonweal 126, no. 14 (13 August 1999): 24-5.

[In the following review, Douglas praises Novick for providing an interesting analysis of the politics of memory in The Holocaust in American Life, but notes that Novick fails to acknowledge the great intrinsic importance of the Holocaust itself.]

What is the value of preserving the memory of the Holocaust's radical evil? The most familiar answer finds expression in the shibboleth, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Implicit in this view is the idea that memory serves as a tool of liberation: Only by vigilantly minding the past can we hope to create a less hateful future.

Such vigilance has turned the project of preserving memories of the Holocaust into a major industry. Countless books, movies, videos, memorials, and museums are devoted to keeping the Nazis' campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe from drifting out of our collective consciousness and conscience. And while some groups—such as Armenian-Americans—might envy the success that American Jews have had in riveting the nation's attention upon the past sufferings of their coreligionists, no one, except perhaps a bizarre fringe of Holocaust deniers, seems to question the wisdom and necessity of keeping the memories of genocide alive.

No one, that is, except Peter Novick. In The Holocaust in American Life, Novick has written an important, brave, and somewhat irritating book about the cult of Holocaust memory in the United States. Though trained as a historian (Novick teaches at the University of Chicago and has authored, among other works, a well-respected study of Vichy France [The Resistance versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France]), Novick has not penned yet another history of the Final Solution. Instead, following the lead of scholars such as Henri Roussou and Maurice Halbwachs, Novick has written a book about the history of collective memory. The Holocaust in American Life studies how, over the past half-century, Nazi genocide has been remembered in this country—and why.

As a history of memory, Novick's book promises to solve a riddle of time and place. Why, he asks, has our preoccupation with the Holocaust grown rather than diminished with time, and why is it so important in this country, of all places? To answer these questions, scholars of the Holocaust have often relied on Freud's theory of trauma and repressed memory. Nazi genocide, it was argued, so traumatized our collective psyche that it could be meaningfully confronted only decades after the original crime.

Novick, by contrast, has little use for such psychoanalytic explanations. His interest is the politics of memory—how concerns in the present, strategically and subtly, serve to shape our uses and recollections of the past. In the early postwar years, Novick argues, American Jews had little use for the Holocaust. Sharing in the prosperity of these years, American Jews were reluctant to be seen as connected to a group of hapless old-world victims. Moreover, cold-war hostilities made Jewish groups reluctant to harp on the crimes of Germany, now an ally, as they feared that in so doing they would resurrect old canards about the affinities between Jews and the Red menace.

Isolated events, such as the publication of Anne Frank's diary in 1952 and the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, served to bring the Holocaust closer to the consciousness of Americans in general and Jews in particular. Yet it was not until the early seventies, Novick argues, that American Jews “discovered” the Holocaust. The Yom Kippur war in 1973 was the catalytic event. Stunned by the early military successes of Syria and Egypt, American Jews suddenly came to see Israel not as the tiny but invincible force of the Six Day War, but as a vulnerable nation facing potential annihilation. American Jews were gripped with fears of a second Holocaust, and used these fears to petition the government for needed military assistance to Israel.

A second potent threat to the American Jewish community came from within. The very successes of Jews within America fueled an ethos of aggressive assimilationism which, in turn, threatened to destroy the community through such practices as intermarriage. In the face of this threat, the rhetoric of the Holocaust again found itself usefully deployed—both to characterize the magnitude of the danger, and, more important, to offer a picture of Jewish identity that could appeal to the secular sensibilities of American Jews. According to this view, it did not matter whether a Jew identified with the commitments of the religion; all that mattered was whether one would have been considered a Jew for Hitler's purposes.

Having discovered the Holocaust, Jews, in turn, have been remarkably successful in persuading the rest of America to share in the memorialization and sacralization of their experience. This, Novick explains, is because Jews are not simply “the people of the book,” but more to the point, “the people of the Hollywood film and the television miniseries, of the magazine article and the newspaper column, of the comic book and the academic symposium.” Such a claim, of course, comes perilously close to echoing classically anti-Semitic arguments that “the Jews own the media,” and in making it Novick at once reminds his reader of his own Jewish identity, while also insisting that his description of the influence and prestige of Jews is a statement of fact, not a condemnation.

Yet there is a distinctly critical edge to Novick's book, and he enlists his carefully elaborated historical argument to attack the contemporary cult of Holocaust memory. For American Jews, Novick argues, the cult of memory is particularly destructive. First, it siphons attention away from the beliefs, practices, and culture of a fantastically rich and complex religious history by defining Jewishness in terms of a shared legacy of victimization. This, in turn, merely exacerbates the worst aspects of contemporary identity politics, as blacks and Jews find themselves pitted in a tribal struggle to be recognized as America's most aggrieved minority.

The cult of Holocaust memory is also unhealthy for all Americans, Novick argues. Instead of sensitizing our consciousness to acts of atrocity here and abroad, an over-fixation on the Holocaust can cripple judgment and paralyze action. Indeed, the very radicality of the Nazis' crimes against the Jews may leave us convinced that only the most extreme, Holocaust-style atrocities deserve our humanitarian attention, if not our military intervention.

In lieu of the cult of memory, however, Novick has precious little to offer. He concludes with the weak plea that we make “more informed and thoughtful choices” about how we remember the Holocaust. Not only does he neglect to tell us what such informed choices might look like, but he suggests that collective memory is simply a matter of decision and will. In committing himself to such a position, he ignores the organic and spontaneous quality of collective memory—the ways in which it resists strategic manipulation.

More troubling, Novick refuses to give credence to the idea that our continued fascination with the Holocaust may have something to do with the intrinsic importance of the event itself. Here he completely overlooks the works of scholars who, in the words of Richard Rubenstein, locate in the Holocaust an “expression of many of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the twentieth century.”

But if the book does not fully convince, it certainly provokes. Though at times Novick presents his controversial positions in a tone that seems needlessly polemical, in general his writing is clear and uncluttered. For those of a more scholarly bent, he has appended a substantial apparatus of footnotes. Yet the book addresses not the professional historian, but the serious lay reader—Jew and non-Jew alike. Though it offers a sturdy history of memory, The Holocaust in American Life is ultimately a cautionary tale. It warns of the costs, not of failing to remember, but of refusing to forget.

David G. Roskies (review date September 1999)

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SOURCE: Roskies, David G. “Group Memory.” Commentary 108, no. 2 (September 1999): 62-5.

[In the following review, Roskies argues that The Holocaust in American Life fails to take into account broader cultural and historical factors that affect Jewish-American conceptions of the Holocaust.]

Must every major city in the United States boast its own museum of the Holocaust? Must every high school offer a mandatory curriculum on the destruction of European Jewry, every college campus have an endowed chair of Holocaust studies? Should a so-called Week of Remembrance in mid-April be observed, as Martin Luther King Day is now observed in mid-January? How many movies and books are enough?

To Peter Novick, the point of saturation has already been reached. A professor of history at the University of Chicago, Novick has set out to write the story of Holocaust consciousness in America [in The Holocaust in American Life,] beginning in the war years and ending with a glimpse at the future. And the first thing he reminds us is that the Holocaust did not always occupy such a prominent place in our urban landscape, on college campuses, in our civil religion, in cinemas and bookstores, or on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Even to think about World War II in terms of the fate of the Jews, as we tend to do now, is, he admonishes, to impose present preoccupations onto a very different past.

Defending certain elements of that past, and decrying the Holocaust-obsessed present, is the burden of this book. In his opening chapters, Novick returns us to an era when a public emphasis on ethnicity was viewed, not least by American Jews themselves, as politically counterproductive and perhaps intrinsically suspect. And with reason: although, nowadays, it is commonplace to hear that American Jews did not do nearly enough to help their co-religionists during the war, Novick argues otherwise. Basing himself on the minutes and internal memoranda of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the National Community Relations Advisory Council, he concludes that organized Jewry acted vigorously and responsibly in light of the actual political landscape at home and, especially, the intractable conditions abroad.

Similarly in the immediate post-war period, when the Jewish community rallied behind Washington to confront the new threat of Soviet totalitarianism. Under the impact of the cold war, Novick writes, American Jewish discourse about the Holocaust was necessarily “either muted or turned to anti-Soviet purposes.” As for Holocaust survivors who had made their way here, to the extent they were talked about at all they were upheld not as figures of martyrdom but as model citizens who were taking full advantage of the American dream.

It was during the 1960's and 70's, the period Novick calls “The Years of Transition,” that things changed. The catalysts were two events that occurred halfway around the globe, in the state of Israel. The first was the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which etched the details of the German killing machine into the collective Jewish psyche. The second was the Six-Day war of 1967, when American Jews relived the trauma of mass annihilation in the belief (false, according to Novick) that the Israeli army was in imminent danger of defeat.

What resulted from these two events was an American Jewish fixation with the horrors of the Holocaust that would mark—or, in Novick's view, disfigure—the decades to come, legitimating a whole new orientation to communal affairs. At the extreme, he writes, fears based on the Holocaust impelled Jewish organizations more or less to invent a surge in domestic anti-Semitism, with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith being “especially assiduous in giving wide circulation to anti-Semitic remarks by obscure black hustlers and demagogues.” Similarly inflated notions of Jewish insecurity lay behind the hysterical campaigns to rally support for Israel and Soviet Jewry (“Never Again!”), and to warn against the dangers of assimilation.

And this, says Novick, is where we still are today. American Jews who themselves have abandoned any but the most rudimentary religious practices, and are as fuzzy in their grasp of history as their fellow non-Jewish Americans, have created an entire surrogate religion around the Holocaust, complete with saints (survivors), scripture (Schindler's List), and shrines (those ubiquitous museums). A community more secure, and more affluent, than Jews have ever been in all of history has given itself over to an utterly irrational scenario of destruction and victimization, in disregard of political reality and to the detriment of its own best interests and values.

As this brief summary suggests, Israel and Zionism are the combined bête noire of Novick's account of the career of the Holocaust in American consciousness. The sea change that occurred between the 1940's, when the murder of European Jewry still lacked a name, and the 1970's, when the whole world began to suffer from Holocaust-envy, was, in his view, the work of the Zionist lobby. Even the word “Holocaust,” he contends, did not gain currency in America until it was imported from Israel during the Eichmann trial. Likewise, the campaign to vilify Hannah Arendt for her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem—a book whose thesis “that the typical Holocaust perpetrator was ‘terrifyingly normal’ and by no means a driven anti-Semite” is, Novick airily asserts, now accepted by “almost all scholars”—was launched from Israel. After the Six-Day war, American Jewish organizations routinely took their marching orders from Israel, sometimes literally so: the annual March of the Living, a world-wide effort to rescue Jewish teenagers from assimilation by leading them on a pilgrimage to the Nazi death camps and then to Israel, is a transparent Zionist product. And so forth. Novick even blames the Zionists for doing away with the last vestiges of authentic Jewish American speech patterns, replacing the beloved yarmulke with kippa and the homey shabbes with the harsh-sounding shabbat.

All the main villains in Novick's story are either “Zionists” or “neoconservatives,” or both. The late Lucy S. Dawidowicz, for example, the formidable historian of the Holocaust, appears here only as a neoconservative “expert on Communism.” Novick has mined archival sources for every letter-to-the-editor Dawidowicz ever wrote, every internal memorandum she ever prepared for a Jewish organization; yet nowhere does he so much as mention her classic 1975 book, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945, a work whose sobriety, rigor, and uncompromising argumentation set a gold standard for the then-infant field of Holocaust studies.

In short, the real subject of Novick's book is not the Holocaust at all but rather the politics of memory. This, however, is an area in which his own credentials rather severely qualify his competence to pass judgment. As a resolutely secular Jew, with, apparently, little if any command of traditional sources, Novick demonstrates no feel whatsoever for the processes of covenantal memory whereby Jews have always apprehended historical events under such constituent rubrics as exile, martyrdom, redemption. If, for example, during the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Jews the world over instinctively “remembered” the Holocaust, Novick assumes that Zionist propaganda was somehow to blame. That the Egyptians themselves chose the holiest day in the Jewish calendar to launch their near-fatal attack on the Jewish state does not even enter into his historical equation. They remembered, but he does not.

As a stranger to the inner life of the Jews, Novick also demonstrates no feel for their habitual patterns of collective behavior. Discussing the postwar displaced-persons (DP) camps, for example, he documents the efforts of Zionist chaplains and emissaries from the Jewish Agency to influence refugees to emigrate to Palestine, castigating these officials for manipulating the naive sensibilities of the traumatized and helpless refugees. What he does not know or does not acknowledge is that the majority of Jews who survived the war had in fact been members of one or another highly politicized prewar youth movement, and that the second thing they organized in the DP camps, after a quorum to recite kaddish, was political parties. If some proportion ended up going to Palestine, it was not out of naiveté but out of informed conviction.

But this particular set of convictions is not much to Novick's liking. Nor does he like it any better in its present-day manifestation, when it takes the form of a Holocaust-inspired preoccupation with Jewish self-interest. As a Left-liberal, he complains that this overmindfulness of their own sorrows commits Jews to nothing positive as Americans. Worse, by “raising the threshold of outrage,” the emphasis on remembering the Holocaust has desensitized Jews to their moral obligation toward those less fortunate than themselves. In an outburst of passion, he asks why the American Jewish community does not labor to rescue the millions upon millions of innocent children who are dying of starvation today. This, of course, is the purest cant—and, as a glance at the agenda of any major Jewish organization would confirm, a wild distortion of the truth to boot.

Despite the multiple deformations under which Novick labors, has he nevertheless stumbled onto an important point? Is there not something deeply troubling about an American Jewish community that has been spending exponentially more money erecting monuments to the dead than to educating its young, or about the proliferation of Holocaust courses that teach about the Jews only as a community marked for destruction, and then often in the context of a competition for victim status in today's multicultural America? There is, indeed. Nor has Novick been the only one to be troubled by this state of affairs.

But in this respect The Holocaust in American Life may in fact be a symptom of a subtle, and still largely unarticulated, shift in mood. What, after all, explains the huge success of the Oscar-winning escapist fantasy, Life Is Beautiful? Although the Italian comic Roberto Benigni may seem to make a strange bedfellow with the dour professor Peter Novick, each in his own way is urging us to bring closure, as it were, to the Holocaust, the one by means of zany antics and the mindless message that love and laughter will save a child from the hangman, the other by demystifying Jewish memory itself as nothing but a tool of Zionist politics.

Novick is also not wholly wrong in focusing on the pivotal role played by Zionism in the resurgence of Jewish collective memory in our day, though he is blind to the reciprocal nature of the dynamic. Jewish political sovereignty itself would never have been achieved in the land of Israel had it not been for Zionism's ability to appeal to such ancient and ineradicable Jewish archetypes as the ingathering of the exiles, Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones, and the tradition of kiddush haShem, the sanctification of God's Name through martyrdom. Nor would the campaign to free Soviet Jewry have succeeded in mobilizing the energies of hundreds of thousands of American Jewish youngsters without the powerful reverberations of the biblical injunction, “Let My People Go!,” a more compelling slogan by far, incidentally, than “Never Again!” The airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel is similarly unimaginable in the absence of the sanction implied by the very name of “Operation Exodus.”

It stands perfectly to reason, in other words, that American Jewish organizations should have drawn upon Israel and Zionism in their own efforts to forge a sense of a shared Jewish past, present, and future. The use—and, yes, the abuse—of Holocaust memory forms part of a much larger mobilization of group memory for the sake of group survival. But what this means is that, as the power of the Zionist appeal wanes—and it is demonstrably waning—so, too, will the power of the Holocaust.

And then where will American Jews be? If they follow the instruction of Peter Novick, they will be good Americans—of his stripe—and they will be even more bereft of their own history and memory than they already are.

Marc H. Ellis (review date 6 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Ellis, Marc H. “Ending the Era of Auschwitz.” Christian Century 116, no. 26 (6 October 1999): 938-40.

[In the following review, Ellis compares The Holocaust in American Life to Emil Fackenheim's To Mend the World, asserting that Novick's work raises important questions about the significance of the Holocaust to current Jewish-American attitudes about Israel.]

As part of a delegation meeting in 1992 to discuss the future of Auschwitz, I walked the camp's terrible terrain with such notable Holocaust scholars as Richard Rubenstein, David Roskies and Alvin Rosenfeld. There I heard the most radical thought about Holocaust remembrance that I had encountered in many years. A conservative rabbi in our group proposed that, instead of preserving and augmenting the Auschwitz site and revising the museum's materials to emphasize the particularity of Jewish suffering, Jewish leaders should invoke a statute of limitations on the memory of the Holocaust.

