© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Assassins of Memory (3)
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

3. Discourse-Memory-Truth

"We are living through the shattering of history." That formula figures on the back cover of volumes in a famous collection entitled --precisely-- Bibliotheque des histoires. Among the transformations that do indeed seem to be calling the unity of the genre into question, pride of place is accorded the attention paid to discourse, not merely to "discursive practices," as they give way to each other in the course of centuries (in Michel Foucault's undertaking), but to the discourse of the figure offering himself as the untouchable bestower of truth, the historian himself. When the Greek Herodotus describes barbarians, what, in fact, is he describing if not Greeks --transformed or inverted Greeks? The Other is constructed on the basis of the Same. One expects to read of the customs and laws of the Persians and Scythians, to discover their physiognomies, and one is confronted with a painting analogous to those of the baroque painter Arcimboldo, who constructed portraits with vegetables, fruits, and flowers.[37]

The historian writes; he conjures up a place and a time, but he himself is situated in a place and time, at the center of a nation, for example, which entails the elimination of other nations. As a writer, he has depended at length solely on written texts, which has simultaneously entailed the elimination of oral or gestural manifestations, the booty of the anthropologist.[38]

The historian writes, and that writing is neither neutral nor transparent. It is rooted in literary forms, even rhetorical figures which distance allows one to detect. Thus in the nineteenth century, Michelet is an author of realist novels, Ranke of realist comedies, Tocqueville of realist tragedies, and J. Burckhardt of realist satires. As for Marx, he is a philosophical apologist for history in the mode of metonymy and synecdoche.[39] Who can regret the historian's loss of innocence, the fact that he has been taken as an object or that he takes himself as an object of study? It remains the case nonetheless that if historical discourse is not connected --by as many intermediate links as one likes-- to what may be called, for lack of a better term, reality, we may still be immersed in discourse, but such discourse would no longer be historical.

Writing is not the only historical mode.[40] Why is Shoah a great work of history rather than a collection of tales?[41] It is neither a novelistic recreation like Holocaust,[42] nor a documentary --only a single document from the period is read in it, concerning the trucks at Chelmno-- but a film in which men of today speak of the past. With Jewish survivors expressing themselves in a space that was once that of death, while trains no longer leading to the gas chambers roll on, and former Nazis sketching their past exploits, the witnesses reconstruct a past that was all too real; testimonial accounts overlap and confirm each other in the barest of voices and diction. We are, in brief, given absolute proof that the historian is also an artist.

Within this shattered realm of historical discourse, how is one to situate the "revisionist" enterprise? Its perfidiousness lies precisely in its seeming to be precisely what it is not, an attempt to write and think through history. It is not a matter of constructing a true narrative. Nor is it one of revising the alleged accomplishments of historical science. There is nothing more natural than the "revision" of history, and nothing more ordinary. Time itself modifies the perspective not only of the historian but of the lay individual as well. La Bataille du rail is a film produced in 1946 as a true discourse about the resistance of the railway workers. Anyone viewing it again today[43] recognizes in it the description of an ideal world in which everyone, from engineers to lampmen, are united in the effort to dupe the enemy. The history of the deportation also has its share of dross. Mythical thinking and propaganda played their role, as well at times as a certain rivalry between non-Jews and Jews (once analyzed by O. Wormser-Migot), with the former claiming equality of suffering with the latter.[44]

But denying history is not the same as revising it. The case of Faurisson is not new in this regard. In 1690, the Reverend Father Jean Hardouin (1646-1729), a great scholar, began denying the authenticity of the majority of the extant works of Greek and Latin literature, whether classical or Christian. Both Virgil's Aeneid and the works of Saint Augustine were said to be forgeries fabricated in the fourteenth century by heretical monks. The grounds for that "hypothesis": the great heresiarchs, Wyclif in the fourteenth century and Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth, all drew on Saint Augustine. His disappearance would entail Virgil's. Revisionism would progress in the service of ideology.[45]

The method of today's "revisionists," the deniers, has often been analyzed. As Nadine Fresco and Jacques Baynac have written:[46] "Curious historians indeed these individuals who instead of attempting 'to know the precise unfolding of events,' act as judges of 'criminal evidence' in a trial taking place only because they deny the existence of the object of litigation and who, when a verdict is due, will be led to declare false every trace of evidence contrary to the a priori from which they refuse to budge."[47]

It is perhaps not without use to return to those methods and to demonstrate how Faurisson, an expert on literature, works to strip discourse of its reality.

The diary of the SS physician Johann Paul Kremer,[48] who practiced at Auschwitz from August 30 to November 18, 1942, is certainly not, as Faurisson's publishers write, "the final argument of those for whom the 'gas chambers' would have existed,"[49] but it is an important, authentic, firsthand document concerning that relatively early period of the extermination at Auschwitz. Kremer mentioned the gassings only once directly, on March 1, 1943, when he was already back in Münster: "Having returned to register at the shop of the shoemaker Grevsmühl, I saw a tract of the German Socialist[?] party there, which had been sent to him and in which it was said that we had already liquidated two million Jews by shooting or by gassing." This is in no way challenged by him, and he was in a good position to know.[50] At Auschwitz, he wrote in the semi-coded language prevalent in the SS administration of the camp. He spoke not of classical or Christian. Both Virgil's gassings, but of "special actions." But he did not conceal his horror. Auschwitz is said to be worse than Dante's Hell; it is the "camp of annihilation," the anus mundi, that is, the place at which all the world's excrement is unloaded.[51]

