Anson Rabinbach. History and Memory. Volume 9, Issue 1/2. Fall 1997.
In the decade since the 1985 Bitburg Affair the United States has become the preeminent nation of official Holocaust remembrance. Widely publicized as evidence of “Europe’s amnesia about the Holocaust,” Bitburg and its intellectual aftershock, the 1986 German historians’ controversy (Historikerstreit), dramatically heightened the conviction among many U.S. Jews that the mantle of guardianship of Holocaust memory had fallen to America. Those events occurred during what might in retrospect be called the decade of the memory wars, a decade in which struggles over memory seemed to dominate cultural debates in both the American media and academic culture. During that decade, Holocaust resource centers, educational programs and memorials were being established throughout the United States, and plans were going forward to design and build the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum which symbolically located the epicenter of Holocaust memorialization in Washington D.C. By 1987 Michael Berenbaum, then Deputy Director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, could confidently conclude: “Within the American Jewish community, the Holocaust has entered the domain of shared sacrality.”
Nonetheless, despite the surge in public commemoration of the Holocaust, culminating in the April 1993 opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, success has been accompanied by a sense of unease among many Jewish observers. Instead of self-congratulation, one of the most noticeable effects of the achievement of making the Holocaust a permanent part of the American national landscape has been a palpable fear among both liberals and conservatives that memorialization, commemoration, historicization and musealization will in fact contribute to the inevitable erosion of Holocaust memory. It might even be concluded that in America today fear of Holocaust erosion is far more widespread and significant than fear of Holocaust denial.
For example, in a 1994 New York Times column entitled “The Holocaust Boom,” Frank Rich wrote: “As an American, I love happy endings, so I want to believe that this year Holocaust remembrance will evolve into an eternal flange. But as a Jew, I don’t trust happy endings, even when scripted by Steven Spielberg.” Though his comments simply express what appears to be evidence of his “natural” Jewish skepticism, Rich’s stance is symptomatic of the increasing alienation of two modes of memorialization in many Jewish responses to the events of the past decade. Rich’s juxtaposition of “Jewish pessimism” and “American optimism” is revealing. It highlights the disjuncture between two distinct kinds of memory, one that emphasizes the catastrophic and apocalyptic event that threatened Jewish existence, and an opposing American vision of the Holocaust as a moral narrative with a “happy ending.” The uncoupling of Jewish and American modes of memory that Rich evokes is an important element of what he rightly diagnoses as the paradoxical effect of Holocaust memorialization. His unease and his sense that memorialization leads to the erosion of memory are shared by other commentators and cannot be understood simply as a result of any natural process, including the dwindling number of witnesses and survivors. Nor can it be explained solely by the ephemeral and frequently capricious nature of public forms of memorialization, as Rich, citing James Young’s brilliant study, The Texture of Memory, goes on to claim. Young has shown that memorials are ultimately deeply contextual, subject to all sorts of local, artistic and political vicissitudes. But the reason for the perceived feeling of erosion, I will argue, lies elsewhere.
In America, one might perversely conclude, a decade of highly pubic and institutionally anchored Holocaust memory has only heightened the apprehension of forgetting. Though President Carter mandated that a Presidential Commission to establish an official U.S. Holocaust Memorial be created in May 1978, its development and realization over the next decade and a half entailed protracted debates over a score of serious and divisive issues. Would Holocaust memory in America take the form of a monument, a memorial or a museum? Would American political imperatives or American values structure the principles according to which the Holocaust would be remembered, or would the memory of survivors and witnesses be at the center? How would the memorial fit into the surrounding architectural environment, and how would the elements of its design syncretically support the forms of memory? What were the “boundaries” of Holocaust memory—whom would such memory include, and who would be disenfranchised by it? Would the Holocaust succumb to commercialization, as did so many other American efforts at history as public spectacle? Did Holocaust memorialization only reinforce the already omnipresent cult of victimhood in American political culture? These issues, the need to find adequate ways to create a public expression of Holocaust memory, and the ensuing and often bitter controversies over what form it would take revealed that the problem of the Holocaust over the past decade, as Andreas Huyssen observcd “has not been forgetting, but, rather the ubiquitousness, the excess of Holocaust imagery everywhere in our culture.”
The Yale critic Geoffrey Hartman has made a serious effort to come to grips with the phenomenon of “public memory and its discontents.” He observes that collective memory is “in danger” because it has been effaced by a media-dominated and information-bloated public memory which has consequently produced a flight into politicized collective memory, claiming a biological or mystical permanence, which “tries to usurp the living tie between generations.” Hartman is concerned about the “psychic numbness” that results when atrocities are so omnipresent and media-ized that imagination fails and we become “anesthetized” and indifferent to terror. Both manipulated memory and its opposite, a fundamentalist and pure political memory, are illusory and both occur when collective memory “is increasingly alienated from personal and active recall” and when it is still only viable in certain artistic manifestadons, as a “counterforce to manufactured and monolithic memory.”
Hartman’s recourse to a threatened experience of collective memory owes a great deal to the French anthropologist Maurice Halbwachs’s attempt during the 1930s to juxtapose that term to racial and biological notions of heritage, and particularly to establish in their place a shared cultural space (topocentric) constituted by cross currents of linguistic and social ties. However, Halbwachs’s conception of collective memory assumes a particular cultural group identity and establishes a normative link between memory and history in the fabrication of a “living deposit” (Halbwachs) of cultural ties effaced by modernist modes of forgetting. Similarly Hartman’s distinction between a culturally transmitted and stable collective memory threatened by shifting and artificially “mediated” public memory too easily falls into the conventional trope of indicting the amnesia and “anesthesia” of modern culture. Public memory and politicized memory have long since become much more complex phenomena than mere instrumentalizations and deformations of collective memory. Consequently, this approach has very little to say about the forms of public memory in a democratic culture.