I was immediately struck by his proposal, which he whispered to me out of earshot of the other delegates. When I asked for further clarification, he responded that a limitation on mourning was in strict accordance with Jewish law and custom. When a loved one has been lost, commemoration is essential but time-bound. Life goes on despite tragedy and, over time, life must be given priority. That death should not overwhelm life is a theme embodied in the traditional Jewish prayer over the dead, which never mentions death. In the ease of a collective tragedy, remembrance also must be limited. Once the period of mourning is past, such a tragedy is commemorated in the religious calendar as part of the larger cycle of Jewish history.

About Auschwitz, the rabbi was clear: Let the elements of nature and time sweep the camp away. And let Jewish liturgy, memory and culture place the Holocaust in perspective. Do not force the remembrance or the forgetting of Auschwitz. Let it remain and, in time, become distant.

I recalled this incident as I taught a course on the Holocaust last spring and reread Emil Fackenheim's To Mend the World—all of which colored my reading of Peter Novick's much-anticipated book [The Holocaust in American Life]. Reading Fackenheim and Novick in succession is like encountering two boxers at opposite ends of the ring.

Fackenheim interprets the Holocaust as an event that interrupts and permanently alters world history. Its horror is impossible to bypass or transcend. Jewish identity will forever be centered on this event. The only way to address the ontological rupture that the Holocaust represents is through remembering it and acting in its light.

More than Jewish history is at stake here, Fackenheim argues. Christian history and indeed world history has experienced this rupture as well. Mending can take place only through the support and solidarity of Jews and non-Jews for the empowerment of the Jewish people—especially through the formation and sustenance of the state of Israel. Anyone who disagrees with Fackenheim on this deepens the abyss that the Holocaust represents, and even diminishes the possibility of speaking about God in the post-Holocaust world. Fackenheim's overwhelming concern is that the Holocaust not be forgotten or evaded, twisted or trivialized. He stresses the urgency of Jewish empowerment and wishes to silence dissent, Jewish and non-Jewish, on the very issues that Novick finds most central to the debate.

Novick, an American-born Jew, analyzes the way the Holocaust has been appropriated by the heirs of the victims. He sees the representation of the Holocaust not as an ontological issue, but as a way of mobilizing ideas and polities on behalf of Jewish interests, among them the support of the state of Israel.

Because Fackenheim and Novick are on different terrain—philosophy and theology for Fackenheim, history for Novick—differences in their viewpoints are to be expected. Yet there is a fundamental symmetry in their approach. Each asks, “After Auschwitz, what does it mean to be Jewish?” Fackenheim's answer is stark: Support Israel and trust only in empowerment. Only then will the singular aspect of Jewish existence become clear. Trust only those who support Jewish empowerment and Israel.

Novick is concerned that the Jewishness to which he was born, or at least with which he identifies—a Jewishness that is both self-aware and seeks to be for others—has been eclipsed by Holocaust consciousness and a professional class that has the Holocaust as its raison d'etre. His tracing of the rise of Holocaust consciousness conforms to this understanding. For many reasons, including the tendency to see World War II as a shared tragedy and the desire to assimilate into a forward-looking America, Jews after the war downplayed the idea that they had suffered in a special way. In the 1960s the Eichmann trial in Israel, Israel's lightning victory in the 1967 war, and the rise of identity polities in the U.S. prompted Jews to emphasize the particularity of Jewish suffering. A new set of Jewish institutions was formed to promote this new sensibility, institutions that have helped establish Holocaust consciousness as central to Jewish identity and, in a surprising way, to American identity as well.

For Novick this development is suspect. He contends that Holocaust consciousness focuses deeply held feelings among Jews and gives Jewish leaders a way to win support on other issues. Holocaust consciousness is pragmatic rather than philosophical or theological. It reinforces Jewish identity at a time when that identity is waning; it aims to prevent an assimilation that threatens Jewish survival. Holocaust consciousness also demands uncritical support for an Israeli state that is hardly endangered and has become increasingly controversial. Novick is taken aback by Jewish leaders' attempt to impose on the diverse Jewish community a regimented sense of what it means to be Jewish.

While the community presents a united front to the non-Jewish world, internal Jewish politics are rife with dissenting opinions about Jewish identity. There are those who want to analyze the Holocaust historically and in context and also those who protest against Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. Instead of feeling increasingly isolated and threatened, many Jews feel accepted by the larger American community and seek to enjoy the fruits of American affluence unencumbered by a memory laden with political manipulations. In such a context, diversity and dissent within the community can be affirmed.

For Fackenheim the lessons of the Holocaust are clear and rise to the level of a commandment—his famous 614th commandment: One must never, through weakness or a false sense of security, let Hitler ultimately triumph. For Novick, even the lessons of the Holocaust—such as never to be silent in the face of injustice, or always to intervene to stop genocide—are less obvious. He notes that the very thinkers who fault those who did not speak or act against injustice during the Nazi era often fail to act against injustice today. Interventionist politics continues to be selective and tied to national and communal interest rather than to altruism and sacrifice. America decisively intervened against Iraq in the '90s, but took no action in Cambodia in the '70s or Rwanda in the '90s. Novick sees the million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust as a warning against silence in the face of catastrophe, but he is also aware that millions of children die of hunger each year, children whose deaths could be prevented.

The often-cited lessons that the non-Jewish world should learn from the Holocaust turn out to be lessons of realpolitik rather than lessons in a wider morality. Novick asks provocatively whether Holocaust consciousness has, by emphasizing the enormity and particularity of the Holocaust, diminished sensitivity to the suffering that can be addressed without an appeal to apocalyptic sensibilities. He concludes his book with a warning to his own community:

There is a sense in which Emil Fackenheim was right to say that for Jews to forget Hitler's victims would be to grant him a “posthumous victory.” But it would be an even greater posthumous victory were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience.

One ends Novick's book with a sense of gratitude that he has been willing to undertake this work and enter this arena. Though he is an established scholar at a venerable university, the emotional outbursts that have greeted his book cannot help but cause him pain. In some ways, the critical and acerbic tone of Novick's book typifies the struggle that has enveloped Jewish life during the past 50 years. Novick enters this struggle as a partisan, well equipped, to be sure, but no less a target.

Novick's analysis will leave many with a series of haunting and unresolved questions—questions that remain large ones for me, though I have spent my entire adult life pondering the meaning of the Holocaust and the future of the Jewish people. Is there a way to look at the Holocaust without being influenced by its subsequent institutionalization and manipulation? Can one think through the philosophical, theological and historical meaning of the Holocaust and retain both a fidelity to the dead and a critical spirit of inquiry and affirmation? Is it possible to speak of the Jewish dead as a bridge of solidarity to others who died during that tragic era and to those who suffer today—including and especially the Palestinian people?

Novick encourages us to let go of the memory of the Holocaust as an exclusive and all-defining aspect of Jewish existence. He also encourages a deeper probing of Jewish anger and finger-pointing. As individuals and as a people, can we be so sure that we would sacrifice our very lives—and our families' lives—to save others, as we so vehemently demand that Christians should have done in the Nazi period? Have we not stood silently by while others have been displaced and cleansed from vast areas of the land that is now Israel? If we expect others to have defended the rights of Jews in 20th-century Europe, do we now defend the Palestinians' right to share Jerusalem and to be fully integrated into Israel/Palestine? Novick calls for an intelligent understanding of the Holocaust and for humility in our accusations. Could that humility, forged in suffering and complicity, lend a new vibrancy to Jewish witness?

Jews seem caught between the particularity of Fackenheim and the universality of Novick, between the religious vision of rupture and mending and the secular unmasking of ideology parading as morality. Christians are caught in the same terrain. They have attempted to unmask the ideology that allowed witness to Jesus to help lay the groundwork for coercion and mass murder. Now they are faced with Jewish leaders, especially in ecumenical dialogues, who replicate this masking, albeit on a smaller scale and over a shorter period of time. As many Christians, in light of the Holocaust, have critiqued and abandoned Constantinian Christianity, a Christianity aligned with the state, Jewish leaders have adopted a version of Constantinianism under the rubric of Holocaust consciousness. Though Novick nowhere uses this term, his book is a critical exploration of the rise of Constantinian Judaism in the latter half of the 20th century.

As part of the first generation born after the Holocaust, I have lived through this emerging Constantinianism. Jews have traveled amazingly far in little more than half a century, and the pace has exploded almost exponentially during the past two decades. Who would have thought at the end of World War II that Jewish empowerment would emerge as a global force? And who could have foreseen the alliances between Jews in America and Israel, or the consequences of those alliances for the moral fate of Jews and the physical fate of populations that interact with the Jewish world? The futures charted by Fackenheim and Novick both seem, in different ways, bleak. This perhaps is the ultimate irony of our post-Holocaust journey. In a time of security and affluence we have in some significant ways lost our moral compass.

There is still time to right our course. Welcoming Palestinians to full partnership in Israel/Palestine and sharing Jerusalem as the joint capital of this evolving state could change the dynamic of Holocaust consciousness. Building bridges of solidarity can attract Jews and non-Jews alike to a religious and secular path that has given so much to the world. A renewed Judaism and Jewishness, one that is critical of its life in the world and that places mourning in its proper perspective, can become a home again for many Jews who have left or been forcibly exiled from the Jewish community by its embrace of Constantinianism. Christians can then resume their reckoning with their history of anti-Jewishness and of complicity in the suffering of others, accompanied by Jewish partners who are similarly self-critical. The ecumenical dialogue which has been blighted by denial and evasion may blossom once again, becoming a common witness to human possibility and a joint exploration of humanity's relationship with God.

Perhaps Novick's secular language, couched almost as a plea, points to a deep religious need among Jews—the need to end the era in which Auschwitz defines Jewish life. Ending this era could have many consequences, not the least of them the possibility of an inner emptiness, even the loss of the viability of Jewish belief and life. As I walked the grounds of Auschwitz and listened to the rabbi who called for the end of Holocaust consciousness, I felt a void. The suffering at Auschwitz has left an emptiness that can only be uncovered and explored with a brutal honesty and with a willingness to risk the consequences of removing the mask of empowerment and bravado. Novick tells us that Holocaust consciousness is part of this mask, and he points the way beyond it. But he does not define our destination.

That destination cannot be either Israel or America, two nation-states with their own agendas and self-interests. Yet, for the majority of Jews, the destination cannot be found outside of these nation-states either, since we cannot live outside of history. Both the Holocaust and the illusory promises of Israel and America are part of our history. We cannot find our way alone, but must do so with others who realize that the promises they have been handed are equally illusory.

Norman Finkelstein (review date 6 January 2000)

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SOURCE: Finkelstein, Norman. “How the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 Gave Birth to a Memorial Industry.” London Review of Books 22, no. 1 (6 January 2000): 33-6.

[In the following review, Finkelstein describes The Holocaust in American Life as an “illuminating” book and discusses the implications of Novick's argument in regard to prevailing American attitudes about Israel.]

The Holocaust is more central to American cultural life than the Civil War. Seventeen states either demand or recommend Holocaust programmes in their schools; many colleges and universities have endowed chairs in Holocaust Studies; hardly a day goes by without a Holocaust-related story appearing in the New York Times. Polls show that many more Americans can identify the Holocaust than Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombing of Japan. Consider the media attention given to Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, published in 1996 and hailed as Time's ‘most talked about’ book of the year. It has become an international bestseller and its author has become a ubiquitous presence on the Holocaust ‘circuit.’

In A Nation on Trial, a book written with Ruth Bettina Birn, I sought to expose the shoddiness of Goldhagen's book. Birn, an authority on the archives Goldhagen consulted, first published her critical findings in Cambridge University's Historical Journal. Refusing the journal's unprecedented invitation for a side-by-side rebuttal, Goldhagen instead enlisted a London law firm to sue Birn and Cambridge University Press for ‘many serious libels.’ Demanding an apology, a retraction and an undertaking that Birn not repeat her criticisms, Goldhagen's lawyers then threatened that ‘the generation of any publicity on your part as a result of this letter would amount to a further aggravation of damages.’ Soon after my own critical findings were published in New Left Review, Henry Holt agreed to publish both essays as a book. The Forward warned that Holt was ‘preparing to bring out a book by Norman Finkelstein, a notorious ideological opponent of the State of Israel.’ Alleging that ‘Finkelstein's glaring bias and audacious statements … are irreversibly tainted by his anti-Zionist stance,’ the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, called on Holt to drop publication of the book: ‘The issue … is not whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong but what is “legitimate criticism” and what goes beyond the pale.’ ‘Whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong,’ one of Holt's senior editors Sara Bershtel replied, ‘is precisely the issue.’ Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, pronounced Holt's decision a disgrace: ‘If they want to be garbage-men they should wear sanitation uniforms.’ ‘I have never experienced a similar attempt of interested parties to publicly cast a shadow over an upcoming publication,’ Michael Naumann, the president of Holt, later recalled.

Even after our book's publication, the assaults did not relent. Goldhagen alleged that Birn, who has made the prosecution of Nazi war criminals her life's work, was a purveyor of anti-Semitism, and that I was of the opinion that Nazism's victims, including my own family, deserved to die. Such a reaction is typical of the way that American Jewry now approaches the Holocaust.

Until the late Sixties, however, the Holocaust barely figured in the life of America, or of America's Jews. As Peter Novick remarks [in The Holocaust in American Life], between the end of World War Two and the late Sixties, only a handful of books and films touched on the subject. Jewish intellectuals paid it little attention. No monuments or tributes marked the event. On the contrary, major Jewish organisations opposed such a memorialisation.

Fear of alienating Gentiles by emphasising the distinctiveness of Jewish experience was always a problem for American (as well as European) Jews, and during the Second World War had inhibited efforts to rescue Jews in Europe. ‘Throughout the Fifties and well into the Sixties,’ Novick reports, the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and other groups ‘worked on a variety of fronts’ to dispel the image of Jews as disloyal. The priority for these organisations was not to provide reminders of the Holocaust or to voice support for Israel but to support the US in the Cold War.

Although they eventually embraced the Zionist-led campaign for Jewish statehood in the aftermath of World War Two, mainstream Jewish organisations closely monitored signals coming from Washington and adjusted to them. Indeed, it seems that the AJC supported the founding of Israel mainly from fear that a domestic backlash might ensue if the Jewish displaced persons in Europe were not quickly settled. From early on, these organisations harboured profound misgivings about a Jewish state. Above all they feared that it would lend credence to the ‘dual loyalty’ canard. Moreover, in the years after its founding in 1948, Israel did not figure prominently in American strategic planning. To secure US interests in the Middle East, successive administrations balanced support for Israel and for Arab élites. Israel was only one of America's several regional assets and Jewish organisations kept in step with US policy.

[In The Holocaust in American Life,] Novick convincingly argues that American Jews ‘forgot’ about the Holocaust because Germany was an American ally in the Cold War. The editor of Commentary urged the importance of encouraging Jews to develop a ‘realistic attitude rather than a punitive and recriminatory one’ towards Germany, which was now a pillar of ‘Western democratic civilisation.’

In contrast, Israel's allegiances in the Cold War were less clear-cut. American Jewish leaders voiced concern that Israel's largely East European, left-wing leadership would want to join the Soviet camp. Although Israel soon aligned itself with the US, many Israelis in and out of government retained strong affections for the Soviet Union. Predictably, Jews in America who weren't on the Left preferred to keep Israel at arm's length.

From the start of the Cold War, the mainstream Jewish organisations were eager for the fray. Faced with a stereotype of Jews as Communists or Communist sympathisers, they did not shrink from sacrificing fellow Jews on the altar of anti-Communism. The AJC and ADL provided government agencies with access to their files on alleged Jewish subversives and played an active part in the McCarthy witch-hunt. Before she became the doyenne of Holocaust studies, Lucy Dawidowicz kept tabs on Jewish Communists for the American Jewish Committee. Of the Rosenbergs she wrote in New Leader that one could not support the death penalty for Hermann Goering and oppose it for Jewish spies. The AJC stood aloof from the campaign to grant the Rosenbergs clemency. Anxious to boost their anti-Communist credentials, the majority of Jews who could expect to have their opinions listened to turned a blind eye as former members of the SS entered the country.

Conducting a survey on ‘American Judaism’ in 1957 the sociologist Nathan Glazer reported that the Holocaust made little impression on the lives of American Jews. Novick is right to give short shrift to the standard explanation for this: that, traumatised by the event, Jews ‘repressed’ the memory of it. In fact, as he says, those Jewish survivors of Hitler's Europe who had arrived recently ‘wanted to talk about their Holocaust experiences and were discouraged from doing so.’