On two occasions,[52] Faurisson attempted to explain that Hell, annihilation, and anus of the world in terms of typhus alone. Kremer, however, had explained his text with perfect clarity, during his trials in both Poland and the German Federal Republic. "Special actions" included gassings. Concerning Faurisson's "explanation," I have written the following,[53] which I repeat: "On the level he most cherishes, that of philological precision and accurate translation, Faurisson's interpretation is incoherent; on the level of intellectual ethics and scientific probity, it is bogus." A great advocate of public debates, Faurisson, however, when he claimed to answer me, did not try to challenge my reasoning, concluding that he had already said enough on the subject in Mémoire en défense, which had been published in the interim.[54] But in his own camp, or rather in his own sect --I have received more than one proof of this-- not every one reached the same conclusion. Thus the ingenuous Jean-Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, who, contrary to his friends, proclaimed himself an "exterminationist," but said he did not believe in gas chambers.[55] The core of his intervention concerned the meaning of the word Sonderaktion, "special action," which is normally interpreted as designating selection for the gas chamber, an interpretation all the more natural in that it is the one given by Kremer himself. Here, for instance, is his entry on October 12, 1942 in the German original and in Faurisson's almost literally correct translation:[56]

2. Schutzimpfung gegen Typhus; danach abends starke allegemeinreaktion (Fieber). Trotzdem in der Nacht noch bei einer Sonderaktion aus Holland (1 600 Personen) zugegen. Schauerliche Szene vor dem letzten Bunker (Hössler)! Das war die 10. Sonderaktion.
Which translates:
2. Preventive typhus vaccination; after that, in the evening, a strong general reaction (fever). Despite this, that night, I was present at still another special action on people comma from Holland (1,600 individuals). Terrifying scenes m front of the last bunker (Hössler)! It was the tenth special action.
For J.-G. Cohn-Bendit, the crucial word is aus, "out of": he interprets "eine Sonderaktion aus Holland" as "a convoy coming from Holland." And it is that little word that allows him to justify Faurisson and his defender Chomsky: this "Sonderaktion" would have no connection with gas chambers. But then why need he be present (zugegen) for a convoy? Why is a convoy an action? And why would a "special action" be performed on women comma from the camp itself? J.-G. Cohn- Bendit extricates himself from this last difficulty by imagining that the women were being transferred to another camp; but why transfer women who had reached the last stages of physical debilitation --that is the meaning of the word Muslims used by Kremer-- to another Lager, whereas the logic of murder is fully coherent? J.-G. Cohn-Bendit's interpretation thus collapses. But what is interesting is that Faurisson supported this interpretation, which is so different from his own.[57] In former times, cosmologies were concerned with "saving the phenomena," accounting, for example, for the apparent movement of the sun The revisionists, for their part, who are so willfully "materialist,'; are concerned with saving nonphenomena. Any interpretation will do provided it is a denial. They function in a realm of empty discourse.

Precisely the same problem is raised by the doctoral thesis defense at Nantes on June 15, 1985, by Henri Roques, concerning the Confessions" of Kurt Gerstein.[58]

The intention of the dissertation's author --a retired agrarian engineer, a militant of the anti-Semitic extreme right, and a disciple of Faurisson more than of the professors who "directed" and Judged his thesis-- was enunciated by him with utter clarity on the day of his defence.

Céline, our great Louis-Ferdinand Céline, came up with a magnificent adjective to characterize the gas chambers. In his post-war correspondence (perhaps with Albert Paraz), he spoke of the "magical gas chambers." Indeed, to penetrate the world of the gas chambers, a master magician was needed, and Kurt Gerstein fit the bill perfectly. With him, as with others, the gas chambers became immaterial and the fascination they exercised grew with their immateriality. I have attempted to break that magic circle. I have considered and examined the Gerstein document in six versions like any other document to which one would ascribe historical value.[59]
But that is precisely what Henri Roques does not do. In a thesis that is in the order of literature (or, as Faurisson would say, the "criticism of texts and documents"), he lays out, to be sure, the six versions of the testimony, which are crammed with implausibilities and contradictions, but does not ask the only important question: are there or are there not testimony and documents attesting to Kurt Gerstein's actual presence at a gassing at Belzec? Now such --direct or indirect-- testimony exists and is perfectly cogent. Such is the case in particular of the testimony, which was supplied on several occasions, of his traveling companion, the (Nazi) professor of medicine W. Pfannenstiel.[60] The problem is so clear that even the Germanist Jean-Paul Allard, who chaired the thesis jury with evident sympathy for the candidate,[61] could not forgo questioning him on the subject.

But the matter should be stated clearly: in itself, a narrative account does not contain proof that it is (partially or totally) truthful or mendacious. Even testimony as direct and factual as Dr. J. P. Kremer's diary must be interpreted in light of its context. A few years ago, a deciphering of the diary of the architect H. A. A. Legrand, who died insane in Limoges in 1876, was published. That diary, which is written in a script of the author's invention, contains a meticulous reproduction and transcription (including the postage stamps) of the author's correspondence with the circle of women who loved him.[62] Those women bore illustrious names and titles. It has not been possible to identify, even at a far more modest level, a single one of them. The most plausible hypothesis is that this "love circle" is purely and simply phantasmatic. This is not at all the case, however, for Gerstein, who, to be sure, was not the ideal witness dreamed of by criminal court judges, but whose account has been amply verified.[63] Once again, "revisionism" appears as a concerted derealization of discourse, and its literature is a pastiche, a parody of History,[64]

(Next section )
(Table of Contents )


Server / Server © Michel Fingerhut 1996-2001 - document mis à jour le 09/11/1998 à 19h18m26s.
Pour écrire au serveur (PAS à l'auteur)/To write to the server (NOT to the author): MESSAGE