© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Assassins of Memory (2)
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

2. History and Stories

In the Thucydides text I have just commented on, there is a little word that has not, to my knowledge, attracted the attention of the exegetes: the word each. When the Spartans opted to do away with the Helots who had distinguished themselves, their decision concerned a collectivity whose boundaries they themselves had fixed, with the participation of the victims, but each death was obviously individual. Each victim had his own history, and we will never know how death was administered,[9] individually, collectively, or in small groups. That last hypothesis is, nevertheless, the most plausible, since it is best suited to the artisan-like and nonindustrial techniques of the age. Whatever the case, the sources at the historian's disposal can not be bypassed, and it will remain for him to interpret them.

For the history of the (partially successful) attempt to exterminate the Jews and the Gypsies during the Second World War by the German National Socialist regime, we, of course, have at our disposal an infinitely richer store of documentation than for the horrendous episode in Spartan history that I recalled above. But the fundamental problems, upon closer inspection, are not that different. To be sure, the comparison, which is frequently made, with the Helots has its limits. In all probability, the latter represented the majority of the Lacedemonian population. This is suggested by an indication in Herodotus (among other sources): during the battle of Platea (479 B.C., during the Second Median War) every hoplite was accompanied by seven Helots.[10] When the attempt was made to capture in a single word the status of Jews in the Middle Ages and in the modern period, above all in Europe, the term pariah --following Max Weber-- rather than Helot, tended to be chosen.[11] But the two notions occasionally come into contact. An institutionalized contempt, which may very well be accompanied, in certain cases, by privileges (court Jews, for example), characterizes the status of both communities: one need but think of the famous "distinctive signs."

The pariah status of the Jews was called radically into question by the French Revolution and its sequels extending, with occasional regressions, through the nineteenth century and even our own. The Russian Revolution of 1917 as well as the German Revolution of 1918-1919 are part of that heritage, and there was no trace of that pariah status either in the U.S.S.R. at the beginning of the 1930s (despite the Stalinist regression) or in Weimar Germany. It has even been possible to speak of that era as a "golden age" of European Jewry.[12] Mitteleuropa, and particularly Poland and Romania, were, to be sure, exceptions to the rule, and it was principally central and eastern Europe that, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, had fueled the Zionist movement, which was an index of persecution and unrest as well as a national movement and a belated colonial enterprise. This was not the only imaginable (or imagined) response to humiliation --one has but to think of the Bund-- but events determined the outcome.

The "golden age" was followed, with Hitler, by a colossal regression that as Nazism gradually made its way through Europe, everywhere annulled what had been achieved in the wake of the French Revolution. The condition of Jews again became that of pariahs or, if one prefers, Helots, as may be seen from various legislative measures, such as the "Nuremberg laws" (September 1935) or the Statute on Jews in France, promulgated on its own initiative by Vichy (October 1940).[13] But a legal status, although it may have murderous consequences, is not itself a murder. The massive murder, which took the form initially of actions by the Einsatzgruppen, and then of gassings, did not begin before the war against the Soviet Union, which, after long preparations, began on June 22, 1941. It was in December, at Chelmno, in Poland, that gas trucks were used for the first time.

How might all this be told or explained (since history is both a narrative and a quest for intelligibility) ?[14] I shall not attempt to summarize here the very extensive historiographical debates.[15] Let us, nevertheless, raise a few questions.

For the facts to be ascertained with all possible precision and for the historian to purge as best he can his work of all that is fabricated, legendary, or mythical is the very least to be expected and obviously constitutes a never-ending task. There is no such thing as a perfect history, any more than there exist exhaustive histories. However "positivist" he is intent on being, however desirous of "letting the facts speak for themselves," as the ingenuous say, the historian cannot evade his own responsibility, that of his personal choices or values.[16] For my part, I have no scorn for the genre of the chronicle, which is said to constitute the degree zero of historical narration. It has the merit of imbuing history with novelistic experience. But, aside from concealing their presuppositions, chronicles evade all concern for intelligibility.[17]

Ever since the disaster was acknowledged and came to be investigated, the history of the Hitlerian genocide has oscillated between two extremes, frequently epitomized by the terms intentionalism and functionalism.[18] For Lucy Davidowicz, for example, the extermination was preformed in Hitler's brain as of 1919, just as the destiny of humanity, according to certain biologists of the eighteenth century, was preformed in the person of Adam. In the last analysis, the "war against the Jews"[19] occurred independently of the successes and failures of Hitler's foreign policies and of the war itself. We need hardly specify that in such a "history," there is no discussion of either the mentally ill or the Gypsies, of Bolshevik functionaries or non-Jewish deportees, who also underwent, in varying degrees, the process of extermination. On this level, we are still dealing with history only to the extent that the raw material has been borrowed from reality. The structure is not that of a historical process, composed of advances and setbacks, of chance and necessity; it is that of the self-enclosed structure of myth.