Glazer also concluded that Israel ‘had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry.’ Membership of the Zionist Organisation of America dropped from hundreds of thousands in 1948 to tens of thousands in the Sixties. Early in 1967 the AJC sponsored a symposium on ‘Jewish Identity Here and Now.’ Only 3 of the 31 ‘best minds in the Jewish community’ alluded to Israel; two did so only to dismiss its relevance. It's ironic that just about the only Jewish intellectuals who openly associated themselves with Israel before 1967 were Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky. Only one in twenty American Jews had visited Israel. But as Novick makes clear, all this changed after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 the Holocaust was ‘discovered’ by American Jews, the Holocaust industry began to materialise and American Jewish organisations began to identify more closely with Israel. Why?

Novick argues that Israel seemed ‘poised on the brink of destruction’ during the 1967 war, and so the Final Solution was suddenly transformed from “mere,” albeit tragic history, to imminent and terrifying prospect. The ‘discovery’ of the Holocaust came about because American Jews feared that it might be repeated: it related to a perception of the danger faced by Israel. Novick is less convincing here than in other parts of his illuminating book. He is right about the timing of the discovery of the Holocaust but wrong about the reason.

After all, Israel had been more plausibly ‘poised on the brink of destruction’ at the time of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, when ‘700,000 Jews,’ in the words of David Ben-Gurion, were ‘pitted against 27 million Arabs—one against forty’ and the US joined a UN arms embargo on the region despite the fact that the Arab armies had a clear advantage in terms of weaponry. Even the CIA and the US Secretary of State George Marshall predicted Jewish defeat. Without a secret Czech arms deal, Israel would probably not have survived. After fighting for a year, it had lost 1 per cent of its population. Yet the Nazi Holocaust did not become a focus of American Jewish life in 1948.

Israel was similarly isolated during the Suez Crisis in 1956. But, as Novick senses, what really mattered to American Jewish organisations at this time was that the US figured prominently in the international consensus against Israel. It was Eisenhower who forced its virtually unconditional withdrawal from the Sinai, while US public support for Israel sharply declined. There was little talk of the Holocaust in America at this time. Jewish organisations did briefly back Israeli efforts to force American concessions, but ultimately, as Arthur Hertzberg recalls in Jewish Polemics, they ‘preferred to counsel Israel to heed’ Eisenhower rather than ‘oppose the wishes of the leader of the United States.’ In 1957, Dissent condemned the ‘combined attack on Egypt’ as ‘immoral.’ Israel was also taken to task for ‘cultural chauvinism,’ a ‘quasi-messianic sense of manifest destiny’ and ‘an under-current of expansionism.’

In 1967, however, Israel was far stronger and won an easy victory. The US now treated it differently: military assistance began to pour in as Israel became a proxy for American power in the Middle East (and beyond). Jews now stood on the front line defending America—‘Western civilisation’—against the Arab hordes. Israeli soldiers were fighting and dying to protect US interests. And unlike American GIs in Vietnam, these Jewish ‘fighters’ were not being humiliated by Third World upstarts. ‘There were many jokes,’ Novick writes, ‘about turning the faltering American military effort in Vietnam over to General Dayan.’

Novick asserts that the ‘light’ of the June 1967 victory redeemed the ‘darkness’ of the Nazi genocide: ‘it had given God a second chance.’ Yet in standard Jewish accounts, not the June war but Israel's founding marked redemption. Why then did the Holocaust have to await a second redemption? The ‘image of Jews as military heroes’ in the June war, he maintains, ‘worked to efface the stereotype of weak and passive victims which … previously inhibited Jewish discussion of the Holocaust.’ Yet for sheer courage, the 1948 war was Israel's finest hour. And Moshe Dayan's ‘daring’ and ‘brilliant’ hundred-hour Sinai campaign in 1956 prefigured the swift victory in June 1967. Why, then, did American Jews require the June war to ‘efface the stereotype’? The answer, as I see it, is that it was not Israel's ‘terrifying weakness’ and ‘increasing isolation’ but its proven strength and strategic alliance with the US that led to the ‘centring’ of the Holocaust in American life after June 1967. The fact that the Holocaust industry sprang up at this time had much less to do with Israel on the verge of destruction than with its display of martial prowess. Nor will one find any convincing connection with the rise of Palestinian terrorism. The industry flourished in a climate of Israeli triumphalism.

Not everyone agreed that it was a wise move to turn Israel into America's chief strategic asset in the Middle East. Arabists in particular felt that it was a mistake to ignore Arab interests and regimes and that it would do the US no good in the long run. Other observers argued that Israel's subordination to US power and its occupation of neighbouring territory were not only wrong in principle but harmful to both American and Israeli interests. For Israel's new American Jewish ‘supporters,’ however, such talk bordered on heresy. Moving with the tide of US power politics, American Jews now began to regard Israel as a strategic asset, and to protect their asset, they ‘remembered’ the Holocaust.

Israel's military prowess suddenly became a springboard for Jews to acquire more power in the US. In Making It, the memoir he published just before the June war, Norman Podhoretz makes only one allusion to Israel. After all, what did Israel have to offer an ambitious American Jew? In Breaking Ranks (1979), he remembers that after June 1967 Israel became ‘the religion of the American Jews’ and later he would boast of private meetings with the President to discuss the National Interest. In 1953, Lucy Dawidowicz had insisted that Israelis could not demand reparations from Germany while they evaded responsibility for displaced Palestinians: ‘Morality cannot be that flexible.’ After the 1967 war, however, she became a ‘fervent supporter of Israel,’ acclaiming it in The Jewish Presence (1977) as ‘the corporate paradigm for the ideal image of the Jew in the modern world.’

In exploring the domestic factors which have encouraged the Holocaust industry, Novick points to the ‘culture of victimisation.’ Again I would say that the Holocaust has taken hold among American Jews precisely because they are not victims. When Jesse Jackson said in 1979 that he was ‘sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust,’ he was repeatedly criticised by Jewish organisations because of his espousal of the Palestinian cause. But it was not insignificant that Jackson represented domestic constituencies with which organised American Jews had been at loggerheads since the late Sixties. In this conflict the Holocaust was proving a potent ideological weapon.

Just as organised Jews remembered the Holocaust when Israeli power peaked, so they remembered the Holocaust when American Jewish power peaked. ‘Holocaust awareness,’ the Israeli writer Boas Evron observed in a 1983 essay, is ‘not at all an understanding of the past, but a manipulation of the present.’ Novick reflects that Jews now constitute the ‘wealthiest, best-educated, most influential, in-every-way-most-successful group in American society.’ Forty per cent of American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics are Jewish, as are 20 per cent of professors at major universities, 40 per cent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington, and so on. Obviously, Jews rose to pre-eminence in postwar American life only when anti-Semitism no longer posed, in Novick's words, any ‘significant barriers or disadvantages to American Jews.’ By the Seventies and Eighties, ‘the last pockets of anti-Jewish discrimination disappeared,’ while popular anti-Semitism fell to an unprecedentedly low level. Yet Norman Podhoretz alleged in the late Seventies that hostile media references to Jews had escalated ‘by a factor of ten or even fifty, or even a hundred.’

Novick dismisses the evidence for this alarm as ‘laughably trivial’ but it wouldn't be too crude to say that it has been useful. With ‘success in fund-raising … directly proportional to the level of anxiety among potential contributors,’ Novick reports, ‘shrei gevalt’ agencies like the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal Center ‘bombarded Jews with mailings announcing new anti-Semitic threats.’ The main ulterior motive, however, lay elsewhere. As American Jews enjoyed increasing success, they moved steadily to the Right politically: ‘Jews had everything to lose and nothing to gain,’ Novick observes, ‘from the more equal distribution of rewards which had been the aim of liberal social policies.’ Although still left-of-centre on cultural issues such as sexual morality and abortion, Jews ‘ceased to be … markedly more liberal than other Americans … when it came to bread-and-butter issues like welfare, income distribution and aid to blacks.’ Neo-conservatism ‘was almost exclusively a Jewish affair,’ and Commentary ‘became America's best-known conservative magazine.’

Complementing the rightward turn was a turn inward. As Novick reports, no longer mindful of allies among the have-nots, Jews increasingly reserved their resources ‘for exclusively Jewish purposes.’ ‘We have made clear,’ Nathan Perlmutter, the former head of the ADL, declared, ‘our opposition to programmes that are not related to the interests of Jews.’ The ‘real anti-Semitism in America,’ Perlmutter has also said, consisted of policy initiatives that were ‘corrosive of Jewish interests,’ such as affirmative action, cuts in the defence budget and neo-isolationism, as well as opposition to nuclear power and even electoral college reform.

Here, too, the Holocaust played a critical role. Historic suffering confers present-day licence: ‘insofar as Jewish identity could be anchored in the agony of European Jewry,’ Novick writes, ‘certification as (vicarious) victims could be claimed, with all the moral privilege accompanying such certification.’ Beyond that, the Holocaust precluded any possibility that animus toward Jews might be grounded in present-day conflicts. Invoking the Holocaust was a powerful way to delegitimise criticism of Jews.

In Novick's words, the Holocaust has ‘mandated an intransigent and self-righteous posture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ and ‘allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticising Israel.’ According to Nathan Glazer in the second edition of American Judaism, the Holocaust gave Jews ‘the right to consider themselves specially threatened and specially worthy of whatever efforts were necessary for survival.’ To give one example, every account of Israel's decision to develop nuclear weapons evokes the spectre of the Holocaust. A consistent feature of Holocaust literature is the space given over to the ‘Arab connection.’ Although, Novick writes, the Mufti of Jerusalem didn't play ‘any significant part in the Holocaust,’ the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (edited by Israel Gutman) gives him a ‘starring role’:

The article on the Mufti is more than twice as long as the article on Goebbels and Goering, longer than the article on Himmler and Heydrich combined, longer than the article on Eichmann—of all the biographical articles, it is exceeded in length, but only slightly, by the entry on Hitler.

American Jewish organisations remember the Holocaust in a particular way. In the aftermath of World War Two, as Novick shows, the Holocaust was not cast as a uniquely Jewish—let alone a uniquely Jewish and a historically unique—event. On the contrary, American Jews in particular were at pains to place it in a universalist context. After 1967, the Final Solution was radically reframed. ‘The first and most important claim that emerged from the 1967 war and became emblematic of American Judaism,’ Jacob Neusner writes in In the Aftermath of the Holocaust (1993), was that ‘the Holocaust … was unique, without parallel in human history.’ The ‘Holocaust uniqueness’ dogma became, according to Novick, ‘axiomatic,’ a ‘fetishism,’ and a ‘cult’ in ‘official’ Jewish discourse.

Related to the claim that the Holocaust is unique is the claim that it cannot be rationally apprehended. Referred to by Novick as the ‘sacralisation of the Holocaust,’ this mystification's most practised purveyor is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel, Novick observes, the Holocaust is effectively a ‘mystery’ religion: it ‘leads into darkness,’ ‘negates all answers,’ ‘lies outside, if not beyond, history,’ ‘defies both knowledge and description,’ marks a ‘destruction of history’ and a ‘mutation on a cosmic scale.’ Only the survivor-priest (Wiesel) is qualified to divine its mystery. ‘Any survivor,’ he says, ‘has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened.’ To demystify the Holocaust is, for Wiesel, a subtle form of anti-Semitism. To compare the Holocaust with the sufferings of others is, he argues in one of the pieces collected in Against Silence, a ‘total betrayal of Jewish history.’

The claim of Holocaust uniqueness is a claim of Jewish uniqueness. What makes the Holocaust unique is not the suffering of Jews, but that it was Jews who suffered. For Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, the Holocaust ‘was not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God's chosen children and thus on God himself.’ Wiesel, who is always vehement about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, is no less vehement that Jews are unique: ‘Everything about us is different,’ he says. The Holocaust is interpreted as marking the climax of thousands of years of Gentile hatred of Jews; it attests not only to the suffering of Jews, therefore, but to Jewish uniqueness as well.

During World War Two and in its aftermath, Novick reports, ‘hardly anyone’ inside the US Government—and hardly anyone outside it, Jew or Gentile—would have understood the phrase ‘abandonment of the Jews.’ Indeed, ‘almost all Americans, and certainly the majority of American Jews,’ took pride in the role played by the US Armed Forces in defeating Hitler. A reversal took place after 1967. Phrases such as ‘the world's silence,’ ‘the world's indifference’ and ‘the abandonment of the Jews’ became staples of ‘Holocaust discourse.’ The claim in particular of American complicity in the Holocaust, Novick observes, created a ‘compelling obligation to expiate past sins through unswerving support of Israel.’ The Holocaust dogma of eternal Gentile hatred served both to justify the necessity of a Jewish state and to account for any hostility directed at Israel. Cynthia Ozick, for example, writing in Esquire in 1974, explained criticism of Israel by saying: ‘The world wants to wipe out the Jews … the world has always wanted to wipe out the Jews.’

Deploring the ‘Holocaust lesson’ of eternal Gentile hatred, Boas Evron observes in Jewish State or Israeli Nation (1995) that it

is really tantamount to a deliberate breeding of paranoia … This mentality … condones in advance any inhuman treatment of non-Jews, for the prevailing mythology is that ‘all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Jewry,’ hence everything is permissible to Jews in their relationship to other peoples.

Anti-Semitism, the argument runs, is not only ineradicable but also always irrational. Thus in Hitler's Willing Executioners, Goldhagen construes anti-Semitism as a Gentile mental pathology; the ‘host domain’ is ‘the mind.’ By conferring total blamelessness on Jews, this dogma immunises Israel and American Jews from legitimate censure—from Arabs, say, or from African Americans. Wiesel on Arab hostility to Israel: ‘Because of who we are and what our homeland Israel represents—the heart of our lives, the dream of our dreams—when our enemies try to destroy us, they will do so by trying to destroy Israel.’ Wiesel on African American hostility to American Jews: ‘We helped the blacks … There is one thing they should learn from us and that is gratitude … We are forever grateful.’

Every questioning of the uniqueness of the Holocaust is taken by organised American Jews to be an example of Holocaust denial. In a society saturated with the Holocaust, justification for yet more museums, books, college courses, films and television programmes is sought by conjuring up the ghost of denial. In fact, the only Holocaust deniers around are, in Novick's words, ‘a tiny band of cranks, kooks and misfits.’ But Denying the Holocaust, a book by Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, takes these deniers very seriously indeed. She casts her net wide. To suggest that Germans suffered during the bombing of Dresden, or that any state except Germany committed crimes in World War Two; to question a survivor's testimony; to denounce the role of Jewish collaborators—this is all evidence, according to Lipstadt, of Holocaust denial. The most ‘insidious’ form of Holocaust denial, she suggests, is ‘immoral equivalencies’: that is, denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

The dogma of uniqueness is validated by the dogma of inveterate anti-Semitism. If the Holocaust marked the climax of Gentile hatred of the Jews, the persecution of non-Jews in the Holocaust was merely accidental and the persecution of non-Jews in history merely episodic. How to regard the other victims of Nazi persecution? The question of who to memorialise was the main political issue which confronted the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington—one of the hundred Holocaust institutions in the US. During the museum's planning stages, Elie Wiesel led the offensive to commemorate the Jews alone. ‘As always, they began with Jews,’ he intoned. ‘As always, they did not stop with Jews alone.’ Yet not Jews but Communists were the first political victims, and not Jews but the handicapped were the first group to be cleansed by the Nazis.

The main challenge was to justify the marginalistion of the Gypsy genocide. The Nazis systematically murdered as many as half a million Gypsies, with proportional losses roughly equal to the Jewish genocide, but, it seems, one simply couldn't compare the loss of a Gypsy and a Jewish life. Ridiculing the call for Gypsy representation on the US Holocaust Memorial Council as ‘cockamamie,’ executive director Rabbi Seymour Siegal doubted whether Gypsies even ‘existed’ as a people: ‘There should be some recognition or acknowledgment of the Gypsy people … if there is such a thing.’ Acknowledging the Gypsy genocide meant the loss of an exclusive Jewish franchise over the Holocaust, with a commensurate loss of Jewish moral capital. Moreover, if the Nazis persecuted Gypsies and Jews alike, the notion that the Holocaust marked the climax of thousands of years of Gentile hatred of Jews was clearly untenable. Likewise, if Gentile envy spurred the Jewish genocide, did envy also spur the Gypsy genocide?

The Holocaust was mired in politics from the start. While allocating hundreds of millions of dollars for the Holocaust Museum, Congress has baulked at proposals for a museum documenting the African American experience. ‘Blacks were well aware of the irony,’ Novick writes, ‘that it was American Jews’ wealth and political influence that made it possible for them to bring to the Mall in Washington a monument to their weakness and vulnerability.’ With a re-election campaign looming, President Carter initiated the project to placate Jewish supporters (‘Jewish money’ makes up half of Democratic Party campaign funding), who had been outraged by his recognition of the ‘legitimate rights’ of Palestinians.

