© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Assassins of Memory (6)
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

6. Auschwitz and the Third World

There is nothing more common, nothing more sadly banal in human history than massacres. The Assyrians perpetrated theirs while piling heads into pyramids. The Israelites, on order from Yahweh, declared enemy peoples anathema: "Therefore go forth and strike Amalek, declare him anathema along with all he possesses; be without mercy for him; kill men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."[113] Moreover, King Saul (in the eleventh century B.C.) was punished by Yahweh for not having completed the task. Thus it is that the "chosen people" is occasionally credited with having invented genocide, and Hitler probably had that image in mind. It is also the case that contemporary historians malignly reinvoke that tradition of extermination."[114] They forget that the practice was reciprocal in the region. What Yahweh commanded the Israelites was ordered by Camos to his people at the expense of the Israelites: "And I killed everything, seven thousand men and children, and free women, and girls and slaves, whom I consecrated to Astor-Camos."[115] But the Bible remains part of our culture. It is of little use to continue, recalling Tamerlane or, above all, the extermination of the American Indians during the sixteenth century, through direct slaughter or bacterial contagion, the tragic consequence of the unification of the planet.

These parallels are of relatively little weight, because, with the possible exception of the American Indians, they are part of our culture, not of our memory. But already the example of the Indians and that of the black victims of slavery reveal that Auschwitz or Treblinka may not be perceived in all quarters as they are by us.

It nonetheless remains the case that --quite normally in our country and in the nearest Third World communities, those of North Africa, but also in the "Third World that begins in our suburbs," according to Alain Geismar's formula-- the image of Auschwitz and of Hitler's massacres cannot but have evolved. Let us attempt to indicate a few stages and a few memories.

I personally entered the fight against the Algerian war and specifically against torture[116] --which was not, as we soon came to realize, the worst part of it-- with a constant point of reference: the obsessive memory of our national injustices -- particularly the Dreyfus Affair-- and of the Nazi crimes of torture and extermination. The reference to other crimes, those of colonialism, only came later, as part of a growing historical awareness.

That reference to Nazism remained in effect throughout the war. For instance, the day after the Paris pogrom of October 17, 1961 (I still regard use of that term as appropriate), a certain number of intellectuals, including myself, at the behest of Les Temps modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre's journal, signed a manifesto, m which one could read: "By remaining passive, French citizens would become complicitous in the racist explosion whose theatre Paris has now become; we refuse to make any distinction between the Algerians piled up at the Palais des Sports while waiting to be 'dispatched' and the Jews stored at Drancy before their deportation." Needless to say, if the crimes committed on October 17 and the following days were abominable, the formula was absurd: repatriated in the "douars of their homeland," the Algerians did not go to Treblinka. But the logic of the protest was understood. I recall the refusal of one would-be signatory, the former minister René Capitant. The Algerians, he told us, were militants. The Jews were pure victims. Fundamentally, it was he who was right.

In the two camps confronting each other at the time, fantasies of extermination were given free rein, but they were only fantasies. Thus a Paris city councilor, Monsieur Alex Moscovitch, could declare, on October 27, at the Hotel de Ville: "All these agents of the enemy should be expelled from the territory of metropolitan France. We have been requesting permission to do so for two years already. What we need is quite simple and quite clear: authorization, and enough boats. The problem of sinking those boats is, alas, not within the jurisdiction of the Paris City Council."[117] That project, at least, was not executed. I prefer, nevertheless, to have been in the opposite camp.

What were the arguments at the time of lawyer Jacques Vergès, who was already what he is today: a cynical intermediary between the worlds of terrorism and the courts? Along with the members of his collective, he demanded, at the very least, Nuremberg for Algeria.[118] In November 1961, he wrote publicly to Dr. Servatius, who had just defended Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem:[119] "In arrogating to yourselves the right to judge Eichmann, you are creating a precedent for those colonized peoples interested in judging their former masters, you told the judges of Israel. But did you think that so numerous a new clientele was already in the offing --that of the neo-colonialists? You certainly did, since despite the 45,000 fresh corpses in the Constantinois, you did not think of making that comparison in 1946."[120] The allusion to the massacres of 1945, which had occurred amidst the enthusiasm of victory, is significant, but it is also remarkable that the Jerusalem trial served as a point of reference. In Vergès's eyes, Israel, at the time, was the symbol not of colonialism but of decolonization.

