History: To Remember and to Forget (Pt. 2)
American Holocaust memorialization tropes serve to reinforce American cultural ideas rther than help us understand the Holocaust as it occurred in historical reality
This is part 2 of my attempt to clean up an old term paper on history vs. political memory as it pertains to Holocaust history and memorialization. This segment focuses on American Holocaust memorialization. Part 1 can be found here. Part 3 will focus on errors in Israeli political narratives.
In the United States, Holocaust memorialization is riddled with various ahistorical “mythic archetypes.”
Among them is a moral reduction in the frequent depiction of the Holocaust as a crime rooted in the “evil” of one man (sometimes a few men). The moral reduction in the depiction of the Holocaust as a crime rooted in the “evil” of one man has been articulated most prominently in memorial narratives of The Holocaust Museum and by Ronald Reagan during the Bitburg affair. As Reagan would have it, the Holocaust resulted from “the awful evil started by one man — an evil that victimized all the world with its destruction… [through which] until that man and his evil were destroyed, hell yawned forth its awful contents.” As Rosenfeld points out, Ronald Reagan’s moral reductionist depiction establishes an ahistorical deflection that obscures the historical role played by the rest of the Nazi state, the Wehrmacht, the civil apparatus, and the entire social structural condition which allowed the Holocaust to occur. By Reagan’s estimation, all contributors to the Holocaust who are exogenous to Hitler himself are absolved of their agency and subsequent responsibility for their participation in the atrocities.
They thus join the millions of those murdered at their hands in sharing victimhood from Hitler’s utmost “evil.”
This trend continues into dominant American literary tropes and cinematic focuses.
As Rosenfeld suggests, “Americans are typically given stories and images of the Nazi Holocaust that turn upward at the end rather than plunge downward into the terrifying silences of a gruesome death.” The emphasis on survivor narratives and the process of surviving seems odd, considering the observation of Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews that survival of the Holocaust was a statistically insignificant component of its historical reality.
Through its limited depiction of the role of broader German society in perpetuating the Holocaust, even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has also been guilty of this moral reduction.
According to Bartov, “Relatively little space is devoted to the role of science in furthering and legitimizing the murder of undesirable human beings, or to the part played by the legal profession in sanctioning and legalizing genocide. Hence the Holocaust in this museum is very much a German affair, its victims are mainly Jews, and the perpetrators are mainly identifiable Nazis.” This manifestation of reducing the Holocaust to the ethical remit of a few notable and high-ranking officials absolves the many historical actors; without the complicity of whom, the Holocaust could not have occurred. Further, this approach to memorialization absolves the observer from positing any critique of current political concerns. When the few “evil” men noted as responsible for the atrocity are no longer with us, the ethical implications of their actions are encapsulated within the walls of a museum, insulated from the outside world of the present.
This framework of holocaust memorialization is supported by an emphasis on the depiction of holocaust survivors as tragic yet intrepid survivors demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit to overcome hardship. It is a very American trope. And it serves to do far more to reinforce American cultural ideas than it does to help us understand the Holocaust as it occurred in historical reality.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld, The End of the Holocaust, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011), 20–21, 62
Omer Bartov, “Chambers of Horror: Holocaust Museums in Israel and the United States,” Israel Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, 72
Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Yale University Press, 2003)
(To be continued…)