At the other extreme, the extermination appears to be such only at the end of the process, as a sort of retrospective illusion. The "Genesis of the Final Solutions"[20] occurred, so to speak, on an ad hoc basis, as the camps, for instance, gradually became overcrowded and it became necessary to make space by getting rid of encumbering human material. I do not deny that this explanatory model accounts for a certain number of details, but how is one to exclude from consideration a murderous ideology, which, with the war in the East, had taken on unprecedented virulence ?

Pure functionalism dissolves the genocide as a complex within a greater diversity. As Franz Neumann wrote in 1944:

National-Socialism, which claims to have abolished the class struggle, needs an adversary whose very existence can serve to integrate antagonistic groups within a common society. That enemy can not be too weak. If it were too weak, it would be impossible to present it to the population as its supreme enemy. Nor can it be too strong, for that would commit the Nazis to a difficult struggle against a powerful enemy. It was for that reason that the Catholic church was not promoted to the rank of supreme enemy. But the Jews fit the bill admirably. As a result, such an ideology and such anti-Semitic practices entail the extermination of the Jews, the only means to achieve an ultimate aim: the destruction of institutions, beliefs, and groups still remaining free.[21]
On January 30,1939, the Führer had proclaimed (and his words have quite properly remained famous): "If international Jewish finance, in Europe and elsewhere, again succeeds in precipitating peoples into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the world and with it the victory of Judaism, but, on the contrary, the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." More important than having uttered those words is the fact that he constantly referred to them, in public and private, implicitly or explicitly, even when confused about the date of his speech, throughout the war.[22]

Intention or function: the dilemma can take many other forms. It is tempting, but dangerous, to write history as a classical tragedy whose resolution is known in advance. The scholars who are most careful about respecting its various phases do not always elude that danger. This is the case of the American historian K. A. Schleunes, whose book on the "twisted roads"[23] leading to Auschwitz, a study of anti- Semitic policies between 1933 and 1939, proclaims that as of 1938, the path to annihilation was clear.[24] As though Hitler from then on was definitively shielded from all accidents,[25] as though other methods had not been tried out before the final one. As opposed to this, Claude Lanzmann, in the grandiose historical film entitled Shoah (1985), begins his narrative in December 1941 at Chelmno. That tactic may appear brutal, but it is justified.[26] Even after the exploits of the Einsatzgruppen in occupied U.S.S.R., the decision to kill not directly, but through use of gas, marked the crucial turning point in the mechanical slaughter.

The first gassing using Zyklon B at Auschwitz took place, according to Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of the camp that thus became an extermination camp, on September 3,1941, and the victims were Soviet war prisoners.[27] Those two dates, that of Auschwitz and that of Chelmno, raise two fundamental questions in the debate over continuity or discontinuity.

It was not the first time in Hitler's Germany that gas was used for the extermination of human beings. As of September 1, 1939 (the date assigned retrospectively), Hitler in person, as the war began, authorized Reichsleiter Bouhler and Dr. Brandt to "grant merciful deaths." This was the beginning of Operation T4, and gas chambers were one of the instruments used for the euthanasia of incurables and the mentally ills.[28] The operation, however, came up against the firm reaction of the Christian clergy, and specifically the Catholic church. The bishop of Münster, Clemens August, Count of Galen, was brave enough to file an official complaint on July 28,1941, and to denounce such murders publicly in a sermon delivered on August 3. Operation T4 was stopped officially on August 24, 1941; it was nevertheless continued on a much smaller scale and with increased secrecy. It had around 100,000 victims. The links between Operation T4 and the extermination of the Jews are twofold and contradictory.[29] Specialized personnel had thus been trained (and would prove their full efficiency at Treblinka), but in --theoretically-- putting a halt to the extermination of incurables,[30] Hitler was also in a better position to unite the country, with a single enemy, "Judeo- Bolshevism." That was a crusade in which pastors and bishops --including the Count of Galen-- were happy to participate, to the extent that they saw it, precisely, as a crusade. In that sense, the stopping of one operation allowed for the realization of the other in an atmosphere of sacred union.

