© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Assassins of Memory (5)
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

5. History and the Nation

Let us now take the problem up at a higher level, that of nations.

In the nineteenth century and during a large part of our own century, history has been one of the modes of expression of nation-states.[84] In France that organic relation has practically disappeared. The consensus expressed in both (small and large) editions of Lavisse's Histoire de France[85] has ceased to exist, and the teaching of history in primary school along with it. But if such is the case for France and a few other countries, it is far from being the general case, and an instrumental exploitation of history that, to be sure, is not limited to the nation is common among "scholars" as well as professional propagandists. History seems to be a vast storeroom of props in which one is free, when the need is felt, to come up with authorization to fish out one file or another, with an implicit ban on producing any others. It is even the case, moreover, that this very pragmatic conception of history has been amply justified in theory.[86]

The worst of all historiographies is plainly state historiography, and governments rarely confess to having been criminal. Perhaps the most painful case of this sort is that of Turkish historiography concerning the Armenian genocide of 1915. Nothing could be more normal than for the Turks to insist on the wartime situation, on the support many Armenians voiced for the Russian offensive, on the local conflicts between Armenians and their neighbors, in which the Armenians did not always behave like the lamb in La Fontaine's fable. But the Turks do not stop there: they offer the very exemplar of a historiography of denial. Let us put ourselves in the position of Armenian minorities throughout the world. Imagine now Faurisson as a minister, Faurisson as a general, an ambassador, or an influential member of the United Nations; imagine Faurisson responding in the press each time it is a question of the genocide of the Jews, in brief, a state-sponsored Faurisson combined with an international Faurisson, and along with it, Talaat-Himmler having his solemn mausoleum in the capital.[87]

The Israeli case, on the other hand, presents several complex features. Although more than one present-day leader of Israel who was of age (and in particular Prime Minister Y. Shamir) belonged to a group --the Stern gang-- which preferred fighting the British and even offering the Hitlerians their collaboration rather than fighting against Nazism, Israel has made instrumental use of Hitler's genocide --spatially, since Mount Herzl, topped by the grave of the founder of Zionism, is the site of the monument, library, synagogue, and research center of Yad Vashem, devoted to the genocide; and temporally, since one of its holidays is the Day of the Shoah.[88] That is merely one aspect of the commemoration of the slaughter. A country at once ancient and young (Altneuland, in Herzl's word), a people "chosen" for glory and suffering and which Zionism has not succeeded --as planned-in "normalizing," Israel has witnessed a proliferation of what, in the United States, are called "memorial foundations," some of which, to be sure, are dedicated to the victims of the genocide. But the issue is not there, nor is it in the scientific character of Israeli historiography. The research conducted at the Yad Vashem Institute is as good as any in the world, albeit with an occasionally nationalist orientation.[89] In Israel there are ways other than holidays, monuments, volumes of history, and museums[90] to commemorate the great massacre: trials --Eichmann's and more recently J. Demanjuk's[?]-- also serve the organization of memory But above all the Shoah serves as a perpetual self-justification in all domains, in legitimizing the slightest border incident as marking a renewal of the massacre, in assimilating the Palestinians (toward whom the Israelis, all the same, are guilty of undeniable wrongs) to the SS. The result has been effective --even though the great majority of Israel's inhabitants has had no direct experience of Nazi persecution-- but some prefer to hear no more of those tragic days, and one can even find here and there in Israel a Faurisson disciple! On the other hand, in the Diaspora Israel is frequently judged only in the light of the Nazi experience, which is not a particularly lofty perspective for the state. Visiting a camp for Palestinian prisoners at El Ansar in l 983, Bernard Kouchner and Monique Donabedian observed: "At El Ansar, there is no gas chamber, and prisoners know that they will leave it alive."[91] Such a justification seems rather weak.

