Imagining holocaust : mass death and American consciousness at the end of the Second World War / by Robert Lane Fenrich.
This dissertation examines Americans' first responses to the Allied liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the American obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Concentrating on the period between the spring of 1945 and the fall of 1946, it asks, first, what did people say about those events? How did they describe what they saw and the reactions it triggered in them? Second, how did those descriptions compare to one another? Did descriptions of atomic destruction make reference to conditions in the camps, or vice versa? If so, in what ways? Third, how did those descriptions compare to earlier representations of war, killing, and death, and what sorts of comparisons did contemporaries themselves make in that regard? Primarily a work of cultural history, the dissertation argues that responses to the camps and the bomb were fundamentally similar to one another; that they took shape within an idiomatic framework in place since the late nineteenth century; and that that idiom still shapes discussion and interpretation of mass killing and of American war-making. Faced with mass annihilation, postwar Americans asserted their inability to describe or comprehend it--often while discussing it in gory detail. Proclamations of speechlessness were followed by exhortations to see, which gave rise to a still-recognizable symbolic vocabulary: rather than discussing mass killing at length, people refer one another to images of the camps and/or of the mushroom cloud. Doing so, this study argues, deflected questions about American agency: in asserting their inability to comprehend mass killing without also seeing it, Americans simultaneously asserted their inability to perpetrate it.
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