In those days, in any event, the word genocide often was heard, particularly from the mouths of the Algerian lawyers Maîtres Oussedik and Ben Abdallah, and everyone saw in it an allusion to the genocide of the Jews. I myself did not employ the word, but I could quote texts that I signed or declarations I made in which the idea surfaced.

The Vietnam War followed the Algerian war as a point of fixation for intellectual and student protest --we approach the period in which the street slogan "CRS-SS" could be heard. On December 1, 1967, the Russell Tribunal, meeting at Roskilde (Denmark) condemned the United States for genocide of the Vietnamese people. As a founder (along with Laurent Schwartz, who was one of the judges) of the National Vietnam Committee, I unsuccessfully intervened to try to prevent a decision that I did not find reasonable. In the December issue of Les Temps modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre published his report on genocide, in which, pressured by the Turkish judge and his Pakistani colleague, he had stricken the history of the Armenian genocide from the pages of history. Such is the serenity of "justice."

It has always seemed difficult to me to situate colonial war crimes in relation to those of the Nazis. Responding to General Massu, I wrote, in 1972, that he was "less guilty than Eichmann and more guilty than Klaus Barbie."[121] As far as the number of victims went, I was certainly right. It is even correct to say that many of those victims were innocent according to the French law of the time. There remained, however, the case of the children of Izieu and their fate, which I was unaware of at the time, the only crime of which Klaus Barbie personally claimed to be innocent.

In the interim, the image of Israel had undergone a profound change, not in the Arab countries, for which the country constituted a foreign colony implanted in the Arab world, consisting of former "protégés" (dhimmi) who had banded together to form a state, but in Africa, in a large part of the Third World, and for all that was designated in vague terms as the new European left. That representation corresponded to facts that were by no means mythical. Israel prior to 1967 was, to be sure, a society built through a colonial process,[122] but it was not or was only very incompletely (as a result of the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinians) a colonial society. The conquest of the rest of Palestine created two societies locked in a mortal embrace and resulted in their rapid evolution toward a situation of apartheid. Even today the process has not been completed, but how is one to deny the evidence? Now the Israelis were Jews, which was not a favorable sign in the Arab world, which was a matter of indifference for a large part of the Third World, and which, from having been a positive sign in Europe, after the great massacre, was tending, according to a classical process, to reverse itself: once again the victims were becoming executioners. Already in 1967, a German newspaper of the extreme right, Deutsche National und Soldatenzeitung, ran the headline: "The Israeli Auschwitz in the Desert." Israel appeared as the enemy of the Third World. The reasoning underlying that schema involved, to be sure, some enormous simplifications. The idea of a Third World that would be pure suffering opposed to a purely exploitative West masks a number of essential conflicts. Should Saudi Arabia, for example, be taken as a Third World country? It was forgotten that black slaves had been sold and delivered by their black masters and that the Arabs had played a crucial role in that trade. Bloody events in Rwanda, Indonesia, and Cambodia revealed that the Third World had attained, dare I say, the dignity of genocide. And what is one to say of the current war between Iraq (which was the agressor) and Iran, which has been going on since 1980?

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon on June 7, 1982, the massacres of Sabra and Shatila in September, under the protection of the Israeli army, aggravated matters for Israel and, as a result, for the Jews. Not that the invasion had been, as was said at the time, a "genocide of the Lebanese-Palestinian people," and not that the siege of Beirut could be compared with the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. But we were all the same able to see Annie Kriegel at the time attempting to play Faurisson, walking, as it were, both sides of the street: trying to explain, on the one hand, that the number of victims at Sabra and Shatila was in fact infinitesimal and, on the other, suggesting that the real killers might well have been not the Phalangists allied with Israel, but quite simply the Russians.[123] And to be sure, following the massacres, there was the enormous demonstration in Tel Aviv, the only true protest against the war in Lebanon, as well as a commission of inquiry --which was infinitely more responsible and more serious than the "Commission de sauvegarde" established by Guy Mollet in 1957-- but the innocence of Israel was dead.