Before serving as the Museum's director, Walter Reich wrote a paean to Joan Peters's book, From Time Immemorial, which claimed that Palestine was literally empty until Zionist colonisation. John Roth's appointment as a sub-director of the Museum was cancelled after it was discovered that he had, in the past, been critical of Israel. The chair of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, Miles Lerman, said, in repudiating a book by a prominent Israeli historian critical of Israel: ‘To put this museum on the opposite side of Israel—it's inconceivable.’ The Museum falsely claims that organised American Jews called on the War Department to bomb the death camps, and it silently passes over the US recruitment of Nazi war criminals at the end of the war.

The Museum's permanent exhibition closes with the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Novick quotes the director of Yad Vashem's archive that most survivors’ testimonies are unreliable: ‘Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on secondhand information given them by friends or passing strangers.’ Because survivors are revered as secular saints, one doesn't dare question them.

The term ‘Holocaust survivor’ originally designated those who suffered the trauma of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and labour camps. The number of Holocaust survivors at the end of the war is generally put at a hundred thousand. The number of those still alive cannot be more than a quarter of that figure. But because enduring the camps became a crown of martyrdom, many Jews who spent the war elsewhere presented themselves as camp survivors. Another strong motive behind this misrepresentation was material. The postwar German government provided compensation to those non-German Jews who had been in ghettos or camps. A number of Jews fabricated their past to meet this eligibility requirement, a subject not touched on by Novick. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office recently stated that there were nearly a million living survivors. Perhaps this is because it would be difficult to press massive new claims for reparations if only a handful of survivors remained. ‘If everyone who claims to be a survivor actually is one,’ my mother, a former concentration camp inmate, used to exclaim, ‘who did Hitler kill?’

There are a vast number of institutions and professionals dedicated to ‘keeping alive’ the memory of the Holocaust. Novick cites numerous instances of its vulgarisation and I would be hard-pressed to name a single political cause (pro-life, pro-choice; animal rights, states' rights) which hasn't conscripted the Holocaust. Decrying the tawdry purposes to which it is put, Elie Wiesel declared: ‘I swear to avoid … vulgar spectacles.’ Yet Novick reports that ‘the most imaginative and subtle Holocaust photo op came in 1996 when Hillary Clinton, then under heavy fire for various alleged misdeeds, appeared in the gallery of the House during her husband's State of the Union Address.’ She was flanked by their daughter, Chelsea, and … Elie Wiesel.

Jeffrey Herf (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Herf, Jeffrey. “Explaining the Holocaust?” Partisan Review 67, no. 3 (summer 2000): 504-10.

[In the following review, Herf argues that The Holocaust in American Life offers interesting research and insights, but comments that Novick's argument is one-sided and fails to take into account other possible explanations for the continuing preoccupation with the Holocaust in American culture.]

Historians of Jewish and European history have been aware for some time that a focus on the Holocaust has advantages as well as drawbacks. The history of the Jews is by no means only or primarily a history of suffering, persecution, and victimization. Yet a focus on the Holocaust tends to push interest in and knowledge of Jewish theology, culture, and moral traditions to the margins. Similarly, though the Holocaust is inseparable from many of Europe's and Germany's traditions, there are many continuities and traditions which have nothing to do with it, or with Nazism, or fascism. Yet to the extent to which Americans and American Jews focus on the Holocaust, these other dimensions of European and German history fade into the background. Europe was the charnel house for the Jews but it was not only that.

Now [in The Holocaust in American Life,] Peter Novick, a historian at the University of Chicago most well known for his much-discussed 1988 work, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, offers a spirited if one-sided argument about how the Holocaust became so prominent in American life. But, he does not examine other possible explanations for this relatively greater attention given to the Holocaust in America: the decline of anti-Semitism, the cosmopolitan understanding of what World War II was about, the growing sensitivity to all kinds of racism following the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the aging survivors of the Holocaust and their determination to see that its memory will not die with them, the ability and willingness of an economically successful and highly educated American Jewish community to bring these issues to a broader public and, finally, a reception of the message because non-Jewish Americans recognized more than immediately after the Holocaust that this was the nadir of absolute evil in the twentieth century. In other words, it is possible and plausible to view the interest in the Holocaust as evidence that American society has become more tolerant, more pluralist, indeed even more multicultural in the best sense of that term. Just as Novick pointed out that in the 1960s marginalized groups had found a voice, he could argue that now the centrality of the Holocaust in European and American history represented a similar advance of knowledge.

Instead, he casts the causes of the Holocaust's prominence largely in pejorative terms: the replacement of integrationists with identity- and victim-celebrating politics, the rise of Jewish particularism linked to a move to the political right centered on anti-Communism and efforts to deflect all criticism of Israel, and the erosion of religious and cultural sources of Jewish identity that turned the Holocaust into “virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity.” Novick finds the idea that the Holocaust was unique to be “quite vacuous” and “deeply offensive” because it underemphasizes non-Jewish suffering. “Turning the Holocaust into the emblematic Jewish experience” has been “closely connected to the inward and rightward turn of American Jewry in recent decades”—as an expression of regrettable ethnic particularism and a retreating from a more distinctively Jewish, universalist message.

Novick's angry book, however, is not without some insights and interesting research. Unfortunately, he consistently undermines some of his better points with overstatement. Novick perceives aspects of “recent Jewish Holocaust commemoration as ‘un-Jewish,’” even Christian:

I am thinking of the ritual of reverently following the structured pathways of the Holocaust in the major museums which resemble nothing so much as the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. … The way suffering is sacralized and portrayed as the path to wisdom—the cult of the survivor as secular saint.

These are themes that have some minor and peripheral precedent in Jewish tradition, but they resonate more powerful with major themes in Christianity.” There is something to this, but in his desire to separate Jewish tradition from memory, Novick goes too far. It is wrong to claim, as he does, that Judaism fosters memory of God's handiwork but not of past suffering, as if the Old Testament had only the book of Genesis but not Exodus. The story of the Exodus, commemorated every year at Passover, calls on Jews to cultivate the memory of the bitterness of slavery and the joy of liberation. Novick writes as if this religious and then secularized largely liberal and leftist Jewish tradition of anti-redemption did not exist and had not contributed to the emergence of memory of the Holocaust.

Novick takes on the argument that de-emphasis of Nazi persecution of the Jews amounted to their “abandonment.” He cites officials in the Roosevelt administration's Office of War Information who sought to convince the American public that the Germans “were everyone's enemy” and in that effort sought “to broaden rather than narrow the range of Nazi victims.” To have suggested that American intervention amounted to a war to save the Jews would have, they believed, narrowed support for the anti-Nazi struggle, played into the hands of isolationists, and appeared to confirm Nazi propaganda about Jewish influence on Roosevelt. But the Republican Party of 1940 also had slogans such as “It's Your Country—Why Let Sidney Hillman Run it?” while some candidates attacked the “Jew Deal” and “President Rosenfeld.” Moreover, in light of the German control of the continent from 1940-1944, practical prospects for rescue were “dim.” As Robert Dallek, the leading historian of FDR's foreign policy has argued, his failure to intervene decisively to open possibilities for immigration or rescue was Roosevelt's most serious shortcoming. Yet, given the degree of anti-Semitism in American society—the Gallup poll indicated that it peaked around June 1944 and began to decline after the revelation of the death camps in June 1945—Novick agrees that a reduced wartime focus on the Holocaust was not necessarily an expression of anti-Semitism.

At times, Peter Novick is so mean-spirited and insensitive that he undermines his own reasonable arguments. For example, he notes that the Yiddish press had much greater coverage of the Holocaust than the Anglo-Jewish press and that wartime memorial activity was concentrated in immigrant centers like the Lower East Side and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The reason:

recency of immigration—which meant stronger family connections to Europe—was closely tied to the depth of feeling the Holocaust evoked among American Jews. Baldly stated, it was the difference between contemplating that abstraction “European Jewry” being destroyed and imagining Aunt Minnie at Treblinka.

The choice of the endearing “Minnie,” a relative who is close, but not too close, introduces a tone of inappropriate levity. Perhaps Novick did not intend callous humor, but he should have been more careful to avoid such distractions.

While Novick sees benign causes for the relative lack of prominence of the Holocaust during World War II, he focuses on what he views as the regrettable causes of marginalization during the Cold War. As the United States mobilized to contain its former wartime ally, the Soviet Union, and to reintegrate its former enemies into the Western alliance, “talk of the Holocaust was not just unhelpful but actively obstructive.” It was the “wrong atrocity” with which to mobilize anti-Soviet sentiment. Novick stresses the contribution made by the theory of totalitarianism to marginalizing the Holocaust—focusing attention to the political rather than ethnic identity of Nazism's victims. “Conversely, any suggestion that the Nazi murder of European Jewry was a central, let alone defining, feature of that regime would undermine the argument for the essential identity of the two systems.”

Yes, the work of Carl Friedrich and his students did discuss totalitarianism which had no essential link to anti-Semitism. Yet, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950), probably the single most important text in the entire “literature on totalitarianism,” places anti-Semitism and the death camps in the center of its analysis, at a time when Marxists gave much shorter shrift to the dimensions of Nazi racial ideology as an autonomous factor. Arendt was able to remember the Holocaust while also pointing to the role of ideology and terror in the Soviet Union. Although the Holocaust then was not a topic of general conversation, Arendt's book was influential among intellectuals and scholars. Nor is Novick convincing when he writes that for American Jewish organizations seeking to dissociate themselves from Communism “in matters having to do with Germany there was a virtual taboo on mention of the Holocaust.” Such staunch Cold War anti-Communist organizations as the American Federation of Labor, which in the early 1950s had strong ties to West German Social Democrats, spoke out forcefully for restitution for Jewish survivors. However, it is plausible, as Novick concludes, that the Cold War limited discussion of the Holocaust and that it remained largely a “private, albeit widely shared, Jewish sorrow” which did not become “a public communal emblem.”

Novick discusses the Slansky trial in Prague only as an occasion for American Jewish leaders to dissociate Jews from Communism. He might have recalled that American liberals in the 1950s, not primarily American conservatives, were focused on the Slansky trial and other episodes of the “anti-cosmopolitan” purges in the Soviet bloc. They did so fully aware that the anti-Jewish persecution of the Communist 1950s paled in comparison with the Nazi Holocaust. While American Communists and leftists were quick to perceive anti-Semitism in the trial of the Rosenbergs, they did not denounce the even more blatant attacks on “Jewish monopoly capitalists” in the conspiracy theories swirling around the Soviets' trials.

Instead, Novick focuses his criticism on an American Jewish Committee press release for presenting the “grotesque fabrication” that the East German government was rounding up “non-Aryans” based on principles of selection resting on Nazi racial legislation. In fact, in 1952-53 the East German government did carry out a purge of many Jewish members of the party and government, and did frighten Jewish community leaders sufficiently to induce its major leaders to flee to the West that winter. This purge did not rest on Nazi racial legislation and was not directed at “non-Aryans” or all Jews. Jews remained in the East German government and party. Yet the anti-Semitic aspects of the purge were clear to anyone reading attacks on the international conspiracy of Zionists, capitalists, and imperialists in East Germany's official newspaper, Neues Deutschland. Novick is angrier at the American Jewish Committee for an exaggeration which captured elements of facts about the purge—and facts were hard to come by given East Germany's ability to close off access to accurate information—than about this burst of anti-Semitic politics in Europe less than a decade after the Holocaust. In West Germany, liberals and left-liberals, rather than conservatives, were most concerned about the anti-cosmopolitan purges.

Is Novick correct when he asserts that in the 1950s American Jewish religious thinkers “had nothing” to say about the Holocaust? It seems plausible, compared to “the omnipresence of the Holocaust in the 1980s and 1990s—nobody in those years seemed to have much to say on the subject, at least in public.” Americans were more focused on Hiroshima than the Holocaust, both because it carried “urgent lessons” about nuclear weapons and because Americans were involved as perpetrators and potential victims. With the decline of anti-Semitism, an upbeat economy, a celebration of victory in the war, and the absence of identity politics, the Holocaust was “an inappropriate symbol of the contemporary mood, and that is surely one of the principal reasons it stayed at the margins.” Novick presents evidence that in the late 1940s, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish War Veterans, and the Anti-Defamation League—concerned that focusing on the Jews as victims would sponsor anti-Semitic stereotypes—opposed a Holocaust memorial in New York City, because “it would be a perpetual memorial to the weakness and defenselessness of the Jewish people” and thus would “not be in the best interests of Jewry.” Novick focuses more critically on the anti-Semitism of American conservatives. But, in response to the Eichmann trial and the publication of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that the trial risked reviving anti-German sentiment—which would benefit the Communists and was pervaded by “an atmosphere of Old Testament retribution,” while William F. Buckley's National Review argued that Communists would benefit from the “Hate Germany movement” the Eichmann trial furthered. This was just the kind of anti-Jewish backlash the leaders of Jewish organizations feared.

Though the Eichmann trial first brought the Holocaust as a discreet event to broad international and American attention, Novick argues that, instead, events in the Middle East were decisive. Specifically, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, though culminating in Israeli victory, brought home Israel's vulnerability and political isolation. In response, Novick argues that American Jewish organizations paid unprecedented attention to the Holocaust because its memory would deflect “legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel, to avoid even considering the possibility that the rights and wrongs were complex.” Citing literature by Jewish lobbying organizations, Novick argues that the memory of the Holocaust was used for the purpose of building support for Israel and immunizing it against criticism. Yet, Novick finds it unreasonable that in light of the hostility of the Arab world, and the United Nations resolution of 1975 equating Zionism with racism, Jews and non-Jews would recall that the Holocaust had in fact occurred, and that hostility to the Jews and the Jewish state had hardly disappeared from international politics.

Finally, Novick argues that a Jewish identity focused on the Holocaust became “dominant, because it was, after all, virtually the only one that could encompass those Jews whose faltering Jewish identity produced so much anxiety about Jewish survival.” This is why American Jews chose as their central representation to erect a museum in Washington, D.C. devoted to the Holocaust. Here again, Novick's critical insight is undermined by his lack of nuance. While the much discussed “crisis of meaning” probably did contribute to the emergence of the Holocaust, Novick is not convincing that identity formation was the driving force behind the establishment of the Holocaust museum. Nor is it necessarily the case that the lessons the Holocaust has to teach, such as the values of tolerance, democracy, and pluralism, are not so much wrong as they are “empty” and “not very useful”; that its memory has the effect of making us less concerned about subsequent horrors that don't match it in extremity; or that it leads us to avoid the more painful memories of racial persecution against African-Americans that are, in contrast to the Holocaust, part of American history. Novick rhetorically agrees with Emil Fackenheim's view that forgetting the Holocaust would give Hitler a posthumous victory. “But it would be an even greater posthumous victory for Hitler were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariah by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience.”

The Holocaust has become—who knows for how long—a part of American mass culture. Like all discussions based on memory, it can evoke great amounts of narcissism. Most American Jewish teenagers are probably learning more about Auschwitz than about the Hebrew prophets. Some aspects of Holocaust education in the schools may teach lessons that are trivial. Examples of lobbying groups using and misusing the memory of the Holocaust for contemporary political purposes ought to be examined. The problem with The Holocaust in American Life is not that all of Novick's criticisms are wrong, but that he makes them without sufficient nuance and balance. He would have written a much better and more convincing book had he examined the host of other and equally plausible and not at all pejorative reasons for the emergence of the Holocaust as a theme in American life.

Peter Novick has placed himself in a paradoxical situation. He is a distinguished historian who bemoans the entry of the story of absolute evil in modern world history into a prominent place in American society and culture. But any agenda of scholarship to suit the political needs of the moment is objectionable. Aside from the debate about American policy during the Holocaust, Novick does not examine the historiography of the Holocaust written by American historians. This would have been the reasonable thing to do to see if the lessons they drew were profound or vacuous, narrowly ethnic and/or universal, intellectually and historiographically enduring or the stuff of transient propaganda. I cannot recall another recent example of a prominent American historian objecting so vociferously to the growing prominence of a history of persecution into public consciousness and seeing that emergence as due only to narrow, self-interested, and regrettable motives. Especially in light of long-standing complaints about complacent optimism and disinterest in history and memory in our country and our culture, one would have hoped for recognition that the emergence of the Holocaust also represents a growing decency, cultural diversity and intellectual and moral maturation of an America less innocent of history's darkest time.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Review of The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick. Virginia Quarterly Review 76, no. 3 (summer 2000): 102-03.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of The Holocaust in American Life, noting that Novick fails to adequately address the questions he poses in regard to American conceptions of the Holocaust.]