Germany, or rather the German empire during the Hitler period, was, par excellence, a place of torture. Since 1945, it has been a place, par excellence, for the Schuldfrage, the question of guilt, as Karl Jaspers called it in 1946.[92] Germany, or rather the Federal Republic. Austria, from the outset, considered itself an innocent victim, exactly like the other countries invaded by Hitler, a circumstance that has had such far-flung consequences as the Waldheim affair.[93] As for the DDR, it has concluded that the 1945 split, characterized by the destruction of the power of the traditional ruling classes and their replacement by a bureaucracy, has freed it from assuming its share of the Hitlerian legacy.[94]

There has been nothing comparable in the Federal Republic; instead Auschwitz, taken as a symbol, has provoked widespread reflection in all domains --cultural,[95] artistic, and historical. The Institute for Contemporary History in Munich is presently the world center for the study of the Third Reich and Hitler's genocide. This may be easily explained. Between Germans and Jews, from 1933 to 1945, the relation had not simply been one of persecutors and persecuted, or of destroyers and those destroyed, as was the case for the Gypsies. What the Nazis wanted (and this is perfectly expressed by the ideology of the SS)[96] was to replace the Jews in their mythological role as chosen people, which had been a subject of fascination for nations on the rise ever since the time of the Enlightenment. In that sense, Nazism may be said to be a perversa imitatio,[97] a perverse imitation of the image of the Jewish people. It was a matter of breaking with Abraham, and consequently also with Jesus, and searching for a new lineage among the Aryans. Intellectually, the New Right in France today does not argue any differently.[98]

The fact that German nationalism, of either traditional or Hitlerian stripe, should react to the obsessive presence of the Schuldfrage, that it should contest a historiography that it regarded as merely prolonging the propaganda of the anti- Hitlerian émigrés[99] was only to be expected. Since the "revisionists" have decided that only Nazi books were worthy of being believed, on condition that they not be by repentant Nazis, let us open up Stäglich's volume, which is far more adroit, to be sure, than Faurisson's, and that in addition has the merit of being frank. It was written against those "groups which, through their financial power, control a large sector of the news," the Elders of Zion, of course. It evokes that period "when the German people, impelled by most dire necessity, attempted to forge an autonomous path toward the future," which was the path of national socialism, of course. As for those historians who have disseminated the "official image of Auschwitz," "they are all Jews, which would explain the partiality of their works."[100] This is only an extreme example of a "revisionist" literature that, for obvious reasons, is the most significant in the world and that enjoys the most extensive printings.[101] Its central theme is simple and clear: from Versailles to Nuremberg,[102] the German people has been subjected to an immense injustice that it is now a manner of righting by cleansing that people of the slander heaped upon it. This is the thesis of the dagger in the back, but extended to infinity. All this, in fact, is logical and merely transcribes the simple "truth" expressed by one of the witnesses questioned in L. Boekel's film, The Spy Who Came in from the Far-Right, on his reaction to the semi-revisionist works of the British historian David Irving: "I think it is good for Germany." What has been transpiring in Germany since 1985 --forty years after the surrender-- and more specifically since President Reagan's symbolic visit to the military cemetery of Bitburg in May of the same year is quite different in significance. Authors like Stäglich and Kern are merely preaching to the already convinced, combat veterans desperate for national honor, for example.

The "Quarrel" about which I will now say a few words[103] is a quite different affair. To my knowledge, it is unparalleled in contemporary German historiography. Its participants are the elite of the German intelligentsia. It concerns not merely historians, but at least one philosopher, J. Habermas, and a number of political personalities. It has made its way into both scholarly works and the popular press. It is still evolving, in both Germany and in the world of letters, whence the necessarily tentative aspect of the following remarks.

