© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
A Paper Eichmann (1980) - Anatomy of a Lie (3)
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.

3. On History and Its Revision

Barely did the war come to an end when historical work on the world of the concentration camps began: modest work establishing details, as well as syntheses associated with such well-known names as Gerald Reitlinger, Martin Broszat, Raul Hilberg, Léon Poliakov, Olga Wormser-Migot, and a few others. The work was difficult since it entailed both knowledge and experience. Michel de Boüard, a historian and a former deportee, concluded his admirable sketch of Mauthausen as follows: "When the survivors of the deportation will have disappeared, the archivists of the future may dispose of a few more documents, which still remain hidden today, but they will lack the principal source: the living memory of the witnesses." Great books on the deportation have been written by deportees: David Rousset, Eugen Kogon, Germaine Tillion. A book like Paul Rassinier's Le Mensonge d'Ulysse should be mentioned at this juncture: excellent as testimony by the author of what he experienced, interesting when criticizing other witnesses of Buchenwald and Dora and revealing those in charge of a political apparatus run principally by communist deportees, it becomes frankly absurd, even heinous, when dealing with what the author had no knowledge of: the extermination camps, and principally Auschwitz. As it has come to be written, that history has meaning, if not a meaning. It has its zones of opaqueness and its progressive logic:[22] "euthanasia" (partly by gassing) of the mentally ill from 1939 to 1941 and of communist "commissars" in occupied Soviet Union from 1941 to 1942; the organization, then the rationalization, of the extermination by gas (carbolic oxide first, then Zyklon B) of Jews, Gypsies, and certain groups of Soviet prisoners in specialized centers in Poland, then, for the most part, in Auschwitz; cessation of the policy of exterminating the Jews on orders from Himmler at the end of October 1944, but the use of certain exterminatory techniques in camps in Austria, Germany, and Alsace (small gas chambers at Mauthausen, Ravensbrück, and Struthof).[23]

That history, to be sure, like all historical narratives, is in need of criticism. The critique can and should be conducted at several levels. First of all, a vast subliterataure representing a truly obscene appeal to consumption and sadism should be pitilessly denounced.[24] Equally deserving of elimination is whatever partakes of fantasy and propaganda. The task is not always easy, since fantasy and propaganda are largely based on reality. But clear cases do exist, such as one that has eluded the ardor of the revisionists, that of a Protestant theologian, Charles Hauter, who was deported to Buchenwald, never saw any gas chamber, and who went on to rave about them:

An obsession with machinery literally abounded when it came to extermination. Since it had to occur quite rapidly, a special form of industrialization was required. The gas chambers answered that need in a very different way. Some, rather refined in conception, were supported by pillars of porous material, with which the gas formed and then seeped through the walls. Others were more simple in structure. But all were sumptuous in appearance. It was easy to see that the architects had conceived them with pleasure, devoting great attention to them, gracing them with all the resources of their aesthetic sense. These were the only parts of the camp that had truly been constructed with love.[25]
Concerning propaganda, we may mention the report on Treblinka by the Soviet journalist V. Grossmann, in which everything is distorted and monstrously exaggerated, from the number of victims, which is multiplied by more than three (from about 900,000 to 3,000,000) to the techniques used to inflict death.[26]

It goes without saying that the testimony, all testimony and documents - whatever one may read in Faurisson (Vérité, p. 210n45), the archives of the Third Reich are accessible to researchers, unlike the archives of France and the Soviet Union - should be criticized (as they already are, and it is true that some are completely ficticious) according to methods that have been used for centuries. That means, of course, that nothing in this matter is untouchable. The figure of six million Jews murdered, which comes from Nuremberg, is neither sacred nor definitive, and many historians have arrived at a figure which is slightly lower.[27] Similarly, Serge Klarsfeld, through the detailed work characterizing his Mémorial, has reduced by about 40,000 the figure habitually given for the deportation of the Jews of France (from 120,000 to a little more than 76,000).[28] Who would not approve of such research? Who would object to a proliferation of theses and studies on the subject - which is not the case?[29]

