© Michel Fingerhut 1996-8 ^  


Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Who are the Assassins of Memory?
Originally delivered as a lecture at the Van Leer Foundation, Jerusalem, 1992.

Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel - No reproduction except for personal use only

We are very grateful to Pierre Vidal-Naquet for allowing us to make this text available here.

In his book published in 1968, Aspects of Antiquity, which in 1989 was translated into French under the less dry title of On a perdu la guerre de Troie,[1] M. I. Finley concluded his study of the Jews and the death of Jesus in the following words: "The dead past never buries its dead. The world will have to be changed, not the past." And yet one is tempted to add to this statement George Orwell's parallel and complementary comment that he who controls the past also controls the present; and, I would add, the future. No system of government, whether liberal or totalitarian, has ever been indifferent to the past, although of course control of the past is much stricter in a totalitarian society than it is in a liberal one. No regime, no society, is indifferent to how its own history, or what it considers to be its own history, is taught. This is true in Italy, this is true in France, this is true in Israel, just as it is true in Russia.

And yet I have called my presentation "who are the assassins of memory?" and not "who are the assassins of history?" This expression, "the assassins of memory," is not my own. I have borrowed it from Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who used it at a Royaumont symposium on the functions of forgetting. It is true that I have made it into the title of a book. What were the reasons for choosing this title? There has been considerable discussion recently about whether there is such a thing as a collective memory. I belong to those who believe that there is, unlike, for example, my friend Pierre Sorlin.[2] But it is obvious that collective memory must always go through the individual memory.

Those who see fit to deny the very existence of the Shoah, and who call themselves "revisionists" --they now tend to be called Holocaust deniers (négateurs)-- are trying to affect each of us, whether we have experienced the Shoah directly or indirectly, and even, I would say, whether we are Jews or not, in our individual memories.

This memory is, of course, not history, and when we are no longer here, the only thing remaining will be history. But history --and this is the point to which I want to return-- is also made up of the intermeshing of our memories and the memories of witnesses. By laying the stress on memory, I am emphasizing the fact that the deniers' undertaking is clearly an attempt to strike at each of us in his or her self.

Can history itself be murdered? To the extent that we work on modern and contemporary history, we are used to the existence of enormous files, whose disappearance we can scarcely imagine. Those states which in terms of political practice are the greatest organisers of lies and tyranny are also those which best preserve those files that subsequently allow the historians to determine what really happened. We have just witnessed this for the files of the Spanish Inquisition,[3] and today in the former Soviet Union we are seeing the same thing happening in the Katyn affair.

And yet somebody dealing with classical history knows how fragile a thing history is. How could we recount the story of the Jewish War unless we had Josephus? We do have him, but the problem is simply shifted. How can we tell the story of the Jewish war using this single --or more or less single-- source, whose impartiality is not its outstanding virtue? One of the characteristics of "The Destruction of the European Jews," as Raul Hilberg put it, is that history was destroyed at the same time as history itself was being made.

What am I driving at? Essentially, three things:

  1. The history of the destruction of the Jews and the Gypsies is not something about which the Nazis bragged. In one sense, they were proud of it, but they realised that it was something so out of the ordinary that they had to conceal it, not only from the victims, whose consent was basically sought (as in ancient times was that of the animal to be sacrificed), in order to ensure that things occurred in an orderly fashion; not only with regard to the people in whose midst the Jews lived, either as foreigners or as citizens; but also with regard to the German people and with regard to their own selves.

    Possibly the most extraordinary document in this connection is Himmler's speech in Poznan (Poser) on 6 October 1943, an address to the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter, in other words the Party aristocracy. Himmler says, very bluntly, that a radical decision had to be taken "dieses yolk von der Erde verschwinden zu lessen" --"to wipe this people off the face of the earth." But then he adds this simple sentence: "Die Juden müssen ausgerottet werden." "The Jews must be exterminated" is easier to say than to do, with everybody's consent. Does not every German have his decent Jew? So things had to be done in secret and, as far as possible, without leaving traces.

    The gas chambers, which began operations in Auschwitz, for the Jews, in the spring of 1942, were both the weapon with which the crime was carried out, and the instrument for denial of the crime. This is not at all paradoxical, since the gas chambers are an anonymous instrument of murder. No one is responsible. No one is a murderer. This is the situation that Ulysses generates when he takes the name of Noman and the unfortunate Polyphemus cries out that Noman has blinded him.