It appears that the powderkeg was ignited by Ernst Nolte, a well-known historian of fascism, in an article about "A Past That Will Not Pass Away," which appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of June 6, 1986, and was an abbreviated journalistic version of an extended study that had appeared in English the previous year.[104] At the same time two essays were published in a book by the historian A. Hillgruber: A Double Disappearance: The Destruction of the German Reich and the End of the Jews in Europe.[105] The debate was further complicated by an article by Martin Broszat, the head of the functionalist school, which was billed as a "Plea for a Historicization of National-Socialism."[106] The debate itself was in fact initiated by Habermas, an heir to the Frankfurt School. He denounced a "kind of liquidation of damages: the apologetic tendencies in German historiography relative to the contemporary period."[107]

What were the stakes of this debate? In fact, they were numerous. Let us say straightaway that none of these authors is a "revisionist" in the sense shared by Faurisson and Stäglich. All accept the great massacre of the Hitler period as an uncontestable given. The question raised is first of all that of the relativity of the crime, and that has been done principally by Nolte. Historical relativity: the entire history of the revolutionary and socialist left (since the French Revolution) has been that of the projected annihilation of its political and social adversary. The reaction from the right was no more than a reaction to what the left had effectively achieved, from Lenin's seizing of power to the liquidation of the kulaks, from the gulag to the mass murders perpetrated by Pol Pot and his regime in Cambodia.

As for the Hitlerian genocide, that "Asiatic" undertaking, according to Nolte and his disciples, is to be explained, and ultimately even justified, in terms as much of a contagion spreading from the East as of a fear of the Bolshevik threat: did not Hitler identify Jews with Bolsheviks ? Germany was a victim at the same time it was an executioner: that is a constant theme of nationalist literature that, to be sure, goes further than Nolte and speaks of crimes suffered and not crimes perpetrated. But already in 1983, the Greens, in their "Accusation Against the Nuclear Powers," forgetting that the destruction of Coventry dated from 1940, had accused the Western Allies of having decided, on January 14, 1943, "to proceed with the indiscriminate bombardment of German cities, thus revoking the rule of conduct, which had been the basis of international law previously respected [sic], stipulating that civilian populations were to be spared."[108] Hiroshima and future Hiroshimas would thus allow us to forget Treblinka, even as the crimes of Stalin would justify those of Adolf Hitler.

The question raised is finally one of German identity, German history, and its continuity or discontinuity. The problem is at once historical, ethical, and psychological: how is one to reintegrate twelve years under Hitler, during which --as Martin Broszat has properly noted-- the Germans not only slaughtered but lived their lives? Can a country without history live? Such was the question raised by M. Stürmer already before the Quarrel. It was Habermas, in his first article, who explained that the constitutional pact of 1949, which had tethered Germany to democracy, was the basis for contemporary patriotism. All these questions are worth raising. Some of them, all the same, are troubling. Ever since Thucydides, it has been common to explain war as a result of fear.[109] Nazi fear in the face of the communists was indeed real,[110] but it was also completely insane given Stalin's foreign policy, which sought to avoid war. It is a serious matter for a historian such as Nolte to make use of perfectly worthless items from the revisionist arsenal. Like Rassinier, Faurisson, and Kern, he draws on a wild bit of polemic by an American, T. Kauffman, published "in 1940" and entitled Germany Must Perish, as well as on an alleged declaration of war by Chaim Weizmann, in the name of world Judaism, in September 1939.[111] No one has ever suggested that the American army, following Kauffman's proposal, ever sterilized a single German; to place on the same level a fantasied crime and a real one, the Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler, is a sophism unworthy of a historian.

This does not mean that German history is not to be written anew, like any other national history; nor does it mean that the genocide of the Jews should not be inserted into a history that would be simultaneously German,[112] European, and worldwide, and thus compared and confronted and even, if possible, explained. But from there to justifying it?

(Next section )
(Table of Contents )


Server / Server © Michel Fingerhut 1996-2001 - document mis à jour le 09/11/1998 à 19h19m13s.
Pour écrire au serveur (PAS à l'auteur)/To write to the server (NOT to the author): MESSAGE