Why Was Public Acknowledgement of the Suffering of the Jews Delayed Until the 1960s?

Roundup: Talking About History

Olivia Ward, in the Toronto Star (1-26-05):

... The Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals brought the murder of Jews to international attention after World War II. But, points out Yale University historian Jay Winter, the full impact of their revelations was delayed. The complexities of memory in a war that traumatized and exhausted millions - while forging a new geopolitical order - allowed the Holocaust to recede from the foreground of history.

"Until the 1960s, World War II was seen as one of good and evil, with a clear moral choice," he says. "But the emphasis was on the victors, and the rebirth of nations, not the victims of the violence."

However, he says, the morally ambiguous later wars in Vietnam and Algeria reminded the world of the suffering of war's victims, and brought the tragedy of the European Jews back into focus. Israel's 1961 trial of Hitler's henchman Adolf Eichmann, opened the floodgates of memory for thousands of Holocaust survivors.

"The trial was broadcast in North America. It was a memory boom, and from that moment on, the identification of World War II as genocide took over from the idea of the war as mainly about nations," he said.

War was no longer a glorious struggle, says Winter, a history professor at Yale University. The suffering of war victims replaced the triumphalism of the victors as the focal point of remembrance.

"Victimhood is inalienably associated with violence," he says. "Nations are born out of suffering, but sharing that suffering through remembering enables them to live as nations."


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