© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Theses on Revisionism (6)
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992), English translation copyright 1992 Columbia University Press
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We are very grateful to Pierre Vidal-Naquet and his american publisher, Columbia University Press, for allowing us to make this text available here.

6. History after Auschwitz

In concluding, can we attempt to state the test to which revisionism puts the historian? Meditating, after the war, on the theme of "negative dialectics," Adorno wondered to what extent it was possible to "think" after Auschwitz. What the Lisbon earthquake had been for Voltaire and the grave of theodicy for Leibniz, the genocide was --a hundredfold-- for the generation that lived through it: "With the massacre by administrative means of millions of individuals, death became something which had never previously had to be feared in that form.... Genocide is the absolute integration, everywhere underway, in which men are levered, trained, to use the military term, until, fused with the concept of their utter inanity, they are literally exterminated.... Absolute negativity is foreseeable; it no longer surprises anyone."[91] Absolute negativity? Does such a concept have any meaning for a historian? Auschwitz has become a symbol, which it was not immediately after the war[92] --the symbol of an enormous silence. But even that symbol can be challenged. Auschwitz juxtaposed an extermination camp (Birkenau), a work camp (Auschwitz I, and a factory-camp for the production of synthetic rubber (Auschwitz III Monowitz). The site of absolute negativity would rather be Treblinka or Belzec, although one can always conceive a crime more absolute than another.[93] A historian, by definition, works in relative terms, and that is what makes any apprehension of revisionist discourse so difficult for him. The word itself has nothing shocking about it for a historian: he instinctively adopts the adjective as his own. If he is shown that there was no gas chamber functioning at Dachau, that The Diary of Anne Frank, as it has been published in various languages, raises problems of coherence if not of authenticity, or that Krema I, that of the Auschwitz camp, was reconstructed after the war by the Poles,[94] he is prepared to yield.

Events are not things, even if reality possesses an irreducible opaqueness. A historical discourse is a web of explanations that may give way to an "other explanation,"[95] if the latter is deemed to account for diversity in a more satisfactory manner. A Marxist, for instance, will attempt to argue in terms of capitalist profitability, and will wonder whether simple destruction in gas chambers can or cannot be made to enter easily into such an interpretative framework. Depending on the case, he will either adapt the gas chambers to Marxism or suppress their existence in the name of the same doctrine.[96] The revisionist enterprise, in its essence, does not, however, appear to me to partake of that quest for an "other explanation." What must be sought in it is rather that absolute negativity of which Adorno spoke, and that is precisely what the historian has such a hard time understanding. At stake is a gigantic effort not even to create a fictive world, but to eradicate from history an immense event.

In this order of thought, it must be admitted that two revisionist books, Arthur Butz's The Hoax of the Twentieth Century and Wilhelm Stäglich's Der Auschwitz Mythos, represent a rather remarkable success: that of the appearance of a historical narrative, better still, of a critical investigation, with all the external features defining a work of history, except for what makes it of any value: truth.

One can, to be sure, search out and find precedents for revisionism in the history of ideological movements. Under the Restoration, for pedagogical reasons, did not the Reverend Father Loriquet delete the Revolution and the Empire from the history he taught his pupils? But that was no more than "legitimate" deception, which, as we know from Plato on, is an inseparable part of education --an innocent game in relation to modern revisionisms

To be sure, if I can speak at this point of absolutes, it is because we are dealing with pure discourse, not reality. Revisionism is an ancient practice, but the revisionist crisis occurred in the West only after the widespread broadcast of Holocaust, that is, after the turning of the genocide into a spectacle, its transformation into pure language and an object of mass consumption.[97] There lies, I believe, the point of departure for considerations that will, I hope, be pursued by others than myself.

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