Finally, it is plain that the mass murder has to be resituated within the larger realities of which it is a part: the whole of Hitler's policies, first of all. (And even here, one should compare only what is comparable: the only "counterpart" to the genocide of the Jews is that of the Gypsies and, to a relative extent, that of a franction of the Polish and Soviet populations.) The whole of the Second World War, next: it is clear that a history can not be written by the victors alone. The massacre of Katyn, the bombing of Dresden, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the "return," in frightful conditions, of the Germans fleeing from eastern Europe, the camps established near Perpignan by the Third Republic and the French state, and the delivery to the Soviets of the Russian prisoners seeking refuge in the West are as much a part of it as Auschwitz and Treblinka. But here too the comparison must be honest. It is a bold-faced lie to compare the Hitlerian camps to the camps set up, in a perfectly scandalous decision, by the Roosevelt administration to house Americans of Japanese origin (Vérité, p. 189). The last context is planetary, that of our contemporary world so fertile in massacres (the Armenians in 1915, the victims of the colonial wars) and in populations exploited to the limits of survival (the third world). Here too an elementary measuring stick is called for: thus, the expulsion of the Palestinians can not be compared with the Nazi deportation, and the massacre of Deir Yassin by the men of the Irgun and the Stern gang (April 9 and 10, 1948) can be compared with Ouradour, not Auschwitz. Finally, it remains for historians to withdraw the data from the hands of the ideologues that exploit them. In the case of the genocide of the Jews, it is clear that one Jewish ideology, Zionism, exploits the great massacre in a manner that is on occasion scandalous.[30] But the fact that an ideology has seized on a fact does not do away with its existence, as the entirety of Thion's book seems intent on demonstrating, for reasons more applicable to his personal approach than to that of those he would attack. Since when, to take an extreme example, does the fact that Hitlerian propaganda revealed to the world the Katyn massacre do away with its reality? Why can it not be the case that LICRA (International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism) might both speak the truth about Auschwitz and make use of the services of a racist buffoon like Paul Giniewski (Vérité, pp. 152-153)? Conversely, it is incredible that one might accept simply as "an individual who has always spoken his mind openly" a recently rallied supporter of Faurisson named Vincent Monteil, a relentless (and perhaps paranoid) partisan of the most extremist Arab theses concerning Israel and the Jews (Vérité, pp. 130-131).

The program I have just sketched is in the order of historical research. It is not entirely accomplished, and like any historical research, it can never be completed.

Is such the critical vision brought to us, even in excessive form, by the literature of "revisionism"?[31] Not by any means. The contribution of that literature concerns, for the most part, not the history of the war of 1939-1945, but the study of the contemporary mentalities, above all since the 1960s. One of the very rare bits of information to be derived from Thion's book, for example, besides his bibliographies, is Faurisson's demonstration that Anne Frank's Diary, as it was first published, is, if not a "literary hoax," at the least a document that has been tampered with (Vérité, pp. 213-298). Thion, who is for once lucid, notes as much: "This does not diminish in any way the tragic fate she [Anne Frank] knew." On the scale of Hitler's genocide, that modificaton is equivalent in importance to a comma."[32]

In point of fact, the idea that one would have to oppose a "revisionist" school to an "exterminationist" school is an absurd idea that is naturally a creation of the alleged "revisionists," an idea taken up for his own ends by Thion. There exist historical schools that confront others when new problematics, new types of documents, or new "topographies" (in Paul Veyne's sense) surface. Everyone can bring examples to mind. But would one say that there is one school maintaining that the Bastille was taken on July 14, 1789, and another one claiming it was taken on the 15th. We are at this point on the terrain of positive history, wie es eigentlich gewesen, as things actually transpired, according to Ranke's nineteenth-century formula, a formula in which truth is opposed to falsehood, independently of any interpretation.

There are, to be sure, historical schools claiming to be "revisionist." Taking the opposite tack from what is taught is a slightly perverse habit, however salutory the reflex from which it springs. One might explain, for instance, that Stalin possessed no more than a shadow of power at then end on the 1930s,[33] or that the US government, and it alone, was the origin of the Cold War (works by Joyce and Gabriel Kolko),[34] which is all the more easy to demonstrate in that the American archives are accessible, and the Soviet archives are not. These are eminently contestable works, but which all the same partake of the historian's ethic and practice. There is nothing comparable in the case of the revisionists of the Hitlerian genocide, in which it is simply a matter of replacing the unbearable truth with a reassuring lie.

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