© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
A Paper Eichmann (1980) - Anatomy of a Lie (9)
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.

9. On Plato, Lies, and Ideology

Arthur Butz has referred to historians who have attempted to reconstruct the progress of the genocide as "mythologists of extermination" (The Hoax, p. 248 and passim). In forging that expression, it is clear that he has defined what he himself and the other "revisionists" have accomplished: a discourse replacing reality by fiction. Rejecting on principle all firsthand testimony and accepting as decisive only the testimony of those who, by their own admission, saw nothing at all, such as the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is thus an unmistakable sign.[104] Replacing history by myth is a procedure that would hardly be dangerous if there were an absolute criterion allowing one to distinguish at first sight between the two. It is the distinguishing feature of a lie to want to pass itself off as the truth. To be sure, that truth may not always aspire to universality. It may be the truth of a small sect, a truth not to be placed at everyone's disposition. Such is the case of the publishers of Christophersen's "testimony," who must have few illusions concerning the credibility of their witness, since they have appended an epigraph from Theodor Storm: "Never conceal the truth. Even if it brings you suffering, it will never bring you remorse. But since it is a pearl, make sure not to cast it before swine."[105]

There are "truths" that are just as deceitful, but more elaborate; and if a prize for mendacity were to be given, I would say that Butz's tome, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, represents, at times, a rather hair-raising success: the reader is persuasively led by the hand and brought little by little to the idea that Auschwitz is a tendentious rumor that skillful propagandists have gradually transformed into a truth. Such are the "good tidings" whose clumsy evangelist Faurisson has become. It is Butz and not he who might be defined in Zola's terms as the "diabolical craftsman of the judicial error." Ought one to refute Butz? It would be possible, of course, and even easy, assuming one knew the archives, but it would be long and tedious. As was just observed with a few precise examples, to demolish a discourse takes time and space. When a fictitious account is well prepared, it does not contain elements allowing one to destroy it on strictly internal grounds.

This is an old story that could be traced, should one so choose, to ancient Greece. The poets knew that they could speak both truth and falsehood and combine one with the other by virtue of their resemblance. The Muses, "truthful daughters of great Zeus," address Hesiod as follows: "We know how to tell lies entirely similar to realities; but when we want to, we also know how to proclaim truths."[106] That proximity, that disquieting resemblance was fought by philosophy, then being born, which separates and confronts truth and appearance. History, too, intervenes in the debate. Whereas in Israel it appears as the expression of human ambiguity,[107] in Greece it plays on the opposition between truth and falsehood. "I write," says the first historian, Hecataeus of Milet, "what l believe to be true, for the words of the Greeks, it appears to me, are numerous and ridiculous." But from Hecataeus to Herodotus, and from Herodotus to Thucydides, each generation of historians attempts to disqualify the preceding one, as the truth might disqualify the mythical and mendacious. With Plato, philosophy itself enters into the fray and advances matters decisively. For although Plato retains from Parmenides the opposition between appearance and reality, his discourse deals primarily with the world of men, and thus with appearance, an appearance that surrounds the truth on all sides and serves as its counterpoint and deceptive imitation. Between the sophist and the one he imitates, there are resemblances, "as between a dog and a wolf, indeed as between the wildest beast and the tamest pet. In order to be certain, it is above all against resemblances that one must be on perpetual guard. It is indeed an extremely slippery genre" (Sophist, 231a). The entire dialogue of The Sophist is a meditation on the virtual impossibility of distinguishing the true from the false, and of the necessity, if one is to ferret out a liar, of according to nonbeing a certain form of existence. But he who disposes of the truth is also he who has a right to lie. Plato, in The Republic, produces a theory of the beautiful lie. In Book III of Laws, he writes a historical fabrication from Athens, in which the battle of Salamis, since it was waged on sea by the democratic sailors, is eliminated from the narrative of the second Median war. In the prologue to the Timaeus and in the Critias, he achieves his masterpiece in the genre: inventing out of thin air a lost continent, Atlantis, the ad versary of an ancient and perfect Athens. It is a truthful story, Plato says and repeats, an emblematic falsehood in reality, which the philosophical reader can easily learn to decipher. But Plato's affirmations concerning the reality of Atlantis, after more than twenty-three centuries, still create dupes (and those who profit from them) today.

Such a discourse, to be sure, becomes dangerous only when it gains support from the power of a state and achieves monopoly status. Plato did not impose laws in any Greek city-state, but it is true that the Lower Empire, whether pagan or Christian, from the time of Diocletian on, became, in its own manner, Platonic. Let us allow the centuries to elapse. At present we are living in an "era of ideology."[108] How would Auschwitz elude the conflict of interpretations, the devouring ideological rage? But even then, the limits of that permanent rewriting of history characteristic of ideological discourse should be marked. "Zionists and Poles already give us quite divergent versions of Auschwitz," according to Faurisson (Vérité, p. 194). That is true. For the Israelis, or at least for their ideologues, Auschwitz was the inevitable and logical culmination of life in the Diaspora, and all the victims of the death camps had a vocation to become citizens of Israel (which is a twofold lie). As for the Poles, it is not always easy to distinguish in their writings what is in the order of "obligatory truth"--for example, reverence toward the official decisions of the Soviet Investigatory Commission following the Liberation-- from what is (above all nationalist) ideology. The Polish historian Danuta Czech writes the following (which is rather surprising): "Konzentrazionslager Auschwitz-Birkenau served to achieve the program of the biological extermination of populations, above all the Slavic populations and among them particularly the Polish people and the peoples of the U.S.S.R., as well as the Jews and those considered Jews according to the Nuremberg decrees."[109] But neither the Poles nor the Israelis, to be sure, transform in any profound way the reality of the massacre.

