Con­test­ing His­to­ries: Ger­man and Jew­ish Amer­i­cans and the Lega­cy of the Holocaust

Michael Schuldin­er
  • Review
By – December 7, 2011
Michael Schuldin­er pro­vides a unique angle into under­stand­ing how the Holo­caust unfold­ed and was received and under­stood in the years before the war and how it was inter­pret­ed in the years that fol­lowed. Reflect­ing on his expe­ri­ences teach­ing Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture cours­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka and oth­er insti­tu­tions and the resis­tance he encoun­tered in the class­room, par­tic­u­lar­ly from Ger­man Amer­i­can stu­dents, he came to real­ize that this resis­tance was part of a long cul­tur­al his­to­ry. This book is pri­mar­i­ly about the con­flict between Ger­man Amer­i­cans and Jew­ish Amer­i­cans and the ways in which their argu­ments in the years lead­ing up to World War II have found their way into the aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course and pro­vid­ed the foun­da­tion for oppos­ing his­tor­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of the Holo­caust. There is much that is new and sug­ges­tive here, par­tic­u­lar­ly his exam­i­na­tion of how the Holo­caust has impact­ed the Ger­man Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, cre­at­ing feel­ings of guilt, defen­sive­ness, inse­cu­ri­ty, and fear, even lead­ing to anti-Semi­tism, Holo­caust nor­mal­iza­tion” claims and Holo­caust denial. Although inter­est­ing, his claims about intel­lec­tu­al influ­ence are a bit over­drawn and not com­pelling.

The feel­ings that Ger­man Amer­i­cans and Jew­ish Amer­i­cans have about the Holo­caust are clear­ly the prod­uct of their expe­ri­ences, per­cep­tions, and inter­nal­iza­tions of the phe­nom­e­non. Schuldin­er dis­cuss­es to great effect the anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment in the U.S. dur­ing WWI; con­fronta­tions between Ger­man Amer­i­can iso­la­tion­ists and Jew­ish Amer­i­can inter­ven­tion­ists in the 1930’s and 1940’s; boy­cotts of Ger­man goods in the U.S. and counter boy­cotts of Jew­ish busi­ness­es in Nazi Ger­many; accu­sa­tions by iso­la­tion­ists and oth­ers that Jew­ish dom­i­nat­ed” Hol­ly­wood was anti-Ger­man; and the debate in Con­gress and the coun­try over chang­ing the immi­gra­tion laws, allow­ing sanc­tu­ary for Jews seek­ing to escape from Nazi per­se­cu­tion. Fun­da­men­tal dis­agree­ments over these issues col­ored the per­cep­tion of the devel­op­ing Shoah in these two eth­nic communities.

These dis­agree­ments con­tin­ued after 1945 in the debates over the estab­lish­ment of the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton; the con­tro­ver­sy over Pres­i­dent Reagan’s vis­it to a Ger­man mil­i­tary ceme­tery at Bit­burg in 1985; and the sub­stan­tive and some­times heat­ed dis­agree­ments by schol­ars over whether the Ger­mans were Hitler’s will­ing exe­cu­tion­ers” as Daniel Gold­ha­gen claims, or mere­ly ordi­nary men” placed in extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions, as Christo­pher Brown­ing sug­gests, with the impli­ca­tion that any­one in the same group sit­u­a­tion would com­mit sim­i­lar atroc­i­ties. Here I dif­fer some­what from Schuldiner’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the debate. I don’t believe that he effec­tive­ly makes the case that at its heart it was about vic­tim sym­pa­thy on the one hand and per­pe­tra­tor iden­ti­fi­ca­tion on the oth­er. That is not how most schol­ars would read” Gold­ha­gen and Brown­ing. Nev­er­the­less, this is a well-writ­ten book that looks at the Holo­caust from the per­spec­tives of com­mu­ni­ties deeply con­nect­ed to the per­pe­tra­tors and the vic­tims and there­by pro­vides new insights and dimen­sions to Holo­caust stud­ies in America.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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