Holo­caust: An Amer­i­can Understanding

  • Review
By – June 30, 2016

Draw­ing on both pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources as well as inter­views, Dorot Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry and Holo­caust Stud­ies at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty Deb­o­rah E. Lipstadt’s demon­strates how the Holo­caust evolved from a lit­tle-known — and even less­er under­stood — event in the post­war Amer­i­can con­science to its present impact on Amer­i­can cul­ture, pol­i­tics, and the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community. 

The many issues, events, and per­son­al­i­ties dis­cussed by Lip­stadt include the effect of the Holo­caust over the Bit­burg con­tro­ver­sy, the Rwan­di­an Geno­cide, the bomb­ing of Koso­vo, and the debate sur­round­ing the pur­pose for the build­ing the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Lip­stadt does not over­look the impor­tant moral pres­ence of the late Elie Wiesel in many of these events — Wiesel, a Holo­caust sur­vivor and Nobel Prize awardee, was not hes­i­tant to speak truth to pow­er — or any oth­er Holo­caust-relat­ed issue in the Unit­ed States, com­pre­hen­sive­ly address­ing each sub­ject and leav­ing no rock unturned.

One of the most inter­est­ing top­ics addressed in Holo­caust: An Amer­i­can Under­stand­ing is Lipstadt’s dis­cus­sion of the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the fac­tu­al def­i­n­i­tion of the Holo­caust. When the Holo­caust is com­mon­ly referred to as the mur­der of six mil­lion Jews and five mil­lion oth­ers,” do we ques­tion who these oth­ers” are, and how did we arrive at the num­ber of five mil­lion? Lip­stadt, in her some­what crit­i­cal assess­ment of Simon Wiesen­thal, notes that the famed Nazi hunter came up with this num­ber: Wiesen­thal was crit­i­cal of those who insist­ed on divid­ing the dead and only mourn­ing their own” and ignored the oth­er vic­tims,” which he claimed num­bered five mil­lion. Lip­stadt sur­mis­es that Wiesen­thal may have cre­at­ed this fraud­u­lent” num­ber because he lived in Aus­tria, a coun­try that for many decades[…] pro­mul­gat­ed the false notion that it, too, had been a vic­tim of Hitler’s aggres­sion, as the first coun­try invad­ed by the Nazi.” Lip­stadt claims that Aus­tria, con­trary to the myth, wel­comed Hitler in 1938 and sub­se­quent­ly was a loy­al and trust­ed part­ner of the Third Reich, let alone engag­ing in the vicious per­se­cu­tion of its the Jews. She also sug­gests anoth­er moti­va­tion for Wiesenthal’s claim of five mil­lion was that he thought in uni­ver­sal, inclu­sive terms, seek­ing jus­tice rather than vengeance.

Lip­stadt reveals the testy” if not com­pet­i­tive rela­tion­ship between Simon Wiesen­thal and Elie Wiesel. She notes that although Wiesen­thal nev­er open­ly stat­ed it, there was lit­tle doubt that when he con­trast­ed him­self to oth­er Jews, those who he said want­ed vengeance, he meant Wiesel.” Lip­stadt cites Wiesel about his chal­lenge to Wiesen­thal to explain how he reached the num­ber eleven mil­lion, to which Wiesen­thal respond­ed by accus­ing Wiesel of suf­fer­ing Judeo­Cen­trism”, being con­cerned only about Jews. 

So what are we to make of the five mil­lion oth­ers”? Lip­stadt argues that aside from its use for strate­gic or ide­o­log­i­cal pur­pos­es, the eleven-mil­lion fig­ure has acquired legs that have extend­ed far beyond Wiesenthal’s ini­tial claim. Enshrined in pres­i­den­tial orders, Holo­caust muse­ums, memo­r­i­al ser­vices, and an array of pub­li­ca­tions, giv­en its dubi­ous and fic­tion­al sta­tus, it is not sur­pris­ing that those who insist on using it can­not agree on who pre­cise­ly are these oth­er vic­tims. Yet the num­ber persists.”

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions