Book Review

"Hard to Remember: A Study of Post-Liberation Psyche and the Denial in American Memory.”

A review of Robert H. Abzug, Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.) Description: 192 pp., including notes, index, and illustrations/photographs.


Through a barbed wire fence, an American liberator talks to survivors in Mauthausen. Source: United States Holocaust Museum

Abzug details American memory through the atrocities discovered at the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and the reaction thereafter of the soldiers and the public. Studying several infamous camps liberated by Americans in 1945, Abzug explores the “double vision” of public opinion and attempts to explain the phenomenon of disbelief associated with knowledge, despite very concrete evidence, of the camps. He explores the human psyche and details the indescribable ability to deny the truth even when faced with it, and how shutting down, acts of vengeance, physical ailments, public denial, and contradictory responses to remember and forget such events to protect ourselves will often lead to our demise. With a combination of countless eyewitness testimonies and thorough research, Abzug’s thesis develops into a moral duty of the public to face atrocities instead of performing the acts many Americans did post-liberation to cope with the knowledge of the camps. Abzug writes, “There are no easy answers to how we should deal with our post-liberation knowledge…However, we should recognize there are no soldiers to push us back into the theater and face the fact. We must be our own soldiers.”

To cover this, Abzug spends each chapter focusing on individual camps and the experiences of the public and liberators within them. For example, chapter five is dedicated to the camp of Dachau. Abzug recounts a story about an American soldier who sent photographs of the atrocities to his wife so she would believe it. She promptly burned them. Such behavior Abzug considers detrimental, he explains, trickled into the ultimate treatment of DPs and forever shaped our American-liberator memory. The other chapters cover similar, and often horrifying, events to force the reader to acknowledge the truth, as the soldiers did during 1945 by forcing people to remain in theaters.

Abzug has effectively bolstered his psychological idea with hundreds of accounts. His reasoning, although as abstract as it might seem on the page, has a logical beginning and conclusion. The idea that Americans can have “double vision”, or a blind eye as Abzug also termed it, is a reality Americans still deny. But in accordance with Abzug’s thesis, we “have to be our own soldiers”, face the truth, and acknowledge that even in the face of overwhelming fact, we have failed to acknowledge all the atrocities the Nazis committed because our imagination failed to comprehend it as possible. To this end, I think Abzug was successful in relaying the thesis of his book to the reader.

The short book, as easily supported with witness testimony as it is pictorial evidence, is a must read for Americans to fully understand our
history. Often education omits events such as this, where we, to an extent, collaborated with the Nazis by covering up their atrocities. I highly recommend this book to alleviate this trend. Although he fails to discuss treatment of Russian or Polish POWs, his sweeping accounts will provide enough content for a reader to stomach. In a scholarly review of this book, Robert F. Nardini writes, “He [Abzug] writes with graceful economy and states with power our duty to face the unspeakable. Highly recommended for most libraries.” Saul S. Friedman from Youngstown State University also testifies, “No one, however, in this age of skepticism or “revisionism” can look on the charred remains of human beings incinerated at Gardelegen or Thekla and wonder at the capacity of humans to do evil.”


Friedman, Saul S. 1987. “Inside the
Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps.” American
Historical Review 92 (3): 696. doi:10.2307/1869996.