There can be no doubt that with the invasion of the U.S.S.R, the war changed in nature. There were now two categories of enemy: one, the Slavs, was for the most part slated for slavery (which had already been tried out in Poland); the other, "Judeo- Bolsheviks" against whom a war of extermination was declared.[31] The destruction of the Jews and that of "Communism" were thus twin operations.

The question is not one of judging what indeed the Stalinist regime was. The word totalitarianism, which is applied by many specialists to the two antagonistic dictatorships may be used to describe an outcome. In certain respects, one may even speak of a more deep-seated system in the case of Stalin than in that of Hitler: the Dimitrov trial was not characterized by the abject confessions of the Moscow trials, and although Leon Trotsky, in August 1937, could accuse a Nazi prosecutor in a Danzig trial brought against a Trotskyist group of drawing his inspiration from Vishinsky,[32] that prosecutor did not obtain the confession of imaginary crimes. That being the case, the historical process was totally different depending on whether one was in one or the other of the two regimes temporarily allied from August 1939 to June 1941. For the Hitlerians, the Stalinist regime represented absolute subversion as well as Jewish gangrene. Inversely, for a Europe occupied by Hitler, Stalin and the Red Army represented the hope of liberation. Those images were all the more forcefully striking in that it was indeed the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz.

For most historians, however, one question remains difficult to resolve. If the extermination of the Jews was inseparably bound up with the war in the East, it remains to determine in what state of mind --the enthusiasm of early victories, or the growing sense of failure at the end of the fall of 1941-- the fatal decision was taken. The sparse testimony we have brings us to the end of the summer,[33] but the debate continues unresolved. In any event, there is no doubt that it was the ideological war against the U.S.S.R. that served as the motor of the final solution throughout all of Europe.

There remains a final dilemma for the historian: the relation between the extermination of the Jews and the Gypsies, and the exploitation by forced labor, which concerned both "racial" deportees and "ordinary" interns, the convicts of Dora or Ravensbruck, be they political or common-law prisoners, homosexuals or Jehovah's Witnesses. The question is not simple, and evolved a great deal from the prewar period to the phase of total war. The camps were created by the Nazi regime with the purpose not of forcing men and women to work but of isolating them. No doubt they were obliged to work, but, in Arno Mayer's phrase, their labor was "Sisyphean" and not "productive."[34] A concern for production would gradually appear, above all as of 1940, under the auspices of the WVHA,[35] the Central Office of Economic Administration, an increasingly important sector of the SS state. There was no common measure between such production and "free" work, even as performed by those workers drafted from all over Europe to replace mobilized Germans. Concentration camp labor also served the ends of exhaustion and control. In relation to "free" labor, concentration camp labor, the work of slaves, also had the characteristic of being indefinitely replenishable. What was the situation in the case of the Jews? It is clear that at sites devoted to extermination pure and simple (Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka), the only available work was the maintenance of the killing machine and the retrieval of possessions from the victims. Himmler, moreover, on the subject of the Warsaw ghetto, echoed the conflict between the "economists" and the exterminators, whose chief he was.[36] But Maidanek and (above all) Auschwitz, which were enormous industrial centers, were living proof that extermination could go on side by side with exploitation by forced labor. The immediate elimination of the weak, the aged, women, and children left only a labor force. There, too, slaves were infinitely available, and it was futile to want to ensure the replenishment and renewal of the labor force through "normal" channels. Between exploitation and extermination there was a tension, never a break.

It is thus the historian's task to delimit this field of forces. He can not, however, say all, and what he can no doubt least communicate is death as it was experienced by the victims once the doors closed. It is easier to write the history of Buchenwald than of Auschwitz, and easier to write that of Auschwitz than of Treblinka. As Thucydides said, we will never know how each one disappeared.

(Next section )
(Table of Contents )


Server / Server © Michel Fingerhut 1996-2001 - document mis à jour le 09/11/1998 à 19h18m05s.
Pour écrire au serveur (PAS à l'auteur)/To write to the server (NOT to the author): MESSAGE