Nonetheless, Hartman’s suggestion that the institutionalization of memory may be one of the main sources of the “angst for the memoties” that has surfaced, certainly deserves further elaboration. In the specific context of Holocaust memory in the 1990s, I would further argue that the fear of erosion derives in large part from the disillusion that has followed from a disjuncture between the deep identification of many American Jews with the victims of the Holocaust on the one hand, and the almost insurmountable difficulty of confronting the complex and frequently uncontrolled cultural consequences of a broader American public memorialization on the other. This theme cannot be adequately addressed through broad sociological categories like “mass media” or “collective memory,” but may be better approached from the vantage point of an analysis of how the forms of public memorialization produce those effects.
Dan Diner has pointed to the paradoxical character of all attempts to fasten the Holocaust within a single explanatory framework: to explain the behavior of the Nazis rationally implies that their behavior was rational, a perspective belied by the experience of the victims. It is precisely that prismatic effect of cognition which, in the form of public memorialization, renders the event increasingly opaque for those American Jews whose identity, history and personal narrative are most intimately connected with preserving the memory of the genocide. This phenomenon is particularly disconcerting since the “Americanization of the Holocaust,” as Michael Berenbaum has called it, has also contributed to making the history of the genocide far more accessible and transparent to increasingly larger audiences, a process that has both overwhelmed and overshadowed the once prominent theological interpretation of the Holocaust as a mysterium tremendum which insisted on its impenetrability. Indeed, public forms of memorialization, particularly in America, have been suspicious of those “europeanized” arguments, as put forward for example by Claude Lanzmann, whose refusal to depict the genocide in his film Shoah is explicitly and theologically based on the biblical Bildverbot.
The process of “filtration and absorption” into American culture that has made the Holocaust into an American and non-Judeocentric icon with universal moral implications is a remarkable achievement, yet that very success now appears for many Jews to threaten the distinctiveness of the experience for what is often regarded as Jewish communal memory. In other words, just when the Holocaust has been institutionalized as a symbol central to the identity of American Jews, its very universality and cultural acceptance as a “human experience” may contribute to the fear that this process will inevitability diminish its centrality for more traditional contexts of Jewish identity. I will turn to these matters shortly, but to anticipate my conclusion, I believe that this new state of affairs helped to set the stage for the extraordinary public reaction to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book whose single-minded obsession with the sadism of the Germans, its emphasis on the hierarchy of hate that separated Jewish victims from others, and its indictment of a unique and pervasive German antiSemitism as the monolithic explanation for the genocide, is a clear departure from the more inclusive and universalist narratives of the Holocaust recently and publicly enshrined in American culture. Goldhagen’s book accuses Holocaust scholarship of falling prey to the same universalizing abstractions, and its public success, despite the general opprobrium that it has received among Holocaust specialists, underscores a gap that has begun to emerge, not merely between the realm of public discourse and the scholarly community, but also between some American Jewish intellectuals and the public forms of Holocaust remembrance.
In Germany the Historikerstreit was a public controversy over the imputed limits on certain kinds of public discourse, in which, as historian Hans Mommsen put it, “the constitutive significance of the experiences of the National Socialist epoch for the historical-political self-understanding of West German society are simply being denied.” In America by contrast, the controversy over the Bitburg visit focused less on the place of the Holocaust in public political culture, or on the discursive obliteration of distinctions between perpetrator and victim (which did surface in Ronald Reagan’s notorious remark that the SS men buried at Bitburg were also victims of Nazism), than on the fact that U.S. realpolitik took precedence over Jewish sensitivities. Yet, even at that stage, arguments among Jewish critics of the President were often at cross-purposes as to the nature of the affront. Was the President’s visit merely an insult to American Jews (an ethnic slur), or was it a more important failure to acknowledge the importance of Holocaust remembrance as an imperative to confront contemporary sources of evil, an approach which, as a conservative American Jewish radio commentator contemptuously put it, would turn American Jewry into “the world’s miner’s canary?” This question, as it turns out, would become increasingly contentious over the next decade.
For most U.S. observers, the Historikerstreit was generally regarded as the most scholarly version of several provocative and disruptive interventions into the relatively quiescent political culture of Western Europe that occurred within the space of a few years. As Judith Miller wrote: “The vehemence of recent controversies shows that Europe’s apparent amnesia about the war is largely a willed phenomenon. Europeans old enough to remember those years have not forgotten the past, but often remember it all too well, and they deeply resent being reminded of it.” During the mid-1980s public addresses, parliamentary speeches and public commemorations took on the character of a series of public transgressions, politically motivated disruptions of the carefully managed West German public culture of commemoration where previously strictures of tone, reverence and genre were ritualistically enforced. American public opinion registered this string of events in a series of dichotomies invoked by journalists like Miller: remembering versus amnesia; the memories of victors and victims versus those of perpetrators; exoneration versus collective responsibility. Overdramatizing, Miller also drew the connection between these “soundings” of previously unexpressed resentments and outright Holocaust denial: “Revisionist historians are a tiny, intellectually isolated minority. They have no weight anywhere in Europe. But by taking an outrageously extreme position, they have served to make the arguments of other, more moderate revisionists seem more reasonable.”
By contrast, the initial reaction of scholars to the Historikerstreit, both in the U.S. and in Germany, was far less apocalyptic. In Germany, most observers agreed that the intellectual outcry at what Charles Maier aptly characterized as “Bitburg History” put the political dimension in the foreground. The broad intellectual rejection of Nolte’s salvo effectively halted the emergence of a new public history in the service of apology and repudiated other reassertions of long-repressed national sentiment that might mobilize history to dislodge Germany from its democratic, pro-Western, antinationalist consensus. Liberal historians in Germany, like Hans-Ulrich Wehler, could be understandably heartened by the outcome of the Historikerstreit as evidence of the “preservation of that oft-cited political culture, whose endangerment is so often prophesied.”
