Part II: The Experience of Others
Chapter Seven: Concentration Camp Literature
When the time came for me to draw a parallel between my own experience and that of others, as they described it, I found myself in a state of mind which the reader will easily understand.
While we were in the camp, all of our conversations during rare moments of respite, were centered around three things: when the war was likely to end and our individual or collective chances of surviving to see that end, the food that we were going to eat after we were freed, and what might be called camp “gossip,” although the word “gossip” seems inappropriate in view of the tragic reality of camp life. None of these topics offered much possibility for escaping from the actual situation of the moment. All three, on the other hand, separately or collectively, depending on the amount of time that we had to discuss them, brought us right back to the present with the use of a phrase like, “When we tell them about that…” said with such a tone and such a sinister look that it frightened me. Recognizing that I was powerless to do anything about these pangs of conscience, given the atmosphere of the place, I retired within myself and became an obstinately silent witness.
Instinctively I recalled the aftermath of the First World War: the veterans, their stories and all of their writings. There was no doubt in my mind that the coming post-war period would have, in addition, veteran prisoners and deportees who would go back to their homes with even more horrible memories than those of veteran soldiers. But, instead of merely telling their stories, the way seemed to be open for these veterans to vent their feelings in a spirit of hatred and vengeance. To the extent that I was able to distinguish my personal lot in the great drama that was being played, all the Montagues, all the Capulets, all the Armagnacs, and all the Burgundians of history, taking up all their quarrels from the beginning, began to dance, before my eyes in a frenzied saraband, on a stage enlarged to the size of Europe. I could not convince myself that the spirit of hatred, being kindled before my eyes, would be harnessed no matter how the conflict came out.
When I tried to envision the consequences of this smoldering hatred and when I remembered that I had a son, I had to ask myself whether it would not be better if no one returned. And, I even hoped that the higher authorities of the Third Reich would realize in time that they could only be pardoned by offering, in a gigantic and frightful holocaust, all that remained of the inmates in the camps, as a redemption for so much evil. In that state of mind, I had decided that if I ever got back from the camps, that I would practice what I preached, and I swore never to make the slightest reference to my experience in the camps.
For what seemed to me to be a very long time after my return to France, I stuck to my decision; but it was not easy to do.
First, I had to struggle against a natural inclination to want to tell my story. For example, I shall never forget a demonstration that in the very first days, the deportees had arranged at Belfort to mark their return. The whole town had gathered itself together to listen to their message. The great hall of the Maison du Peuple was full to bursting. Outside the square was thronged with people. Loud-speakers even had to be set up out in the street. My health did not permit me to be present at this demonstration, either as a speaker or listener, and I was very disappointed. But, my disappointment was even greater the next day when the local papers reported all that had been said; it was impossible to discern any statement of objectivity. My apprehensions about the hate-filled and distorted stories of the camp veterans had been confirmed. The crowd, however, was not fooled; never again could the same mass of people be gathered together for such a purpose.
I had also to struggle against others. Wherever I went, over a glass of wine or a cup of tea, there was always a distinguished parrot in the grip of emotion, who was discussing the deportation, or a well-wishing friend who thought he was doing me a favor by drawing attention to me by turning the conversation to the subject: “Is it true that?” “Do you think …?” “What do you think of the book by …?” All these questions irritated me. When they were not inspired by a perverse curiosity, they betrayed an uncertainty and a need to be reassured. Systematically I cut the talk short, a practice which sometimes provoked severe criticism.
I resented such criticism, and I blamed it upon my fellow deportees and their never ending publication of their stories, often imaginary, in which they gave themselves the airs of saints, heroes, or martyrs. As their writings collected on my desk like so many entreaties, I was sure that the time was coming when I would be forced to abandon my reserve and to relate my memories of my experiences as a deportee. Hence, I was not surprised when more than once I thought that the saying, attributed to Riera, that after every war all of the veterans should be killed without pity, was more than just a clever remark.
Then one day I realized that a false picture of the German camps had been created and that the problem of the concentration camps was a universal one, not just one that could be disposed of by placing it on the doorstep of the National Socialists. The deportees — many of whom were Communists — had been largely responsible for leading international political thinking to such an erroneous conclusion. I suddenly felt that by remaining silent I was an accomplice to a dangerous influence. And, at one sitting, without paying attention to literary style and in as simple as possible a form, I wrote my Le Passage de la ligne in an attempt to put things into proper perspective and in an attempt to bring people back to a sense of objectivity and, at the same time, to a better conception of intellectual honesty.
