The Competition of Victims

In January 1998 the French daily Le Monde published an attack by the writer Henri Raczymow against what he called the “ever more prevalent trend of historical, literary, and moral thinking that considers any crime as having the same value [vaut] as another, any victim as having the same value as another.” Raczymow argued that “this current is not made up of negationists (those who negate the reality of the gas chambers), but much more, it appears, of people who are exacerbated by the claim—made by Jews—about the absolute uniqueness of the Shoah, its incommensurability, its incomparability.” The article was primarily a response to a statement made by the historian Stephane Courtois, whose preface to the recently published volume Le livre noire du communisme (The Black Book of Communism) included the assertion that “the death from hunger of the child of a Ukrainian Kulak intentionally driven to starvation by the Stalinist regime ‘has the same value’ [vaut] as the death from hunger of a Jewish child driven to starvation by the Nazi regime.” In turn Raczymow’s article provoked Catherine Coquio, professor of comparative literature at the Sorbonne, to charge him with implying that “the life of a child in one place is not worth [vaut] the same as that of a child in another place.” Tzvetan Todorov, whose new book, Les Abus de la memoire (The Abuses of Memory), was also criticized by Raczymow, responded by rejecting the notion of uniqueness altogether. To support his assertion, Todorov argued that even Vassili Grossman, coeditor with Ilya Ehrenburg of the original Black Book on the Nazi genocide of the Jews, had drawn a parallel between Nazi and Soviet criminality when he wrote that “the Germans say: The Jews are not human beings. That’s what Lenin and Stalin say: The Kulaks are not human beings.” For Todorov, since “every human being has the same price,” there is no point in asserting that one crime is “worth” more than another. Rather, what is identical in all genocides is that on the “moral plane” they are “‘worth’ . . . absolute condemnation.”

Neither the participants in this debate, nor other scholars criticized by Raczymow—who included the Belgian sociologist Jean-Michel Chaumont, author of La Concurrence des victimes (The Competition of Victims)—are historians of the Holocaust. Indeed, this was not a controversy about the Holocaust, but rather about the meaning, memory, and political use of crimes against humanity. (See fig. 4 for the twisted memory of victims in an almost “judenfrei” Poland.) Nor did Raczymow’s insistence on the uniqueness of the Holocaust have anything to do with his alleged insensibility to the suffering endured by millions of people in numerous other mass crimes. His argument was about the reluctance of French intellectuals to focus on the Holocaust as an event in its own right, especially since France itself—including many of its intellectuals at the time—had played a much greater role in that very specific event than they wish to concede. The arguments leveled against him merely proved his point. For rhetorical assertions regarding the suffering of children constitute precisely the kind of abuse of memory against which Todorov himself has rightly warned. The individual suffering of innocents under any regime and in any historical context does not tell us a great deal about the political circumstances in which it occurs; but it can serve as a device to relativize or normalize the past, as the example of the German Historikerstreit in the mid-1980s had already shown. Suffering is never relative, but its assertion does not suffice to distinguish one event from another nor to make one “better” or “worse.” Just as Todorov’s attempt to recover the existence of “moral life in the concentration camps” in his book Facing the Extreme fails to distinguish between Hitler’s and Stalin’s camps, so, too, in his polemic with Raczymow, he neglects to cite Grossman’s reaction on returning to his liberated birthplace in 1943: “There are no Jews in Ukraine. Nowhere . .. in none of the cities, hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black, tear-filled eyes of little girls; you will not hear the sad voice of an old woman; you will not see the dark face of a hungry baby. All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people have been brutally murdered.” Thus the Black Book of Communism is indeed part of a larger trend. Francois Furet, the late historian of the French revolution and a former left-winger turned conservative, also attempted to resurrect the claim that Communism and Nazism were inherently the same in his book The Passing of an Illusion. To be sure France has produced several subtle and sophisticated analyses of genocide, the most recent of which is Yves Ternon’s L’Etat criminel (The Criminal State). Yet it is works such as Courtois’s edited volume, whose very title presents it as a “response” to the alleged overemphasis on the Holocaust, that arouse most interest in the public, by asserting that while there was no inherent difference between Nazi and Communist crimes, the latter were worse simply because of their supposedly greater scale. What is hardly ever mentioned in this debate is that it was Communist Russia, not the French intelligentsia, that destroyed Nazism and thereby facilitated the liberation of France.