    Who is the murderer? The doctor who carries out the selections, the Häftling who directs the crowd of those condemned to die, the SS who take the Zyklon B to the gas chamber?

    No one is the executioner, because everyone takes part in the murder, something which makes all the denials easier.

  2. In addition to which there is the question of coded language. One must realize that this term conceals two separate sets of reality. The first is what Eichmann called Amtssprache. At his trial, Eichmann said that he had learned one language only: Amtssprache, and Hannah Arendt elaborated brilliantly on this term in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. In Amtssprache, executions by gas chamber were called Sonderbehandlungen or, more simply, SB, and since SB (special treatment) can also mean accommodating people in a luxury hotel, as Kaltenbrunner said at the Nuremberg Tribunal, this enables all possible denials to be made. In the same language, a gas chamber is called a Leichenkeller, and Jean-Claude Pressac had to look very closely at the documents in the Auschwitz Museum[4] to discover that the Leichenkeller was nothing other than the Gaskammer, the gas chamber.

    But when people use coded language, they also speak of something else, of a language which bears witness to a reversal of values. This is something that Thucydides, the Athenian historian, perceived during the Peloponnesian War, and I will allow myself to cite his comments on the subject: "To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence . . . and indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second."[5]

    I first quoted this text of Thucydides in 1962 when discussing the reversal of values which had taken place in the French army during the Algerian war, but, possibly more remarkably, recently as I was reading something written by Simon Laks, the conductor of the Auschwitz orchestra, I found that, without being familiar with Thucydides, he had come up with practically the same words.[6]

  3. It must be realized, lastly, that the physical criminal installations were systematically destroyed by the Nazis. This was the case, as of 1943, for the killing centres of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka, just as in November 1944 this was the case for Auschwitz, where an arduous archaeological project must be implemented in order to establish historical truth on-site. When the war was over, everything had been put in place for the destruction of memory --everything, except specifically the memories of witnesses, because a number of these had nevertheless survived, and the ruins were still smouldering.

Nobody, or practically nobody, could seriously deny a crime whose precise extent, paradoxically, nobody could as yet determine. The accused at Nuremberg did not make a serious attempt to deny the evidence, each of them --with the exception of Speer-- trying to deny his own responsibility. The Nazis had foreseen everything, except the crushing nature of their defeat. At that time nobody imagined that, in their defeat they had planted a time bomb which today is known as revisionism or denialism.

Let us try to plot the geography of this strange phenomenon. When you go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and look at that section of the documentation which corresponds to the underworld (the pornographic books) of our National Library in Paris, you can easily have the feeling --for example, when examining the various editions of Richard Harwood's brochure, Did six million really die? or Butz's The Hoax of the XXth Century, or the various works by Faurisson, Stäglich, Christophersen or Carlo Mattogno-- of an international venture. In point of fact, the revisionist venture has several faces, and we have to know how to analyse each of these. First, of course, there are the individual perverts, such as "Jehovah's Witness" Dietlieb Felderer, who lives in Sweden, and who distributed a Jewish Information Letter, which contained, among other things, the following: "please, accept this hair of a gassed victim," or "this sample of Jewish fat." Let us ignore these paranoiac individuals. Besides, this particular one appears to have fallen silent. At any rate, I have not heard of him for some time.

So where today does revisionism flourish primarily? First and foremost, and for obvious reasons, in Germany. This is the country where these books are most widely distributed. Their target audience is a specialised one: the heirs or survivors of the Nazis or extreme right-wing nationalists who, in the thirties, were the Nazis' allies. In Germany, "revisionism," depending on the particular audience and author, can adopt the form of a radical denial: the Nazis never killed a single Jew as such --it is striking that there is no "revisionism" for the mentally ill or the Gypsies-- or, alternatively, more moderate forms: the death of the Jews is an act of war. Since the Jews declared war on Hitler, it is perfectly natural that Hitler waged war on the Jews. The destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, is the consequence of the uprising, not its cause. This was Himmler's own thesis.


These large numbers of publications, which a ban does not appear to have bothered very much, rarely emerge into the light of day in the general press and parliamentary debates, even if a slip of the tongue by the Bundestag President sometimes sparks off a public outcry. So we can say that the status of these publications is comparable to that of X-rated films or the pornographic press. It is extremely rare in Germany for groups other than the Far Right to pick up these issues. Occasionally this has happened with the Greens.