Many U.S. historians judged the historians’ controversy as unproductive, “atavistic” (in effect pointing to no future historical agenda) and as “an unfortunate, but in many senses, necessary dispute.” Christopher Browning summed up that judgment when he wrote that the “controversy produced mountains of polemic and some recycling of what had long been known, but no new questions or promising lines of research about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were raised.” American scholars were also more attuned to one of the more distressing paradoxes of the German debate. The political battle to ensure the “singularity” and “uniqueness” of the Holocaust against its public “relativization” might have been won in the public media, but at the cost of binding future scholarly interpretations to the somewhat restrictive terms of what Habermas had referred to as the “consensus” of the Federal Republic of Germany. Whereas the German controversy centered on the legitimacy or illcgitimacy of comparisons which diminished the centrality of the Holocaust in German memory, American historians of Germany were apt to be more sensitive to the long-term consequences of placing a priori inhibitions on more legitimate uses of comparison and historicization than were their German colleagues. However much they admired the positions taken by Habermas and other critics of Nolte in the political context of the German debates, they noticed that the Historikerstreit threatened to establish a set of politically restrictive historiographical conventions and warned that it is the historian’s responsibility to clarify, as Mary Nolan observed, “which comparisons arc historically legitimate, morally justified, and intellectually fruitful and which are not.”
American scholarly debate was also far less concerned with the dramatic political concerns at the center of the Historikerstreit and far more interested in questions raised at the margins about the German Sonderweg, about the history of everyday life, historicization and normalization, narrative discourse and historical representation, as well as the more psychoanalytically engaging issues of “trauma” and the “sublime” in the representation of the Holocaust. Thus the challenge for U.S. and British scholars became to assess at a distance the methodological conundrums produced by the Historikerstreit. Charles Maier focused his account on the ways that the controversy contributed to the already ongoing debate about Germany’s “special path” by further questioning the argument for belated German development and the homology between regressive politics and backward economic and social structures. From the British side, Richard Evans also located the debate in a wider historiographical frame, asserting that the controversy was in part fueled by the attempt by conservative historians like Michael Stürmer to replace an outmoded social explanation of the origins of Nazism with a more nationally tinged explanation focusing on geopolitics. Beyond these political and methodological issues, Maier also underscored the extent to which participants on all sides of the debate took for granted the idea that history is to a large degree constitutive of modern identity, and he concluded with some uneasy reflections on the consequences of such an assumption, which he feared may “shift the search for explanation into an aesthetic dimension.”
As if to offer a kind of metacommentary on the dilemmas posed by the German controversies, debates in the U.S. centered on the extent to which the Holocaust represented a challenge to the epistemological, ethical and aesthetic precepts of poststructuralist theory. Did, for example, the epistemological and moral “decenteredness” of French theorizing, with its indebtedness to Heideggerian postmetaphysical and post-humanist thought, represent a refusal to absorb the moral touchstone and limit character of the Holocaust as a defining event? Or, did the Holocaust’s monumental transgression require historians to drop conventional narrative approaches in order to question what might be, as Hayden White has argued, an adequate “voice” or rhetorical mode in which to represent an event for which words like “astonishment” and “awe” seemed more appropriate than sober explanation? In his more recent work, White has tried to counter the charge (made by Carlo Ginzburg) that his earlier emphasis on the linguistic protocols of historical narrative would lead to epistemological and moral anarchy. He acknowledged that “the politics of genocide constitutes a crucial test for determining the ways in which any human or social science may construe its `social responsibilities’ as a discipline productive of a certain kind of knowledge.”
Yet, even when this dimension is acknowledged, Dominick LaCapra has reminded us that as a “limit-event” the genocide does not necessarily engender transparency, but frequently encourages narrative “fetishization,” “acting out,” and other mechanisms of displacement and dissociation that may just as well inhibit understanding. LaCapra argues that such events require a “dialogic” approach which seeks not so much to adjudicate conflicts or seek an elusive “objectivity,” but rather to “work through” the complex dynamic that creates the often incommensurate perceptions and delimiting “subject positions” that intrude in even the most judicious scholarship. LaCapra’s arguments call attention to the psychological subtleties of language and discourse in the creation of public controversy, but his “dialogic” approach does not answer the question of how those debates might be carried on in the public domain, where the norms of polemic and argument, rather than enlightened conversation, prevail.
In the aftermath of the Historikerstreit some U.S. historians also seemed chastened by the criticisms levied against the German historians and were concerned to dispel the suspicion that historiography had itself contributed to a dissipation of responsibility. In retrospect we can find hints of this post-Historikerstreit defensiveness in certain inflections that demonstrate that even among the experts the Historikerstreit had left them in an uncertain mood. For example, in his review of Arno Mayer’s Why did the Heavens Not Darken? The Final Solution in History (1989), Volker Berghahn prefaced his remarks with a comment about the motives of those scholars who have advanced our knowledge of the Holocaust: “Most of them have done so from a deeply held conviction that the victims of Nazi crimes must never be forgotten and that there are profound lessons to be learned from their murder. Yet, however, strong the sense of a common purpose, there have also been disagreements over the meaning of the evidence.” Christopher Browning prefaced his collection of essays with a revealing caveat in defense of why historians of the genocide have primarily focused on leaders, decisions and policies, often with extremely detailed technical arguments concerning the dating of the decision to exterminate the Jews. Browning deflects potential skepticism by noting: “To some readers the attention historians have paid to the decision-making process and particularly its dating may seem inordinate and overblown. However…unless the chronology is established accurately, the historical context for the fateful decisions remains illusive, as do purported explanations of motivation and causality.” The impression conveyed by these cautionary remarks is that controversy was somehow irreverent and that Jewish memory was being “displaced” even in the expert discussions of the genocide. That concern was most evident in the reaction to Mayer’s book, which was frequently criticized by scholars for what Browning called “its tendency to downplay the importance of Hitler and his anti-Semitism on the one hand and to emphasize antimodernism, anticommunism, and the role of the old elites on the other.” However, some of Mayer’s critics went far beyond rejecting his claim that the destruction of the Jews was an indirect consequence of the thwarting of the Nazis’ anti-Bolshevik crusade in the East. As Newsweek asked: “Do Mayer’s arguments add up to a diminution of the Holocaust? He suggests that the mass killing was a product of circumstances—manslaughter, as it were, rather than murder.” Whatever weaknesses Mayer’s “historicization” of the genocide had, his critics—most prominently Daniel Jonah Goldhagen—used the occasion to again warn that the memory and uniqueness of the Holocaust was being eroded. Comparing Mayer to Nolte, Goldhagen concluded that the danger lay in both historicization and normalization: “And yet, despite the important differences between Nolte and Mayer, their work issues in the same result. They serve to dedemonize Nazism, to transform the Nazis into just another brutal regime: different in degree, but not in kind.”
