- American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965
Through profiles of four prominent Jewish intellectuals (historian Stanley Elkins, journalist Betty Friedan, psychologist Stanley Milgram, and psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton), Kirsten Fermaglich offers an engaging and insightful look at the nature of post–World War II American public life, Jewish identity, and memory of the Holocaust. Contemporary understanding of the Holocaust emphasizes its unique historical circumstances—particularly the vicious antisemitism of the Nazi regime. In contrast, during late 1950s and early 1960s the subjects of Fermaglich's study stressed a more universalistic view. They were interested above all in what the Holocaust revealed about humanity and how lessons from it could be applied to political causes.
Historian Stanley Elkins is best known for his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959). Elkins made an explicit comparison between Nazi concentration camps and American slavery, which he [End Page 331] described as a "closed system" in which powerful masters reduced slaves to loyal, childlike Sambos. For Elkins, slaves' docile behavior was not an inherent racial trait but rather the result of their entrapment in a brutal, dehumanizing institution. Anyone experiencing such horrible circumstances would behave in largely the same manner. Elkins drew upon the work of concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim, who stressed the passivity of camp victims, and upon sociologist Robert K. Merton's theories about the relative inability of individuals to control their lives. Elkins's focus on the power of environmental factors to transform human behavior and personality, Fermaglich persuasively demonstrates, developed out of his experiences as a Jew. His military service in World War II, his success as an academic, and his interest in the prowess of Israeli soldiers contradicted his earlier experiences of antisemitism and the stereotype of the weak Jewish male too feeble—or unwilling—to fight.
In her landmark work The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan described the American suburban home as a "comfortable concentration camp." Domesticity, she insisted, had made women into dependent, infantile creatures. Women aided this process by accepting and adjusting to suburbia; eventually, they internalized a sense of inferiority. Like Elkins, Friedan had been inspired by Bettelheim—especially his writings about using psychology to cope with being in a concentration camp. Oppressed individuals, Friedan concluded hopefully, could escape their predicament. As in Elkins's case, Friedan's experiences as a Jew also influenced her writing. Friedan felt the sting of antisemitism both as a youth in the Midwest and as a student at Smith College. During the 1930s, her family regularly discussed the plight of Jews in Europe. As a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Friedan studied with Kurt Lewin, a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany. Several of Lewin's concepts, including those of Jewish self-hatred and the "marginal" Jew, appeared in Friedan's analysis of women's roles.
Psychologist Stanley Milgram became famous for a series of experiments in which he led individuals to believe (falsely) that they were administering electric shocks to another person. Milgram reported that roughly two-thirds of the participants followed his directions to increase the voltage even though cries of pain (which were actually a recording) from the "recipient" grew more piercing. Milgram's published research appeared in several articles and in a co-authored book, Obedience and Authority (1974). Eager to understand how the Nazi regime could develop and function, Milgram encouraged comparisons between his findings and perpetrators' behavior during the Holocaust. Like the others profiled here, he offered no direct reference to his Jewish identity or the Jewish background of Holocaust victims. For Milgram, the Holocaust could be explained better through analysis of how people functioned in bureaucracies than in terms of ethnic or religious hatred. Humanity, he concluded pessimistically, was drawn to conformity and obedience. [End Page 332]
In 1967, psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton published Death in Life, a comparison of Holocaust survivors with those of the Hiroshima bombing. After talking with individuals who had undergone...