The second major location is the United States, because that is where the money is. That is also where, on the Californian coast, we find the Liberty Lobby of William Carto financing the Los Angeles revisionist congresses and the Journal of Historical Review. In an utterly classical formation, in this group there is a harmonious synthesis of anti-Communism, anti-Semitism, hatred of the Blacks, such as the Ku Klux Klan manifesto, hatred of the Democrats, etc. Do they extend beyond this extreme Right position? They have tried to get themselves taken seriously by buying the American Historical Association catalogues, by advertising in student newspapers (recently, for example, at Cornell), and by using as a front figures such as Noam Chomsky, who some ten years ago agreed to write a preface to a book by Robert Faurisson, albeit making it clear that he had not read his writings. In America this gained the group far more censure than kudos, including among the most radical adherents of political correctness. I do not believe in the revisionist threat in America, any more than in Australia, despite the efforts of somebody like John Bennett.

Third location: France, and to a smaller extent, Belgium and Italy, where those active include figures like Carlo Mattogno or Cesare Saletta, covering the open field between Fascism and the Far Left. There a strange alliance has been struck between the Far Left and the extreme Right. There one can talk of a real danger, insofar as, in France at least, there exists a political party which brings together all the varieties of the extreme Right: combining Maurras, Hitler and the traditional Catholicism of the late Monsignor Lefebvre, a political party which receives the support of something like 15% of the electorate and which does not conceal --in its newspapers, in the statements by its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, in its propaganda-- that it is on the side of the assassins of memory. Moreover, it also has Jews who support it. Openly, it is more anti-Arab than anti-Semitic, but it supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. In one sense, this is the legacy of Vichy, but a Vichy which received the support of a fraction of the Far Left. How can this be explained? In point of fact, everything revolves round a strange individual called Paul Rassinier, who died in 1967, and was interned in Buchenwald and Dora. In his youth, Rassinier was first a Communist, then a Socialist; in the thirties, he belonged to the pacifist trend of the SFIO (the French section of the Labour and Socialist International), which explains his hatred of Leon Blum, the leader of the opposing trend who, because he was a Jew, was suspected of being anti-Nazi. Unlike Paul Faure and other former pacifists, Rassinier was a member of the Resistance and the Liberation-Nord movement and a deportee. After the war, he rejoined the Socialists and became the deputy for Belfort in the First Constituent Assembly. It is quite possible that in his "revisionist" activities he was expressing his feelings of guilt at having been constantly protected as a deportee, since most of his deportation was spent in the "Revier" or infirmary.[7] His spiritual heirs are a "Marxist" sect, the Vieille Taupe (Old Mole), which in turn is derived, at several removes, from a dissident Trotskyite group, Socialisme ou Barbarie. What kind of analysis lies behind these paranoiac frenzies? In the centre we find a theme which is already visible in Rassinier's approach: there is no basic difference between the First World War, which each country presented as a just war, and the Second, which saw the alliance between the liberal democracies and Stalinist Bolshevism. Here Rassinier takes up the ideas of the American historian Barnes, who after 1918 tried to show that the Americans had been wrong to become involved in the war against Wilhelm II's Germany side by side with France and England.

As far as the Second World War is concerned, the utterly distinct character of Nazi Germany is denied, and this goes hand in hand with the denial, by Rassinier in France and by Barnes and his American disciples, of the crime of all crimes, the Nazi gas chambers.

It is this intuition of Rassinier's which was developed by the Vieille Taupe, which gave it a twist that it has maintained ever since: that of World Revolution. In order to achieve this revolution, the memory of Nazism must be stripped of its specific aspects, and it must be shown that Nazi Germany, the liberal and bourgeois West, and the USSR, whether under Stalin or Brezhnev, are all, when it comes to crimes, on the same level. The West has its colonial wars, Germany has its Gestapo and the USSR has its KGB, apart from the camps which can be found everywhere. Once the illusions have been dealt with, the decks will be cleared for the real revolution, the one which will put an end to man's exploitation by man.

In order to prove this thesis, the Vieille Taupe people based themselves on the minutely detailed writings of a fanatical scandalmonger and anti-Semite: Robert Faurisson.