German unification in 1990 provided an even larger occasion for public expressions of dismay. Though scholars familiar with the decadeslong German debates on “mastering the past” tried to mitigate such fears, some of America’s most prominent Jewish intellectuals sounded the alarm. Especially among those who had no professional stakes in German historiographical controversies, the specter of reunited Germany made them “uneasy about the Germans,” as an article by Arthur Miller in the New York Times was titled. That reaction contrasted sharply with the polls, which showed that by a margin of 3 to 1 Americans favored German unity and did not regard it as a danger to world peace. But the source of their unease was by no means uniform. Miller worried about Germany’s “civic failure” and the unproven “artificiality” of its democracy, while A.M. Rosenthal, also writing in the New York Times, warned of the “forgetting mind” that accompanied German exultation over unity: “Personally, I would much rather wait for unification another 20 or 30 years” until the generation of the fathers was gone from the scene. Even more fretfully, Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, intoned about Germany’s “historical amnesia” and assumed the oracular voice of liberal Jewry: “If it is too late to stop reunification, let it be remembered that liberal Jews sounded the warning.” To be sure others, less attuned to Jewish concerns about the past, worried about Germany’s new geopolitical status and its putative reassertion of national sovereignty, in the midst of an increasingly “europeanized” polity. Yet, the overwhelming impression to be derived from this reaction is that at least among American Jewish intellectuals the view prevailed that Germans had never taken denazification seriously, were only “strategically” democratic, had never “atoned” for the past and had no empathy for the preoccupations of those “liberal Jews” who alone had learned the “lesson” of the Holocaust. Ironically, just a half decade after liberal German intellectuals had mobilized to preserve the “culture of memory” that since the 1960s had characterized so much of postwar West Germany’s struggle to keep the reminders of the Nazi past present, a political culture so obsessed with monumentalization that some observers could even diagnose “a neurotic fear of amnesia,” some of their American counterparts behaved as if it had never existed.
Though they did not address it directly, the debates over the historiography and narrativity of the Holocaust in America were particularly germane to the creation of a “permanent exhibition” in Washington D.C., which explicitly raised the question of what meaning the Holocaust might have in the American polity. As will become clear shortly, one of the most problematic aspects of Holocaust memorialization in the American context has been the institutionalization of a mode of representation that intends to be commensurate, not merely with the experiences of survivors or with a historically accurate depiction of the perpetrators, but with the perspective of the bystander.
Since it opened in April 1993, the nation’s first museum of the Holocaust, located between the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson memorials on the Washington Mall, has drawn more than five million visitors. The majority are non-Jews, and despite a flawed 1994 poll, which seemed to point to the specter of Americans becoming more receptive to the assertions of Holocaust deniers, follow-up surveys revealed that a consistently high percentage of Americans were both informed about and convinced of the importance of the Holocaust. Despite assertions to the contrary by the Muscum’s advocates, Americanization has forced a dramatic recontextualization. As the Muscum’s former research director Michael Berenbaum wrote even before it opened, “The Museum will take what could have been the painful and parochial memories of a bereaved ethnic community and apply them to the most basic of American values.”
However, even at the outset of the planning of the Washington Museum, some scholars, like Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University, were skeptical about “how the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its universalist implications could be combined in a way that would be in accord with the American heritage and American political reality.” The Museum’s answer, according to Berenbaum, is that both the particular and the universal dimensions of the Holocaust can and should be afforded equal consideration: “The Holocaust was a universal experience that happened to the Jewish people.” While Berenbaum has maintained that there is no necessary contradiction between the Holocaust’s uniqueness and its universal message as the incarnation of evil, some critics have viewed this subtle shift in emphasis with concern. The proliferation of study centers, museums and mandatory curricula has, according to Rosenfeld, produced a “flattening” of the genocide to accommodate an ever-wider range of political and social grievances, and a “lightening” to permit a more upbeat “American” view of the outcome. As the historian Steven Katz has observed, the more that the Holocaust is inscribed in public and private parlance as the universal trope of evil, the greater the evidence that “unsophisticated generalizations abound, sectarian pronouncements take the place of sound arguments, and moral disapproval substitutes for hermeneutical precision and historical accuracy.” The theme of an erosion of identity and specificity is not limited to academic intellectuals. It has also become a recurrent refrain in the popular media. Reflecting on the meaning of Schindler’s List, USA Today wondered if “the next generation’s view of the Holocaust [will] be reduced to a brief discussion in a classroom about an important book or film, where, inevitably, the few heroes manage to rise above the evil around them and stand up for human dignity?”
To be sure, the long-term consequences of the institutionalizing of Holocaust memory cannot just be gleaned from a spate of recent books and articles. No doubt, there are many legitimate sources for concern that the Holocaust will not always remain the universal symbol of transgression against humanity’s self-respect. Among them are the inevitable disappearance of the survivor generation and the recognition, in light of more recent genocidal events, that clear political and moral direction cannot always be derived from the imperative not to repeat the crimes of the past. By 1993, with the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and the debate over Schindler’s List, Holocaust remembrance in America had clearly reached a new stage. The ensuing controversy has had three closely intertwined dimensions. The first concerns the meaning of the recontextualization of the Holocaust in America. The second concerns the increasingly universalistic message of the newly institutionalized Holocaust and its impact on Jewish identity. The third concerns the impact of the vehicles of public history on the creation of an “authoritafive” narrative of the Holocaust as a historical event, and the impact of institutionalization on historical writing.
