Peter Novick:
When Did the Holocaust Start?

William Halvorsen

Some years ago, a leading Holocaust historian, Deborah Dwork spoke at a memorial to "Crystal Night" in British Columbia, the night in November 1938 when Nazi mobs, inspired by the murder of a German foreign official by a Polish Jew, destroyed hundreds of Jewish stores and shops. According to the account of one who was at the memorial, she said that Kristallnacht was "the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end." Although many in the audience were doubtless moved to tears by this empty antithesis, it did remind me of an interesting question. Assuming that we can agree on what the Holocaust was, when did it start?

There are many answers to that question. A lot of them have to do with events in the Second World War. Some will date the beginning of the Holocaust to September 1939, when the Germans attacked Poland; others to the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941; still others to the Wannsee Conference of January 1942. Some will key the Holocaust to important dates in the Third Reich: for example, to Hitler's accession of power in 1933, or the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. In fact, if you consult some Holocaust chronologies, they will frequently have the birth of Adolf Hitler as the starting point, and some have the birth of Jesus of Nazareth at the top of the list, on the assumption that the Holocaust was ultimately the result of Christian anti-Semitism. Of all the achievements of Peter Novick's Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999), one has tended to be overlooked. The book provides a bracing antidote to the usual sickly, sentimental dross of Holocaust literature. Exploding several Holocaust myths in the process, the book also provides some strong context for defining just when it was that the Holocaust began.

Exploding Myths

There is much merit to Novick's book. In the first place, it is the first attempt to describe how the idea of the Holocaust acquired the prominent place it now holds in American life, and, as argued elsewhere, even in our political life. His diachronic treatment of how the Holocaust concept developed is a useful supplement to Samuel Crowell's Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes, which performs the same service for the idea of mass gassing.

While Novick's myth busting is carried out with a certain amount of suppressed glee and good humor, it should be said right away that he does everything possible to distance himself from Holocaust revisionists. Novick discusses them only twice in his 300 page plus book, and in both cases only to dismiss them as "screwballs," "nutcases," "fruitcakes" and even "crazed." Given the general tenor of his comments elsewhere, it seems a little strange that Novick, a historian at the University of Chicago, would engage in such silly name-calling unless he wished to distance himself from accusations made about his own work.

For example, in one part of his book Novick engages the famous Martin Niemoeller quote you know the one: "First they came for X, then they came for Y, then they came for me, and there was no one left." Novick shows how the quote has been mangled and re-arranged by several groups, depending on the needs of their constituents, so that the original sequence of Communists, social democrats, trade unionists, and Jews frequently moves the Jews up to first place, adds Catholics in places like Boston, adds homosexuals in some locations, and prudently dumps Communists from the list altogether as for example in the United States Holocaust Museum, which, as a national museum that gets two-thirds of its budget from the taxpayers, ought to know better.

Elsewhere, Novick touches on the standard "eleven million" Holocaust victims, the idea that there were six million Jewish victims and almost-but-not-quite as many non-Jewish victims of Nazism. Novick reveals what revisionists have noted for years, that Simon Wiesenthal simply made the number up, partly, one suspects, to give non-Jews an "almost" equal stake in the non-stop vilification of German-speaking people. Novick's revelation already appears to have had some repercussions: for a long time, the Nizkor Internet site, a sort of clearing-house for anti-German propaganda, including soap recipes and such, boasted a banner dedicating the site to the "eleven million victims of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime." The banner has recently been changed.

When It Started

On a more constructive level, Novick goes to show how the concept of the Holocaust gradually gained ground in public awareness. He notes that in the 1950's American Jews tended not to stress the special quality of Jewish suffering, because that might have drawn attention to the fact that many Eastern Jews were sympathetic to Communism at a time when International Communism was the bogeyman of most Americans, many terrified by Khrushchev's threat to "bury us," and as result burying themselves in expensive back-yard bomb shelters.

What caused the situation to change, in Novick's view, was the television coverage of the show trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. To meet the need for an English word to translate the Hebrew "Shoah" (catastrophe, destruction), the word "Holocaust" popped up, and has been with us ever since. To be sure, as Novick notes, even then the Holocaust did not receive capitalization; that doesn't seem to have happened until after the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel mobilized its people with beaucoup amounts of gas chamber rhetoric, soon to be followed by Nora Levin's derivative history, The Holocaust, in 1968. Of course, one of the people who is bound to be disappointed by Novick's narrative is Elie Wiesel, who has for years "admitted" that he invented the term, and has repeatedly apologized for it, in a typical strategy of inflating his own importance.

Some Implications

There are some important results from Novick's reconstruction. Among other things, it helps explain why Holocaust revisionism emerged from the backwater into international prominence in the early 1970's. If it is true that political manipulation of the recently named "Holocaust" coincided with the Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, that would help explain why an opposition to it would arise at about the same time (although I think the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt of the early '70's, which involved then West Germany in abject and groveling apologies for World War II atrocities, as well as the acceptance of the postwar order, had something to do with revisionism's growth in Germany).

A further implication is that, if the Holocaust is in fact a postwar idea developed in the 1960's for the purposes of manipulating opinion for political purposes, then it would follow that "Holocaust Denial" is either an attempt to oppose such manipulation, in which case Novick himself is a "Denier," or it means that revisiting the scope and extent of Nazi atrocities has nothing to do with the Holocaust as such, it's just ordinary historical revisionism. No kidding.

There are some elements in Novick's book that might be surprising to moderate revisionists. For example, at one point, Novick finds archival support for the idea that Rabbi Wise deliberately misrepresented atrocity rumors that he was receiving in late 1942; this tends to go against the more charitable interpretations of Samuel Crowell.

And then of course there is the part where Novick engages the issue of Jewish involvement with Communism. He had an opportunity to make a broad statement here, but failed to do so. In fact, even though both Nazism and Communism were responsible for the deaths of millions of people, the individuals attracted to those movements shouldn't be condemned out of hand. At least they shouldn't at this late date.

For a lot of decent Germans, and a lot of decent Jews, Nazism and Communism respectively were answers to living in a modern world. Our attitude at the end of the millennium should not be to say that anyone who was a Nazi was automatically bad, and in the same way we shouldn't automatically try to conceal Jewish-Communist affiliations. In reality, there were good Nazis and bad Nazis, good Jewish Communists and bad ones. To be sure, the ideas of both systems are unworkable and obnoxious to most, but that's not the point. We should get away from the cartoon depiction of evil Nazis and evil Jewish Communists, and just deal with people: some truly bad, but most just trying to get by.

Of course, to do that right we would have get rid of the idea that "evil" and "evil ideas" are the cause of historical events, and take seriously the probability that reality is a lot more complex than many on both sides of the Holocaust "controversy" want to admit. Novick's book is a promising start on that road; let's hope he has the wherewithal to continue to work at it.

Installed: 10/13/99, 8: 30 PM, EST

Source: The Revisionist, Codoh Series, No. 1, 2000, pp. .
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