The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book reviews

Making Room for the Revisionists

  • The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Hardcover. 373 pages. $27.00. Index, source references.
  • The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering by Norman Finkelstein. London, New York: Verso, 2000. Hardcover. 150 pages. Index.

reviewed by Samuel Crowell

In the past couple of years, two books by American Jewish professors have served to initiate public debate about the use and abuse of the Holocaust. In his 1999 Holocaust and American Life, Peter Novick, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, traced the evolution of the concept “Holocaust” in the United States since the Second World War. Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political theory at City University of New York, went on to take Novick’s ideas several steps further in his Holocaust Industry, which stridently attacks the manipulation of the Holocaust for the financial gain of Jewish agencies. Neither book rehearses any of the traditional historical revisionist arguments, but in fact their focus on the abuse of the Holocaust, and its unnatural dominance in American public life, repeats old revisionist themes. More important, both books have begun to create a climate in which a more skeptical attitude toward the facts of the Holocaust will become possible, and that in turn will only work to the benefit of revisionist research.

A Thing Called 'The Holocaust'

Novick’s point of departure was a mixture of curiosity about the extent to which the Holocaust was invoked in American life and skepticism about the usefulness of its dominant role. Hence his study is simply an attempt to reconstruct chronologically how the Holocaust was perceived from the Second World War to the present, and in this sense his book might be called a history of the idea of the Holocaust.

This creates some problems in the early chapters of his book, because Novick soon realizes that the idea of the Holocaust today did not exist in the Second World War, or even for some years thereafter. To be specific, until the late 1960s, whatever had happened to the Jews was subsumed into the general idea of “Nazi atrocities” carried out against all of the Third Reich’s political opponents, by a very small circle of individuals, and almost entirely in secret “extermination camps” the knowledge of which was concealed not only from the world at large but even from the German people. As a result, when Novick claims that the Holocaust was or was not discussed in the 1940s or '50s, he is usually using a very expanded definition of the term that in effect includes the entire Nazi concentration camp system. This can be a little disconcerting to the reader when he compares Novick’s statements to the footnotes that underlie them.

Yet this discontinuity tends to underline one of the book’s strengths, which is that it succeeds in locating the creation of the idea of the Holocaust in the 1960s, and specifically in the time frame of the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This separation of idea and events is fruitful in many ways. In the first place, it makes it clear that criticism of the idea of the Holocaust can be separated from the events that comprise it: one can criticize the abuse of the idea without being a “Holocaust denier.” But on the other hand Novick’s citing of the concept in the 1960s also suggests that the re-evaluation of allegations of Nazi atrocity in the Second World War should be able to proceed without reference to the “Holocaust” at all.

A further value of Novick’s placement of the birth of the Holocaust idea is that it helps explain the internal chronology of Holocaust revisionism. In a lecture to the first IHR conference in 1979, Arthur Butz expressed some wonderment about the fact that a number of independent researchers all reached similar revisionist conclusions in the same general time frame: the late 1960s and the early 1970s. But according to Novick’s analysis, this coincides with the origination of the Holocaust concept along with its first widespread usage in international politics. It may be seen, then, that Holocaust revisionism was the natural complement to the development of the idea of the Holocaust itself.

As to the cause of the development of this Holocaust idea, Novick is much less clear. While recognizing the takeoff of the Holocaust idea at the time of Israeli emergence as a military power in the Middle East, he gives little credit to the notion that Zionist propaganda was consequential in its emergence, partly because he doesn’t believe that America’s policy towards Israel is shaped by the Holocaust. Moreover, since his emphasis is on the idea of the Holocaust in America alone, he is able to ignore the extent to which Holocaust imagery has always been central to Israeli politics.

By failing to deal with the evolution of the Holocaust concept in Israel, Novick is left with something of a mystery. He has a situation in which the Holocaust became prominent in the United States but only some twenty-five years after the events described under its rubric transpired. Novick attempts to explain this by suggesting that the Holocaust was repressed (a position he ultimately rejects), and tends rather to argue that it was suppressed, because, in the prevailing Cold War climate, it raised uncomfortable questions about the Jewish involvement in European communism. To the extent that Novick is able to support this argument by reference to the internal papers of Jewish organizations that were active in the 1950s in suppressing associations of Jewishness and communism in the media, he stands on firm ground. But it seems to us that a simpler explanation for the growth of the Holocaust idea in America would be that the Zionist conception of the Holocaust was simply exported here and took root.

Novick tends to explain the pre-eminence of the Holocaust idea in American culture in the last two decades by reference to “market forces” and the simple fact that “[Jews] are not only 'The people of the book' but the people of the Hollywood film and the television miniseries, of the magazine article and the newspaper column, of the comic book and the academic symposium” (p. 12). According to this argument, the prominence of Jews in the media makes Jewish concerns prominent. Further, American Jews have been led to see the Holocaust as the fundamental characteristic of their identity since the ordinary appeals to the Jewish life and religion have lost their attraction. In other words, the Holocaust is used as a kind of threat to ensure, in effect, that Jews remain Jews; because of the Jewish dominance in the media, the non-Jewish majority is constantly exposed to this message.

