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From Hirohito to Heimat

La Mémoire vaine: du crime contre l’humanité

by Alain Finkielkraut
Gallimard, 125 pp., fr62 (paper)

Hotel Terminus

a film by Marcel Ophuls

From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film

by Anton Kaes
Harvard University Press, 273 pp., $25.00

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: Growing Up German

by Sabine Reichel
Hill and Wang, 214 pp., $17.95

The Other Nuremberg: The Untold Story of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials

by Arnold C. Brackman
Morrow, 432 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Hirohito: Behind the Myth

by Edward Behr
Villard, 486 pp., $22.50


The sight of Rabbi Avraham Weiss from New York screaming at Polish nuns who turned an old warehouse outside the main Auschwitz camp into a Carmelite convent would have made my upper-middle-class Jewish grandparents wince: the kind of man who gives Jews a bad name, they would have said. And I am afraid they might have been right. The fanatical demeanor of the rabbi and his six fellow Americans was not made more edifying by the even worse spectacle of Polish workers spraying the protesters with cold water and tearing off their skull caps.

Rabbi Weiss sees the Carmelites as intruders in a place that has a unique significance as a symbol of Jewish suffering. The Christian cross is regarded as an affront to the memory of the Holocaust. European Jewish leaders and four cardinals took a less strident view when they signed an agreement in 1987 to build a new ecumenical center farther away from the camp. The center, though delayed, is now likely to be built, but in the meantime Weiss and some highly insensitive Polish prelates turned the affair into an unseemly battle over the symbols of martyrdom, degrading the memory of all those who died at Auschwitz, whether Jewish or gentile.

I thought of Rabbi Weiss when I read what Edgar Reitz, the German director of the haunting but questionable film Heimat, said some time ago about the TV serial Holocaust: “The Americans have stolen our history through Holocaust,” because films in the style of Holocaust prevent Germans from “taking narrative possession of our past, from breaking free from the world of judgments.”

This, in turn, reminded me of some revisionist ideas about the war, eagerly discussed these days in serious Japanese journals. The target of Japanese revisionism is what is called “the Tokyo trials view of history,” by which is meant a biased view, implanted in Japanese minds by foreign (American) propaganda, designed to justify “victor’s justice” and American domination over Japanese affairs.

I do not mean to imply political or moral parity between Weiss, Reitz, and Japanese revisionists. Weiss claims to speak for the victims of a terrible crime, for which there can be no excuse, whereas Reitz and the Japanese, while not necessarily excusing these crimes, want foreigners to keep their grubby judgmental hands off the history of their own people, the very people, that is, who committed or countenanced most of the crimes. What the rabbi, the German artist, and the Japanese revisionists have in common is certainly not politics: Reitz sees the world through a leftist, or at least Green-tinted, viewfinder, while many Japanese revisionists tend to look at things from the right. The rabbi has said he is a supporter of Gush Emunim in Israel. What all of the above have in common, however, is an exclusive idea of history, often symbolic, mythical, and seen as an indispensable compass for the continuing search for identity—racial, cultural, religious, or national, whatever the case may be.

That this struggling over symbols is going on now is easy to explain: gradually but steadily memory turns into history, and, perhaps inevitably, history often turns into myth. Revisionism becomes respectable as historical taboos break down and time dissolves feelings of guilt and shame. To feel German or Japanese without guilt is the professed goal of an increasing number of vociferous politicians and writers. This often means reviving cultural symbols that have been tainted by the past. One can argue that it is a good thing that historical questions long deemed too painful to discuss are getting a proper airing. And permanent guilt is not a healthy state for anyone to be in, but this should never mean that past evils be, as the Japanese say, washed away with water.

Historians, wrote the famous Dutch scholar Pieter Geyl, are the guardians of mankind’s collective memory, but—and here comes the rub—

It must be admitted that they often use (or abuse) their guardianship to help in creating the legends which substitute themselves for the reality, and many are the great writers of history whose immediate influence on their contemporaries and on the world’s affairs has been due, more than to anything else, to the legendary or mythical features in the presentation of their subjects.1

If this is true of historians, then what about that far more potent memory bank of our times: the movies, TV dramas, even novels? How do we make sure that the transition from memory to history takes place reasonably, wisely, and with the minimum of distortion, so that Primo Levi’s nightmare at Auschwitz, of “speaking and not being listened to, of finding liberty and remaining alone,” does not come true? Is it still possible to protect the past from becoming simply another soap opera, trivial, trite, and in the end, forgotten?

Alain Finkielkraut, as befits a French intellectual who became disillusioned with the dream of 1968 (“L’imagination au pouvoir,” and all that), is pessimistic. In his fascinating essay on the trial of Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo chief in Lyons, he meditates on the value of war crimes trials, on the political lessons we have learned or, more often in his view, not learned from the past, and on the nature of modern history: how our image-hungry age turns the past into a fairy tale. Memory, as the title of his book suggests, is vain; Levi’s nightmare, in Finkielkraut’s view, is coming true.

