Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust

November 20, 2008

In 1968, the journalist Arthur Morse published While Six Million Died, an expose of American indifference and even antipathy towards the plight of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Since Morse's book, most of the literature on the subject of the Allies and the Holocaust has been accusatory, leading to an equally polemical backlash in 1997 through William Rubinstein's The Myth of Rescue, revealingly subtitled "Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis".

For those of us trying to provide a more nuanced perspective, the advice of Michael Marrus "to give contemporaries a fair hearing" is, alas, largely ignored. In the particular area of study relating to bystanders of the Holocaust, the tendency, as Marrus adds, is to "condemn, rather than to explain". It is depressing that publishers, even academic publishers, still seem to prefer polemics to detailed scholarship in what is an emotional subject. Bad books on the Holocaust that make extreme claims - one thinks of Daniel Goldhagen - sell well.

On the surface, Theodore Hamerow's Why We Watched falls firmly into the accusatory camp. The publisher's blurb proudly proclaims that this is a "provocative book" and that the anti-Semitism of the Allied nations, while not "as virulent as that in Germany ... was disastrous nevertheless". It is a relief to find that Hamerow's book is not quite as crude and wrongheaded as either its title or its publicity material makes out. It is, nevertheless, a deeply flawed account and one that is ultimately more interesting in why it was written and published rather than for anything in its contents.

For an experienced historian such as Hamerow, it is remarkable how little original research and engagement with secondary reading has gone into this account - it is in this respect a mirror image from the opposite perspective provided by Rubinstein's equally problematic work. Indeed, the bibliography, including primary materials, is just six pages.

Given that the coverage of this book is wide - including, at points, Latin America, France and Canada as well as its main focus of Britain and, even more so, the US - the shallowness of the research base is frightening.

The reader is provided with a rather naive overview of the status of Jews in the pre-1914 world and then a whistle-stop tour of various responses to Nazi persecution before September 1939.

Even then, major works on the subject - for example, Vicki Caron on France and Louise London on Britain - are totally absent. The focus is even more distorted in the latter stages dealing with the Second World War: there is no sustained analysis of the Anglo-American Bermuda Conference on refugees in 1943 or the reasons behind and workings of the American War Refugee Board from 1944 onwards.

Hamerow appears incredulous about the antipathy towards Jews. He is, however, perhaps too good a historian, in spite of the polemical framework in which this book has been placed, to blame anti-Semitism alone for the failures to act. Moreover, he acknowledges, if often only as an afterthought, that things were done to help the Jews and that there were individuals inside and outside the state structure who were sympathetic.

This book is at its best when confronting the journalistic response to the Jewish catastrophe. Here, the author realises that attitudes and responses are hard to categorise and that ambivalence towards Jews was the norm. However, owing to his lack of knowledge of recent scholarship in Jewish and ethnic and racial studies, he does not have the ability to deal with this complexity.

In the end, therefore, the book becomes an exercise in moral indignation that is undermined by its paucity of research and the limitations of its theoretical apparatus. Why We Watched is readable in its journalistic way and will, I fear, appeal to a wider readership anxious still for simplistic morality tales relating to the Holocaust. I hope that a more academic publisher would have rejected this book in the first place.

Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust

By Theodore Hamerow. W.W. Norton & Company. 576pp, £22.99. ISBN 9780393064629. Published 26 September 2008

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