Next, the idea occurred to me that future discussions about the problem of concentration camps would benefit by starting with a general reconsideration of those things that were attributed to the German camps, drawn from the mass of testimonies that former prisoners have brought forth. As a consequence, I have gathered together the first elements of this reconsideration. This is the explanation and the justification for the Regard sur la Litterature concentrationaire (Survey of concentration camp literature) which is found in Chapters Eight through Eleven.
The experience of the ex-service men, still so fresh from the 1914 war, offers another parallel which I believe to be pertinent. They came back with a great desire for peace, swearing by all the saints that they would do everything possible to achieve it: that this was the “war to end all wars.” They were shown gratitude, appreciation and a certain admiration. With joy, hope, and enthusiasm, the whole French nation received them with affection and confidence.
On the eve of the 1939 war, however, their opinions were very much questioned. Their experiences and the lessons from them were fully commented on in various ways, and the best that one can say is that public opinion was not kind to them. It sneered at their public statements, saying that they were in their dotage — that was the word used — and that their memories crowded into every conversation. The Ieaders of the national veteran associations, whose mission seemed to be limited to demands for fatter pensions were also criticized. Concerning the writings of the veterans, public opinion was just as categorical, and there was only one testimonial that it would acknowledge: Le Feu by Barbusse. When, in rare moments of good will, public opinion made an exception, it was for Galtier-Boissiere and for Dorgeles, but on other grounds: for the mocking obdurate pacifism of the one, and what it thought was the realism of the other.
Who can say what the real reasons were for this reversal of opinion? As I see it, the reasons all belong within the framework of this general truth: men are much more preoccupied with the future that they face than they are with the past from which there is nothing more to be gained. Consequently it is impossible to center people’s lives around any event, no matter how extraordinary, especially a war, a phenomenon which tends to become commonplace and whose particular characteristics very rapidly become obsolete.
On the eve of 1914, my grandfather, who had not yet digested the war of 1870, used to talk about it interminably to my father, who yawned with boredom. On the eve of 1939, my father had not yet finished telling about his war, and, every time that he brought it up, I could not help thinking that Du Guesclin, rising up among us, full of pride in his deeds with his cross-bow, could hardly have been more ridiculous.
Thus are generations opposed to each other in their ideas. They are also opposed in their interests. Between the two wars, the rising generations had the feeling that it was impossible for them to make any attempt to realize their own destiny without coming up against the ex-service men, their pretensions, and their preferential rights. They had been given “rights over us.” And they took advantage of it and kept pressing for more. But, there are rights which even the fact of having suffered through a long war and having won it, do not confer, particularly that of being the only ones fit to construct a peace, or, more modestly, the right to positions regardless of merit, whether they be in a tobacconist’s shop, in a rural police station, or in a teaching post.
The divorce between the public and the veterans took place during the economic crisis of the Thirties. The rift was aggravated, about 1935, when the veterans forgot about the vows that they had made on their return from the battlefield and so easily accepted the possibility of another war, and when, at the same time, the public sentiment was for peace. It is another law of historical evolution that the young generations are pacifist, that through them, over the centuries, humanity progressively becomes firmer in its search for universal peace, and that war is always, in a certain measure, the rancor of old age.
In any case, there is one thing due the ex-service men of that war as well as of the last one: they told about their wars as they were. Almost every word, to read them or to listen to them, rings profoundly true, or, at least convincing. But this cannot be said of the deportees.
The deportees came back with hatred and resentment on their tongues and in their pens. They were not tired of war; rather they had an axe to grind and they demanded vengeance. Moreover, since they suffered from an inferiority complex — there were only some 30.000 of them out of a population of 40 million inhabitants — they wantonly created a story of horror for a public that always clamored for something more sensational in order the more surely to inspire pity and recognition.
The inflammatory fabrications of one deportee soon inspired similar stories by others, and they progressively were caught on a treadmill of lies. Although some deportees were duped by others in this process, most of them managed quite consciously to blacken the picture even more in their zeal to hold the limelight. So it was with Ulysses who, during the course of his voyage, each day added a new adventure to his Odyssey, as much to please the public taste of the times as to justify his long absence in the eyes of his family. But, if Ulysses succeeded in creating his own legend and in fixing the attention of twenty-five centuries of history on it, it is no exaggeration to say that the deportees failed to do so.