Just one point about the former Communist countries. What was characteristic of these countries during the Communist phase of their history is not "revisionism." This was always banned. On the contrary, of the most documented publications about the mass slaughter, some are from Hungary, with most coming from Poland. In the USSR itself, the massacre of the Jews is but one minor aspect of the Nazi massacres, whose victims, according to Soviet terminology, were "the Russians, the Ukrainians, and other peaceful nationalities of the USSR." Soviet historiography does not deny Auschwitz or Treblinka--it may even tend to blow up the figures, but it does play down the Jewish dimension. Similarly, in Poland Auschwitz is first of all presented as a camp for Poles. It can readily be foreseen that with the development of rival nationalisms, there will be a resurgence of a thesis which has already been adopted by a group such as Pamyat: the real criminals of the Second World War are the Jews. This is a message which has already been broadcast by various books or brochures from the Hungarian emigration, such as those who put out a pamphlet called Kissinger Soviet Agent, or a book such as Marschalko's The World Conquerors.[8]

Now a few words about a last geographical location, the Middle East, where Israel was battling against the Arab world. It did not require much perspicacity to foresee that this conflict would give rise to the most varied forms of anti-Semitism, even if this anti-Semitism may be presented --as Maxime Rodinson puts it-- as a racisme de guerre, a form of racism brought about by belligerency.[9] In this context, those who are the most vehement, those who have systematically translated and republished the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are not the most bellicose, because these are largely the ideologues of Saudi Arabia, an American ally. The interesting aspect is the attitude of the Palestinians. It appears to me that they are attracted by two extremes: one is the pure and simple denial of the Shoah, something of which there are many examples in Palestinian literature; the other is to identify their own destiny with that of the Jewish people. Everybody will have noticed, for example, that the Palestinians' November 1988 Declaration of Independence was modelled on Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence. It is in this spirit that Palestinian leaders sometimes say that they know what the Shoah is, because they suffer it on a daily basis. I heard Yasser Arafat make this point in 1989 to a group of intellectuals, of whom I was one. I protested in an article published by Le Monde. I must, to be fair, say that the Revue d'Etudes Palestiniennes reproduced my protest uncut, and this same revue sympathetically reviewed my book, Les assassins de la mémoire.[10]


Now that I have concluded this tour of the world of denial, I can proceed to the somewhat more introspective part of my paper.

On the strictly scientific level, it goes without saying that pseudo-revisionism's contribution to the knowledge of these appalling events is zero. Consequently, there never can or will be any question of a scientific debate with these individuals. When Chomsky signed a petition stating in respect of Robert Faurisson that this respected professor of French twentieth-century literature and documentary criticism has carried out an in-depth and independent historical study of the question of the Holocaust, at that point he committed a kind of sin against truth and knowledge. None of the "revisionists" has ever conducted a historical study. It is also striking to see that practically none of these gentlemen is a professional historian, the only exception being David Irving: Stäglich is a judge, Butz a computer-science professor, Faurisson a professor of literature. I must admit that I do not know the profession of Carlo Mattogno, who represents Italy in this miserable little gang. As far as I am aware, none of them, except Irving, has the slightest training as a historian. For the honour of our profession, it is only right to make this point. In less delicate areas, perhaps we can point out that the deniers have their precursors. The most amusing example is, perhaps, that of a very famous scholar who flourished at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century -- Reverend Father Hardouin (1646-1742), who explained that, with very few exceptions, all of Greek, Latin and patristic literature consisted of forgeries put together in the 14th century by heretic monks. Thus the reason why Calvin and Luther, for example, and subsequently the Jansenist movement, were able to make use of St. Augustine was because St. Augustine's works were just so many forgeries. Hardouin divided the rest of classical literature into two groups: genuine, good texts, such as Virgil's Georgics, and those which were genuine and perverse, such as the works of Josephus. But is it sufficient to split up the true and the false into two opposing blocks in order for "revisionism" to be viewed as having been settled? Historical facts are not inanimate objects; they are alive and change with the very movement of history.