Memory, or rather the suppression and distortion of memory, is one of the main themes of Marcel Ophuls’s recent rich and deeply disturbing documentary about Klaus Barbie, Hotel Terminus. It was all so long ago, say many of his German witnesses, why can’t we let bygones be bygones? A common way to deal with an uneasy conscience is to say that only Jews refuse to forget the past, because they are vengeful or, as a French journalist interviewed by Ophuls said about the Klarsfelds, the French couple who tracked Barbie down, they are paid good money by the Israeli secret service. “There is a segment of the Jews,” a Croatian who had been involved in letting Nazis escape to South America, told Ophuls, “who will never stop…using their considerable riches…to fabricate crimes.” Help offered by Catholic priests to Nazi fugitives, said this same man, was perfectly natural in the struggle against communism: “No questions asked.” But perhaps the most chilling statement in the entire film comes from Barbie himself, made in Spanish, after his arrest: “I have forgotten everything. If they haven’t, that’s their problem.” Primo Levi’s problem, in other words.

About the legitimacy and importance of the Barbie trial itself, Finkielkraut has no doubts. He argues that precisely because Barbie was only a relatively minor functionary in the Nazi service public criminel, the trial was a valuable demonstration of how every man, no matter how faceless of insignificant, must be held responsible for following criminal orders. That Barbie could be tried only in France, by an exclusively French court, for crimes committed against humanity, Finkielkraut holds to be a catastrophe. For this shows how hopelessly ineffective the legacy of the Nuremberg trials has been. Even though there is general agreement, ratified by the United Nations, that crimes against humanity—persecution of people purely on the grounds of race or religion—are against international law, there is no international tribunal to hold those who have committed such crimes accountable for them. The Nuremberg trials have remained unique.

The reason for this is a dilemma the Nuremberg trials themselves never resolved: how to reconcile universal laws with the concept of sovereignty. Can the leaders of a nation be prosecuted for acts that according to their own laws are perfectly legal? The Nuremberg judges thought not, and so the Nazi leaders were tried only for crimes against humanity committed during World War II, and not before. The Kristallnacht, for example, was not within the court’s jurisdiction. Nor, obviously, was the murder of millions of kulaks in the country from which the Soviet judges came. And if the Nazis could not be prosecuted for what happened in Germany before the war, what then can be done about the atrocities in Cambodia, or Iraq, or wherever else man devours man because he is the Other?

Realpolitik, as recent statements by Henry Kissinger on China have again made clear, rules the relationship between sovereign nations, not universal laws of man. This is true of domestic politics as well, for as Argentinians, Uruguayans, Spaniards, and, indeed, Germans found out, you cannot prosecute every butcher of the ancien régime without destroying the social cohesion necessary for building a more democratic society. But largely ignoring the crimes of the butchers for the sake of national unity, as De Gaulle and Adenauer did, is no solution either, for they will come back to haunt future generations like malevolent ghosts.

Finkielkraut’s bête noire is not so much the Butcher of Lyons himself as his lawyer, the half-Vietnamese Jacques Vergès. Maître Vergès, a beautifully spoken man with a taste for fine Havanas, might strike some people as reasonable: his basic line is that Frenchmen have no right to judge Barbie for doing exactly what French policemen did in Algeria, indeed what white imperialists did or do everywhere in the third world, including Americans in Vietnam and Jews in Israel: torturing and terrorizing the brown and yellow masses into submission.

Vergès is a man of the extreme left, a former member of the Communist party, whose clients included members of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the FLN. Yet precisely the same arguments are used today by right-wing Japanese revisionists to justify Japan’s war in Asia. It was a war of liberation, they say, following wartime propaganda, liberation of the Asian peoples from the Western colonial yoke. And however regrettable some Japanese excesses may have been, they were no worse than what Western imperialists did in their conquest of Asia.

Finkielkraut demonstrates, I think convincingly, that Vergès’s strategy of turning the trial of a German Nazi into an indictment of Western imperialism and Zionism leads to the very kind of mythical distortion that justifies further atrocities, if not committed by Vergès himself, then at any rate by some of the people whose causes he helps to promote. Their views can be gleaned from such publications as Algerie Actualité, which refers to the prosecution of Barbie as

a move by the Zionists, doubtless a conspiracy of the protocol of the Elders of Zion…. The holocaust is the flame of the Jewish Olympus kept alight through the media by a financial superpower.

Vergès’s rhetoric at the Lyons trial was a distortion of history. For French policemen in Algeria or Israeli soldiers on the West Bank or GIs in Vietnam, no matter how cruel or misguided, were not guilty of the same crime as the Nazis. There was and is no question of a Final Solution in Algeria, Israel, or Vietnam. To equate the systematic liquidation of all European Jews with Western (including Israeli) brutality against the people of the third world is not just to twist history. Worse than that, it turns all those who are deemed to stand in the way of progress, justice (not law), and peace in the third world into crypto-Nazis. Botha, Begin, Lyndon B. Johnson, all have had the inevitable swastika daubed on their images. The next step is to excuse the most horrible violence committed in the name of progress, justice, and peace—eggs must be broken for omelets, terror for the sake of liberation is not really terror at all, and so on, until we arrive at our promised millennium, where history’s destiny has taken its course and man lives in eternal harmony.

  1. 1

    Debates with Historians (Meridian Books, 1958), p. 265.

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