What occurs with the works of Butz, Faurisson, and the other ideologues of "revisionism" is of an entirely different nature: a total lie, as is to be found in abundance among sects and parties, including, to be sure, state parties. If the History of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of Stalin's time is a lasting monument to the most murderous of historical lies, there exist as well liberal and scholarly versions of Stalinist history. The Great Conspiracy Against Russia by M. Sayers and A. E. Kahn[110] was a model for the genre, with its play of references and bibliographical notes, using on occasion works forbidden in the Soviet Union, such as My Life by Trotsky, but in the service of an entirely orthodox view of Russian history, with, for example, pearls, such as the following: "The death of Leon Trotsky left only one living candidate for a Napoleonic role in Russia: Adolf Hitler" (p. 112). Immediately following the war and the popular front among states, I witnessed the effectiveness of this kind of discourse.

In France, the Dreyfus Affair gave birth to even more consummate successes. In 1905, "Henri Dutrait-Crozon" (the pseudonym of two members of Action Française, F. Delebecque and Colonel G. Larpent) published, with a preface by Charles Maurras, a "revisionist view" of the first two volumes of the history of the Dreyfus Affair by J. Reinach,[111] which, as a literary genre, strikes me as being at the origin of contemporary "revisionism." All its formulations (or almost all) were not inaccurate; it was the whole alone that was mendacious, the false (such as the "confession" of Dreyfus) being accepted as true. That historical enterprise would nonetheless result in a genuinely scholarly book of more than 800 pages, with thousands of references, and which for an entrenched sectarian minority of French public opinion was to represent scripture concerning the captain's guilt. It matters little that new documents appear (such as Schwartzkoppen's Notebooks), which reduce that thesis to ridicule; they too are digested and integrated: "But what is the value of such testimony? It is a question that very few have taken the trouble to research."[112] And, to be sure, it was demonstrated, irrefutably, that for clear physical, moral, and intellectual reasons, such testimony could only be false.

Anyone can observe this kind of discourse functioning in his environment, and Thion's book, like several other works of similar style, offers a particularly refined example of it. Thion, taking up the title of a lecture by Rassinier,[113] opposes "historical truth" and "political truth." The first, I assume, is the result of faithful inquiry, the second was imposed, as demonstrated by Rassinier, Butz, and Faurisson, starting in 1942 by a Zionist and communist pressure group which ended up mobilizing all the resources of the Allied propaganda apparatus. The whole process ended with the creation of the state of Israel and reparations payments by Germany.

The process constituting this "truth" is the opposite of the one just described. Take the case of Thion. Like a number of militants of Third World causes, he undoubtedly encountered among his adversaries representatives of Zionist ideology, and even of the state of Israel, and it is that confrontation that he has transposed into the past, without realizing that the "Zionist lobby" was far from having the power ascribed to it, but transforming today's "political truth" into yesterday's historical truth.

A caricatural example of such insane reasoning is furnished by the Australian John Bennett, the former secretary of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, who participated in the Los Angeles Colloquium and whom Thion has quite properly cast as one of the leading figures of "revisionism" abroad (Vérité, pp. 160-162). Bennett started out with an entirely legitimate struggle against the control exercised by Zionist circles over the dissemination of information, and specifically against their attempt to forbid a radio station broadcasting Palestinian positions. Harking back from the present to the past, he allowed himself to be convinced by Butz's book that the Australians had been "brainwashed." He undertook to denounce that lie and the support given to Israel, whose consequences he regarded as politically and economically dangerous: "Uncritical support of Israel by the West has led to a sixfold increase in oil prices; it has alienated eight hundred million Muslims, and could lead to a world war.... Until the West can appraise Israel on its merits, unclouded by Zionist Holocaust propaganda, our economies will be threatened by further oil price rises, and our very survival will be threatened by world war."[114]

As may be seen, "historical truth," in this case, is the pure product of "political truth"--or, rather, economic truth. But what is most extraordinary is that Bennett, in developing his argument in a long memorandum,[115] has placed at the beginning of his text George Orwell's famous line: "Whoever controls the past controls the future. Whoever controls the present controls the past." There is no better condemnation of his own reasoning.

And yet, beyond all ideological insanity, there is the sheer enormity of the fact, the immensity of the crime, with its technical dimensions, the work not (as in the genocide of the Armenians) of a presumably backward state but, on the contrary, of a state governing a hypercivilized, hypercultivated nation. Unbelievable? Yes, it is true. On the subject of witchcraft trials and the criticism they began to receive in the seventeenth century, Lucien Febvre liked to quote an admirable formula of Cyrano de Bergerac (which was, no doubt, inspired by Montaigne): "One should not believe all things concerning a man, because a man can say all things. One should believe of a man only what is human." And Lucien Febvre commented: "A fine text, a bit late: it is from 1654. But it allows us to salute --at long last-- the birth in France of a new sense... the sense of the impossible."[116] The human? Impossible? The whole question is to determine whether those two words still have a meaning.

(Next section)
(Table of Contents)


Server / Server © Michel Fingerhut 1996-2001 - document mis à jour le 09/11/1998 à 19h32m44s.
Pour écrire au serveur (PAS à l'auteur)/To write to the server (NOT to the author): MESSAGE