Let us begin with a first question: why did "revisionism," the new shape adopted by ancient anti-Semitism, suddenly make a front-page appearance, in France at least, at the end of the seventies? It is indeed true that there was certainly far from an immediate awareness by historians themselves of the specific nature of Judeocide in the Second World War. At the outset --by which I mean during the Nuremberg Tribunal-- one cannot speak of a general awareness of what the Shoah had been. It was engulfed in the abyss of Nazi crimes. When Chaim Weizmann wanted to raise a Jewish voice to testify in this trial, he was told that there was no point and that the judges had quite enough material on the subject. The war against the Jews shifted from the periphery to the centre of thoughts about the Second World War[11] after a long incubation period. The following observation provides a striking example of this state of affairs: in the years that followed the Second World War, in a country like mine, the symbol of deportation was Buchenwald or Dachau for men, and Ravensbrück for women. The reason for this is quite obvious. In 1945, most survivors returned from Buchenwald, Dachau or Ravensbrück. But apart from Ravensbrück, these camps did not have gas chambers, and even the Ravensbrück gas chamber played only a relatively marginal role in the camp's history. In addition, it must be noted that there was something like a "narrative migration" between Auschwitz and Buchenwald, just as in January-February 1945 there was a human migration between these two camps. Thus there was some testimony to the effect that there was a gas chamber at Buchenwald, a purely imaginary gas chamber, however, and this tale was, of course, seized upon by Rassinier, and then by Faurisson. If Auschwitz then occupied the central position in Europeans' consciousness, it was, of course, because it was in Auschwitz that the extermination installations operated over the longest period, but also because far more survivors returned from Auschwitz than from the death camps: Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka. Auschwitz was a mixed camp: extermination camp, concentration camp, factory camp. With the exception of the very few Sonderkommando survivors, the Auschwitz survivors who have testified for history tell us less about death in Auschwitz than about life there. This, for example, is true of the person whom I hold to be the most remarkable painter of human relationships in Auschwitz, Primo Levi. It is not without significance, perhaps, that he had some difficulty publishing his first book, Se questo è un Uomo. Primo Levi was an Italian chemist who was employed as a slave chemist in Auschwitz III-Monowitz. His testimony about the extermination of his travel companions occupies a few lines only. Perhaps one day we will see a new migration of the Auschwitz story to Belzec or Treblinka?

If I now take my own experience, as the son of two French Jews who died in Auschwitz, I would say that for several years I did not make a real distinction between concentration camps and extermination camps. The first book which really taught me what the Auschwitz camp was like was Elie Wiesel's Night, published in France in 1958 by Editions de Minuit. At the time, I was already 28. It so happens that I hate Elie Wiesel's writing, except for this one book --an additional reason for referring to it. Eight years later, with much hype and just as much controversy, Fayard brought out Jean-Francois Steiner's dreadful book, Treblinka, and yet it is this specific book which made me understand what an out-and-out extermination camp was. A historian's training is not limited to documented studies alone. Even in a historian's work, and of course in his life too, the irrational also plays a role.

When I speak of the movement of historical awareness, I cannot argue as if the history of the destruction of the Jews in Europe had progressed steadily from the straightforward collecting of testimony and documents to the kind of scientific development that we find in the most recent edition of Hilberg's book. This would be a tremendously over-simplified view of the development of historiography. The notion of progress must be questioned when studying historiography just as it must be questioned when studying history. A book like Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust,[12] which is chronicle rather than history, may be useful but, as has often been emphasized, it represents a major step backwards compared with much earlier works, including books or collections of documents written on the spot. As Arno Mayer wrote: "No retrospective memoir, literary work, or historical analysis can match the precision and penetration of Emanuel Ringelblum's Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, of Adam Czerniakow's Warsaw Diary, and of the collectively kept Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. These three firsthand chronicles, written inside the cities of the dying and the dead, were framed with distinctly modern ideas of facticity, chronology, and context, and also of the dynamics of collaboration and resistance under conditions of extreme powerlessness. More remarkable still, they registered the impact of the course of world history, particularly the war, on the daily life and fate of the ghettos."[13]

The extermination of the Jews --something that many historians tend to forget-- really took place not in the sidelines, but at the heart of the Second World War. In contrast, however, the historiography of this extermination developed over the subsequent decades: in other words, roughly speaking, during the Cold War and, of course, without being spared the movement of history itself. This can be said of any historical enterprise, even when it applies to a very distant past, such as ancient Greece, my own scientific area; and it is even more true of events as close to us as the Shoah.

Raul Hilberg, who is the complete antithesis of a "revisionist," said one day that these scoundrels could be useful to the extent that they force professional historians to carry out an in-depth check of their methods and results. Is this true? Can we say that there are flaws in the historiography of the Shoah, flaws which can explain the very relative success of the deniers among people who are not all gangsters?