Why has the Holocaust become, in the last several decades, the central symbol in reflection on human depravity and cruelty in modernity? And why has this reflection occurred centrally in the United States rather than Europe? These are the questions with which Peter Novick began his investigations into the development of the Holocaust as a central moral symbol of American moral and political imagination. But while Novick begins with these questions, he doesn't answer them; they go missing when his historian's conscientiousness distracts him from the deeper questions into the surface narrative of events. What we get [in The Holocaust in American Life] is not why, but how—how, after 20 years of near-silence concerning the Holocaust, it became so crucial to American culture that it warranted institutional memorialization with a museum on the National Mall (where American slavery and the genocide of Native Americans still remain unremembered). Novick approaches an answer to the why-question with his proposal to replace the “return of the repressed trauma” explanation of the imaginative rise of the Holocaust with an explanation grounded in the idea of “collective memorialization” of the past as a response to present social, cultural, and political issues. Still, more could be said—especially about the way that the image of the Holocaust, as it haunts us, may be able to serve as a useful moral prod to not let such horrific events happen again—but then, when one remembers Rwanda, Bosnia, and Iraq, perhaps such hopes are over-blown. No matter what one thinks of the moral usefulness of considerations of the Holocaust, however, Novick's work remains a thought-provoking and generally provocative book. But it is not the book that Novick set out to write, nor the one he claimed to deliver; that book remains unwritten.

Severin Hochberg (review date December 2000)

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SOURCE: Hochberg, Severin. Review of The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick. Journal of American History 87, no. 3 (December 2000): 1099-101.

[In the following excerpt, Hochberg states that although Novick's central argument in The Holocaust in American Life is sound, he misunderstands what causes the impact of the Holocaust on American culture.]

A number of recent works attempt to explain the phenomenon of the “Americanization” of the Holocaust and the prominent role that this European event has increasingly come to play in the consciousness of American Jews and Americans in general. Peter Novick's book [The Holocaust in American Life] is both a history of this development and a polemic against this trend. He traces the growth of Holocaust awareness during the past six decades, touching on what he sees as significant milestones: the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973, the television mini-series “Holocaust” in 1978, and the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1993. Although he pays too little attention to the crucial impact of the Vietnam War and its aftermath on the growing American awareness of war crimes issues, his history is generally sound.

It is difficult to quarrel with Novick's warnings about the trivialization of the Holocaust as this event enters the mainstream of American popular culture. Novick also correctly questions the supposedly obvious “lessons” we are all to learn from the events of 1933-1945. His arguments are most sound and useful when he raises questions about the cultural and political uses of the Holocaust. When he analyzes the historical causes for the growth of Holocaust awareness, however, he is less persuasive, both in his analysis of American Jewry's interest in the Holocaust and in his sense of the American heartland.

Novick argues that the lack of attention paid by American Jews to the Holocaust and its survivors in the 1940s and 1950s was due to the increasing integration and acceptance of Jews into American society, even during the war years (“When those little Yellow-bellies meet the Cohens and the Kellys,” went a popular wartime song he cites). Jews, along with other Americans, shared in the “ebullient mood” of the postwar period, and Americans repudiated anti-Semitism. Novick asserts that Holocaust survivors (the term was rarely used during the 1940s), like other Americans, desired more to forget the past than to dwell on it.

According to Novick, attention to the Holocaust in American Jewish life increased dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s because the optimism of the postwar years had soured. American Jews, he argues, developed an unhealthy anxiety about Jewish identity and Israel, were rapidly assimilating, and no longer had much in common. Thus this increasingly conservative and fragmented Jewish community and its leaders clutched at the Holocaust to fill an “identity void” in a rapidly disintegrating group.

Novick's nostalgic view leads him astray. While there is little doubt that anti-Semitism waned in the decades after the war when compared to the virulent anti-Semitism of the 1930s and early 1940s, during the immediate postwar years, according to Leonard Dinnerstein and others, more than half the American population expressed strongly anti-Semitic feelings and did not want to go to work with, live near, or go to school with Jews. The spirit of that age was captured by Laura Hobson in the novel Gentleman's Agreement (1947). The public attitude toward refugees and survivors was, if anything, even more hostile, as the history of the struggle to admit displaced persons between 1945 and 1950 illustrates. When Rep. William Stratton of Illinois proposed a bill to allow displaced persons into the United States in 1947, a political adviser told him that “Nobody in Illinois, outside of Jews, wants any more Jews in this country” (Dinnerstein, Anti-Semitism in America, 1994, page 161).

In such an atmosphere, American Jews were not encouraged to pay much public attention to the Holocaust and its survivors. Nor is it surprising that the American Jewish community in the last three decades, far more accepted and secure, was able to give public expression to mourning and memorialization for their murdered co-religionists. In fact, the trajectory of the history of slavery and the Armenian genocide has followed a similar path in America: the greater the self-confidence of the group, the more public its agenda and the narrative of its historical calamities. Moreover, Novick offers little hard evidence for his assertion that the American Jewish community embraced the Holocaust because of its fragmentation, disappearing identity, and increased conservatism. A very recent (April 2000) Zogby poll of six American ethnic groups found that American Jews have a greater sense of common bond, greater communal feeling, and a more positive sense of identity than all but one of the others. The Holocaust, moreover, appears to be far less central to this identity than religion, Israel, and liberalism. Throughout his work, Novick pays far too much attention to the machinations of (sometimes obscure) Jewish leaders and mistakes their concerns for those of American Jews.

Even more serious is Novick's misunderstanding of the causes of the impact of the Holocaust on American society. Holocaust awareness became part of the American agenda, according to Novick, as a result of media manipulation, ethnic fragmentation, the popularity of “victim” narratives, and the machinations of Jewish leaders. He relies far too heavily on the supposed influence of Jewish mass media moguls to explain popular American interest in the subject. Although the mass media certainly helped to some extent to draw attention to the Holocaust, that does not provide a sufficiently convincing explanation. The events of the 1933-1945 period resonate deeply in the American psyche for reasons that have little to do with Jews, Jewish leaders, the media, or “competitive victimization.” The issues ordinary Americans (selectively) see and respond to in those events are clearly American preoccupations: abuse of governmental power, racism the extent of responsibility for one's neighbor, above all the embodiment of Adolf Hitler as Absolute Evil. Those themes have powerful resonance in American history. Americans, heirs to a (often secularized) sectarian Protestant tradition, tend to view historical events as moral dramas, which they then integrate into their civic culture. Nor is it entirely true that those events “have nothing to do” with the United States, for Americans know that they took place during a war in which eleven million Americans fought. This was America's “good war,” in fact the only unambiguously good war in the nation's history, and it was good precisely because Hitler, the embodiment of everything that was “un-American,” was defeated. This is probably why the Vietnam War, with its moral ambiguities, created such fertile ground for the current interest in the Holocaust.

Jeremy D. Popkin (review date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Popkin, Jeremy D. “Holocaust Memory: Bad for the Jews?” Judaism 50, no. 1 (winter 2001): 112-17.

[In the following review of The Holocaust in American Life, Popkin questions whether or not Novick sees any value in the maintenance of a distinctive Jewish identity in American culture.]

Imagine a well-meaning person—Jewish or non-Jewish—who has been moved by a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, who has waded through historical accounts and memoirs on the topic, and who then picks up Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life. How will he or she react to the discovery that a prominent Jewish American historian now condemns the entire effort to remember and comprehend the Jewish catastrophe of 1933-1945 as yet one more trend that is “bad for the Jews”? Just when Jews and Gentiles seemed to have agreed that knowledge of the Holocaust should be part of every modern citizen's moral education, Novick comes along to announce that the event has no significant lessons to teach any of us, and that dwelling on it could even be construed as a “posthumous victory for Hitler” (281). For those who have not kept up with the increasingly arcane scholarly arguments about how the Holocaust should be represented, the effect of reading Novick's polemic is likely to be bewilderment at best, shock and resentment at worst.

To be sure, the appearance of a book like Novick's was almost inevitable. The enormous growth in interest in the Holocaust over the past few decades has generated its share of unseemly side effects, epitomized in the often-cited phrase, “There's no business like Shoah business.” The study of the Holocaust is now strongly institutionalized, even if Novick's reference to “thousands of full-time Holocaust professionals dedicated to keeping its memory alive” (277) is surely exaggerated. Indeed, the study of how Holocaust memory has developed has become a growth industry in its own right, inspiring books like James Young's The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (1993) and Edward Linenthal's Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum (1995). The novelty of Novick's argument is his claim that the interest in the Holocaust is not just excessive and sometimes inappropriately expressed, but that the phenomenon is dangerous to American Jews and misguided for American society in general. Novick began his scholarly career thirty years ago with a study that noted how exaggerated claims about the number of victims claimed by the purges that followed France's liberation in 1944 had poisoned that country's public life, and, although he does not dispute the figures for Jewish losses during the war, The Holocaust in American Life often reads as though Novick thinks he is dealing with a similar situation in the United States.

Novick announces at the outset his doubt that “the prominent role the Holocaust has come to play in both American Jewish and general American discourse is as desirable a development as most people seem to think it is” (1) and concludes, almost 300 pages later, that “it would be an even greater posthumous victory for Hitler were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience” (281), Along the way, he dismisses every justification that has been advanced for commemorating or studying the Holocaust in the United States. He finds it “striking … how ‘un-Jewish’—how Christian” recent Holocaust commemoration has become, with its emphasis on Jews as victims (11). The events of the Holocaust were too extreme to teach useful lessons for contemporary life. Rather than increasing sensitivity to oppression in the present, consciousness of the Holocaust “works in precisely the opposite direction, trivializing crimes of lesser magnitude” (14). In any event, “contemplating the Holocaust is virtually cost-free: a few cheap tears” (15). Those who blame the American government for not having done enough to prevent the tragedy are a “prosecution team” whose writings “devalue the notion of historical responsibility” and divert attention from “those responsibilities that do belong to Americans as they confront their past, their present, and their future” (48, 15).

The Holocaust in American Life operates on two levels. On one level, it is an analysis of how the events which we now sum up under the label “The Holocaust” have been described and understood in American culture over the past fifty years. On another, it is a jeremiad for the decline of a certain kind of American and Jewish liberalism and a warning of the fragility of a collective identity based on identification with the victims of one of history's greatest tragedies. For the most part, Novick's review of how the present-day representation of the Holocaust developed follows what has become the conventional scholarly wisdom. American Jews, and the general American public, were well aware of Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Reports about mass killings and death camps circulated during the war, but the details were often contradictory and hard to believe. The liberation of German concentration camps in 1945 dramatized what had happened to the Jews, but the “Final Solution” was subsumed in a larger reaction against the Nazis' “crimes against humanity” and the term “Holocaust,” used to distinguish the killing of Jews from other atrocities, only appeared later. Israel's capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s greatly increased awareness of the specificity of German crimes against the Jews, and the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 created circumstances in which American Jewish leaders found it important to link the two events. As the mood of the American Jewish community changed in the 1970s and 1980s, emphasis on the Holocaust served to maintain a sense of Jewish identity and to justify concern with expressions of anti-Semitism. Novick notes the importance of the media in spreading interest in the Holocaust among the general American public, citing the examples of the 1978 Holocaust mini-series and Schindler's List, and discusses the institutionalization of Holocaust memory in school curricula and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In telling this story, Novick rarely misses a chance to put the worst spin on the motives of those involved in the events he discusses. He describes the failure of American Jews to put rescue of Hitler's victims at the top of their agenda, for example, as a “decision to ‘write off’ European Jewry and concentrate on building for the future … based on a thoughtful, if chilling, appraisal of what was and was not possible” (44). This characterization hardly does justice to the atmosphere of confusion—both about what was happening to the European Jews and about what the actual possibilities for helping them were—in which American Jewish leaders had to work. It is characteristic of Novick's tone that everyone involved in postwar discussions of the Holocaust comes off looking manipulative, self-interested, or misguided. Noting that, in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was a tendency to urge survivors not to dwell on their experiences, he writes,

There is, in fact, an eerie symmetry between the messages survivors received in the forties and fifties and those of the eighties and nineties. Earlier, they were told that even if they wanted to speak of the Holocaust, they shouldn't—it was bad for them. Later they were told that even if they didn't want to speak of it, they must—it was good for them. In both cases others knew what was best.


American Jews who spontaneously boycotted German goods during the 1950s were wasting their time—the reparations agreement with Germany meant that Israel was being flooded with German exports during the same years (109). If Holocaust scholarship after 1980 began to give increased attention to the role “bystanders” played during the war, this was not an effort to better understand what had happened, but a way of pointing the finger at all Gentiles, not just the Germans (179).

The point to Novick's book is not merely to trace the changing image of the Holocaust, however, but to argue that the growing emphasis on it since the 1960s has been a change for the worse. In his view, American Jews and American culture as a whole distanced themselves from the event during the 1940s and 1950s because they were focused on real issues that concerned the future, such as the threat of nuclear weapons, and because it was a period of optimism and “those whose outlook is basically optimistic and universalist—as Americans, including American Jews, were in the fifties—are not going to be inclined to center the Holocaust in their consciousness” (114). Even as he stresses the positive tone of the postwar period, however, Novick does, somewhat contradictorily, point out that Jews also hesitated to emphasize the subject for fear of stirring up anti-Semitism, a phenomenon whose persistence into the 1950s he documented in his well-received study of American university historians, That Noble Dream: “The Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988). Among other things, he provides a choice selection of press citations showing how forcefully charges of Jewish “vengefulness” surfaced after the capture of Eichmann in 1960. Fears that the Eichmann affair would provoke an anti-Semitic backlash proved unfounded and the trial did a great deal to promote discussion of the Holocaust, but Novick sees the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 as more critical in this process, because appealing to the memory of the six million became “a deliberate strategy for mobilizing support for Israel among American Jews, among the general American public, and in the American government” (165). Ironically, in Novick's view, this effort was too successful: by the mid-1980s, as doubts about Israel's policies grew, “the Holocaust offered a substitute symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity” that threatened to divert support from the Jewish state (168).

American Jews' increased interest in the Holocaust, in Novick's view, was a sign of unfortunate changes in the American Jewish community. “Formerly, Jewish organizations had had an outward orientation, had emphasized building bridges between Jews and gentiles, had stressed what Jews had in common with other Americans,” he writes. “Now there was an inward turn, an insistence on the defense of separate Jewish interests … a shift away from the posture of the earlier period when American Jews rejected the status of ‘victim community’” (171). The Jewish community became more politically conservative and took up an unseemly form of “identity politics” (189). (Novick acknowledges that Jews in the 1980s and 1990s continued to vote more heavily for liberal candidates than any other ethnic group except blacks, and even cites a claim that “‘Jewish money’ comprises about half the funding” of the Democratic Party (335), but dismisses this as a liberalism confined to “questions of sexual morality, like abortion and gay rights” (183).) He finds it especially deplorable that Jews used the Holocaust to “trump American crimes against what was, by an equally wide margin, the least advantaged group,” namely, blacks (194). Novick insists that this evolution was “by no means a spontaneous development” and attributes it largely to conscious decisions by “communal leaders,” although he admits that the end result—an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust—was not their conscious aim.

The result of all this, in Novick's view, has been an American Jewish community in which a shared identification with the victims of the Holocaust has become the only common element. Beyond citing the familiar figures for intermarriage, Novick's evidence for this claim is impressionistic at best. He notes that there has been little support for efforts to make commemoration of the Holocaust a major element in Jewish religious ritual; he does not note that the success of Schindler's List or of the drive to build the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., owed a great deal to non-Jewish interest. Even Novick's assertion that the leadership of the American Jewish community continues to use the Holocaust as its main argument to win support for Israel is exaggerated. Whether their claims have been justifiable or not, Israel's advocates have tended to put more stress on the country's value as a strategic asset, its status as a functioning democracy, and sometimes on its place in the hearts of Christians.