The hate of victims. Monument to the victims of the Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. Hebrew inscription calls to avenge the spilled blood. Graffiti made in the 1990s: “You fucking Jews, you and your Christ.”

FIGURE 4. The hate of victims. Monument to the victims of the Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. Hebrew inscription calls to avenge the spilled blood. Graffiti made in the 1990s: “You fucking Jews, you and your Christ.”

From this perspective one can argue that France remains torn between trying to come to terms with is own ignominious legacy and asserting its status as the center of European civilization and the conscience of humanity. In the process the Holocaust is either shoved aside and ignored, or is presented as an obstacle to humanizing contemporary politics. A rather different perspective on this same issue has been recently offered by Eric Conan and Henry Rousso in their study Vichy: An Ever-Present Past. The authors’ main argument, with which Robert Paxton wholeheartedly agrees in his foreword to the English translation, is that rather than failing to come to terms with the past, over the last fifteen years France has become obsessed with it. In a sense, Rousso’s “Vichy syndrome” has come to haunt the nation with a vengeance. Moreover, the authors believe that, especially thanks to the manner in which it is practiced, this preoccupation with the past has by now become largely counterproductive. The insistence on the “duty to remember,” they claim, has made it impossible to face the future; instead of facilitating action against contemporary problems and injustices, the politics of memory obstruct and distort French perceptions of the present. Nor does remembering mean the same as knowing; references to the past are often made and exploited by those wholly ignorant of its realities. Hence the plea by Conan and Rousso to declare a “right to forget,” so as to be able to get on with life in the present, and to insist on the “duty to know,” so that memory can be replaced by knowledge of the past, whose production is primarily the task of the historian.

The difficulty is that one cannot forget what one does not remember and that knowledge about the past in France is still scarce, fragmented, biased, and selective. To be sure, in Germany, too, ignorance about the actual practice of genocide was for long obscured by empty cliches and more or less sincere expressions of grief. Both nations have still not fully worked out what led them to turn against part of their own population, and this failure cannot but have ramifications for more recent outbreaks of xenophobia and struggles over definitions of national identity. It is not that one can face up to the present only by forgetting the past, but rather that as long as one does not face up to the past it will keep happening in the present. Yet both Germans and French have long refused to acknowledge that what made those “somber years” unique in their respective national histories was above all the genocide of the Jews. France’s ambiguous past has made this process all the more difficult, since it straddles the boundary between complicity in murder, resistance to Nazism, and helpless victim-hood. This ambivalence has enabled “negationism” and “revisionism” to gain some intellectual respectability in France. For the Holocaust remains an obstacle to the perception of France as charged with a “civilizing mission” and is thus an object of (possibly often unconscious) resentment. Hence the bizarre argument that the genocide of the Jews diverts attention from “human” suffering and victimhood, which now seems to have replaced the previous focus on the martyrdom of the “truly” French political resisters.

This is not to deny that an obsessive preoccupation with remembering can obscure both the realities of the past and the problems of the present. Rousso and Conan are quite right to argue that France will internalize an awareness of its own role in genocide, not through public scandals but by careful and responsible research, study, and teaching. As long as the past remains a dark secret, it will keep haunting the present. The assertion of the German “revisionists” in the 1980s that the burden of the past made it impossible for Germany to forge a new national identity was ultimately answered with an increased effort by younger German scholars to learn about Nazism and the Holocaust rather than to put it aside. So, too, in France a growing recent effort to excavate the troubled years of the Occupation will eventually enable it to forge for itself a national identity rooted in knowledge and understanding, not in empty rhetoric and recriminations.

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