It is at this point of his book that Novick begins to criticize the inaccuracy and vulgarity of many Holocaust representations, including those of Elie Wiesel, and to decry the “mystification” of the Holocaust. Being a liberal humanist, as well as a Jew, Novick takes offense with such claims that the Holocaust is “unique” or that it “cannot be rationally comprehended” or that it cannot be compared to other instances of mass persecution and murder, in other words, genocide. In this respect, Novick puts himself at odds with the majority of Holocaust authors, including Deborah Lipstadt, who is singled out for criticism. (In a fascinating footnote, Novick reveals that the author of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, implicitly endorsed the idea of comparison in the 1950s in his correspondence with German-Americans by suggesting that the postwar expulsion of the Germans was itself a form of genocide.)

It is certainly difficult for revisionists to disagree with Novick’s judgments in these later chapters, especially since they are identical to the kinds of things revisionists have been saying for decades. However, Novick goes out of his way to dissociate himself from revisionism, calling revisionists “crackpots” and “fruitcakes” in his rare references to them. But then, Novick never asked himself why the Holocaust has became “mystified,” “beyond reason,” and “incommensurable” in the first place. If he had, he would have realized that these cliches represent an attempt to obscure the events and dissuade the skeptic or scholar from testing the facts and attempting to put them in a meaningful historical context. In other words, Novick’s contempt is misplaced: in our view, the “sacralization” of the Holocaust idea occurred as a direct response to the revisionist challenge to the Holocaust on discrete factual terms. One may, as Novick does, object to the irrationality of Holocaust remembrance, but the substitution of reason for mystery is the essence of Holocaust revisionism.

Novick’s book is important in several respects. It has allowed a wide public airing of many criticisms of the Holocaust ideology long made by revisionists such as Butz, Faurisson, and Lilienthal. It locates the emergence of the Holocaust as an idea at a specific point in time, incidentally helping to explain the chronology of Holocaust revisionism. It helps separate the ideology of the Holocaust from the disputed facts of the Holocaust, although it questions few of these. Finally, it helps create space for broader, deeper criticism of the “instrumentalization” of the Holocaust, as well as more critical thinking. Indeed, The Holocaust in American Life provided the actual springboard for Norman Finkelstein.

The Selling of the Holocaust

Late in 1999, Norman Finkelstein was asked to write a review of Novick’s book, and that review, fleshed out with considerable detail and moral indignation, has become The Holocaust Industry. To understand Finkelstein’s approach it is important to understand a few things about his background. Both of Finkelstein’s parents were Polish Jews, who were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto and who survived a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Majdanek. Finkelstein clearly venerates their memory and the sufferings they underwent. He also deeply honors the memory of his parents, who, by what he tells us, interpreted the suffering of the Jewish people in the Second World War in a universalist context. As a result, Finkelstein’s main approach to the Holocaust is that the Jewish people should not be singled out as victims nor should the German people singled out as perpetrators. These are attitudes that Finkelstein has discussed elsewhere, as for example in A Nation on Trial, in which Finkelstein condemned Daniel Goldhagen’s tract Hitler’s Willing Executioners as a group libel on the German people.

Another characteristic of Finkelstein’s thinking is that he is suspicious of all political elites, whether Jewish or gentile, and has always been sharply critical of Zionism. Indeed, Finkelstein first made a name for himself in the 1980’s with his critique of Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial, a Zionist version of Middle East history which essentially argued that before the Jewish immigrants arrived there were no Arabs in Palestine. As a result, Finkelstein has always been sharply critical of the manipulation of the Holocaust. Indeed, in A Nation on Trial he even went so far as to call the Holocaust as usually discussed essentially the ideology-laden Zionist “version” of the Holocaust.

Finkelstein benefits from Novick’s distinction of the Holocaust as an idea as separate from the events themselves. In The Holocaust Industry he is now able to strongly criticize the Holocaust as a representation without having to get mired in details about the scope or methods of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

In the first chapter of his brief book, Finkelstein gives his own version of the emergence of the Holocaust idea. Unlike Novick, who centers the idea in support for Israel, later to be overtaken by the utility of the concept in defining Jewish identity, Finkelstein traces the promotion of the Holocaust idea to its usefulness to the United States government and in particular to the “Jewish elites” (a favorite phrase) who benefit from such promotion with wealth and power. In this area, Finkelstein’s analysis is a bit more convincing than Novick.

While he disagrees with Novick about the actual mechanics of the Holocaust idea’s emergence, Finkelstein agrees with Novick, and goes much further than his elder colleague, with the idea that the Holocaust serves ideological purposes by casting the Jews as eternal victims of irrational gentile enmity. In this way, suggests Finkelstein, not only does Israel become immune to criticism, but so do any Jews, as they retreat into conservative positions to defend their vested interests.

