The Holocaust on Television
While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, Jeffrey Shandler, Oxford UP, 1999Bill Halvorsen
Everyone knows at this point that the Holocaust has been promoted to such an extent that one can hardly turn around without running into Holocaust imagery of some kind. Any time there is a massacre anywhere, you can bet that some talking head will make glib comparisons to the Holocaust, even President Clinton made a truly asinine comparison when discussing the massacres in Rwanda in 1998 by claiming that the Hutus were able to kill people with machetes at a rate even faster (!) than the fabled “gas chambers” of Nazi Germany.
Nazi imagery has been an offensive trick of op-ed page spin doctors for years: who can forget William Safire’s comparison, at a time when Qaddafi was accused of preparing “weapons of mass destruction”, that his desert chemical plant was an “Auschwitz in the sand”? It has even gotten to the point where individuals are apt to describe their own personal trials and tribulations as “holocausts,” although to be frank the comparison of confinement in a concentration camp to being unable to keep up on the payments for a swank new SUV offends even me. Revisionists have always been the first to puncture the absurdities of the Holocaust story, and to detail how it emerged over time to serve as a political tool. But how did this concept, supposedly emblematic of the uniqueness of Jewish suffering, get turned into a trite and obnoxious cliché? Jeffrey Shandler’s new book, “While America Watches” helps explain.
Shandler’s book is a sort of review of how whatever it was that happened to the Jews in World War Two has been presented on television since the late 1940’s. His basic thesis is that the Holocaust emerged from a kind of dramatic background typical TV dramas in the early days to something of today's “master moral paradigm.” Most of us are perfectly aware of how the Holocaust dominates the boob tube today, and Shandler’s book is particularly valuable in giving us some insights about the early “representations” of the Jewish tragedy. The first part of Shandler’s study covers the newsreels of the dead bodies that the Americans and British found in the camps overrun in western Germany: Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen. The interesting thing about this footage is that these bodies, piled like cordwood, were almost all dead from epidemics that raged through the Nazi camps during the last months of the war. However, this was not understood by the liberators. Even General Eisenhower, seeing sick and emaciated prisoners at Ohrdruf, just assumed that these provided “indisputable evidence” of the unique evil of the German concentration camp system. But there’s a real problem here.
Back in 1945, and preceded by years of gas chamber propaganda, it would have been normal for liberators to see these piles of dead and conclude that they had been killed on purpose by their captors. However, the fact that these images were extensively used after the war in newsreels, in order to inflame Americans and Allied soldiers, and in order to inspire German guilt, even when it must have been known by then what had actually happened in the camps, makes us wonder about the integrity of the postwar Allied propaganda campaign. This touches especially on the American film, made for the Nuremberg trials, entitled “Nazi Concentration Camp,” which contained a completely fake montage of a gassing at Dachau, a camp where it is now conceded there were no gassings. Not exactly to his credit, Shandler makes no effort to straighten the reader out on such points.
The next segment of Shandler’s book turns to how the Holocaust was used on American television proper. He discusses in detail an episode of Ralph Edwards’ “This is Your Life” from 1948 about a Czech Jewish woman who had passed through Auschwitz—“Some showers had regular water, some had liquid gas, and you never knew which one you were sent to,” intoned Edwards, while getting ready to introduce another memorable personage from this young survivor’s past, even though the idea of "liquid gas" passing through shower heads is not only a contradiction in terms but not maintained by any serious Holocaust scholar today.
For the most part however Shandler skips such mawkish sentimentality—for example, he skips the famous “Queen for a Day” episode won by a survivor—and concentrates on TV drama shows. In probably the best part of the book, Shandler recaps the plots of a number of ‘50’s dramas that were featured on such shows as “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One”, with scripts by the likes of Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky, and some improbable casting (John Cassavetes as a camp inmate, Charles Laughton as an old rabbi, and Robert Redford as a German sergeant.)
For the later periods, except for a brief riff about “Hogan’s Heroes” and the attendant parody in MAD magazine, Shandler limits himself to somewhat more predictable fare. For example, there is a long discussion of the Eichmann trial in 1961, and how that trial, televised in the United States, helped change our collective consciousness about the Holocaust. But aside from being dull, this long section doesn’t convince: the Eichmann trial was probably about as important for Holocaust consciousness as the Eichmann memoirs were useful to the Lipstadt defense, which is to say not much.
The big turning point for propagating the idea of the Holocaust was of course the television mini-series of the same name, and Shandler gives plenty of space to that 1978 broadcast. At the same time, this was an event in the living memory of most of us, so his narrative is not going to be particularly gripping, especially since Shandler lacks the ability to approach his subject with the kind of trenchant criticism or acerbic wit of an A. M. Lilienthal. In the same way, Shandler’s approach, while frequently providing full plot lines and plenty of other detail, seldom strays into the more subtle kinds of messages or counter-messages that his stories might convey. He seems content to crown any narration with typically dense postmodernist pronouncements about identity, definition, and appropriated memory. That’s too bad, because Shandler’s research has yielded some great material, and his organizational analysis is always competent. Unfortunately, he lacks the final measure of skepticism and confrontation that could have made a much better book, witness for example his treatment of the early newsreels.
In the end, what I keep returning to are the images of the Jewish concentration camp experience in the 1950’s. What makes these early dramas particularly interesting is that the Jewishness of the characters tends to be presented in an arbitrary and deliberate way: a character in one story talks about having to wear the Yellow Star, because otherwise no one would know he was Jewish. In another, an American POW identifies himself as Jewish, not because he feels Jewish, but because Jews are reportedly being killed for being Jews. In still another, a Jewish camp inmate sacrifices his life so that the others can carry through on a religious ceremony, even though he is not religious himself. What this suggests to me is that back then there was a conscious attempt for Jews to be assimilated and accept assimilation, but that, if someone was going to make Jewishness a liability, well, then it was time to stand tall.
In a way, this kind of attitude is easy enough to grasp; it’s the attitude that makes most of us stand up for underdogs, it's the attitude that says, “Hey, if you want to pick on someone, pick on me.” But I think it is also the key to the evolution of Holocaust usage in the past 40 years: because the idea of the Holocaust has moved from being a specific tragedy in a terrible war to being a symbol of something very different.
When Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the Birkenau crematoria last year, and announced that all Jews living outside of Israel ought to go there, what he was really saying is that Jews are always under the threat of annihilation, and that no Jew can ever suppress his Jewishness, or, presumably, his support for Netanyahu’s vision of Israel. Otherwise, you’ll find out that some day you will be persecuted for being the Jew you never thought you really were. Perhaps it’s the promotion of that concept, even more than overexposure on television, that really lies behind the “master narrative” of the Holocaust that is so ever-present in our culture today.
Installed: 06/04/00, 09: 00 AM, EST