Peter Novick (1934–2012)

Stanley N. Katz, Princeton University, September 2012

Peter Novick. Photo courtesy the University of Chicago.Historian of History and of Holocaust Remembrances

Few colleagues have drawn as much attention as Peter Novick, though I would never have predicted his celebrity and notoriety when we were colleagues at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. Peter had been trained (both BA and PhD) at Columbia University, and he seemed destined to be a talented scholar of modern France, publishing his very good dissertation in 1968 as The Resistance Versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators. In this characteristically contentious volume, Peter challenged what he took to be the myth of widespread French resistance to the Nazi occupation, arguing that the French response was more varied and less admirable than most previous commentators had suggested. But in fact Peter never followed up on his French project, and instead turned his attention to historiography, producing in 1988 the vast, brilliant, and immediately controversial study of the role of objectivity in historical interpretation: That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession. This big book won the AHA's Albert J. Beveridge Prize for the best book published in American history, and brought Peter widespread notice. His challenge to the viability of "objectivity" as a desirable and feasible standard of historical truth provoked such contention that the Association devoted a session to That Noble Dream at its 1990 meeting, and published the panel presentations in their entirety in the June, 1991 AHR. The book itself immediately became a staple of university courses on historiography and philosophy of history, and identified Peter as a major player in the ongoing controversy about the role of objectivity in contemporary social science. The book was especially important at the time, given the disputes over truth and relevance generated by postmodernist literary theories then in fashion.

Peter found himself once again in the eye of the storm when he published his next, and last, book in 1999: The Holocaust in American Life. This deeply skeptical volume took the highly controversial position that the project of Holocaust remembrance had been used by American Jews to prevent the loss of their identities through assimilation into American life. Further, Peter contended that American Jewish organizations had used the memory of the Holocaust, as they conceived it, to blunt Jewish criticisms of the State of Israel for its policies toward the Palestinians, thereby encouraging American Jews to see themselves as victims rather than as an increasingly privileged group in the United States. Holocaust was in fact a scrupulously scholarly work that drew praise from the distinguished Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum, who noted that Novick "embodied the best in American intellectual life, offering others a model of what it means to be a serious scholar," despite the fact that, as Berenbaum put it, "Peter held views on the Holocaust that were antithetical to everything to which I have devoted my professional life." Holocaust won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa, which acknowledged that Novick showed "that historians choose their subjects and frame their evaluations and explanations in ways heavily shaped by their ideologies and the institutions in which they work." Holocaust was, then, a case study of the failure of the "noble dream" of historical objectivity. It simultaneously spoke also to Peter's existential situation as a profoundly secular American Jew who was inevitably enmeshed in a memory of the Holocaust, but who nevertheless sought to question and contest the uses and representations of that memory. The book produced a very strongly negative reaction from those who felt themselves the object of Peter's attack, but it seems fair to say that he consistently viewed the matter as a historical, not a political controversy, and steadfastly and calmly held his ground until his death.

Peter Novick had a remarkable and unusual career. He spent almost his entire teaching career at the University of Chicago, but he managed to completely transform his fields of research and teaching over a period of 30 years, becoming one of the best-known and most provocative members of the historical profession. He did not shrink from controversy, and indeed he seemed to welcome and thrive on it. But his two best-known books are monuments of careful historical scholarship and argument rather than polemics. Few of his contemporaries had such a significant impact on the nature of historical thinking in the United States.