If it were really true that American Jews now overwhelmingly embraced a self-image of themselves as “pariahs” and were in the process of isolating themselves from their Gentile fellow citizens, there might be some basis for Novick's concerns. The very statistics on inter-marriage that Novick cites would seem to point to the opposite conclusion, however: the younger generation of American can Jews seems, if anything, too comfortable with its place in American society. In recognizing the issue posed by rising rates of intermarriage, Novick paradoxically aligns himself with the professional community leaders he so often criticizes. The only difference is that, whereas the standard complaint about the danger of assimilation is made in the name of an imagined community of shared and distinctively Jewish values, Novick's nostalgia is for an equally imaginary past in which all Jews were dedicated to values of universal justice and willing to forego any claims on behalf of their own group. The question hanging over Novick's book is whether he sees any value at all in the maintenance of a distinctive Jewish identity. His argument questions the existence of any real connection between American Jews and those elsewhere; he repeatedly points out that the events of the Holocaust took place on another continent and are therefore not a legitimate basis for the formation of an American collective identity (2). Where Novick thinks this argument logically leads is, however, unclear. Is his answer complete assimilation, or the reconstitution of American Jewish life on some totally new and undefined basis? Aside from suggesting that American Jews recognize the superior moral claims of African-Americans, Novick provides no hint of an answer.

Although Novick's book is addressed to a general audience, the heavy footnoting demonstrates that it is also intended as a contribution to Holocaust scholarship. Curiously, however, he says little about the role this scholarship has played in generating concern about the Holocaust, even though Holocaust studies is one area where academic publication has reached an audience well beyond the bounds of the campus. Raul Hilberg's name comes up in connection with the debate over Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, but his The Destruction of the European Jews, one of the fundamental building blocks of our current understanding of the Holocaust, is never referred to. Other Holocaust scholars mentioned—Lucy Dawidowicz, David Wyman, Steven Katz—receive this honor only because Novick chooses to cite them as egregious examples of tendencies he deplores. He is quick to pronounce on involved historiographical debates, asserting, for example, that Auschwitz could not have been successfully bombed and that the prisoners would have opposed such action because they “knew that liberation was near at hand” (55), a statement that ignores the fact that the Germans actually succeeded in transferring most of their surviving prisoners to other camps or killing them en route.

There are thus many grounds on which Novick's book can be criticized, but the essential question is whether his dire vision of the results of Holocaust memorialization is appropriate. Novick's polemic certainly throws the baby out with the bathwater. For him, the fact that the only incontrovertible lessons the Holocaust seems to teach are that no atrocities are beyond the realm of possibility and that “civilized” peoples can behave in barbaric ways means that it is not worth drawing attention to this catastrophe (262); others may feel that these lessons are by no means unimportant. Novick's deep pessimism, both about the condition of American Jewry and about the “decline in America of an integrationist ethos (which focused on what Americans have in common and what unites us) … (6) leads him to an essentially nihilist conclusion: since historical memory is always subject to distortion and history's lessons are always uncertain, there seems to be no point in studying the past at all.

Fellow historians may be tempted to link this argument to the conclusion of Novick's earlier volume on the American historical profession. There, too, Novick ended on a note of gloom, writing that “as a broad community of discourse, as a community of scholars united by common aims, common standards, and common purposes, the discipline of history had ceased to exist” (Noble Dream, 628). Many other historians saw the multiplicity of new perspectives on history that Novick lamented as evidence that the discipline was in fact alive and well. Similarly, it is possible to interpret the increased consciousness of the Holocaust that Novick documents quite differently from the way he does. Rather than leading most American Jews to fear and distrust their Gentile neighbors, the current emphasis on the Holocaust seems to have reassured the Jewish community that their concerns are taken seriously by the culture at large. The Holocaust Museum may not teach about the American past, but it does give Jews a presence in this country's most important symbolic space, as Edward Linenthal has pointed out in Preserving Memory. Awareness of the Holocaust has not totally transformed American life or American values, but it has unquestionably influenced debates about whether this country should intervene to protect endangered groups in other countries, and it has had and continues to have a transformative effect on American Christianity, forcing a re-examination of traditional theological attitudes toward Judaism. Rather than blotting out attention to the injustices suffered by other ethnic groups, it has often opened the way for greater recognition of them—Steven Spielberg, after all, followed up Schindler's List with Amistad. For all the paradoxes involved in stressing the importance of a horrible catastrophe that took place a half century ago and half a world away the impact of awareness about the Holocaust in American life has been a good deal more constructive than Novick's polemic would have us believe.

Lawrence Baron (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Baron, Lawrence. “Experiencing, Explaining, and Exploiting the Holocaust.” Judaism 50, no. 2 (spring 2001): 158-75.

[In the following excerpt, Baron discusses several recent books on the Holocaust, including The Holocaust in American Life, commenting that Novick's book represents a warning against using the memory of the Holocaust as a means of advancing Jewish identity or other political agendas.]

The number of Holocaust memoirs being published has increased dramatically in the last few years as more and more survivors feel an urgent obligation to document their wartime experiences as concentration camp inmates, ghetto dwellers, hidden fugitives, partisans, or refugees before they die. Similarly, the corpus of scholarly literature about the Holocaust grows unabatedly as the event itself recedes further into the past. A quick look at the website under the subject heading of “Holocaust” lists over 3,000 titles on the topic.

This proliferation of publications about the Shoah recently prompted the librarian in charge of purchasing books at the university where I teach to question my habit of ordering every new book on the Holocaust for the library's collection. He reminded me that many new Holocaust memoirs were being published by vanity presses and replicated what our students could learn about the plight of the Jews under Nazism from the substantial holdings on this subject which our library already possessed. Although I initially resented his criticism, I eventually acknowledged that some of the books I automatically had approved for purchase were neither well-written nor novel contributions to understanding the Holocaust. I have come to view the vast body of autobiographies and studies on the Holocaust as a pointillist painting. Each personal account and scholarly analysis of different aspects of the Holocaust fills in a small space on a canvas which, viewed from a distance, reveals the contours and details of Germany's attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe, as well as the spectrum of Jewish and Gentile responses to this state-sanctioned policy of genocide. With this metaphor in mind, I recognize that there are memoirs and studies of the Holocaust that constitute only a bit of barely perceptible shading in the overall picture we have of this complex event. Yet as a historian, I feel even this shading may be useful and important in helping us piece together the complete picture. …

How the Holocaust has been selectively remembered to shape the postwar national identities and politics in Germany, collaborating countries, the Allied powers, and Israel has been the topic of a growing number of studies over the past decade.1 The most recent literature not only explores this theme from the vantage point of public commemoration, but also from the perspective of how the graphic, literary, and performing arts create aesthetic forms to communicate the Holocaust experience to contemporary audiences.2 Scholars are also now looking beyond 1945 to the postwar restoration of decimated Jewish communities in Europe, the political role played by Holocaust survivors in Israel and the United States, and the continuing impact of the Shoah on international law, philosophy, and theology.3

In the process of writing this synopsis of recent trends in Holocaust research, I feel like a literary Sorcerer's Apprentice who has conjured up far more books than I can possibly review. I did so deliberately with the intention of dispelling a fear that is often articulated by Holocaust survivors and scholars alike—namely, that the Holocaust may be forgotten or denied altogether when the last survivor dies.4 The profusion of scholarly and popular works about the Holocaust and the rapid growth of high school curriculum units and college courses about the Shoah stand as concrete proof that this fear is unsubstantiated. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even authors like Tim Cole who are sharply critical of the “mass marketing” of the Holocaust cite the American Jewish Committee's Poll of 1993 that found high percentages of American adults and high school students “either do not know or offer incorrect answers to the question ‘What does the term “the Holocaust” refer to?’” (186). When the findings of this poll were challenged on the grounds that the questions were ambiguously worded, the American Jewish Committee commissioned another poll in which the meaning of the questions was clarified. The results were far more positive with only 1.1٪ of those polled doubting the Holocaust ever happened and another 8.8٪ saying they didn't know enough about the Holocaust to answer the question.5

In his path-breaking study While America Watches, Jeffrey Shandler traces the popularization of the Holocaust in American culture through the medium of television. Immediately following the Second World War, American movie audiences viewed the grisly newsreel films of the mounds of corpses and the remnant of dazed skeletal survivors encountered by the Allied troops who “liberated” the German concentration and death camps. The United States' prosecution team at Nuremberg edited this footage into an hour-long documentary entitled Nazi Concentration Camps and entered it as evidence of German war crimes and crimes against humanity to bolster the Allied case against the German defendants. In the 1950s, scenes from the film were often spliced into television documentaries about World War Two like Crusade in Europe,Victory at Sea, and The Twisted Cross. Playhouse 90's 1959 production of Judgment at Nuremberg also featured wrenching scenes from this film. The Holocaust occasionally served as a theme on early television shows like This Is Your Life,The Eternal Light,Philco Television Playhouse,Studio One, and Frontiers of Faith, and subsequently provided the plot line for episodes of popular television series like The Twilight Zone,Star Trek,All in the Family, and Lou Grant. Shandler devotes entire chapters to the televising of the Eichmann Trial in 1961 and the miniseries Holocaust in 1978. He convincingly argues that these two broadcasts paved the way for the frequent usage of the Holocaust as the subject of TV documentaries and dramas in the last two decades. While recognizing how television tends to trivialize the Holocaust by presenting its viewers with a comforting subtext that explains the genocide of the Jews as the product of an “un-American” authoritarianism, charismatic dictatorship, mass hysteria, or religious bigotry, Shandler convincingly demonstrates that television has elevated the Holocaust into “a powerful and daunting presence in the nation's cultural landscape, achieving the status of a master moral paradigm” (xviii).

Since, as Shandler amply demonstrates, the Holocaust has become a “household word” in contemporary America, then the concern of Holocaust survivors and scholars should cease to be over whether the Holocaust will be forgotten or denied, but rather over how and why it is being remembered. Both Tim Cole's Selling the Holocaust and Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life grapple with these issues and conclude that commemorations, museums, and popular depictions of the Holocaust draw obvious “lessons” from the event reflecting the political priorities of their creators or sponsors.

To Novick, the representation of Holocaust history and the public memorialization of the event in the United States rarely have been exercises in the objective documentation and remembrance of historical facts. Instead, the “facts” have been selected in ways that affirm uncontested assumptions about the relevance of the Holocaust to American history in general or to Jewish identity in particular. Novick's analysis of Holocaust commemoration should not be misconstrued as a form of Holocaust denial, but rather as a warning against reducing the Holocaust to trite lessons that enhance Jewish identity or advance a variety of contemporary causes.

He begins his book by reminding us that during World War Two, not only the Roosevelt Administration, but most Jewish organizations as well, downplayed the Jewish animus of Nazi atrocities. In December of 1942 the Allied Powers issued a joint declaration with the nations of the fledgling United Nations denouncing Germany's “intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.”6 Novick, however, presents ample evidence that government officials did not want to draw attention to reports of Jewish genocide since this might give isolationist critics of American intervention in Europe “proof” that the United States was fighting Germany just to mollify Roosevelt's Jewish supporters or might strain American-British relations since Palestine was an obvious and nearby destination for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. Novick reasonably argues that the majority of American Jewry backed the policy of “rescue through victory” as the most efficacious form of saving European Jewry and deliberately eschewed the kind of strident Jewish nationalistic appeals of groups like the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe in order to counter accusations of having dual loyalties.

Novick reiterates Henry Feingold's assessment that retrospective condemnations of how American Jewry failed to act on behalf of their European co-religionists represent ahistorical projections of American Jewry's postwar status and power onto the deeply divided and relatively insecure American Jewish community of the 1930s and 1940s. After the war, American Jews tended to downplay the image of Jews as victims and identified more with the chalutzim who took Jewish fate into their own hands and built modern Israel. As the last vestiges of anti-Semitic residential and social discrimination disappeared as a result of the Civil Rights movement, Jews increasingly engaged in a parochial politics modeled after the “Black Power” and ethnic revival movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.7 From the vantage point of this Jewish militancy, American Jews questioned the timidity of their wartime leaders to lobby the Roosevelt administration to rescue European Jews and conveniently forgot that when it was happening, the Holocaust usually was considered part of the larger civilian and military carnage left in the wake of World War Two.

Following the defeat of Germany, the Jewish survivors in Europe constituted part of the broader influx of “Displaced Persons” whom the Allies had to rehabilitate and resettle. Novick maintains that their ordeal was overshadowed by other momentous events like the suicide of Hitler, the bloody battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, V-J day, and the emergence of the Cold War. Although it has become almost axiomatic that guilt for what had befallen European Jewry tipped the debate in the United Nations in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, Novick echoes the conclusion of an Israeli historian “that a great majority of UN members considered the Palestine question in terms of concrete interests and political realities rather than (in terms of) any feeling of remorse” (71). After citing the spectrum of Jewish opinion over whether the debilitated DP's could ever be productive citizens of the new Jewish state or whether they should immigrate to the United States instead of Israel, Novick provides evidence that in both countries survivors initially were marginalized and told to put their traumatic memories behind them.

It is unfortunate that Novick did not have a chance to read Shandler's manuscript because it shows how the consciousness of the Holocaust seeped into American public memory even in the politically quiescent Fifties through television documentaries and dramas. By dismissing the book and movie versions of Leon Uris's Exodus as “schlock fiction” (157), Novick underestimates the impact of popular culture in forming the common ideas and images of the Holocaust and Israel held by many Americans. In 1947 the consciousness of Nazi genocide prompted the making of the first two feature films exposing American anti-Semitism, Crossfire and Gentleman's Agreement. The associations of Israel as the natural refuge for Holocaust survivors, of Nazi anti-Semitism with Arab anti-Zionism, or of Israel's struggle against neighboring Arab states with the American Revolution were explicit themes in movies like Sword in the Desert (1949), The Juggler (1953), Hill 24 Doesn't Answer (1955), and Exodus (1960).8 Personally, I recall how deeply imprinted on my mind these notions were after viewing the movie Exodus as a 13-year-old on a Hebrew school field trip for boys whose bar-mitzvah year coincided with the thirteenth Anniversary of the founding of Israel.

What brought the Holocaust to the forefront of American Jewish consciousness, Novick argues, was a conjuncture of Jewish concerns that served as a catalyst for increased Jewish anxiety about the survival of Judaism in the United States and the security of Israel in the Middle East. If Israel's resounding defeat of its Arab neighbors in 1967 reversed the Holocaust image of Jews as passive victims, the Yom Kippur War and Israel's subsequent international isolation revived fears that Jews were destined to be an embattled people always struggling to survive against an omnipresent anti-Semitism that could be ignited into another Holocaust by cultural diplomatic, economic, or political crises. In the same period, Jewish liberals and leftists who had championed African-American and Third World causes found themselves alienated by the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that often was espoused by militant spokespersons for these causes.

Although the polling data tracked a continuous decline in the levels of Gentile anti-Semitism in the United States, many American Jews saw parallels between their status and that of the German Jews before the rise of Nazism. A conspicuously successful minority, no matter how acculturated, easily could serve as the lightning rod for popular discontent. Thus, the Holocaust, which had been the great exception to the trajectory of emancipated Jewry in Western Europe and the United States, was transformed into a cautionary tale about American Jewish identity. The “lessons of the Holocaust” increasingly were invoked to discredit anything which might adversely affect Jews and Judaism like affirmative action, the high rate of Jewish intermarriage, and public criticism of Israeli policies. Orienting their identity around the “uniqueness of the Holocaust,” many American Jews laid claim to a kind of “hereditary victimhood”9 to justify Jewish political parochialism, rationalize Israeli belligerency, or minimize the historical suffering of other oppressed minorities like African-Americans or Gypsies.