As Berenbaum explained in 1993, “if the Washington D.C. museum had been founded a generation ago, it would have been built in New York, and aimed at the Jewish community. Today it is in Washington and aimed at the American people.” In fact, a Museum of the Holocaust in New York, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust—Museum of Jewish Heritage, planned since the early 1980s and scheduled for completion in 1997, will be “a purely Jewish museum” focusing emphatically on Jewish themes and a Jewish audience. By contrast, the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s venue on the Mall affected the design of the Washington exhibit and carried strong imperatives not to make the memorial “too Jewish.” As Edward Linenthal’s study of the genesis of the Museum amply documents, there was pressure to tone down criticism of Christian anti-Semitism and resolve the narrative in a more optimistic “happy ending.” There was also a constraint to maintain “institutional civility” on the Mall and avoid displays of “too horrible” images, which for example led to the abandoning of plans to open the exhibit with a color blow-up of American liberators confronting the horror of piles of human bodies. At the same time, many critics were impressed by the extraordinarily successful building designed by James Ingo Freed, which combines materials and design elements that evoke the death camps in ways that are both integrated into and dissonant with the more classical architectural environment that surrounds it.
In certain respects, criticisms of the U.S. Holocaust Museum bear some similarities to those directed at Schindler’s List, which was decried as a Hollywood product that was “simplistic and emotionally manipulative.” Both the Museum and the film use well-established techniques of mass culture to communicate the event to large, nonspecialist audiences, a fact that provoked Village Voice critic J. Hoberman to irreverently ask: “Is it possible to make a feel-good entertainment about the ultimate feel-bad experience of the 20th century?” However, as Miriam Hansen has argued in a well-reasoned defense of the film as an attempt to overcome the dichotomies of mass culture within the medium itself: “the attack on Schindler’s List in the name of [Claude Lanzmann’s] Shoah reinscribes the debate on filmic representation with the old debate of modernism versus mass culture, and thus, with binary oppositions of `high’ versus `low,’ `art’ versus `kitsch,’ `esoteric’ versus `popular’.”
Any discussion of the more general issue of “Americanization” must also be concerned with the relationship between the American narrative of the Holocaust and other possible public modes of historicization of the event. After Yad Vashem Historical Museum director Yitzchak Mais previewed the Washington installation in 1991, he remarked that it appeared as if the Nazis were “a superhuman force that just took over,” as if “the re was this metaphysical evil that killed the Jews.” That obvious omission may have led to some important modifications in the opening narrative, including a film on anti-Semitism to set Nazi antiJewish ideology and practices in a broader context. But these touches did not alter the overall framework of the exhibit which begins with the Nazi risc to power as a deus ex macbina, nor do the y affect the more important issue of how the overall historical narrative is framed. There appears to be no need to set the Holocaust in any long-term explanatory context whether in Jewish history, the history of anti-Semitism (apart from the video display), World War II or German history. As one Museum official put it, the Museum’s goal is an “en-masse understanding that we are not about what the Germans did to Jews but what people did to people.” Though some may applaud this reluctance to embed the Holocaust in any single explanatory approach, there is a strong tendency to relegate the intertwinement of Jewish fate and German history to what Dan Diner calls “the limbo of forgotten history.” Instead, the historical narrative is overwhelmed by the moral narrative—the narrative of universal responsibility, and the centrality of the “innocent” bystander in that story.
As is evident from debates surrounding the construction of a permanent exhibit in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, as well as the protracted public dispute over how to best commemorate the Holocaust in Germany, it has long been apparent that historical memorials and museums are as much a reflection of the circumstances and site of their conception as of the events the y seek to commemorate. As Mais pointed out, Holocaust exhibitions in different countries vary markedly in the proportion of attention given to perpetrators, victims and bystanders in the exhibit narrative. In the U.S. Museum the accent has been on “connecting” the events of the Holocaust to American concerns by emphasizing the complicity of the bystander whether as individuals, nations or governments, and by emphasizing how “good people and humanitarian governments can and must take an active stand against the forces of darkness.” In the U.S., as Berenbaum wrote, “unlike earlier immigrant generations, survivors are a reminder not only of the American dream but of America’s failure to serve as a haven in the hour of greatest need.”
To be sure, the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition is a historically scrupulous and inclusive survey of the events of the genocide which at least attempts to give equal weight to the role of perpetrators, victims and bystanders. But its moral narrative urges Americans to assume the third position, one that neither reflects a particularistic or “too Jewish” view of the victims (Yad Vashem’s perspective) nor overemphasizes the racism of the perpetrators, as would be more suitable for a German context. U.S. Holocaust Museum historian Sybil Milton has also spoken of the permanent exhibition “as part of an American narrative underlining the commitment of the United States to an active participatory role in the world.” In other words, in America the Holocaust has become an object lesson in global (and individual) civic responsibility, a permanent reminder of the ethics of intervention to prevent future catastrophes. In this regard, David Wyman is right to assert that “an American consensus had been reached on the importance of the remembrance of the Holocaust. And, at least verbally, agreement had emerged on the need for the United States to intervene to stop potential future genocides or at the minimum to act to alleviate the impacts of any such catastrophes.”
Telling the story of the Holocaust by placing the student or visitor in the position of the “bystander” is hardly illegitimate. But that emphasis only reveals further difficulties that are both morally ambiguous and deeply problematic. It is morally ambiguous because that narrative cannot specify in what circumstances the bystander is called upon to act and under what conditions action is productive or ultimately futile. It is problematic because the universal principle of intervention in the case of genocide, guided by the lesson of the Holocaust, is invoked as an imperative to be followed in all circumstances where crimes against humanity occur, when in effect it presents only the most extreme case of inhumanity as the criterion for action. And most seriously, it subtly shifts the moral weight of the story from the crimes of the perpetrators to the offence of the bystanders. In this regard the permanent exhibition serves not so much to deemphasize the role of both the victims and the perpetrators as to diminish the moral significance of their behavior in constituting the meaning of the event, since it ultimately substitutes a generalized evil for a specific historical one.