None is this is retrospective. The worst crimes that might be committed by Israel would not be justified by Treblinka, but conversely they do not change a single bit the totally criminal nature of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The present may transform the image of what the past was; it has no possibility of transforming the past itself in its reality. But it is true that men no more live on truth alone than on bread.

The Klaus Barbie trial (May 11-July 4, 1987) was going to put that change of values to the test. Before surrounding himself (as if to symbolize the unity of the Third World) with a Congolese lawyer, Maître M'Bemba, and an Algerian lawyer, Maître Bouaïta, between Bolivia's delivery (or sale) of Barbie on February 6, 1983 and the opening of the trial in May of 1987, Maître Vergès had carefully prepared the terrain.

It was to be a trial between the France that had emerged (quite distantly) from the Resistance and the Nazi police chief, the expediter of Jewish adults and children, a torturer and murderer of members of the Resistance. It was a trial with multiple parties, since it introduced the France of Vichy and that of the Algerian war, the state of Israel posited as a symbol of evil, on an equal footing with the Nazi state, the Jewish "collaboration" and a West guilty in its entirety of colonialism, not to mention a Resistance movement whose tensions and even betrayals it distorted with a number of perfectly monstrous accusations.[124] The Algerian war served as a launching pad. After recalling that he was bringing suit on behalf of Algerian clients for "crimes against humanity, Vergès declared to an Algerian weekly in Paris, which was devoting an issue to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the pogrom of October 17, 1961, that the high court of appeal should state "whether a crime against humanity is only a crime committed by some Nazis against some Jews, or whether it involves a crime that is far more serious, far more current, and far more frightening for the future: the crime committed by imperialists against peoples struggling for their liberation."[125] Some Nazis, some Jews: the words were not chosen accidentally; they were part of a rewriting of history. Vergès was to pursue that campaign in Algeria in April 1987,[126] which resulted in the publication between April and June, of some violently anti-Semitic attacks (directed in particular against Jean Daniel) in the Algerian weeklies Algérie-Actualité and Révolution africaine.

But beyond the "Vergès case,"[127] it is true that the Klaus Barbie trial ran up against some unbearable contradictions from which no one quite managed to extricate himself.[128]

There were contradictions in the accusation. Barbie was indicted and judged for "crimes against humanity" (it was the first such trial in France). But what is a crime against humanity? According to the statute of the international military tribunal at Nuremberg (Article 6c) it was a matter of "atrocities or crimes including, but not restricted to, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape or other inhuman acts committed against any civilian population, or persecution for political, racial, or religious reasons, with or without violation of the internal laws of the country in which such acts were perpetrated." But there is a kind of crime against humanity that is, dare I say, of a higher order, and that is genocide. Defined by the International Convention on Genocide, unanimously ratified by the United Nations on December 9, 1951, genocide is defined as the extermination of national, ethnic, racial, or religious --but not economic or social- - groups. The convention, for example, does not concern the massacre of the kulaks. A fine convention that has never been applied, governments being hesitant to prosecute themselves.

The prosecution at Lyon had intended to restrict its accusation to complicity in genocide, that is, to Barbie's role in the deportation and death of Jews (thus excluding the torture, murder, and deportation of members of the Resistance, which were considered war crimes, and thus covered by the ten-year statute of limitations). But the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court, in a decision of December 20, 1985, had retained a less restrictive definition of crimes against humanity: "Inhuman acts and persecution which, in the name of a State practicing a policy of ideological hegemony [my emphasis], have been committed systematically not only against individuals for reason of their belonging to a racial or religious group, but also against adversaries of that policy, whatever the form of their opposition." This allowed for the deportation of members of the Resistance to be judged as a crime against humanity (without statute of limitations, unlike war crimes). Maître Vergès was openly jubilant at this decision: in his view, it opened up the possibility of arguing that France also --in Indochina, in Madagascar, and in Algeria-- had committed crimes identical to those condemned in the text instituting the international military tribunal at Nuremberg.