In the following section, Finkelstein deplores the abuse of the Holocaust, and the “hoaxers” and “hucksters” who stand behind it. Repeating criticisms from his own writings, Novick’s book, and thirty years of revisionist analysis, Finkelstein excoriates the various poseurs who have made a living off the Holocaust, among whom he lists not only Wiesel, but Jerzy Kosinski and of course “Binyamin Wilkomirski,” the Swiss clarinetist who successfully passed himself off as a child survivor of the camps until recently exposed. He also allows himself to attack the various buzz-words of the Holocaust vocabulary, but, unlike Novick, is able to say something in support of revisionists, duly referencing Gordon Craig’s defense of David Irving, and Arno Mayer’s use of revisionist authors in his Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (As we know, Mayer’s bibliography referenced the writings of both Arthur Butz and Paul Rassinier, which in academic usage points to their respectability. [See the reviews by Arthur Butz and Robert Faurisson in volume nine, number three of The Journal of Historical Review.])

It is in the final section of his book, entitled “The Double Shakedown,” that Finkelstein most clearly makes his mark. This long section, comprising almost half the text, is a relentless retelling of the means whereby a handful of Jewish agencies, without apparently any constituent support, used class action lawyers and the American media to in effect blackmail the Swiss government for $1.25 billion dollars. Then, Finkelstein goes over the story of how the same forces worked together to compel the German government to make yet another compensation deal, this time for $5 billion, ostensibly to be paid to the survivors, Jewish and non-Jewish, whose labor had been exploited in concentration and labor camps.

Finkelstein registers his disgust not just with the tactics employed, although his narrative contains much shocking detail of greed and cynicism: he also raises questions about where all these billions in compensation are going. For example, if the Volcker Commission established that the amounts held in dormant “Holocaust Era” accounts in Swiss banks were significantly less than $1.25 billion, one may legitimately inquire as to the ultimate destination of the remainder. Finkelstein makes it clear that he believes that these funds will disappear into the coffers of the Jewish agencies that initiated the action, or into the pockets of the enterprising lawyers they employed.

Finkelstein applies the same skepticism to the German compensation plan. This plan is keyed to estimated numbers of both Jewish and non-Jewish survivors. Finkelstein correctly notes that if the number of Jewish concentration camp survivors today numbers around 135,000, as the Jewish agencies maintain, they must have numbered half a million or more in 1945. But such a calculation, which accords with revisionist analysis, contradicts the very low estimates of Holocaust historians. Finkelstein concludes therefore that the number of survivors has been deliberately inflated, and that little of the $5 billion in German money will ever reach the elderly or destitute Jewish men and women who most need it.


Novick’s Holocaust in American Life was a welcome addition to discussions of the Holocaust primarily because it succeeded in separating the concept from the events, which in turn made it possible to criticize the abuse of the Holocaust idea. Thus Novick opened the door for Finkelstein to write a far more biting critique, which essentially has argued that the Holocaust idea has become an exploitative tool for agencies that wish to increase their wealth and extend their power. If Finkelstein’s analysis is correct, it appears the Holocaust ideology currently serves only a tiny group of people with no roots even in the Jewish community, let alone any meaningful roots in the social or political realities of America, Europe, or Israel.

These are the kinds of things that revisionists have been saying for years, and indeed one can find much of both Novick and Finkelstein prefigured in the early writings of Butz and Faurisson. Yet that does not mean that either Novick or Finkelstein derived their views from revisionists. Rather it means that once one adopts a critical attitude toward the manipulation of the Holocaust, one is bound to come to the same conclusions about its abuse.

It is also important to keep in mind that both Novick and Finkelstein distance themselves from Holocaust revisionism as it concerns the facts of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. On the contrary, both dismiss revisionism, and Novick does so in quite scathing terms. Paradoxically, however, their books serve to support the more rational and meticulous study of the “mystery” of the Holocaust, because both books are ultimately directed against the power of the Holocaust as an ideology. Towards the end of The Holocaust Industry, Finkelstein observes that “The abnormality of the Nazi holocaust springs not from the event itself but from the exploitive industry that has grown up around it” (p. 150), and that “The challenge today is to restore the Nazi holocaust as a rational subject of inquiry.”

We would have to agree: the Holocaust ideology has been the greatest inhibition to a rational analysis of Europe’s troubled past. As that ideology weakens, the events themselves will become less potent for ideological or financial manipulation, emotions will accordingly dissipate, and revisionists will be able to pursue their studies and present their conclusions about the facts without harassment and vilification, even if not with immediate or complete agreement. It would seem that the days of a more balanced view of twentieth century European history are in the offing. 

About the author

Samuel Crowell is the pen name of an American writer who describes himself as a “moderate revisionist.” At the University of California (Berkeley) he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and history, including Russian, German,and German-Jewish history. He continued his study of history at Columbia University. For six years he worked as a college teacher. Crowell’s lengthy essay, “Wartime Germany’s Anti-Gas Air Raid Shelters,” was published in the July-August 1999 Journal, pp. 7-30.

Bibliographic information
Author: Samuel Crowell
Title: The Holocaust in American life, by Peter Novick; The Holocaust Industry, by Norman Finkelstein (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: January/February 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 1
Location: page 41
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.