April 26, 2018


The Grand Theorist of Holocaust Denial, Robert Faurisson: A court decision in France finally ends one of the most dispiriting controversies in modern intellectual history. Or does it? (Paul Berman, April 25, 2018, The Tablet)

On April 12, just now, Robert Faurisson suffered one more minor legal defeat in a French court, which is good news, in a small way, for the world, and, in a bigger way, for the newspaper Le Monde. The court ruling means that, in France, you can denounce Faurisson as a "professional liar" and a "falsifier of history." And you do not have to worry about a defamation suit--which is good news for Le Monde because, back in 1978, the editors made the insane error of judging Faurisson to be a man-with-an-idea-worth-debating, and they welcomed him into their pages. Faurisson is of course the theoretician of Holocaust denial. He contributed to Le Monde an "ideas" piece titled "The Debate Over the 'Gas Chambers,' " with the extra quotation marks signifying his belief that Nazi gas chambers are a Zionist lie. And Le Monde has needed, ever since, to make the point over and again that publishing his article was a big mistake, and Faurisson is, in fact, a professional liar and a falsifier of history. The judicial ruling reinforces the point yet again. It is good. We should applaud. But it is sobering to reflect that, 40 years later, the point does need reinforcement, and Faurisson, who is a minor screwball, has had major successes in different corners of the world. And falsification of history turns out to be a factor in history.

The provenance of Faurisson's ideas is altogether curious. He derived them principally from a sad-sack leftwing pacifist in France named Paul Rassinier, whose misfortune during World War II was to be arrested and tortured by the Germans, which permanently ruined his health. He was jailed in two camps, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora, where conditions were bad. He was beaten by the SS. When he emerged, though, he explained and re-explained at book length that, even if conditions in the camps were less than good, neither were they especially terrible, and Germany's conduct during the war was no worse than any other country's. Germany ought not to be demonized. And the truly evil people in the camps were the Communist prisoners. And the Jews were responsible for the war. [...]

Then again, Faurisson's successes came on the ultraleft, chiefly in France. A group of well-known veterans of the 1968 uprising in Paris, the Vieille Taupe or "Old Mole" group, led by someone named Pierre Guillaume, began to see in Faurisson's writings a tool for advancing the anti-imperialist cause (on the grounds that Western imperialism was the largest crime of the 20th century, but its criminality has been concealed under a cloud of accusations about the crimes of Nazism--which means that, if Nazi behavior can be shown to have been no worse than anybody else's, the scale of the imperialist crime can at last stand fully revealed). Guillaume ran a small publishing house, which he dedicated to bringing out Holocaust-denial literature, beginning with Rassinier's writings (which, in English, are best-known under the title Debunking the Genocide Myth: A Study of the Nazi Concentration Camps and the Alleged Extermination of European Jewry). And he published the dossier of the Faurisson affair that I have just quoted, together with Faurisson himself and still other authors on similar themes in a more classically Nazi vein. Faurisson's struggle was not a lonely one, then. Nor is it lonely today. In France and the United States both, he has enjoyed a small but fervent institutional backing.

But mostly his success came about among mainstream journalists and intellectuals--among people who were prompted to adopt their positions by the Old Moles, but knew how to avoid the shrill tone of the marginal ultraleft. Faurisson's triumph in persuading Le Monde to publish "The Debate Over the 'Gas Chambers' " marked the sensational high-point of this particular success. But the deeper success was to attract a number of well-known intellectuals and to convince those people to treat him as one of their own--as a thoughtful man, scientifically inclined, brave, and capable of seeing through the bigotries of the age. One of those well-known intellectuals was a scholar of Third World matters named Serge Thion, who was a specialist on Cambodia (with a subspecialty in arguing that Cambodia did not undergo a genocide under the Khmer Rouge). It was Serge Thion who edited the dossier of the Faurisson affair for Pierre Guillaume's publishing house. And, in Paris in 1979, at a conference on Cambodia, Thion succeeded in recruiting Noam Chomsky, who in those days was more than well-known--was, indeed, already a world figure. Chomsky struck up an alliance with Guillaume, as well. And he made a number of interventions into the affair, oddly and insistently sympathetic to Faurisson--which meant that Faurisson, the minor screwball, found himself, at last, standing at the absolute center of intellectual debate in France and in various countries around the world, reviled by some, admired by others, with the debate revolving not only around himself but also around his celebrated American champion, Chomsky, the genius.

Chomsky has always maintained that, in intervening into the Faurisson affair, he took an abstract position for free speech, and nothing more, and he did not bother much with the affair. Chomsky's defenders and biographers in print and film have repeated the claim, too, which means that probably a great majority of the people who know anything at all about the affair can only think of Chomsky's insistence as fact. And it is true that Chomsky spoke up for free speech. But the free-speech argument never attracted much attention, even if he has liked to pretend otherwise. What attracted attention was Chomsky's oddly respectful tone toward Faurisson. He left the clear implication that Faurisson is a scientific-minded researcher, with conclusions or findings that ought to be accorded the kind of respect that is accorded to any authentically scientific researcher. Chomsky left this impression in a petition that he signed in Faurisson's defense; and in an essay on the Faurisson affair that he composed, which ran as a preface to a book by Faurisson (though Chomsky has insisted that he never wanted his essay to run as a preface, about which there is further controversy); and in a series of responses to his critics, myself included, over several years and in several countries. And at the center of Chomsky's argument was the insistent claim that Faurisson is not, in fact, an anti-Semite.

Posted by at April 26, 2018 4:03 AM