Everything was fine for the deportees during the very first days of the Liberation. One could not, without risk of being branded a “collaborator” question what they had to say, even if one would have felt like it. But slowly, the truth took its revenge. With the passage of time, with a return to freedom of speech, and with conditions more and more normal, it burst forth into the light. For example, one could write, sure of expressing the common uneasiness and of not being incorrect, that “Travelers from afar can lie with impunity… I have read many accounts by the deportees and always I felt the reserve, or the pressure. Even David Rousset, at moments, misleads us; he explains too much.” (From a letter by Abbe Marius Perrin published in Le Pays Roannais, 27 October 1949), or that “La derniere etape is an imbecilic film that amounts to nothing.” (From a letter by Robert Pernot published in Paroles francaises. 27 November 1949.)
It was fifteen years before the military veteran of World War Two lost prestige in the eyes of the public; it took less than four years for the deportees. Except for that difference, their political destiny was the same. Such is the importance of truth in history.
I would like to cite a personal story which is typical in that it shows the relative worth which one must accord to all accounts in general.
The scene takes place in a law court, in the fall of 1945. A woman is seated on the defendant’s bench. The Resistance, which suspected her of collaboration, had not succeeded in killing her before the arrival of the Americans. Her husband, however, fell in a burst of machine gun fire, at the corner of a dark street one night in the winter of 1945. I never learned what the couple actually did, although I had heard, before my own arrest, the most improbable tales. In order to get to the bottom of it, I went to the hearing.
There is not much in her record. The witnesses are the more numerous and the more merciless. The principal one among them is a deportee, a former group leader of the local Resistance — so he says! The judges are plainly embarrassed by the accusations whose substance seems to them to be very questionable.
The principal witness arrives. He explains that members of his group had been informed against to the Germans and that it could on}y have been by the accused and her husband who lived in their circle and knew their activities. He adds that he himself has seen the accused in friendly, possibly amatory, conversation with an officer of the Kommandantur, who lived over a court behind his parents' shop; that they exchanged papers, etc. The defense attorney then begins his cross-examination:
Attorney: “You used to go to this shop then?”
Witness: “Yes, just to keep track of this business.”
Attorney: “Can you describe the shop?”
(The witness describes the counter, the shelves, the window at the back, gives the approximate dimensions, etc …)
Attorney: “It was through the window at the back which looks out on the court that you saw the accused and the officer exchange papers?”
Attorney: “Then, you can describe just where they were when you saw them, and where you were in the shop?”
Witness: “The two of them were at the foot of a stairway which led to the officer’s room, the accused with her elbows on the railing, and the other one very near her …”
Attorney: “That’s enough. (Turning to the court and holding a paper) Your Honor, there is no spot from which the stairway in question can be seen: here is a floor plan of the place drawn up by a draftsman.”
(The Chief Judge examines the document, passes it to his colleagues, and admits the evidence.)
Chief Judge: “Do you adhere to your statement?”
Witness: “Well, that is … It wasn’t I who saw … It was one of my agents who gave me the report at my request … “
Chief Judge: “You may step down.”
The rest of the affair has no importance at all, since the witness was not arrested on the spot for perjury and since the accused, having admitted that she had attended some courses at the Franco-German Institute, which, as she said, brought about a certain number of friendly relationships between herself and certain officers of the Kommandatur, was in the end sentenced to a term in prison for a number of things in which she was only implicated.
Even if the witness had been cross-examined further, such questioning would probably have revealed that the agent he claimed to have sent to make a report was non-existent and that his statement consisted of nothing but those “they says” which poison the atmosphere in those small towns where everybody knows everyone else.
It is not my intention to compare all of the writings that have appeared on the German concentration camps to this experience. My only object is to show that some were no better, even among those which were most popular. And that, aside from good or bad faith, there are so many imponderables which influence the witness that, one must always distrust History as it is told, especially when it is still warm.
Les jours de notre Mort, which established the prodigious talent of David Rousset, and which is discussed further in Chapter Ten, is, for example, a collection of the “they says” which ran through all of the camps and which could never be verified. It is upon this kind of questionable testimony that the author has culled the facts upon which he bases his particular interpretation. In this present work, which is concerned with truth and not with virtuosity, no extracts from it will be found.
In 1950, I put the witnesses who had testified as to their experiences in the concentration camps into three categories: first, those who were not intellectually able to be careful witnesses, or accurate observers, and whom I called, without any pejorative intention, minor witnesses, second, the psychologists, victims of a bias, to my mind a little too subjective; and, third, the sociologists, or those claiming to be. I had found no historians, at least none worthy of the name.
