UnAmerican? Or Just Inglourious? Reflections on the “Americanization of the Holocaust” from Langer to Tarantino

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In his 1983 essay “The Americanization of the Holocaust on Stage and Screen,” Lawrence Langer originated an argument and a field of enquiry that has subsequently been considerably expanded and amplified by US scholars including Judith Doneson, Hilene Flanzbaum, Peter Novick, and (perhaps most insistently, and certainly polemically) Alvin Rosenfeld. While naturally individual lines of argument differ, essentially a common claim is made by these writers: namely, that the establishment of the Holocaust as a central “location” in American culture since the 1970s, particularly through far from exclusively as it has been conducted by mainstream (which is to say, popular/commercial) fictional and dramatic representations, has in significant measure been accomplished by its recuperation, and partial rehabilitation, in the terms of a broadly affirmative cultural discourse that determinedly and often tendentiously discovers redemption, individual agency, and moral meaning in historical events to which such concepts are arguably not only inapplicable but irrelevant. The “Americanization of the Holocaust” at bottom thus entails a kind of category error as a consequence of which American Holocaust representations typically proffer meanings – for example, civic lessons around tolerance and rational democratic political discourse, or declarations of human sodality in the face of radical evil – which upon closer scrutiny prove to relate more to the ideological preferences of American public and ;political culture than to the history of the Holocaust, and whose restorative propensity will always tend to collapse into kitsch. Langer’s original essay identified the Goodrich-Hackett/Stevens stage and screen adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and the 1978 NBC mini-series Holocaust as key vectors of the Holocaust’s Americanization; Steven Spielberg’s 1994 film Schindler’s List has generally taken centre stage in more recent elaborations of these positions.
Rather than rehearsing at length these well-known critical positions, this essay will first make some brief points distinguishing Langer’s more focused (on literary and dramatic practice) and restrained original proposition – grounded in a humanistic American literary-critical tradition – from some of the more far-reaching claims that have subsequently taken up the “Americanization thesis.” Taking his 1983 essay on its own terms, therefore, I will go on to measure the continuing salience of his original argument, firstly contrasting his position to those of scholars who have argued instead that Holocaust representations introduce dissentient and self-critical, rather than affirmative, strands into American life (for example, Jeffrey Alexander); or that the paradigms of American mass art such as Hollywood film are themselves in fact more complex and multi-valent than Langer believes (notably, Miriam Hansen). The essay concludes with a consideration of Quentin Tarantino’s controversial 2009 film Inglourious Basterds as a work that systematically repurposes the canons of popular film with the specific aim of dismantling the notional firewalls between Nazi racial ideology, genocidal violence, tyranny and sadism on the one hand, and “American” values on the other – ultimately “Americanizing” the Holocaust in ways that radically revise, if they do not indeed altogether invert, Langer’s original formulation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)370-387
Number of pages18
JournalThe Journal of Holocaust Research
Issue number4
Early online date19 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 19 Oct 2020

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