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American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares
Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965
Kirsten Fermaglich

Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life

2006 • 276 pp. 6 x 9"
American History / Intellectual History

$27.95 Paperback, 978-1-58465-549-7

"... An intriguing and scholarly analysis . . . essential reading for those interested in comprehending modern American Jewish intellectual traditions and the treatment of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism."Jewish Book World

A unique contribution to America's encounter with Holocaust memory that links the use of Nazi imagery to liberal politics

To a great extent, Holocaust consciousness in the contemporary United States has become intertwined with American Jewish identity and with support for right-wing Israeli politics -- but this was not always the case. In this illuminating study, Kirsten Fermaglich demonstrates that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many American Jewish writers and academics viewed the Nazi extermination of European Jewry as a subject of universal interest, with important lessons to be learned for the liberal reform of American politics.

Fermaglich analyzes the lives and writings of Stanley M. Elkins, Betty Friedan, Stanley Milgram, and Robert Jay Lifton, four social scientific thinkers whose work was shaped by a liberal perspective. For them, the Holocaust served as a critical frame of reference for a particular issue: Elkins on slavery's legacy, Friedan on the oppressions of domesticity, Milgram on the willingness to obey, and Lifton on war's survivors. In each case, these thinkers were deeply influenced by their Jewish backgrounds, whether by early encounters with antisemitism or by the profound sense that only fate and an ocean had spared them death in Hitler's Europe. Thus, each chose imagery from the concentration camps, albeit utterly devoid of a particular Jewish association, to illuminate themes that advanced liberal politics, including civil rights, the nuclear test ban, feminism, and Vietnam veterans' rights.

Rather than being offended by these authors' comparisons between American institutions and Nazi concentration camps, American audiences of all ethnic and religious backgrounds during the late 1950s and early 1960s generally cheered these authors' Nazi imagery and adopted it as part of their own political ideology. Fermaglich demonstrates that liberalism in the United States in the 1960s was more substantially shaped by the Holocaust than we have previously recognized.

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Reviews / Endorsements

"Kirsten Fermaglich's highly suggestive American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares offers a spirited plea for us to reassess the multiple and often ambiguous meanings of secular Jewish identity. Her defense of secular American Jewishness is as well a rebuke to more static ideas about Jewishness that measure identification strictly in terms of ritual observance or temple membership. As Fermaglich demonstrates, secular Jews at the turn of the 1960s championed universal values and liberal causes in a fashion completely consonant with their Jewish identities even while they often neglected (or hesitated) to name Jewishness as a motivation for their actions. As Fermaglich illustrates in a quartet of case studies, the content of secular Jewish self-understanding for these individuals was anything but static. It often could--and did--change dramatically over time. "Shofar

"American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares is a well-written, fully documented study of how Holocaust consciousness came to America."
Journal of American History

"Fermaglich (Michigan State Univ.) ably presents complex issues surrounding the emergence of the Holocaust in US culture as a unique and significant series of events separate from WW II. She invokes the role of Jewish intellectuals coming to terms with their own marginalization in US life, seeking to find a voice and role as social analysts . . . Fermaglich asks readers to consider if the fears of widespread compliance and emergence of the "total state" remain reasonable, or simply a product of the early 1960s. Summing Up: Recommended."Choice

“Fermaglich has a significant command of both the secondary and archival materials, and her writing is elegant. Her book rightly contests the influential work of Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life and will be seen by scholars as a companion to Michael Staub's Torn at the Roots, which has uncovered the ways in which the organized Jewish community evoked the Holocaust for different purposes in these same years. This book is essential reading in the fields of Holocaust studies and American Jewish history, and will appeal as well to those interested in the historiography of slavery, women's studies and feminism, and the psychology of obedience and survivors.”—Pamela S. Nadell, Program Director, Jewish Studies, American University

“American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares is an important intellectual history of four key thinkers who re-envisioned central issues in post-war American life through the lens of the Holocaust. Fermaglich explores the complex terrain of liberalism and radicalism in the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s with fresh insights and careful analysis of the lives and works of Stanley Elkins, Betty Friedan, Stanley Milgram and Robert Jay Lifton, all writers and thinkers whose controversial work shaped American discourse about race, gender, power, and meaning. She helps us to understand the significance of these writers' Jewishness and why they looked to the Holocaust as the key analogy for rethinking the key dynamics of American life. This is a book that is willing to engage moral and political issues!"—Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies, University of Minnesota

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KIRSTEN FERMAGLICH is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Michigan State University.

Thu, 14 Mar 2019 13:08:11 -0500