The reply must be in the affirmative. Let me try to explain why.

a) Sometimes, history can be hypercritical. This is true, for example, of some pages in Arno Mayer's book, Why Did the Heavens not Darken? But most frequently, the history of the Shoah has been hypocritical. In particular, many historians have been insufficiently critical in evaluating their sources. In saying this, I am not suggesting that we should eliminate from the archives of the Shoah everything given orally to us by witnesses. Indeed, in my opinion we have not yet made sufficient use of this type of document, and the historian must become a disciple of Marcel Proust, insofar as memory is also inscribed in history. But memory is not necessary a memory of the truth, and we must give storytelling its place and its importance. Memory as such must be examined. We have much to learn from it: many "facts," of course, but not just facts. I would tend to say that the historiography of the Shoah comprises two masterpieces. One is La destruction des Juifs en Europe (The Destruction of the European Jews), a book based almost entirely on written documents and administrative archives, and the other is Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, a film which is a work of art, and is based exclusively on the living memory of witnesses. The facts are accurate, I believe, but they are seen through the screen of memory, and it is in this direction that today's historian should be turning.

b) The Shoah is part of the history of the Jews. Those who deny this, such as somebody whom I admired unreservedly, Professor Y. Leibowitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who argued that this history concerns only the goyim, are making a mistake because they are forgetting the real-life aspect of history. Today there exists a Jewish state which undoubtedly was not born of Auschwitz, but whose very existence has some link with this Second World War tragedy. This Jewish state was at war, not with the Nazis, but with the Palestinian Arabs, whom many Israelis call the "Arabs of Eretz Israel." Many responsible Israeli politicians and, with them, many educators consider that the current war is the continuation of the genocide, and Arafat is the new pseudonym of Adolf Hitler, who also called himself Nasser in the fifties and sixties. At least they used to say that until the Oslo and Washington agreements.

If a stone thrown by a boy or girl from the Occupied Territories, if a bullet fired by a Palestinian guerilla, if even a bomb thrown at a bus by a Palestinian terrorist is the continuation of the genocide, the ineluctable result of this type of assertion is that some of those who think that the Palestinians have good reason to rebel will perfectly naturally think that the Shoah itself was not the terrifying tragedy that we know it to have been. Those who, in Israel or elsewhere, make political use of the Shoah, are running the risk of making this into not a historical truth, but a "political truth," as the deniers' sect puts it, in other words something which can be crushed by more incisive reasoning.

I am not suggesting that the Shoah belongs to the historians, and to the historians alone. A French politician said one day that war is something too difficult to be left up to the military. The Shoah is part of Jews' living memory, and this will continue to be true for several more decades. But nothing lasts for ever, and politicians should be aware of this and think before running the risk of making political mileage out of the Nazi genocide. How many Israelis have made this point to me in private? How many others have made it in public, such as journalist Boaz Evron or Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz? The latter gave his views, for example, in the film made by Israeli film-maker Eyal Sivan, Yizkor, The Slaves of Memory. What does this film show? Basically nothing more than what Yosef Yerushalmi showed in his book Zakhor[14]: we must not be the slaves of memory. In Israel, everything happens as if a close link has been made between the festival of Passover (Pesach), Holocaust Day (Yom Hashoah) and Independence Day (Yom Ha'atsmaut). This link appears to be very firmly anchored in the educational system. If this is the case, and I have every reason to fear that it is, not only do I think that it is politically dangerous: I also consider it to be historically dangerous. History is not a religion. The truth of Auschwitz is not a religious truth, whether the Almighty God was present or not. Auschwitz and Treblinka belong to a series of historical facts, not a religious truth. They must be studied as one studies historical facts, something that implies critical methods comparable to those which are routinely used by the historians of the French Revolution. For example, it is absurd to talk about four million victims at Auschwitz, as the Poles did until recently, or even, as Claude Lanzmann has done,[15] of three million. If, like Raul Hilberg, one believes that the number of victims of the genocide is slightly over five million individuals, and not six million, we must accept this conclusion as we would for any episode in history. And we must also agree to compare Auschwitz and Treblinka with other major massacres of history, ancient or recent: for example, with the 1915 massacre of the Armenians, or the massacre of the American Indians following the event which we commemorated in 1992. We must even accept the fact that Auschwitz and Treblinka do not have the same historical meaning for the Jews, the Europeans, the Americans, on the one hand, and for the peoples of Asia, Latin America or Black Africa on the other. I said, not the same meaning; I did not say, no meaning whatsoever. I am not arguing that the Shoah should be ignored or denied in the name of political correctness.


