© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Theses on Revisionism (5)
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.

5. On the Nations and Israel

Just as the ancient city-states set up "treasures" at Delphi and Olympia that expressed their rivalry in the cult of Apollo and Zeus, the nations victimized by Hitler --or at least certain of them-- have erected pavilions at Auschwitz recalling the misfortune befalling their citizens. Misfortunes also know competition. Among those pavilions, incongruously, there is a Jewish pavilion. For lack of an underwriting authority, it was erected by the Polish government and proclaims above all the martyrology of Poland.[78]

A word should be said at this point about these "practices," specifically about those nations of eastern Europe from which the immense majority of the Jews who were murdered came and that currently constitute "socialist" Europe. It goes without saying that "revisionism" is totally banned there. But history? Let us simply say a few words --after a necessarily brief investigation-- about historiography in three socialist countries: the U.S.S.R., because of the leading role it has within the system and because its armies liberated Auschwitz; the German Democratic Republic, in so much as it is heir to part of the territory and population of the national socialist state; and finally Poland, be cause it was on its territory that a majority of the exterminations took place.[79]

To my knowledge, there is, in the strict sense, no Soviet historiography of the genocide of the Jews. A few books or booklets, either reports or propaganda, were published at the time of victory.[80] The study of the German concentration camps appears to have been quite rudimentary --for reasons that seem obvious-- and the only volume in Russian on Auschwitz I was able to locate was translated from the Polish and published in Warsaw.[81]

To be sure, The History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) by Boris Tepulchowski, which passes as being representative of post-Stalinist Soviet historiography, mentions the gas chambers and the extermination as it was practiced at Auschwitz, Maidanek, and Treblinka, but the victimized populations do not include the Jews, whereas the murder of six million Polish citizens is mentioned. Two lines explain that the entire Jewish population on occupied Soviet soil was exterminated.[82] A Jewish nationality exists in the Soviet Union, but it is in some respects a negative nationality. Such is the situation reflected in Soviet historiography.

The case of the German Democratic Republic is rather different. According to official ideology, there has been an absolute break with the capitalist and Nazi period. Anti- Semitism and the exterminations are a legacy that must not be assumed in any manner whatsoever, neither by paying reparations to Israel, nor by sending a head of government to kneel at the site of the Warsaw ghetto. It is believed in East Berlin that the Federal Republic, on the contrary, should assume the heritage of Hitler's Germany, and for a long time, there was a pretence of believing that it was a continuation of it. The result is that studies of the extermination, although far from nonexistent as is sometimes erroneously claimed,[83] are to a great degree instrumental and are a reaction less to the imperatives of knowledge and historical reflection than to the need to complete and rectify what is being written or done in the Federal Republic or to engage its leaders in polemics.[84]

The revisionists appear not to have commented on a small but significant fact: although Poland, since the end of the war, has endured several political earthquakes, which have led to considerable emigration, including an emigration of militant nationalists not normally known for any excessive tenderness toward either the Jews or the communists (who, in revisionist ideology, were the first great fabricators of the "lie" of the extermination), there has not been a single Pole who has come forth to contribute anything to the revisionist cause.

In fact, the history of the death camps is in large part based on works published in Poland, through either documents reproduced in the Auschwitz Museum series, works of the Polish Commission on War Crimes, or volumes of the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw.

Obviously, such literature is in need of periodic correction. Polish nationalism, which is by tradition violently anti-Semitic, combined with Communist censorship, has intervened on numerous occasions. It is frequently the case that publications attach greater importance to the anti-Polish repression, which was ferocious, than to the extermination of the Jews. There is also frequently a posthumous naturalization as Poles of Jews, a naturalization that occurred only rarely during the period in question.[85]

One nationalism can detect with relative ease the deformations due to another nationalism. The Polish historiography of the genocide and, in general, of the occupation period is taken quite seriously by Israeli historiographers, is debated, at times condemned, and that confrontation is a reflection of the great Judeo-Polish drama.[86]

There is certainly not an Israeli historiography. A glance at the collection entitled Yad Vashem Studies, for example, reveals that it is shot through with tensions and is capable of integrating work from abroad; at times not without resistance. The great syntheses coming from the Diaspora, those of G. Reitlinger and R. Hilberg, and fundamental discussions such as Hannah Arendt's have been greeted with attacks of great violence. Among the more delicate points: the questions of Jewish "passivity," of Jewish collaboration (the collaboration of the rope and the hanged man), of the nationality of Hitler's Jewish victims, of the unique character of the slaughter, and finally that of the "banality of evil," which Hannah Arendt opposed to the demonization of Eichmann and his masters.[87] These are genuine problems raised by the writing of history. Between a historiography that insists, to the point of absoluteness, on specificity, and one straining to integrate the great massacre into the movement and trends of history, which is not always a matter of course, the clash can only be violent.[88] But, concerning Israel, can one limit the debate to history? The Shoah (Holocaust) exceeds it, first, by virtue of the dramatic role it played in the very origins of the state, then by what must indeed be called the daily use made of the great slaughter by the Israeli political class.[89] The genocide of the Jews abruptly ceases being a historical reality, experienced existentially, and becomes a commonplace tool of political legitimation, brought to bear in obtaining political support within the country as well as in pressuring the Diaspora to follow unconditionally the inflections of Israeli policy. Such is the paradox of a use that makes of the genocide at once a sacred moment in history, a very secular argument, and even a pretext for tourism and commerce.[90]

Need it be said that among the perverse effects of this instrumentalization of the genocide, there is a constant and adroitly fueled confusion of Nazi and Arab hatreds?

No one can expect the years 1939-1945 to fall into place in the (not always) peaceful realm of medieval charters and Greek inscriptions, but their permanent exploitation toward extremely pragmatic ends deprives them of their historical density, strips them of their reality, and thus offers the folly and lies of the revisionists their most fearsome and effective collaboration.

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