© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
A Paper Eichmann (1980) - Anatomy of a Lie (2)
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992),
English translation © 1992 Columbia University Press
Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel - No reproduction except for personal use only

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 La Vieille Taupe and Cannibalism

If there exist, as we have seen, two extreme and opposite forms of delusion concerning cannibals - Harris's reductionist delusion and Arens's delusion of denial - we may expect to find the same two delusions concerning an event that is far more traumatic for our history than all past, present, and future cannibals combined: the massacre by Hitler's Germany of several million European Jews. It is always satisfying for the mind to observe a logic in action. It willl thus be pleasing to see that the entreprise known as La Vieille Taupe (or the Old Mole) published at several years' distance two equally simplistic explanations of the Hitlerian genocide: a materialist reduction and - if it may still be called an explanation - a negation pure and simple.

La Vieille Taupe, it will be recalled, is a bookstore turned publisher of a tendency that might be characterized, for lack of a better term, as anarcho-Marxist. From Marxism it has retained neither its critical philosophy, which prevails in Marx and several of his disciples, nor the statist perversion of Lenin and Stalin, but the obsession with a total explanation of the world, whose strictly "ideological" cast is apparent. To a humanity one day reconciled with itself, which is the hope of the future, are opposed all existent regimes. Whether bourgeois-democratic, Stalino-Brezhnevian, social democratic, Maoist, third world, or fascist, all such regimes represent so many forms of capitalist domination. More specifically, La Vieille Taupe opines that there was no fundamental difference between the two opposing camps in the Second World War, and thus no particular perversity characterizing Hitlerian national socialism. It may be intuited that starting from such premises, La Vieille Taupe will be poorly equipped to appreciate the rather odd place occupied by the Jews in the history of our society since the triumph of the Christian dissidence.

Thus it was that in 1970 La Vieille Taupe published a brochure entitled Auschwitz ou le Grand Alibi, the reprint of an anonymous article which had appeared in 1960 in Programme Communiste, the organ of another Marxist sect (founded by Amadeo Bordiga). The "grand alibi" of the antifascists was the extermination of the Jews by Hitler. That crime alone establishes the distance separating the democrat from the fascist. And yet, according to the Bordigists, this is by no means the case. For the anti-Semitism of the imperialist era must be given the requisite economic and social explanation. "As a consequence of their prior history, the Jews today find themselves for the most part in the middle and petty bourgeoisie. But that class stands condemned in advance by the irresistible advance of the concentration of capital."[7] The reaction of the petty bourgeoisie to that condemnationlay "in sacrificing one of its segments in order to thus save ensure the existence of the others." The German petty bourgeoisie "thus threw the Jews to the wolves in order to lighten its load and save itself." Large capital, for its part, was "delighted by the boon; it could liquidate a section of the petty bourgeoisie with the agreement of the petty bourgeoisie."[8] As for demonstrating how the "petty bourgeoisie" was more threatened in 1943 than in 1932, the brochure does not choose to take up the question. But at least it attempts to account for the methodical nature of the endeavor: "In normal times, and when only a small number are at stake, capitalism can allow those it ejects from the process of production to die on their own. But this was impossible to do in the middle of a war and for millions of men: that much disorder would have issued in a general paralysis. Capitalism had to organize their death." But with what profit? "Capitalism cannot execute a man it has sentenced if it does not extract some profit from that very punishment." Profit will thus be sought through the exhaustion of workers, and those incapable of working will be massacred directly. But is it profitable? "German capitalism could resign itself to murder pure and simple only with difficulty . . . because it brought no revenue."[9] The authors of the brochure this expatiate on the famous mission of Joël Brand, who left Hungary with the blessings of Himmler, to exchange the Hungarian Jews slated for the "mill" of Auschwitz for ten thousand trucks.[10] The authors do not for an instant appear to notice that we are then in 1944, not 1942, that Himmler had good reasons to realize that the war has been lost, and that the time has come to attempt to make use of the legendary "Jewish influence" on the Western allies. The Jews, despite such attempts, were destroyed "not as Jews but as rejects from the process of production, useless for production."[11]