To some extent, a heightened perception of responsibility for telling a comprehensible story with universalist meaning has also meant gaining independence from the more parochial Israeli approach that considered the Jewish State as both the logical consequence of, and historical alternative to, the Shoah. Peter Novick has gone so far as to suggest that the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Museum may have symbolic significance for precisely that reason: it signifies the end of a long Israelcentered period for American Jews and substitutes the Holocaust as a “more morally impeccable basis for grounding Jewish identity.” However, as some critics have begun to suspect, the very existence of the Museum as an American institution also poses a threat to the identityaffirming purposes of Holocaust memory. There is a distinction between the consensus identified by Wyman, which makes the Holocaust into a symbol for all mankind—an event that embodies the moral imperative to action in the face of future acts of genocide—and those far less universalist approaches to the meaning of the Holocaust that have always regarded Jewish victimhood in an ethnic framework of Jewish powerlessness, and national identity and statehood as the antidote to that condition. In the inherent conflict between these two positions, both of which were strikingly in evidence during the Bitburg Affair, we can see the dramatic tension between collective memory as an element of communal or group solidarity, and efforts to create viable and institutional public forms of memory which aim at bringing a community’s particular narrative to the attention of those who do not belong to it. For this reason, the fact that the Holocaust has become a secondary (or even primary) source of identity for American Jews is worrisome for those conservatives who regard the price to be paid by American Jewry for having a Holocaust Museum that emphasizes the perils of indifference and inaction in the face of evil as the further erosion, not of Holocaust memory, but of Jewish identity. Edward Norden has argued that the statistics showing a declining Jewish birthrate point to the fact that the dilution of ethnicity, rather than memory, is the main threat to Jewish identity today.
Such anxieties accentuate the second dimension of the fear of erosion, closely related to Americanization, namely the creation of a story of the Holocaust as an exemplary or paradigmatic event that happened to be perpetrated against Jews. The U.S. Holocaust Museum does not attempt to resolve this ambiguity. On the contrary, the controversy over this issue continued to intensify right up to the dedication ceremonies planned for 22 April 1993, which Linenthal describes as a battle “behind the scenes between those who feared that the museum would appear `too Jewish,’ and attract only a Jewish audience, and those who feared that, in the attempt to sell itself to a wide audience, the museum would jettison its focus on the Holocaust and eventually become a museum of contemporary genocide.”
If the fears that the latter view would overshadow the historical narrative proved unwarranted, it is this perspective that dominates the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance—Beit Hashoah which opened in February 1993 in Los Angeles. In fact there is no great difference between the two museums on the question of the universal “message” of the Holocaust. But despite its success in attracting visitors, the Museum of Tolerance has been called a “grotesque” and egregious example of hyperuniversalization, a “tourist attraction” and a “noisy multimedia show” that relentlessly admonishes visitors that “the potential for violence is within all of us.” Its one-dimensional panorama of American history as a story of injustice and cruelty that stretches from the 1637 slaughter of the Pequots to the beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots trivializes the comparison with the Holocaust. America’s social ills, Rosenfeld insists, “simply do not resemble the persecution and systematic slaughter of Europe’s Jews during World War II. To mingle the victims of these very different historical experiences, therefore, is to metamorphose the Nazi Holocaust into that empty and all but meaningless abstraction, `man’s inhumanity to man’.” Whereas the Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibition presents the Holocaust as an event that occurred in history but nonetheless points to the failure of civilized humanity to confront the evil, the Tolerance Museum promiscuously regards intolerance as the single root from which any manifest social evil, from human rights abuses, inequality and AIDS to racism and, ultimately, ethnic genocide could sprout. As Americans are urged to drew inescapable and liberal analogies from the Holocaust’s inexhaustible repertoire of depravity, conservatives tend to recoil from this use of the Holocaust to absorb a wide range of American social issues and to resent its appeal to “those segments of American culture intent on developing a politics of identity based on victim status.”
There is no doubt that the musealization of the Holocaust is not unconnected to the obvious tendency for ethnic grievances and suffering to become the moral capital of multicultural politics. In that context, a Judeocentric Holocaust would seem out of place—though the Los Angeles Museum does adopt such an approach in its fund-raising appeals. However, in both of the American museums the problem is not so much that the visitor is confronted with the cult of victimhood and a plurality of fratricidal and genocidal horrors, but rather that he or she is faced with an injunction to assume a moral stance that always presumes that it is inaction and passivity that make the spectator compileit in the crime. As Berel Lang has eloquently argued, the universalization of the genocide tends to require an extremely exacting standard of moral conduct. That standard “is not only something that should be applied by the moral agent, but requires that the capacity for moral universalization, which can only be assessed by measuring the acts based on it, constitutes the moral agent himself.” In other words, the individual, like the bystander alluded to above, is encouraged to become the superior moral self capable of action and judgment in the face of multifarious inhumanity. Yet, one of the most difficult facts to accept, and one which has been the source of so much controversy over Jewish behavior during the Holocaust, is that the perceptions of the victims—not to mention bystanders in Europe and abroad—were subject to the deceptions and futilities of the situation, and that it is almost impossible to fathom their lack of choices in retrospect. As Michael André Bernstein has shown in his discussion of “foreshadowing” in the literature of the Holocaust, one of the consequences of musealization is a tendency to subscribe to the “foregone conclusion” that had Jews and governments throughout the world only paid sufficient attention to what was taking place, only heeded the warning signs, and the n acted accordingly, the catastrophe might have been averted. Ultimately, the emphasis on the complicity bystanders only serves to heighten the simplistic belief in a possible alternative outcome, on a redemptive narrative, albeit one that is surely distinct from the Israeli national version.