Novick documents the successes of American Jewish organizations in placing the Holocaust at the center of American collective memory. The building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on what is America's secular version of sacred space, the inclusion of Holocaust units in the public school curricula of numerous states, and the popularization of the Holocaust through the television miniseries “Holocaust,” box office successes like Schindler's List, and civic commemorations of Yom-Hashoah attest to how a European Jewish event has been integrated into America's national identity. Novick worries that the American preoccupation with the Holocaust enables the United States to shirk dealing with the long-term legacy of its own human rights abuses like the internment of Japanese Americans, native American massacres and relocation, and slavery and institutionalized discrimination against African-Americans. He expresses his concern that the Holocaust is exploited to maintain Jewish identity by creating a gnawing anxiety among American Jews that they always will be potential victims. On this last point, he echoes the sentiments of Jewish writers like Michael Goldberg and Anne Roiphe.10

One searches in vain in Novick's book for references to Marc Ellis's Jewish variation of liberation theology,11 or to scholars who analyze the similarities, and not just the differences, between the Holocaust and other Genocides like Israel Charny, Frank Chalk, Irving Louis Horowitz, Leo Kuper, or Robert Melson.12 James E. Young, the pioneering researcher on how collective memory is influenced by Holocaust memorials, is relegated to two footnotes. Yet Young has noted that the diversity of American society has generated a multiplicity of lessons that are derived from the Holocaust. As he keenly has observed, “In America the motives for memory of the Holocaust are as mixed as the population at large, the reasons variously lofty and cynical, practical and aesthetic.”13

I think Novick underestimates how much public interest in the Holocaust derives from the frightening scale of the genocide itself and that it was committed by a modern industrialized state. Genuine curiosity about such an unnerving subject does not have to be artificially manufactured by the major American Jewish organizations. The majority of the students enrolled in my history of the Holocaust course are not Jewish. The complex debates among scholars of the Holocaust which I cover in the course does not satiate those who are seeking easy answers to their questions about why the Shoah occurred and why most Jews and Gentiles in Europe and the United States stood idly by. I concur with the historian Michael Marrus who praised the overall quality of academic works about the Holocaust for being “accounts of the past that challenge received wisdom by deepening understanding, standing up to intense critical enquiry, posing challenging questions, and reaching plausible answers, firmly grounded in evidence.”14

Tim Cole's Selling the Holocaust traverses the same territory as Novick's book, but does so in a more meandering fashion. Cole traces the manner in which the Holocaust has been popularized through media depictions of three key figures, Anne Frank, Adolf Eichmann, and Oskar Schindler, and by three Holocaust memorials, Auschwitz, Yad Vashem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Cole analyzes how the public representations of these people and the implicit messages conveyed by these museums structure Holocaust memory into a set of myths which are at variance with the dismaying history of the Holocaust. For example, the Anne Frank House Museum, the first edition of her diary, and the play and movie versions based on it portrayed Anne as an innocent victim of Nazi racism whose optimism in the goodness of humankind could be achieved in Western democracies. Her Jewishness and the role of Dutch collaborators in her betrayal were minimized to communicate this liberal myth. Cole worries that the myth then comes to stand as a substitute for historical reality and in turn provides grist for Holocaust deniers who find faults in the myth. Thus, Holocaust deniers opportunistically have seized upon the expurgation of Anne's diary by her father and the subsequent publication of the “critical” and “definitive” versions of her diary as “proof” that it originally was a forgery.15

There are two main problems with Cole's approach. First, any arbitrary list of “representative” people and places associated with the Holocaust is bound to omit other key characters and locations that reflect different aspects of how the Holocaust is remembered. Elie Wiesel's account of a Jewish childhood scarred by the existential wounds inflicted in Auschwitz provides a grim contrast to the vision of Anne Frank. Wiesel's international prominence has led his readers to understand the depths of degradation and deprivation endured in the death camps. He has utilized his stature to act as a moral gadfly for world leaders to intervene on behalf of other persecuted minorities. Cole argues that Wiesel's interrogation of God for allowing the Holocaust to happen has contributed much to the mystification of the Holocaust as a supernatural event which defies conventional explanations.

Cole condemns “Shoah business” because it distorts the truth about the Holocaust and thereby provides fodder for those who claim that the Holocaust never happened, and concludes his book with this contention, “In many ways Holocaust denial has emerged only within the context of the emergence of the myth of the ‘Holocaust.’ It was not until the ‘Holocaust’ emerged as an iconic event that it was perceived to be an event which was deemed worth denying” (188).

This is a dubious proposition. The first major American denier of the Holocaust was Harry Elmer Barnes. His rejection of the Holocaust “myth” was a continuation of his philo-German stance that dated back to his defense of Germany against its punishment as the most culpable aggressor in launching World War One. The motivations for Holocaust denial are varied: neo-Nazism, German patriotism, anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and intellectual iconoclasm.16 The popularization of the Holocaust is hardly the cause of Holocaust denial. The more the Holocaust becomes the theme of journalism, popular culture, and tourism, the more it will be simplified and sometimes fictionalized. That is why I must return to the point I raised about Novick's book. Even though academics intentionally or unintentionally inject their own ethnic, gender, political, racial, religious, or social biases into their scholarship, the scrutiny that their works undergo in the acceptance process for publication by scholarly publishers and journals and then by their peers who review their works in the journals of their respective disciplines provides the “objective” grounding for the field of Holocaust Studies.17

Given the flood of articles, memoirs, monographs, movies, novels, and works of art about the Holocaust, what is sorely needed to prevent the myths of the Holocaust from overshadowing the scholarly literature about it is concise and lucid overviews of this overwhelming amount of data. Michael Marrus accomplished this in his brilliant synthesis of Holocaust historiography, The Holocaust in History, which was published in the late 1980s.18 The anthology The Holocaust: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, which was compiled under the auspices of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, updates the public on the state of Holocaust research in the 1990s, but since this volume is over 800 pages long, it may not attract a large readership.19 Currently, the best short introduction to Holocaust scholarship is Inga Clendinnen's Reading the Holocaust. Clendinnen, a distinguished anthropologist and scholar of Aztec and Mayan culture, concedes that she has studied the Holocaust as an “outsider” who is writing for a lay audience. The grace of her prose and the clarity of her explanations deftly cut to the quick of the scholarly debates about those who ordered and implemented the “Final Solution” and those who experienced it as victims or resisters. She never trivializes the material, and she gives her readers much to reflect upon, whether they agree or disagree with her conclusions.

The only weak part of Clendinnen's book is the last chapter which deals with artistic representations of the Holocaust. Here she too quickly agrees with those who question whether artists can render an authentic vision of the Holocaust within traditional aesthetic forms. As she sees it,

The Jews huddled in Schindler's ark live; Styron's Sophie survives to relive her impossible choice—but can such stories help us grasp how it was in that place, where everyone lived in the realistic expectation of death, and where nearly everyone died? Ordinary rules of dramatic narrative must as least suspend if they do not implicitly deny that great fact.


The meaning of any human experience is comprehended in a variety of ways: academically, artistically, psychologically, and theologically. No one would criticize Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities for depicting only a tiny part of the reality of the French Revolution. The novel works as a panoramic piece of historical fiction precisely because of its literary quality. Feature films, novels, paintings, poetry, sculpture, and theater based on events from the Holocaust need to be judged according to the criteria appropriate to each medium. They transmit “truths” about the Holocaust that affect their readers and viewers at a deeply emotional level which usually is lacking in the sober analysis and specialized terminology of Holocaust scholarship.20 Academics usually are too quick to dismiss the impact of movies like Schindler's List. Clendinnen compares it unfavorably to Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary Shoah. Yet Spielberg's film was viewed by 65,000,000 people when it aired on American television. I doubt that more than a million persons throughout the world ever have seen all 8-1/2 hours of Shoah. The more Holocaust scholars can bridge the gap between academic analysis and popular perceptions of the Holocaust and come to appreciate the particular strengths of other modes of representing it, the less we will have to fear from those who would turn the Holocaust into pap for the masses for the sake of politics or profit.


  1. The first survey of this subject was presented in Judith Miller, One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990). It has been followed by many studies of how the memory and memorialization of the Holocaust reflects and shapes the public opinion and policy in the countries directly or indirectly affected by the event. For examples, see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993); Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum (New York: Viking Press, 1995); Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Meridian Press, 1995); David Wyman and Charles H. Rosenzveig, eds., The World Reacts to the Holocaust (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Dick van Galen Last and Rolf Wolfswinkel, Dutch Holocaust Literature in Historical Perspective (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996); Dan Diner, ed., Beyond the Conceivable: Studies on Germany, Nazism, and the Holocaust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Jeffery Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Michael Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997); Mary Fulbrook, German National Identity after the Holocaust (Oxford: Polity Press, 1999); Caroline Alice Riemer, The Claims of Memory: Representations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany and France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

  2. Matthew Baigell, Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Alan L. Berger, Children of Job: Second Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); Hilene Flanzbaum, ed., The Americanization of the Holocaust (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); John Ireland and Claude Schumacher, Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Michael H. Kater, The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Dieter Lamping, Today's Germany and the Jews: The Representation of Jews in Postwar German Literature (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998); Lillian Kremer, Women's Holocaust Writing: Memory and Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999); Andrea Liss, Trespassing Through Shadows: Memory, Photography, and the Holocaust (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); Diana Orendi and Linda E. Feldman, Evolving Jewish Identities in German Culture: Borders and Crossings (Westport: Praeger, 2000); Vivian M. Patraka, Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1999); Pamela M. Potter, The Most German of Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler's Reich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Marc Lee Raphael and Linda Shermer Raphael, eds., When Night Fell: An Anthology of Holocaust Short Stories (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999); Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb, eds., Theatrical Performances During the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Janet E. Rubin, Voices: Plays for Studying the Holocaust (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1999); Daniel R. Schwartz, Imagining the Holocaust (New York: St. Martins Press, 1999); Efraim Sicher, ed., Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory After Auschwitz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Robert Skloot, The Theatre of the Holocaust, Vol. 1 and 2 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999); Marguerite M. Striar, ed., Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998); Nelly Toll, When Memory Speaks: The Holocaust in Art (Westport: Praeger, 1998); Ernst Van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

  3. Howard Ball, Prosecuting War Crimes and Genocide: The Twentieth-Century Experience (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1999); Judith Tydor Baumel, Kibbutz Buchenwald: Survivors and Pioneers (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997); David R. Blumenthal, The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999); Zachary Braiterman, God After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Michael Brenner, After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany, translated by Barbara Harshav (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Norman Geras, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust (New York: Verso, 1998); Stephen R. Haynes, Holocaust Education and the Church Related College (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997); Schlomo Jaacobi, The Religion Instinct: A Reflection on the Origins and Nature of Religious Susceptibility and Its Role in the Holocaust (Toronto: Martin Glynn, 1998); David Jones, Moral Responsibility in the Holocaust: A Study in the Ethics of Character (Lanham: Roman and Littlefield, 1999); Jonathan Kaufman, A Hole in the Heart of the World: The Jewish Experience in Eastern Europe After World War Two (New York: Penguin, 1998); Katherine Knox, Refugees in An Age of Genocide: Global, National, and Local Perspectives During the Twentieth Century (London: Frank Cass, 1999); Berel Lang, The Future of the Holocaust: Between History and Memory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); Theodor Meron, War Crimes Law Comes of Age: Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Martha Minnow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); Mark Osiel, Obeying Orders: Atrocity, Military Discipline, and the Law of War (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1998); John Roth, Leonard Grotb, Peter J. Haas, David H. Hirsch, David Patterson, and Didier Pollefeyt, eds., Ethics After the Holocaust: Perspectives, Critiques, and Responses (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1999); Shlomo Shafir, Ambiguous Relations: The American Jewish Community and Germany Since 1945 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999); Hannah Yablonka, Survivors of the Holocaust: Israel After the War (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999); Idith Zirtal, From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

  4. For example see Deborah Lipstadt, “Holocaust Denial: An Overview,” Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies 8.1 (1994): 7. Lipstadt writes, “Their (Holocaust deniers) objective is to plant seeds of doubt that will bear fruit in coming years, when there are no more survivors or eyewitnesses to attest to the truth.” In the same issue of Dimensions, see Abraham H. Foxman, “Holocaust Denial: The Growing Danger,” Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies 8.1 (1994): 16. Foxman writes, “As survivors of the Nazi genocide pass from the scene, and, as hollow comparisons to the Holocaust proliferate, the danger of losing sight of the Holocaust's uniqueness grows.” Also see Alex Grobman, Arthur Hertzberg, and Michael Shermer, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

  5. Cole and the publishers of his book are doubly guilty of sloppy research and/or editing on this point. They incorrectly attribute the poll to the American Jewish Congress and not the American Jewish Committee and ignore the subsequent discrediting of the first poll by a revised poll that found much higher levels of holocaust familiarity among American adults and high school students and lower percentages of Americans who denied that the Holocaust really had happened. The findings of the original poll were reported in Jennifer Golub and Renee Cohen, What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust? (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1993) and the revised results appeared in Tom Smith, Holocaust Denial: What the Survey Data Reveal (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1995). Also see Lawrence Baron, “Holocaust Awareness and Denial in the United States: The Hype and the Hope,” in Lessons and Legacies: Volume 3: Memory, Memorialization, and Denial, edited by Peter Hayes (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999), pp. 225-235.

  6. David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 75.

  7. Henry L. Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream 1920-1945 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; Henry L. Feingold, Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), pp. 205-276. Compare to Haskel Lookstein, Were We Our Brothers' Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944 (New York: Media Judaica, 1985); Rafael Medoff, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust (New York: Carol Publication Group, 1987).

  8. Lester Friedman, The Jewish Image in American Film (Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1987), pp. 140-156; also see Michelle Mart, “Tough Guys and American Cold War Policy: Images of Israel, 1948-1960,” Diplomatic History 20.3 (Summer 1996): 357-380.

  9. Zygmunt Bauman, “Hereditary Victimhood: The Holocaust's Life as a Ghost,” Tikkun 13.4 (July/August 1998): 33-39.

  10. Michael Goldberg, Why Should Jews Survive? Looking Past the Holocaust Toward a Jewish Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Anne Roiphe, A Season for Healing: Reflections on the Holocaust (New York: Summit Books, 1988);

  11. Marc H. Ellis, Beyond Innocence: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power (New York: Harper Row, 1990); Marc H. Ellis, Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish-Christian Life (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1994).

  12. Israel W. Charny, Genocide: The Human Cancer (New York: Hearst Books, 1982); Israel W. Charny, “Forward,” Is the Holocaust Unique: Perspectives on Comparative Genocide, edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), pp. ix-xv; Israel W. Charny, ed., Toward the Understanding and Prevention of Genocide (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984); Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); Irving Louis Horowitz, Genocide: State Power and Mass Murder (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1977); Leo Kuper, Genocide (New York: Penguin Books, 1981); Robert F. Melson, Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

  13. James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 284,

  14. Michael R. Marrus, “Good History and Teaching the Holocaust,” Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter 31.5 (May/June 1993): 12.

  15. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, translated by B. M. Mooyaart (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967); The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition, edited by David Barnouw and Gerrold Van Der Stroom, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans and B. M. Mooyaart (New York: Doubleday, 1989); Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, edited by Otto H. Frank and Miriam Pressler (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997).

  16. Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Plume Books, 1994), pp. 65-83.

  17. The major journals of Holocaust Studies are: Holocaust and Genocide Studies published by the Holocaust Memorial Museum, The Journal of Genocide Research published by Carfax Publishing Company in the United Kingdom, the collected papers from the annual Scholar's Conferences on the Holocaust and the Churches published by the Edwin Mellen Press, the collected papers from the biennial Lessons and Legacies Conferences published by Northwestern University Press, Yad Vashem Studies published by Yad Vashem, and Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies published by the Anti-Defamation League.

  18. Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1987).

  19. Michael Berenbaum and Abraham Peck, eds., The Holocaust: The Known, The Unknown, The Disputed, and the Reexamined (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1998).

  20. For a discussion of the omission of “emotional understanding as a form of knowledge” in most surveys of public awareness of the Holocaust, see Katherine Bischoping, “Method and Meaning in Holocaust-Knowledge Surveys,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12.3 (Winter 1998): 454-474.

Steve Hochstadt (review date May 2001)

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SOURCE: Hochstadt, Steve. Review of The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick. Modern Judaism 21, no. 2 (May 2001): 184-92.

[In the following review of The Holocaust in American Life, Hochstadt asserts that Novick's historical overview of American popular conceptions of the Holocaust is sound, but that Novick fails to adequately understand the significance of the Holocaust itself.]

The Holocaust in American Life has already made a considerable impact among those in America most concerned with teaching the Holocaust. Due to Peter Novick's reputation as a prize-winning historian, his pointed and scholarly critique of the way the Holocaust is publicly discussed in America has been received respectfully in popular journalistic circles.1 This critique rests upon a profound dissatisfaction with what he sees as unfortunate tendencies in American Jewish life and their connection to the Holocaust. The inward turn of Jews away from ecumenical participation towards a rigid defense of perceived group self-interest; the “growth of victim culture” among American Jews leading to the “sordid game” of “superior victimization” (pp. 8-10); and uncritical support of Israel and Zionism are all closely connected with, if not caused by, Jews “putting the Holocaust at the center of self-understanding” (p. 6). A widespread acceptance of this argument would throw into question the recently developed consensus among American educators that there is value in teaching the Holocaust. Thus, it is important to take his work seriously.

Novick's presentation can be persuasive: his discovery of some disturbing patterns of thought among leading Jewish spokesmen is embedded in a smoothly flowing logic, and supported by an impressive scholarly apparatus. This polished surface, however, covers two very different kinds of historical writing. A valuable, insightful, and solidly documented analysis of the use of the Holocaust by a significant segment of American Jewry is woven together with a superficial, distorted, and tendentious presentation of the Holocaust itself. Novick's hard-won understanding of the chronology and politics of the changing role of Holocaust memory in American public life is placed in the service of biased polemic. A close reading of his book can demonstrate this uneasy dichotomy.