Was it the manifestly absurd nature of that explanation that led La Vieille Taupe to an inverse explanation, one denying the genocide? I do not know, nut if mutation there was, it was a rather sudden one, for Pierre Guillaume informs us that as of 1970, "La Vieille Taupe shard in essence the theses of Paul Rassinier."[12] I shall return shortly to Paul Rassinier, to the two of his books repulished by La Vieille Taupe,[13] and to several others. We shall retain only the fact that from a "materialist" explanation a path has been taken to denial pure and simple (Rassinier, Faurisson)[14] or to a more or less methodical skepticism (Serge Thion). A formula of Serge Thion's effectively reveals how the unfulfilled dream of a "materialist" explanation lies behind current dissatisfactions: "There were, no doubt," he writes, "artisan-like gassings, but the question of industrial methods of extermination has not been treated in a manner responsive to all the questions appropriately raised with regard to the functioning of any other industrial enterprise, in any other context." What is being discussed here? Technology? But large-scale gassing does not pose problems essentially different from "artisan-like" gassing. Or are we dealing with an economically based interpretation of Auschwitz? But if such is the case, Thion would be revealing that he does not understand the Nazi undertaking any more than Marvin Harris understands cannibalism. For exterminating human beings, even with industrial methods, is not, in this century, quite the same as canning peas. Even as eating human meat and eating butcher's meat are not the same thing and are not similarly charged with the sacred. What is it that the "materialists" need and what are they dreaming of? Huge registers in which the entries are marked as living and the exits as dead? In point of fact, we are not so far, as we will see, from possessing them, once one makes the requisite effort of elementary decoding. Would they like a statistical chart showing the productivity of the gas chambers?

The quarrel over industrial rationality in fact hides a profound ignorance of what constitutes a totalitarian system. Such a system is not an organism functioning in unified manner under the leadership of its head. In Nazi Germany, for example, the Gestapo, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Occupied Territories formed as many clans that had neither the same interests nor the same policies. The juridical and police (or deportation) apparatuses did not function at the same pace.[15] For a long time, for example, jews condemned under common law escaped deportation. It was possible for there to be, quite normally, at Auschwitz, both hospitals and extermination installations into which healthy people disappeared. Conflicts of interest between those concerned above all with killing and those who wanted above all to exploit workers (and even Jewish ones) are attested to by documents of the period, as well as by subsequent testimony. Beyond the oppositions between various clans and strata of society, one finds, however, in those doing the speaking, a common fear in the face of reality, a common masked language.

In point of fact, the mass murder encounters, in its executants themselves, such tenacious resistances that one finds Himmler, for example, resorting on occasion to straightforward (or almost completely straightforward) language: "The following question has been put to us: what is to be done with women and children? I have taken a decision and here too I have come upon an obvious solution. I did not feel I had the right to exterminate [literally, to extirpate: auszurotten] the men - say, if you like, to kill them or to have them killed - and to allow the children to grow up and avenge themselves on our children and descendants. It was necessary to take the grave decision to make this people disappear from the Earth [dieses Volk von der Erde verschwinden zu lassen]."[16] Himmler is there, if I may say so, at his most frank, even if a description of the actual process would be a thousand times more traumatic. But it also befalls him, even before an "informed" audience, to inject a sudden note of attenuation. Thus before the officers of the SS, on April 24, 1943: "It is with anti-Semitism as with delousing. Removing or distancing [entfernen] lice is not a matter of world-view. It is a matter of cleanliness."[17] In this case it is the metaphor of lice which gives its true sense to "distancing." For does one in fact "distance" a louse? Finallt, Himmler on occasion encodes matters and even overencodes them; thus, upon receiving a report in April 1943 from the SS "Inspekteur für Statistik" R. Korherr, he informs him briefly that he hopes that it in no place makes mention of the "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlunkg) of the Jews.[18] And one recalls that "special treatment" was already a coded term meaning extermination.[19] All this is obvious, sadly obvious, but can one expect the "materialist" Serge Thion to have opened up Jean-Pierre Faye's massive volume on Langages totalitaires?[20]

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