Finally, the treacherous terrain of universalization is further illuminated by David Rieff’s insightful commentary on the changing implication of the word genocide since it was first coined by the Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Rieff, who approaches his subject not as an academic but as a journalist appalled by the indifference of the West to the atrocities in Bosnia, underscores Lemkin’s insistence that the neologism genocide could apply not only to the total extermination of a nation or ethnic group, but to “the partial destruction” of peoples. Rieff’s concern is that restricting the term genocide to a crime so extreme and singular will make people more complacent and likely to “dismiss the overwhelming number of crimes that do not correspond to the exacting definition.” In other words, the “performative contradiction” in the bystander narrative is that the very magnitude of the Holocaust seems to encourage, rather than inhibit, complacency and indifference. Once institutionalized in Holocaust memory, the narrative of the “guilty bystander” can be extended ad infinitum, so that America becomes a nation, or a civilization, of “bystanders,” whose professed humanitarianism contrasts starkly with their real failure and frequent incapacity or unwillingness to act.
The third and most complex dimension of the institutionalization of Holocaust remembrance concerns the relationship between the effort to create an instructional and historically accurate example of public history and the historical difficulties that always accompany debates over the historiography of the Holocaust. As Linenthal shows, the departure of Elie Wiesel from the leadership of the Holocaust Council in December 1986 also meant that his approach to the permanent exhibit, which emphasized the uniqueness and ineffability of the event, gave way to a far more ecumenical and didactic exhibit designed to “inform the visitor’s moral imagination.” That shift to civic-minded enlightenment as the goal of the exhibit has produced a scrupulous and judicious historicization of the Holocaust that distills the standard historiography into a detailed and intensive half-day visit. Yet some skeptical critics still ask whether this effort to combine representation and memorialization is not the most difficult of all paradoxes: “how can something that can’t be represened be remembered or witnessed?” Others view the exhibition’s attempt to combine remembrance and explanation as an unmitigated success: “here the vividness of recollection joins the sturdiness of research.” But despite that achievement, institutionalization ultimately means permanence and consensus, virtues which are often inimical and inappropriate to the evolution of historical scholarship. History, as Maier observed, “is discordant and plural while memories are to be retrieved and relived, not explained.”
Until the U.S. Holocaust Museum was completed, one could plausibly discuss the ways that history and memory were largely distinct and separate domains. However, the Museum combines history and remembrance in a single public “event” in which the two dimensions are so completely fused and simultaneously present that the dichotomy between “history and memory” is constantly effaced. To the extent that the y represent the tangible, physical and authentic repositories of memory, for example, the museum’s artifacts are intended to be a crucial counterweight to the sanitized and didactic exhibition. The flow of the narrative (and the viewer’s attention to historical detail) is interrupted by moments of heightened intensity intended to create a sense of “place” (as in the plaster casting of the Warsaw Ghetto wall) or “personhood” (as in the tower devoted to images of the inhabitants of the Lithuanian shtetl of Ejszyszki). These “sites” of memory were accorded primary importance in the design. These artifacts bespeak what Benjamin might have regarded as a perhaps self-consciously “auratic” sensibility that sometimes seems to compete with the use of so many anti-auratic devices like video, film, and computer screen in the display. However, the issue is not so much what kinds of objects serve these auratic purposes, since “real” objects (shoes from Majdanek), “semi-authentic” objects (the cast of the ghetto wall) and “technically mediated images” (photographs) are each embedded in the exhibition in iconically auratic ways. Indeed, what is profoundly auratic about the photographs in the tower is the striking way they serve to recall the concrete individuality of those whose lives disappeared in the anonymous vapor of the chimneys of Auschwitz just as the images seem to vanish as one gazes up into the tower.
The material presence of these objects implore the viewer to depart from the detached spectatorship of the journey through the display and reach out for them. New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier described his encounter with the wooden barracks from Auschwitz in these words: “And you keep running your hands over them, because their materiality wakens you.” Yet, at the same time he also recognized that these objects are auratic only in the most negative sense, as a “reliquary” of profane memory. As Huyssen has observed, in the media age the need for auratic objects that embody both materiality and authenticity has taken on a fetishistic quality, though not always in a negative sense. Especially in the context of new museums that combine pedagogy, spectatorship and “infotainment,” “the museum fetish itself transcends exchange value. It seems to carry with it something like an anamnestic dimension, a kind of memory Value.”
The issue being raised here is not merely about the artifacts themselves, but about their status in the museum’s system of representation as a whole. Most visitors regard the close, personal and tangible dimension of these objects as attempts to communicate the experience of loss, whereas the texts, photo essays, video and computer elements of the exhibition convey the more abstract historical dimension. Just as the Holocaust itself has become a touchstone for the profound and fundamental rupture in the continuum of history, so too the iconic artifacts in the Museum represent an effort to create a break in the overweening didacticism of the narrative that inexorably unfolds, in order to produce a sense of rupture within the rupture, so to speak. But, as these artifacts heighten the otherwise prosaic historical presentation that accompanies them, they too become part of the artificiality of the experience and, as in the case of the shoes of the Majdanek victims, clearly have the status of aestheticized artifacts. “For me at least,” writes Linenthal, “their presence as part of a narrative in the controlled environment of the museum domesticated them, and made them `safer’ to view.”
The story of the creation of the exhibition, unlike the “authoritative” narrative it presents, is fraught with politics and ambiguity. Linenthal’s account details how politically resonant and bitterly contested were the issues of inclusion and exclusion in establishing what he calls the “boundaries of Holocaust memory.” The struggle to define the perspective of the permanent exhibition took on almost Shakespearean qualities, as survivors, museum designers, businessmen, politicians and historians debated whether the inclusion of non-Jewish victims amounted to “posthumous assimilation,” or whether comparisons between the Holocaust and other examples of genocide were legitimate or “blasphemous.” One of the earliest conflicts between Wiesel and Berenbaum was over whether the official mission of the museum to go beyond ethnic identification might not entail a “dejudaization” of the Holocaust and a potential blurring of the participation of other ethnic groups as perpetrators. In the museum’s often acrimonious internal debates, Sybil Milton forcefully articulated an inclusive view of the Holocaust that “comprehends Jews, Gypsies and the handicapped as racial victims of the Nazis, sharing the same fate.” This widening of the Holocaust’s frame was ultimately not troublesome for Berenbaum, who has written that “as the study of the Holocaust passes out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of American culture, it will inevitably be reunderstood in different categories and thus, in part, dejudaized.” Yet, this was by no means the established or accepted view, a problem most evident in the protracted controversy over the narrative space to be afforded to “others”—like the Armenians who were ultimately not included, and the Romanies who were reluctantly accepted—whose claims had to be negotiated in relation to “the Jewish Center.”