The book's strengths and weaknesses are revealed clearly in the brief introduction. In the second sentence one of Novick's foundational claims appears, that the Holocaust “has come to loom so large in our culture” (p. 1). Although this claim is repeated, and Novick ends the book with the even stronger formulation that the Holocaust has “become so central in American life” (p. 277), nowhere is this statement specified more clearly, much less documented.2 On the second page Novick asserts the existence of a “tacit consensus” about why the Holocaust is so important. The Holocaust was a traumatic event for American society, which was first repressed, but later inevitably returned to society's consciousness, as must occur with all “repressed material” (pp. 2-3). Novick cites no person who makes what he calls this “influential explanation.” But he then argues how this Freudian explanation is dubious (I agree entirely). These patterns, of making significant assertions without any supporting apparatus, and of creating straw arguments which he then can easily dismiss, pervade the book.

In the introduction, Novick also opens up the most fruitful area of inquiry that this book offers. He shows how the evolving political concerns of American Jewish organizational and intellectual leaders over the past fifty years have been connected to the “changing fortunes” of public Holocaust memory (p. 5). As I indicate in more detail below, Novick demonstrates how this particular historical consciousness was intimately tied to contemporary Jewish issues and world politics.

Finally, at the end of the introduction, Novick slips into a sneering tone that occasionally mars this book. While considering our own history of racial oppression would cause America serious emotional difficulties, he says, “contemplating the Holocaust is virtually cost-free: a few cheap tears” (p. 15). Exactly whose tears Novick so casually dismisses is not specified, but such tasteless remarks reveal both the anger and the lack of understanding of the Holocaust which lurk below the surface of this book.

The Holocaust in American Life should be seen like an onion, whose thick outer layers conceal the more tender core. The first chronological layer the reader encounters is the Holocaust itself, as it was reflected in American life. Novick enters many of the controversies of recent Holocaust scholarship and popular understanding: what was known and understood at what times; American, and especially American Jewish, “inaction”; the possibilities of rescue. Novick has clear opinions on these matters, which he expresses with characteristic confidence: for example, expecting the American government to have acted any differently is “more than a little utopian” (p. 58). The weakness of these first three chapters is Novick's superficial confrontation with the Holocaust itself. The knowledge of the history of the Holocaust demonstrated in the book is not sufficient to provide more than schematic descriptions of real intellectual controversies and arbitrary judgments about who is right. He is willing to dismiss complicated historical subjects with an insouciance uncharacteristic of a serious historian.

For example, his argument that the American government should not be reproached for inaction offers a restricted selection of evidence in support, omitting any reference to those facts which are not easily assimilated into his claims: American government behavior before and during the Evian Conference in 1938; the lack of support for potentially successful, if individualized, rescue operations like that led by Varian Fry; or the State Department's anti-Semitic visa policy. His whole discussion of institutional anti-Semitism in wartime America is self-serving and contradictory, since he uses it in one place to justify Roosevelt's lack of advocacy for more generous treatment of refugees, but elsewhere dismisses it as “relatively shallow” (p. 41). He writes as if the actions of President Roosevelt were the only significant issue in this controversy, and then depends on one book, based on a conference held at the Roosevelt Library in order to rehabilitate his reputation, to support that position.3 Novick cites sources only on one side of controversial issues, disparages distinguished historians of the Holocaust without taking their work seriously, and uses the most radical statements of minor figures to discredit moderate arguments.

It is worth examining closely a section of Novick's writing to appreciate exactly how his arguments are constructed. In chapter 3, Novick takes on what he feels is “bad history”: the thesis of the “Abandonment of the Jews.” In his first paragraph he resorts to a frequent tactic, the invention of an extreme argument as a straw figure. Novick mentions five of the best-known books which conclude that the American government could and should have done more to save Jews from the Nazis, and then implies falsely that their authors agree that “there is … a sense in which all of the victims of the Holocaust are the responsibility of the Allies” (p. 47). Novick offers a footnote, which, in fact, shows David Wyman, one of the four, making a much less sweeping statement. Novick extends his criticism to Deborah Lipstadt, and finally implies that all these historians agree that this failure left the United States with a later obligation to support Israel. Again a footnote is offered, which gives no evidence about any historians, rather citing the Israeli prosecutor of Eichmann as the proponent of such sentiments. On the next page, Novick says that “most professional historians agree” that Wyman's work is “bad history,” a completely incorrect claim, even about Wyman's critics.4

Novick is not really interested in the study of the Holocaust.5 These three unhelpful chapters about the Holocaust years are mainly a rough covering of the book's next chronological layer, where Novick's prize-winning historical skills are evident. The history of American popular and Jewish institutional confrontation with the Holocaust in the second half of the twentieth century has never been subjected to such a careful critique. By examining mass media culture, newspaper and magazine coverage, major political issues affecting Jews and Israel, and Jewish organizational politics, Novick demonstrates how the very concepts which we too often accept as immutable, like the Holocaust, Nazi evil, anti-Semitism, and collaboration, in fact have their own histories of development and transformation. He lays bare the connections that some Jewish leaders, concerned about the security of Israel, made between the deliberate use of Holocaust imagery and American support for Zionist interests. His close reading of the words of Jewish spokesmen and women allows Novick to trace a convincing chronology of the public understanding of the Holocaust as closely linked with both contemporary political issues and seemingly unrelated American Jewish concerns, like the prevalence of intermarriage. He demonstrates that “every generation frames the Holocaust, represents the Holocaust, in ways that suit its mood” (p. 120).

Just one of the fascinating connections that Novick elucidates is the Cold War pressure on Jews to downplay the Holocaust because the Germans, who had murdered millions of Jews, were now our allies against the Soviets. The tendency of American Communists and leftists to invoke the Holocaust in their political propaganda, especially during the Rosenberg trial, embarrassed Jewish leaders who worried about the typically anti-Semitic linkage of Jews and Communism. Major Jewish organization fought against creating a Holocaust memorial in New York in the 1940s. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee tried to prevent Rolf Hochhuth's play “The Deputy,” a scathing indictment of Vatican inaction, from being performed, while the Anti-Defamation League defended Pope Pius XII's silence. Thus, Novick finds that “the principal impact of the cold war was to limit talk of the Holocaust” (p. 98).6

I believe these chapters (4-8) represent a significant advance in the study of the postwar history of the Holocaust as a growing presence in American culture. The current significance of the Holocaust as a major recent event, as a subject for pedagogical and intellectual discussion, and as a political touchstone needs to be understood as one probably temporary stage in changing American consciousness. The conclusion must be that Holocaust memory, scholarship, and teaching will change again, in unpredictable ways, in the twenty-first century.

It is only in the deepest layer, however, that Novick's own motivations, along with the most serious flaws in his argument, become dominant. The two longest chapters (9 and 10) represent a third form of writing, the polemic. He is angry about a number of recently emerged elements of American Jewish life. This is certainly an instructive polemic, because Novick cites a variety of statements by Jewish leaders that reveal their casual willingness to instrumentalize the Holocaust. History often took a back seat to calculated efforts to meet perceived immediate political needs. Jewish organizations claimed to perceive growing anti-Semitism, and then used that as a weapon in discussions about how to remember the Holocaust. Questions about the contents of the proposed Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, especially who should be counted as victims, were argued as political issues. Zionists effortlessly linked Palestinian and other Arab leaders with the Nazis to employ Holocaust sympathy in the service of support of Israel. Arguments about the uniqueness of the Holocaust were used both to denigrate the claims of blacks and Native Americans for compensation and to bring young secular Jews back to the synagogue.

Unfortunately, Novick makes no pretense at evidentiary evenhandedness or balanced judgement in this discussion. He presents severely truncated and distorted descriptions of these sites where Holocaust memory intersects American culture and politics. His method can best be seen by looking at a few examples. Novick devotes little more than a page to the Justice Department's prosecution of those implicated in mass murder. He brings up one case in the text, that of John Demjanjuk, about whose identity there was much controversy, and one in the notes, Frank Walus, who was mistakenly identified as a Gestapo agent. Thus the whole process of seeking to bring war criminals to delayed justice is dismissed as “the Demjanjuk fiasco” (p. 229). Those whose positions don't match Novick's are dismissed as “implacable,” like Deborah Lipstadt, who, among many others, supports such prosecutions. In the next paragraph, the Swiss gold issue is treated in a sneering tone, as Novick focuses exclusively on what he calls the “opportunistic climbing on the Swiss-bashing bandwagon” (p. 230). Major names in Holocaust scholarship, like Raul Hilberg, appear only if they can be quoted in support of one of Novick's arguments. Hilberg's unique career, which represents in microcosm the delayed interest in the Holocaust, should be a focus of analysis for any book entitled The Holocaust in American Life. The title misadvertises Novick's work, where such significant and continuing subjects are treated in a perfunctory and one-sided manner.

Novick would like American Jews to choose a different way of dealing with the memory of the Holocaust, “more integrationist and more universalist in sensibility, less religious and less Israel-oriented” (p. 280). To accomplish this he attacks Holocaust educators with the same methods he uses in much of the book: selective quotation, superficial discussion, opinion masquerading as analysis. While the indictment of Holocaust education is pointed and nasty, it is not serious, since Novick has not studied how the Holocaust is taught in the United States. His research methodology, reading “thousands of newspaper stories on the Holocaust” (p. 276), rather than original sources, fails him and the reader on this, as on many issues. It serves him well when his subject is the public use of Holocaust memory in political controversies, and when his anger does not get in the way of his willingness to read evidence on all sides of an issue. But one cannot grasp the Holocaust as an historical event from newspaper stories. Novick's efforts at political persuasion consistently interfere with the intellectual task he claims for himself of describing the place of the Holocaust in American life. He makes a most unusual claim for an historian: he doubts whether anything “useful” can be extracted from the Holocaust (p. 263). So why teach history at all?

Strangely, at the end Novick undercuts his major historical contribution in order to push his personal argument. After skillfully demonstrating how the memory of the Holocaust was so closely tied to the geopolitical concerns of American elites, including Jewish leaders, he claims in the conclusion that “memory of the Holocaust is so banal, so inconsequential, not memory at all, precisely because it is … so apolitical” (p. 279).

More disturbing to me than weaknesses in method and argument is the way Novick's condescending tone encompasses people whose integrity he ignores, and by implication disparages. One of Novick's special targets is Elie Wiesel. Novick repeatedly calls Wiesel “the most influential interpreter of the Holocaust” (pp. 201, 274), but his portrait in these pages is of a cranky, annoying, mystically misguided Holocaust promoter, about whose motives one ought to be skeptical. Survivors generally receive only slightly less contemptuous treatment. He seems to appear sensitive to survivors' concerns by wondering if more public attention to the Holocaust might not create as much distress as catharsis. But Novick casually dismisses the most important contribution that survivors can make, their testimony. He opines that Auschwitz survivors who report that they hoped for Allied bombing of the gas chambers got this idea from the postwar discourse about American inaction (p. 55). Survivors who have testified in Holocaust prosecutions are portrayed here only as unreliable witnesses. He claims that survivors' memories, as recorded in interviews, “are not a very useful historical source” (p. 275).

In his discussion of survivors, Novick's evidence is consistently one-sided: he picks the most vulnerable methodologies (Spielberg's massive interview project) and the most extreme individual cases (Benjamin Wilkomirski's apparently spurious memoirs) to support his sweeping judgment about survivor testimony. The widespread effort to record survivors' memories by academic institutions, local Holocaust educational groups, and individual researchers is a major phenomenon of contemporary American life. Novick rarely cites survivors' testimony about the Holocaust itself here, rather using prominent survivors' public statements as political targets. Novick is only interested in the critical margins, the idiosyncratic errors, not in sustained historical analysis. In those places where Novick reveals what he is most angry about, his historical skills give way to impassioned special pleading.

David Roskies argues that the book's weaknesses lie in Novick's lack of understanding of Jewish thought and behavior. In a critical review, Roskies argues that Novick “demonstrates no feel for the processes of covenantal memory” through which even many secular Jews are connected to the religious roots of Judaism.7 I would argue that Novick's major failure is an insufficient understanding of what the Holocaust meant. When he occasionally slips into the language of emotions, the inappropriateness of his sentiments is obvious. He wishes to defend the American refusal to allow the S. S. St. Louis to land in 1939, so he says that that story appeared to have a “happy ending” because the passengers did not return to Germany (p. 50). He believes that Jewish students “rush to pin yellow stars to their lapels” on Yom Hashoah (p. 8) and then “proudly” wear them (p. 191). I suppose these are the likely sources of the “cheap tears” Novick sniffs at. Novick's cold, distanced, and even disdainful attitude toward those who have been touched physically or emotionally by the Holocaust is perhaps a partial explanation for his lack of understanding of the nature of Holocaust scholarship.

In a recent methodological article about the ethics of historical writing, Novick places himself among recent critics of “traditional” historiographical assumptions about objectivity and truth, who assert that historical accounts are necessarily constructions by historians, not factual representations of some historical reality. Limiting his sights, he still describes his ideal ethics of historical practice as including the injunction that “professional historians would be obliged to be accurate about straightforward factual matters.”8 I think that his passionate moralizing in The Holocaust in American Life has led Novick away from even these minimal scholarly standards, especially concerning claims about what other historians have written, reducing the value of his solid historical research about some American reactions to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, perhaps as much as any recent historical event, is important for modern Americans to know accurately. Political promoters of all persuasions, especially Jewish ones, will use the Holocaust, precisely because of its significance, to push their own agendas. Outrage at the abuse of Holocaust history in the service of particularist politics or crass commercialism has produced a number of recent books, including Tim Cole's Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History is Bought, Packaged and Sold, and Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. But outrage, combined with the desire to produce a simple attention-getting message, rarely results in careful scholarship.

Nevertheless, abuses of the Holocaust are real. All the more reason not to abandon the effort to study and teach it properly. That means taking the Holocaust seriously, not as caricatured in the worst manifestations of popular culture, but as eyewitnesses and historians have painfully reconstructed it. Although there may be no obvious lessons of history, hardly anything is more useful for a society than knowledge of its own past.


  1. Examples of laudatory reviews are by Eva Hoffman, “The Uses of Hell,” New York Review of Books, March 9, 2000, pp. 19-23; Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “Horrors beyond tragedy,” Times Literary Supplement, June 9, 2000, pp. 9-10; Jon Wiener, “Holocaust Creationism,” The Nation, July 12, 1999, p. 29; Elliott Abrams, “Genocide on Main St.” National Review, June 28, 1999, pp. 54-55; David Van Biema, “Spinning the Holocaust,” Time, June 14, 1999, p. 66. Somewhat critical, but still accepting Novick's historical arguments, are Lawrence Douglas, “Too Vivid a Memory,” Commonweal, August 13, 1999, pp. 24-25; and Marla Stone, “Holocaust Infatuation,” Tikkun, September 1999, p. 75.

  2. It might be interesting to compare the single major Hollywood film about the Holocaust made in the 1990s, Schindler's List, with the much larger number produced about other aspects of World War II or about Vietnam. Novick's claim is trumped by Norman Finkelstein, whose review of the book claims that “The Holocaust is more central to American cultural life than the Civil War”: “How the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 gave birth to a memorial industry,” London Review of Books, January 6, 2000, p. 33.

  3. Verne W. Newton, FDR and the Holocaust (New York, 1996).

  4. It is instructive to compare Novick's unsupported characterizations about what historians believe with the quite different portrait of the state of Holocaust research in The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck (Bloomington, Indiana, 1998). Only a lack of knowledge about Holocaust historiography or the triumph of bias over judgment would have led Novick to compare Wyman's work with the recent book by William D. Rubenstein, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (London, 1997), which has been universally rejected by scholars as worthless. Again Novick asserts that “most other scholars” share his view (p. 292, note 9), which is simply untrue.

  5. This is noted by some other reviewers, for example, Tony Judt in the New Republic, July 19 and 26, 1999, p. 38.

  6. But here, as in too many places in this book, Novick ignores evidence which does not fit his schema. Thus his discussion of Hollywood films which use the Holocaust as a theme, despite a claim of “completeness” (p. 307, note 4), misses some of the most important examples: “The Search” (1948), directed by Fred Zinnemann, a Viennese refugee, which won an Oscar for the screenplay; “Me and the Colonel” (1958) starring Danny Kaye and Curt Jurgens; and the acclaimed “Pawnbroker” (1965).

  7. David G. Roskies, “Group Memory,” Commentary, September 1999, p. 64.

  8. “(The Death of) the Ethics of Historical Practice (and Why I Am Not in Mourning),” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 560 (November 1998), p. 39.


Principal Works


Further Reading