And that being the case, one had to be logical: if one were to try Barbie, one would have to try those French citizens responsible for colonial crimes, which were as imprescriptible as those of the Nazi torturer. But if one refused to admit that the crimes of the French army were crimes --without statute of limitation-- against humanity, then one would also have to forgo trying Barbie . . . at least for equivalent crimes.

That logical contradiction cannot be swept away with a wave of the hand. But it is perhaps not as clear-cut as Vergès claims. First of all because his own logic is interrupted at midpoint: if he equates the crimes of the French army with those of Nazism, then he ought to extend that equation to other crimes, such as that of Melouza, the village exterminated by the FLN at the end of May 1957-- something he is careful not to do.

But it is the very principle of the identification the crimes we committed with Hitler's genocide, as argued by Vergès, that is debatable. Those French crimes were amnestied by our government on March 22 and April 14, 1962, without any distinction between "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." The imprescribibility of those latter crimes, moreover, was instated in French law only after the amnesty decrees, on December 26 1964; it was not, in fact, until that date that the international legislation adopted at Nuremberg was integrated into our national law. And no one at the time was thinking of France: only the Nazi crimes were at issue. It is true that the latter had been committed in the name of an inherently criminal ideology, whereas the ideology of French Algeria proclaimed, in theory, the equality of Algerians and Frenchmen within the French Republic, not the superiority of the latter over the former. Guy Mollet's French government discreetly authorized torture; he did not proclaim, urbi et orbi, the right to torture. In 1961, at the time of the putsch attempt by the four generals, I heard the following argument being formulated: in what way is a Gaullist bullet any less murderous than a "putschist" bullet? And there was some truth to the argument. It is nonetheless the case that democratic institutions and the existence of public opinion also allowed for negotiations to progress.

The crimes of Massu, Bigeard, and Robert Lacoste were against the laws of the republic, whereas those of Himmler and Eichmann were in conformity with Hitler's principles, and that establishes an essential difference between the two, contrary to the claims of J. Vergès. Is that a reason to whitewash the former? I still do not believe that to be the case.

Let us, however, temporarily accept the argument: the contradiction implicit in the Barbie trial remains, since a number of individuals guilty of participating in the genocide of the Jews, such as Messieurs Leguay or Papon, have still not been tried. With the passage of time, states do not like to judge those who have embodied their will.

Conversely, the defense itself was caught in the trap. It could not allow itself to "faurissonize," and the word was used, as designating a contemptible act, by Maître Bouaïta during his arguments on July 2, 1987.[129] But it also had to attempt to get Barbie acquitted, to present him as innocent, to explain that the torture inflicted was imaginary, and above all that a document (the telegram recounting the Izieu operation and signed by Barbie) could only be a forgery since it came from the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine, which Maître Vergès regards (as did Paul Rassinier) as a factory of forgeries.[130]

Does an attempt to gain the acquittal of a torturer and a killer amount to a defense of the Algerians? Maître Vergès, in his way, revived what had been one of the temptations of the Arab world colonized by England and France: an alliance with Hitler's Germany. But it was the democracies, as Maître Rappaport has recalled, which, after much bloodshed, ended up emancipating the colonies. The very idea of a struggle against the Algerian war would have been inconceivable under a totalitarian regime. Two former Algerian leaders, Hocine Aït Ahmed and Mohammed Harbi, have said as much: "One does not defend a torturer by exhibiting other torturers, even if they were our enemies in the recent past.... Our struggle during the colonization can and should be identified with the struggle of the French Resistance during the German Occupation." It is preferable then to defend today human rights in newly independent countries rather than to defend someone who could have been their executioner.[131]

Insurmountable contradictions, no doubt, for anyone dreaming of a coherent system of justice, but not without an educational upshot: the screening of the film Shoah before an immense audience is reinstating the rights of a memory that has once again come close to being murdered.

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