Berenbaum argued that the Museum’s permanent exhibition had no difficulty in finding a middle ground between the universalism of its message and the uniqueness of the story of Jewish suffering that unfolds through it, since comparisons with other genocidal events are ultimately clarifying. However, the fact that “comparisons” are of course implied by the entire narrative has opened precisely the Pandora’s box that the entire debate during the Historikerstreit tried to close: when do comparisons clarify and illuminate, and when do they serve the need to obscure and instrumentalize? The Museum’s inclusiveness, though it does not deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust, has provoked those who resent the fact that their most favored comparisons are neglected. Norden, for example, writing in Commentary, claimed that the Museum failed to include “certain illuminating facts” like the Gulag, which he asserts to be the more instructive comparison pointing the way for the Nazis. Here Norden draws on the positive example of none other than Ernst Nolte to argue that “it is necessary to understand that Auschwitz went the Gulag one better, mobilizing the genius of a nation to exterminate another. Even Nolte has to admit that the `Final Solution is singular, in a certain, not merely trivial sense’.”
Discomfort with the fact that historical events are often highly ambiguous is even more evident in some of the reactions to Schindler’s List. The fact that the movie Schindler is depicted as a morally ambiguous and often dark and inscrutable figure devalues his representative currency. Philip Gourevitch finds it profoundly disheartening that Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust may be the only example of “Jewish Culture” seen by millions. In his view the problem is that “film heroes, unlike real life ones, are woefully lacking in the kind of virtue that the Holocaust teaches: `Sec, the director seems to be saying, heroism is ambiguous, goodness is ambiguous, right action, decency, fellow feeling—all ambiguous.’ And for this, for introducing the suggestion of moral ambiguity into the Holocaust, the very heart of the absolute, he has won the ecstatic plaudits of the critics.” Ironically, it is precisely the opposite, the requirement that the Holocaust prescribe decency and heroism in the face of implacable evil that worries the critics cited above.
Perhaps most difficult of all to fathom is the problem of how public memory, official representation and media images are actually received and assimilated. In the face of the explosion of memorialization, and in spite of the injunction not to repeat the trauma of the past, in the new American narrative we have in fact all become “bystanders.” There is no doubt a cruel irony in the fact that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was inaugurated just as the first major European genocide since the Holocaust occurred without the intervention of the United States, and as the genocide in Rwanda occurred with the U.N. unable or unwilling to prevent the catastrophe. In both cases the events were well publicized throughout the world, demonstrating the sad fact that in the age of instant media access, as Hartman has observed, “the gap between knowledge and ethical action has not grown less wide for us.”
Hartman’s view that public memory, with its overwhelming information and incessant images, is eroding personal and collective forms of remembrance too easily replicates the modernist trope of denouncing mass culture, without inquiring into the specific character of how public memory has altered and transformed collective memory. But his analysis is correct insofar as it is itself symptomatic of the “discontent” with public memory that I have tried to assess. The controversies that accompanied the “Americanization” of the Holocaust and the difficulties of establishing a consensus in the institutions of public commemoration occurred in the atmosphere of the post-Bitburg era. Bitburg accelerated the imperative to fit the Holocaust to a universal commitment of Americans to civic responsibility needed to go beyond the ethnic requirements of a Judeocentric remembrance and establish a Holocaust for all Americans. This is not in itself disreputable nor is it necessarily the “wrong” message. In fact, just as conservatives have charged that universalism effaces the affirmation of Jewish identity contained in the story of Jewish oppression, some liberal critics have argued that the universalism of the U.S. Holocaust Museum is not universal enough: “in putting the Holocaust Museum on the Mall, we ask for a guarantee of safety based less on general principles than on a past history of special victimization.” But it is not the only message, and one of the “discontents” of universalization is to introduce a level of abstraction that has left many perplexed about its ultimate effects. Hence, we can begin to see some of the reasons for the unprecedented public success of Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book which dramatically departs from that story by emphasizing precisely those elements that are left out by any universalizing narrative: it obsessively depicts not Nazi “evil,” racism or intolerance, but murderers and perpetrators who are always given a name, the “Germans,” a motive, the peculiarly German variant of anti-Semitism (“eliminationist”), and a unique sadism, evident in the pleasure with which they perpetrate their cruelty. Unlike the narratives we have just discussed, Goldhagen’s Holocaust is violent, demonizing, particularistic, Judeocentric and concrete, emphatically so. It reestablishes the hierarchy of hatred among the victims, thus overwhelmingly rejecting the pluralist inclusivity that is so manifest in the new public memory of the Holocaust. Many scholars may have found it inconceivable that after so much historiographical sophistication and nuanced debate there should be a return to a simplistic portrayal of these matters in terms of the stark juxtaposition of Germans against Jews, ordinary Germans as opposed to “ordinary men,” and in terms of a univocal murderous anti-Semitism embraced by a nation of “willing executioners.” But against the background of the institutionalization of an “authoritative” narrative in America, Goldhagen’s version of the story has a transgressive dimension that restores many of the motifs that prevailed when Jewish memory did not yet have to contend with its public presence or its universalist instrumentalization. The impact of Goldhagen’s book therefore should be first and foremost considered an event in the public sphere, and as such serves as a counterdiscourse to the “Americanization of the Holocaust.” It is perhaps for this reason that historians have found themselves so perplexed by the extraordinary public resonance of a book which represents for many of them “un succès de scandale.”