Magazine article History Today

French Historians and the Holocaust

Magazine article History Today

French Historians and the Holocaust

Article excerpt

In April 1996 the philosopher Roger Garaudy held a press conference in a Paris hotel. It was to launch his latest book which was an attack against the state of israel. There was only a curiosity interest in the work of the former Stalinist who had been expelled from the Communist Party and who had turned to both Catholicism and Protestantism before being converted to Islam. Nor was there much concern about the chapter entitled `Myths of the Twentieth Century' which stated that the supposed killing of some six million Jews during the war had not taken place. But when Jacques Verges, the lawyer who had defended the ex-Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie, when he was charged in France with crimes against humanity, announced that Garaudy's book had the full support of the Abbe Pierre, this was a sensation. The Abbe Pierre was the most popular man in France. For more than forty years he had been the champion of the poor and the homeless, a model of devotion and courage.

The debate that followed centred on the Abbe Pierre in person, and in discussion about the possibility of a latent anti-Semitism amongst French Catholics. There was little inclination to follow the Abbe's request and arrange a meeting amongst historians in order to settle once and for all whether or not the Holocaust had taken place. The fact is that there is a long tradition in France of `negationism', the rejection of the accepted version of Hitler's Final Solution, and it is necessary to consider this tradition.

The origins of this historical movement are unexpected. Paul Rassinier was a school teacher who had been quite a prominent member of the Communist Party until he was expelled. Then he became the head of the Socialist Federation in Belfort and its territory, where he was on the left of the party, and in touch with the anarchists. After the defeat of 1940, he was demobilised from the army, but he joined the Resistance in 1942. He was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo (but gave them no information) and sent to Buchenwald and afterwards to Dora. He spent some fourteen months in these concentration camps and after the Liberation he was elected to the National Assembly as a Socialist Deputy. But in 1947, still troubled by the effects of the Gestapo torturing, he took an early retirement.

It was then that he decided to write about his own experiences. At this time, because of the official French reluctance to study contemporary history and because of a national hesitation to write about `the black years' from 1940 to 1945, the only source of information about the concentration camps came from those who had had a direct experience of them. Rassinier found that these were unacceptable. They over-dramatically painted a picture of German evil. He set out to show that whilst life had been hard in the camps the prisoners had enjoyed certain privileges. He had himself worked closely with the Gestapo as an assistant, and had, for example, been asked by them to listen to broadcasts from London and to translate what he had heard. Listening to London was forbidden. Therefore he and the Germans were linked together, having disobeyed orders together. The idea was soon presented that there were not Germans persecuting Frenchmen in camps. but there were Germans and Frenchmen who were together in the confused tragedy of war.

Rassinier's second book was called The Lies of Ulysses. It is a reference to a novel published by Jean Giono, the pacifist, in 1938, which describes Ulysses as a braggart who lied about the great deeds that he had done in order to conceal what had been an idle life of luxury. The heroes of the war were not heroes, and the villains were not villains. it was the Englishman, Bertram Russell, who was right when he said that the evils that one tried to avoid by means of war were not as great as war itself. One had to ask how it was that war had come about. since it was the fact of war that was important, not the actions of those who fought in it. …

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