© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Theses on Revisionism (2)
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.

2. On Myths of War and the Advance of Truth

Propaganda, or, bourrage de crâne, "skull-cramming," as it was called during the war of 1914-1918; propaganda and bourrage de crâne during the war of 1939-1945. The great Hitlerian slaughter is placed on the same level as the "children with their hands cut off" of 1914; we would quite simply be dealing with a maneuver of psychological warfare. That central theory of "revisionism" has the merit of recalling for us two fundamental elements of the world conflict. On the whole, Allied propaganda made very little use of the great massacre in its psychological war against Nazi Germany. In general, information about the genocide, when it began to filter through (which was quite early on), encountered huge obstacles, not the least of which was --precisely-- the precedent of 1914-1918. In a sense it may be said that the first "revisionists," and there were a number of Jews among them, had been recruited during the war in the intelligence agencies of the Allied powers. All this, for example, has been established beyond refutation in a recent work by Walter Laqueur.[23]

In the flow of information coming from the occupied territories were to be found the true, the less true, and the false. The general meaning of what was occurring left no doubt, but as far as the modalities were concerned, there were frequently grounds for hesitating between one version and another. Concerning the camp at Auschwitz, for example, it was not until April 1944, following a number of escapes, that it became possible to establish a firsthand description --which proved remarkably precise-- of the extermination process. Those "protocols of Auschwitz" were to be made public by the American War Refugee Board only in November 1944.[24] Starting in May 1944, the deportation and massacre of Hungarian Jews constituted events announced by the Allied and neutral press virtually on a daily basis.[25]

I spoke of the "true" and the "false." That simple opposition accounts rather inadequately for what occurred. From errors concerning architectural form to confusions about distances and numbers, all kinds of imprecision existed, as did a number of phantasms and myths. But they did not exist in isolation, like some creation sui generis or "rumor," a hoax hatched by a specific milieu, such as the New York Zionists.[26] They existed as a shadow projected by --or prolonging-- reality.[27] Consider as well that the most direct and authentic reports, when they arrived at Allied intelligence services, needed to be deciphered, since they were written in the coded language of the totalitarian systems, a language that most often could not be fully interpreted until the end of the war.

We shall give an example of both these phenomena, starting with the second. British secret services had deciphered the codes used by the Germans for their internal communications. Among the police documents that came to be known in this manner there were statistics: entries and exits of human raw material for a certain number of camps, including Auschwitz, between the spring of 1942 and February 1943. One of the columns indicating "departures by any means" was interpreted to mean death. But there was no mention in such texts of gassings.[28] Thanks to an official Polish publication, we are quite familiar with this kind of document. For instance, this statistic entered on October 18, 1944 in the women's camp at Birkenau, which adds up various "departures" diminishing the number of those enrolled in the camp: natural death, transit, and "special treatment," which was subsequently deciphered as meaning gassing.[29]

One of the crucial documents discussed in Laqueur's book[30] is a telegram sent from Berne to London, on August 10, 1942, by G. Riegner, the secretary of the World Jewish Congress. That telegram, written on the basis of information conveyed by a German industrialist, announced that there were plans at Hitler's headquarters to assemble all of Europe's Jews "to be at one blow exterminated." Among the means studied: prussic acid. There is a remarkable share of error and myth in the document. The decision to proceed with exterminations had been taken months before; the use of prussic acid (Zyklon B), which was inaugurated in September 1941 for Soviet war prisoners, had been common at Auschwitz since the spring of 1942, and the utilization of gas obviously contradicts the notion of an extermination in a single blow, which would have required a nuclear weapon, and which did not exist at the time. In Freudian terms, we may say that there was a condensation and displacement of information.

But a condensation of what? One of the most remarkable debates provoked among historians by Hitler's extermination policy pitted Martin Broszat against Christopher Browning in the same German scholarly journal.[31]

Refuting a semi-revisionist book by the British historian David Irving,[32] which had exonerated Hitler --in favor of Himmler-- of responsibility for the great slaughter, Broszat saw in the "final solution," which was indeed an extermination, something that was partially improvised and developed, as it were, on a case-by-case basis. To which Browning responded that the information communicated by Hoess (according to Himmler) and by Eichmann (according to Heydrich) had to be taken quite seriously:[33] it was during the summer of 1941 that Hitler took the decision to exterminate the Jews. That such an order, communicated to a few individuals, and having begun in quick order to be executed, should become through condensation the "one blow" of Riegner's telegram is not at all implausible.

But how would one not also insist on the crucial role of different phases in a process developing in time, phases concerning which Broszat has contributed important clarifications? Various phases or stages included: the model ghetto at Theresienstadt and the "family camp" at Auschwitz; the ghettos with their privileged social strata, whose members believed they would escape, by virtue of those privileges, a common fate that they helped to implement; at the very sites of extermination, the situation of those who were not selected for the gas chamber. Only gradual phases or stages of every sort allowed the extermination policy to be pursued with relative smoothness. All these stages of a process, these phases of a murder serve as so many arguments for the revisionists. Because Jewish weddings were celebrated at Maidanek, near Lublin, it will be pretended that the camps were, if need be, places of rejoicing.[34] But who does not perceive that such phases were the temporal and social conditions necessary for the proper functioning of the killing?

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