On guard, so as not to fall into the error for which I was blaming others of talking about things a little too removed from my own experience, I deliberately gave up presenting a complete list of concentration camp literature of the time. Moreover, the number of witnesses was necessarily limited in each of the above-mentioned categories so as to keep this study in a manageable form: three minor witnesses (Abbe Robert Ploton; Frere Birin of the Ecoles chretiennes d'Epernay; and Abbe Jean-Paul Renard); a psychologist (David Rousset); and a sociologist (Eugen Kogon). In addition, there is a witness who defies classification: Louis Marti-Chauffier. With the exception of one of them, their experiences had to do with the same camps where I had been imprisoned.
Since 1950, sustained and encouraged by the political policies which underpin the so-called “cold-war,” concentration literature, which in turn supports those policies, has only grown and blossomed. For example it is no secret that there are certain features of the foreign policy of the United States which are expressly designed to prevent any serious breakdown of relations with the Soviet Union; the contrived danger of a re-birth of Naziism and Fascism in Europe is one of them. Both Stalin and Truman fully exploited this myth, the former to keep Europe from achieving economic and political unity and from integrating Germany into such a European community, and the latter to justify in part the huge cost of maintaining an army of occupation in Germany. And, Khrushchev continues to play the same game that Stalin played with Truman, with Kennedy … but, with a little less luck?
About 1950, the idea was revived among many Europeans that Europe as — a political entity — did exist. Formerly brought about by the haunting memory of the Franco-German wars, this pan-Europeanism was this time provoked by another obsession with two complementary aspects: on the one hand, the near certainty that, divided against itself, Europe was an easy prey for Communism; on the other hand, that no United Europe was possible without the integration of Germany. In Moscow and in Tel-Aviv, it was felt, from the first breath of this revival of pan-Europeanism that if it grew into a tempest, it could not fail to end in a united Europe, which would mean the political isolation of Russia and the end of the so-called reparation payments paid out by Germany to Israel. The counter-attack was not long in coming: two attacks, as remarkably synchronized as if they had been planned together ahead of time, were spear-headed by two propaganda organizations, the one with the title Comite pour la recherche des crimes et des criminels de guerre, located at Warsaw, and the other called the World Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, whose two most important branches are in TelAviv and in Paris. The target was Germany. The theme was that the horrors and atrocities that had been committed during the Second World War by the Nazis were a natural vocation of Germany. Therefore, in order to prevent a re-emergence of this horrible propensity, the Germans had to be kept under severe control and very carefully segregated. The first result of this policy of defamation was, so far as I know, the publication of Documentation sur l'extermination par les gaz (1950) by Helmut Krausnik; the second, was Medecin a Auschwitz (1951) by a certain Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew who was deported to that camp in May 1944, and the third was Le Breviaire de la Haine (1951) by Leon Poliakov. Since then the deluge has not stopped: every time that the least sign of rapprochement between Germany and the other European countries is seen (e.g., CECA., Common Market, Franco-German Treaty, etc …) we get with the stamp of the Warsaw Committee or of an important member of the World Center for Jewish Documentation, or again, of the Munich Institut fur Zeitgeschichte, which is associated with the two, a study that each time amounts to an accusation more terrible than the last one. And, each time the world press supports the defamation with a spectacular publicity campaign. Thus have three publications appeared one after the other: Le Troisieme Reich et les Juifs (1953) by Leon Poliakov and Josef Wulf, I'Histoire de Joel Brand,un echange de 10,000 camions contre un million de juifs (1955); and Le Lagerkommandant d'Auschwitz parle, Memoires de Rudolf Höss (1958). These volumes are among the best known; to cite them all, just a list without commentary would require an entire book. Recently, an anthology of this literature was compiled by a Comite d'etude de la seconde guerre mondiale, whose head office is in Paris and among whose directors are a woman by the name of Olga Wurmser of the World Center of Jewish Documentation, and a renowned unknown, who can put his hand to anything, by the name of Henri Michel. It contains excerpts from 208 author-witnesses, and I can add that it cites only those authors who strictly followed the Zionist and Communist lines because on the shelves of my library there are almost as many books which are not cited, although they are often just as accusatory, often more intelligently, and although they often have the same lack of respect for historical truth. Naturally, I was not included in this anthology which is entitled La Tragedie de la Deportation (1962). What makes one despair is that there are historians who are intellectually dishonest enough to support these works with their authority: Labrousse and Renouvin in France, and Rothfels in Germany arnong others … From the United States has come Raul Hilberg, whose book, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), is surely the most important of all the works that have been published on the question and the one that has best succeeded in giving the appearance — the appearance only — of being a serious and objective study. Because of its importance, I have devoted the third section of this work to an examination of The Destruction of the European Jews, as well as other historical studies. Finally, to be thorough one should also cite the films, whose purpose is to condition public opinion, that have been taken from this literature: La Derniere Etape, Kapo, the Nuremberg Documents, etc.…