But there is something worse than the political or religious use of the Shoah, and that is what might be called Shoah Business. Of course this is something no one can prevent. On one of my trips to Israel, I came across tourist leaflets about the "Holocaust Cave" on Mount Zion. This is worse than anything, and I do not know how to describe this dreadful blend of history, commerce, religion and politics. Of course, it might be objected that there is a Napoleon Business, and this does not lead anybody to turn Napoleon into a solar myth, as several irreverent disciples of Max Müller proposed in the 19th century. But let us assume that Corsica becomes a major western Mediterranean power. Let us assume that, in the name of Napoleon, it establishes a mini-empire in the south of France, the northwest of Italy and the north of Spain. Inevitably, there will be a small group of madmen who will explain that Napoleon never existed and that the supposedly Napoleonic Corsican empire is devoid of any serious historical foundations. This is precisely the reasoning of an eminent Beirut professor, Kemal Salibi, who tried to prove that the country of the Bible is today in Saudi Arabia.[16]

I come now to the end of my paper. One last question: what should we do with these people? How can we rid ourselves of them? Can we put the deniers to good use, as Raul Hilberg suggested? Have I myself not written an essay on Josephus called "Du bon usage de la trahison" ("Making good use of treason")? The "revisionists" are a sect, in the religious sense of the word, i.e. that sense which led Max Weber to contrast sect and church. When I refer to a sect, I am not thinking of comparing them with one of those sects which share the Mea Shearim part of Jerusalem. And yet they do in fact possess some of the characteristics of a religious sect. Undoubtedly some of them are out-and-out cynical scoundrels, but some of them really believe in what they have to say. Most of them are anti-Semites, in the various accepted meanings of the term, but not all of them.

Of course, as I have already said, there can be no question of any discussion with them. Does an astronomer discuss things with an astrologist, or with a person who claims that the moon is made of green cheese? But must we persecute them in the name of truth? I do not believe so, despite the legislation against them that has been adopted in Germany and France. Persecution, and even anything redolent of persecution, produces martyrs, and we have not the slightest interest in making these people into martyrs. I am in no way opposed to proceedings for defamation in the case of lies aimed at individuals or institutions, but I am resolutely opposed to the idea of imposing a historical truth through the legal system. When the French parliament voted for such a law in 1990, every single historian was opposed to it. If there is a lesson we should learn from the history of communism and the State or Party Truth, it is that no historical truth can depend on the state apparatus --however liberal this state-- in order to be considered the Truth. But if the truth has no need of police or courts, it certainly does not need historians. Here and there -- in England, America, Germany, France, Italy and, of course, in Israel, there are teams of historians who have carried out outstanding work.

But I musthighlight two points which I consider to be vital:

  1. we must hunt down the proof, even when it seems crushing. For example, on the issue of gas chambers as technical instruments of murder, until a very recent period our documentation was scanty: there was enough, of course, for us to know that they existed and operated, but not sufficient to know precisely when and where they operated. This gap was filled by a former "revisionist," Jean-Claude Pressac, a pharmacist by profession. His book, whose sub-title --Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers-- summarizes its subject, is certainly not a good history book. Pressac shows no genuine understanding of either the victims or even the executioners, but he has acquired a good technical grasp of the system which operated at Auschwitz and the firms which made it work and the technical problems that they had to overcome. This former "revisionist" visited Auschwitz to prove that the gas chambers, even there, had never existed. When, in the museum's archives --he is now working on the Moscow archives-- he discovered proof to the contrary, he was overwhelmed by the evidence; unfortunately, before his research, this collection, although available, had been neglected by historians.
  2. We should, of course, also try to write a different history -- neither dogmatic, nor sceptical, nor extensionalist, nor reductionist, to use the terminology of Arno Mayer, who was himself not always faithful to these excellent principles. The history that I dream about should at one and the same time attain both the level of the individual and that of world history -- the Unique and the Universal, to cite the title of a famous work by Jacob Talmon.

Will the day come when people like Butz or Faurisson will be considered innocent pranksters, like the people today who are still trying to locate Atlantis? Neither my readers nor my listeners today will live long enough to see that day. But one day perhaps....

Translated from the French by Ruth Morris


Server / Server © Michel Fingerhut 1996-2001 - document mis à jour le 09/11/1998 à 10h08m32s.
Pour écrire au serveur (PAS à l'auteur)/To write to the server (NOT to the author): MESSAGE