U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Do You Retire a Book from a Syllabus?

41SRM9Z+HRL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_This week, book orders were due in my department for next semester.  One of the courses that I’m teaching next fall – an upper-division undergraduate Honors seminar on the history and memory of World War II since 1945 – is the course I’ve been teaching longer than any other.  I first taught it as a Junior Seminar at Princeton twenty years ago. I’ve also taught it at the University of Leipzig. And I’ve been teaching it at OU – usually once every couple years — since arriving here in 1998.  The syllabus includes a mix of primary and secondary materials, and both have evolved steadily over time, as new works appear and I refine and refocus the course.

Some items – especially among the primary sources that I use – have stayed on the syllabus in nearly all its iterations. I always begin with “On a Note of Triumph,” Norman Corwin’s 1945 radio play celebrating victory in Europe.  I’ve always used – and will always use – Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, which has interesting things to say both about the Holocaust and Holocaust memory in America…and about the cross-generational impact of both. Sometimes a new work appears – Laurent Binet’s wonderful post-modern novel about the Heydrich assassination (and writing about the the Heydrich assassination) HHhH (2010, though first published in English in 2012) – that works so well that it earns a similarly perennial place on the syllabus.  On the other hand, sometimes I’ll try using a book and discover that it doesn’t quite work, for one reason or another.  For example, Robert Moeller’s War Stories (2001) is a terrific historical account of arguments over the meaning of the War in West Germany, but its focus on the 1940s and 1950s proved too chronologically narrow for teaching purposes. But the most difficult decisions involve secondary works that teach wonderfully but begin to age.

In the early years of the course, one of the mainstays of the syllabus was Ian Buruma’s Wages of Guilt (1994) which compares the public memory of the war in Germany and Japan.  I first had to drop Buruma’s book from the syllabus when it briefly went out of print. But although it’s now back in print – most recently in an edition published last year by the New York Review of Book – it’s not on next fall’s syllabus. Buruma’s book is a clear, journalistic account that makes a strong case that the Federal Republic of Germany has done a better job owning up to its behavior in the War than Japan has.  This is, broadly speaking, an entirely fair conclusion and Buruma’s presentation of it in a conveniently-sized book written in the accessible and interesting language of serious long-form journalism made it a perfect text for a course like this.

But the book lacks nuance in places, especially in its underplaying of West Germans’ avoidance of taking public responsibility for Nazi war crimes in the two decades or so immediately after the War. And these problems of nuance have grown over time. Wages of Guilt is very much a product of its moment, the years right after the end of the Cold War.  In the two decades since its publication, a generation has come of age in Germany that has a very different relationship to the war and to the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) that largely defined (West) German war memory since the 1960s.  Germans today – including young Germans — are still largely committed to political culture of toleration that was an important product of German war memory as it evolved over the decades.  As one recent satirical song that invokes the memory of Nazism to emphasize the need for toleration has put it, Germans are still overwhelmingly “proud of not being proud.”  But there are also ugly signs of a return of right-wing populism in Germany, most notably visible in the rise of the far-right social movement Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West), better known by its acronym “Pegida,” and the right euroskeptic political party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany). With Buruma’s German present stuck two decades ago, the book itself feels a little too much a product of the past.

On the other hand, I’ve once again ordered Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Novick’s book suffers from a similar problem to Buruma’s; it was written from the point of view of a present that now feels past.  In the 1990s, the Holocaust had a centrality in American public memory of World War II that has faded a bit over the last decade and a half.  Right around the time of the publication of Novick’s book, public interest in the memory of the American combat experience began to grow, marked initially by the appearance of the movie Saving Private Ryan (1998). Important events since then – 9/11, the Iraq War, and the rise of Daesh, for example – have also pushed public memory of World War II in other directions.  For example, Pearl Harbor-as-metaphor grew in importance in the wake of 9/11. Similarly, Holocaust Studies were a much more central part of American academic life in the 1990s than they are today. One wonders what Novick – who passed away in 2012 – would now have to say about Holocaust memory in the 21st century.  In 1999, Novick feared that Holocaust memory was, for non-Jewish American, frequently banal and inconsequential. And Novick worried that, for Jewish Americans like himself, the focus on the memory of the Holocaust had ironically given Hitler posthumous power to define the Jewish experience. Novick’s concluding, critical thoughts about the centrality of Holocaust memory at the time that he wrote seem less urgent today.

I sometimes wish Novick would have written another chapter for a new edition of his book that would cover the years that have passed since its publication. But the fact is that such additional chapters would likely not accomplish the same thing that a book written from today’s perspective might.[1]  But no such book has yet been written. Novick’s book is the only comprehensive work on its topic. And it is excellent in many ways. That it is a work of academic history gives it an advantage over Buruma’s book: Novick is more consistently self-conscious about the moment in which he wrote – and his relationship to his subject – than Buruma is.  I still would rather have my students grapple with Novick than not read him at all. Though now I am particularly interested in asking them how they, having largely lived in the years since the book’s publication, have experienced the memory of the Holocaust and its role in American culture.


[1] For example: George Nash has twice added additional chapters to his essential The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976). Nash’s argumentative framework did a very good job tackling his subject as it stood in the mid-1970s. But Nash’s three strands of conservatism – traditionalism, libertarianism, and anti-communism – do not as effectively cover two key strains of right-wing thought that emerged in the 1970s: neoconservatism and the new religious right.  Nash’s additional chapters that try to bang these square pegs into his original round holes are substantially weaker than the old main body of the book. Rather than really updating the book, they seem, to me at least, to mark the ways in which its argument is grounded in the moment of its original conception.  This is not intended as a knock on Nash or his book. We can all only write history from the present, not the future.  And new times often require new perspectives on the past.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Haven’t read the bks mentioned in the post, though have heard of them. Anyway, a couple of thoughts.

    First, a little surprised to read that “Holocaust Studies were a much more central part of American academic life in the 1990s than they are today.” That wouldn’t nec. be my (outside-of-academia) impression, given that historians continue, I think, to write on the subject and often get some pretty wide attention (Timothy Snyder being one name that comes to mind). However, I’ll take your word for it.

    Second, wondering if you are familiar w a recent bk by Werner Sollors (the title of which is escaping me) that fits w the memory-of-WW2 theme, albeit from a non-American angle: he was a child in Germany during the war and then (some of, I guess) the occupation. I didn’t actually read it but did look through it; looked interesting. One chapter has to do w the author’s detective work about the a photo of a young boy, taken I guess just after the war’s end, walking past corpses from one of the death camps (or forced marches) on the side of a road; he eventually discovers who the boy in the photograph is.

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