© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Theses on Revisionism (1)
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992), English translation copyright 1992 Columbia University Press
No reproduction except for personal use only - Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel

We are very grateful to Pierre Vidal-Naquet and his american publisher, Columbia University Press, for allowing us to make this text available here.

1. From One Revisionism to Another

I shall call "revisionism" the doctrine according to which the genocide practiced by Nazi Germany against Jews and Gypsies did not exist but is to be regarded as a myth, a fable, or a hoax.[1] I shall speak of "revisionism" in the absolute sense of the word, but there are also relative revisionisms of which I shall say a few words.

The word itself has a history which is strange and would merit elaboration. The first modern "revisionists" were, in France, the partisans of a "revision" or judicial review of the trial of Alfred Dreyfus (1894), but the word was quickly turned around by their adversaries,[2] and that reversal should be considered as symptomatic. The word has subsequently taken on a meaning that is at times positive, at times negative, always implying the critique of a dominant orthodoxy. Bernstein and his friends were revisionists in relation to orthodox Marxists, and the term has been transmitted to the Maoists who use it to characterize their Soviet enemies. In relation to traditional Zionism, the disciples of Vladimir Jabotinsky, currently in power in Israel, were also "revisionists," as are the American historians who contest the officially and traditionally received version of the origins of the Cold War.

The revisionists of Hitler's genocide, however, invoke as their predecessor, not without being partially justified, a different American historical school, which may be epitomized by the name of H. E. Barnes (1889-1968).[3] A "radical" historian and sociologist (in the American sense of the term), at least at the beginning of his career, an anti-imperialist and anticolonialist,[4] Barnes rose up against the historical orthodoxy that ascribed blame for World War I solely to the central European empires. Although not totalitarian, that orthodoxy was no less real in France and England than in the United States. The French "yellow book" of 1914 removed the most embarrassing episodes and occasionally resorted to out and out fraudulence, as in the case of its presentation of the Russian general mobilization (July 30, 1914) as following the Austro-Hungarian mobilization (July 31). During the war, for the first time, propaganda was employed in a massive way.[5] In both camps, historians entered the fray. In 1919, for example, an American historian published a collection significantly and paradoxically entitled Volleys from a Non-Combatant.[6] In the liberal world, the orthodoxy was not imposed as it was and had to be in the totalitarian world, but existed no less. In 1935, the French historian Jules Isaac, the author of well-known manuals for Lycée students, chose to submit as a thesis topic to the Sorbonne the Poincaré ministry (January 1912-January 1913), which, in the historiographical context of the day, would have raised the problem of Poincaré's responsibility in the origin of the war. The Sorbonne requested that "for reasons of appropriateness," the name of Poincaré not be mentioned in the subject description. Isaac refused that compromise and wrote to the Dean of the Faculté des Lettres: «If, 'for reasons of appropriateness,' the Faculté forbids me from mentioning the name of Poincaré in the title, 'for reasons of appropriateness' the Faculté can also ask me not to bring into full relief, in the course of my work, the personal role of Poincaré.»[7] What was true after the First World War remained true after the second. On December 22, 1950, President Truman addressed a convention of the American Historical Society and asked it to help him in implementing a federal historical curriculum for the fight against communism.[8] It was, to be sure, a matter of opposing lies with the truth, but is truth so easy to cast in federal terms?

H. E. Barnes unfortunately was not satisfied with destroying the orthodoxy of the Entente and their American allies. He reversed it. His book, The Genesis of the World War,[9] discovered --or rather invented-- a "Franco-Russian plot which caused the war." He did not hesitate to "reveal," for example, that Jaurès was assassinated "by instigation of the Russian secret police."[10] Jules Isaac could say of him, with due moderation, that he was "audacious, and extremely capricious in his application of historical method."[11]

Barnes's book still has a lesson for us. Addressing the French public, the patriarch of American revisionism invoked the Dreyfus Affair; by recalling the example of the Affair, he ends up whitewashing Germany entirely of any responsibility in the genesis of the world conflict --which is as absurd as the opposite thesis.[12] The Affair was thus a reference, and as paradoxical as it may seem, it would remain so for a number of revisionists of the Nazi genocide.[13]

It is in fact a valid point of reference, but in an entirely different sense. Hannah Arendt quite properly saw in it one of the first stages of the genesis of modern totalitarianism.[14] Mutatis mutandis, the evidence for Dreyfus's guilt, despite the "proof" that flooded the case and which the anti-Dreyfusards strained to turn around, remains, for the anti-Dreyfusard core, as central a dogma as the innocence of Hitler, accused of genocide, is for the revisionist of today. The exculpation of Hitler in the name of Dreyfusard values, and with the obstinacy of the most narrow-minded nationalists, is a modern refinement worthy of interest.

The Dreyfus Affair, the struggle against the nationalist versions of the 1914-1918 war,[15] the struggle against the "lies" of the Second World War, and against the greatest of all "lies," Hitler's genocide, that "hoax of the twentieth century":[16] such are the three elements that allow one to grasp the "good conscience" of the revisionists and particularly of the "radical" or "gauchiste" revisionists, of Paul Rassinier and Jean-Gabriel Cohn-Bendit.[17] Rassinier's case is quite remarkable: a socialist, a pacifist who was nonetheless in the Resistance, a deportee, he is the true father of contemporary revisionism.

Rassinier, with a kind of obstinacy whose enigmatic character one is hard put to dispel!, remained faithful within that absolute novelty, the world of the concentration camps, to the lesson of 1914. If he described his experience in all its details, worked to conceptualize and thematize it, it was not in order to convey it, but rather to reduce its experiential character, cleansing it of all that seemed repetitious in it. He did not magnify the SS out of fascination or by virtue of who knows what masochism. He banalized them with the sole aim of fitting one war into the other, and of crediting the behavior of all concerned --that of the victim and that of the executioner, that of the German soldiers and that of their adversaries-- to the account of a common "unreasonable abjection."[18]
Denying --for a long time in isolation-- the Hitlerian genocide, Rassinier took himself simultaneously for Romain Rolland "above the melee" in 1914 and Bernard Lazare, the solitary fighter for truth and justice in 1896. His example would influence H. E. Barnes and would contribute to the transition from the older revisionism to the modern variety.[19] It was necessary to reconstitute this context, and we shall attempt to delineate it with greater precision. Need we, however, refute the "revisionist" theses, and specifically the most characteristic of them, the negation of the Hitlerian genocide and its preferred instrument, the gas chamber? At times it has seemed necessary to do so.[20] Such will certainly not be my intention in these pages. In the final analysis, one does not refute a closed system, a total lie that is not refutable to the extent that its conclusion has preceded any evidence.[21] It was once necessary to prove that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a fabrication. As Hannah Arendt has said, if so many believed the document to be authentic, "the historian's job is no longer [only] to detect the hoax. Nor is his task to invent explanations concealing the essential historical and political fact: a forgery was believed in. That fact is more important than the (historically speaking, secondary) fact that one was dealing with a forgery."[22]

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