The reader may be tempted to place this survey of the concentration camp drama, with regard to its over-all tragic consequences alone, on the human plane, and perhaps to find that I included too much detail. If I point out that the deportation trains from France to Germany carried a hundred persons per car in cars that were intended to hold forty at a maximum, and not a hundred and twenty-five as some have claimed, it will be observed that the fact scarely mitigates the conditions of the trip. If I point out that a camp bore the name Belsen-Bergen and not Bergen-Belsen, that fact certainly does not alter the lot of those who were interned there. If I claim that the word Kapo is derived from the first letters of the German phrase Konzentrationslager Arbeitpolizei, instead of coming from the Italian Il Capo, that fact does not excuse the brutalities that were committed by the prisoner police. And, the bad working conditions, the hunger, the tortures, etc.…, whether they took place in one camp or in another, whether the one reporting them saw them or not, whether they were the acts of the S.S. themselves or carried out by the prisoner trustees whom they chose at random from among the inmates, were still inhuman and brutal treatment.
I would like to make the observation, in my turn, that a whole is composed of details, and that an error of detail, whether made in good or bad faith, regardless of whether it is of a kind that is intended to mislead the observer, must logically make the observer doubt the reliability of the whole; and if there are many errors in detail …? And if they are almost all shown to be made in bad faith …?
I shall make myself better understood by referring to a news item that filled all of the papers a few years ago. Just before the outbreak of the 1939 war, a foreign student, taking advantage of a momentary distraction on the part of the guards, stole a painting by Watteau called l'Indifferent from the Louvre. A few days later the painting was recovered, but the student, in the meantime, had made a slight modification to it: disturbed by that hand raised in a gesture which all of the experts said was something that had been left untinished by the artist, the student had rested it on a cane that he had added. This cane did nothing to change the figure. On the contrary it harmonized marvelously with the pose. But, it emphasized the figure’s indifference, and noticeably changed the interpretation one could place on his reasons for it and his purposes. Moreover, one could argue that quite another interpretation could have been made if, instead of the cane, a pair of gloves had been put into the figure’s hand, or if a bouquet of fowers had negligently been dropped from it. In spite of the fact that no one could swear that Watteau had not intended that the cane be included in the picture, the cane was effaced and the painting was put back in its place. If the curators had let the cane remain no one would have noticed anything amiss either in the painting itself or in the general appearance of the painting galleries of the Louvre. But, if, instead of confining himself to correcting l'Indifferent, our student had taken it into his head to eliminate all of the enigmas of all of the other paintings, if he had put a velvet mask over the smile of the Joconde, rattles in all the outstretched hands of the little Jesuses Iying astonished on the knees and in the arms of spell-bound Virgins, spectacles on Erasmus; and if all that had been allowed to remain, one can imagine how all of those little changes would have changed the general appearance of the entire Louvre collection!
The errors that can be found in the testimonies of the deportees are of the same kind as the cane of l 'Indifferent, without modifying noticeably the picture of the camps, they have falsified the sense of History. Moreover, by taking these errors collectively, the viewer is confronted with a distorted picture of a similar magnitude as if he had gone through the Louvre’s collection of paintings, after they had been thoroughly corrected.
The same will hold true for the reader if he will reserve his judgment, both on the secondary works and the documents which I indict and on the conclusions which certain historians who are obviously in the service of a cause, have drawn from them, and if he will ask himself apart from all other considerations whether these documents and interpretations could be upheld in their entirety before a properly constituted court of law, that is, one that is not a kangaroo court like the Nuremberg Tribunal!(1)
- [This view is not unique to Paul Rassinier. For example, William O. Douglas, former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, observed that he “… thought at the time and still think[sl that the Nuremberg trials were unprincipled. Law was created ex post facto to suit the passion and clamor of the time …. “ For additional strong “anti-Nuremberg” views by numerous notables who were in the highest echelons of the Allied governments during World War Two, see, H. K. Thompson, Jr. and Henry Strutz, eds., Dönitz at Nuremberg: A Re-appraisal (New York: Amber Publishing, 1976).]