home Interview “The writing of history is only a matter of democracy”

“The writing of history is only a matter of democracy”

Annette Wieviorka is Research Director Emeritus in the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). A world- class expert in the Shoah and Jewish history, her work has been translated into several languages. Her research on the deportation and genocide of the Jewish people in France, and the role and evolution of the figure of the witness in history, are unquestionable references in memory studies. In the following pages, we talk to her about denialism and revisionism, the role of the witness today, justice, the teaching of history, and the last resolutions passed in the European Parliament, among other topics.

Cover image: Annette Wieviorka, 2012 | © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

This year, Observing Memories wished to address negationism and its evolution in the Europe of today. Despite the historical research that refutes the phenomenon, negationism persists and takes on different forms and in different countries. What keeps it alive? How can it be tackled to bring about its eradication?

I think that negationism in the narrow sense of the term – denying the existence of the gas chambers and thus the genocide of the Jews – has practically vanished from the public arena, with the disappearance of those who were its exponents, the foremost one being Robert Faurisson. Nevertheless, relativism has spread. This is palpable in the health crisis the world is undergoing. All over Europe, anti-vaxxers and anti-health pass advocates have sported yellow stars or hijacked the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei [“works sets you free”], which would appear at the entrance to certain concentration camps, such as Auschwitz I. So everyone wishes to be a victim like the Jews during the genocide. All this is very worrying, because, in the end, it is infinitely more widespread, more diffuse and more difficult to counter than negationism.

Defendant Adolf Eichmann (inside glass booth) is sentenced to death by the court at the conclusion of the Eichmann
Trial. At the left table seated with two persons, the person on the right (with white hair and headphones) is defense
counsel Robert Servatius | Israeli GPO photographer. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

The year 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, a watershed event that, as you explained, marked “the advent of the witness”, their legitimacy, their recognition and their visibility in the public space. At the beginning of this issue, historian Richard J. Evans tells us about his personal experience in the Irving v Lipstadt trial, during which he wanted to dispense with the voice of the Auschwitz witnesses to protect them and prevent the trial from turning against him, as it did in the Ernst Zündel trial in Canada. What were the consequences of negationism in the era of the witness?

One of the consequences of negationism was the outrage of survivors who had never previously wished to testify. I am thinking in particular of Anne-Lise Stern, who went on to become a psychoanalyst following her deportation and who introduced trauma issues into the analytical sphere after Auschwitz. Her writings have been collected in Le Savoir déporté. Camps, histoire, psychanalyse [Deported Knowledge. Camps, History, Psychoanalysis] (Seuil, 2013). The choice not to provide evidence through testimony in the Irving v Lipstadt trial is a smart choice. Those who survived generally do not have the necessary knowledge – or direct experience, needless to say, since they survived – to prove the existence of the gas chambers, and denial even sometimes dares to rely on this survival. What’s more, as with any witness, especially so long after the events occurred, certain aspects of their testimony may be subject to criticism. On the other hand, in France, the Barbie (1987), Touvier (1994) and Papon (1998) trials for crimes against humanity made extensive use of witnesses, not to “substantiate” the claims but to make the suffering felt. It also marks the entry of civil parties in trials that must somehow provide “reparations” for the victims. This is now not specific to Holocaust-related trials. The trial surrounding the November 2015 Paris attacks, currently taking place in Paris, is the best example of this.

In L’ère du témoin [The Era of the Witness] (Hachette, 1998), you have performed a preliminary analysis of the approach, technological evolution and expectations brought about by the collection of testimonies of the Shoah, such as those undertaken at Yale University and the Spielberg Foundation. More than twenty years on, how do you rate these major projects?

Technological aspects are indeed crucial in this realm. There is an abyss between cameras that are cumbersome and costly, just as film and its processing was, and smartphones. There is also a huge difference between the images seen every week to the news footage that preceded films and television, and what each of us has in terms of footage. The major collections – the Yale and Spielberg collections in particular – made it possible to archive tens of thousands of survivor testimonies (in the broad sense of any Jew who lived under Nazi rule). Today, these women and men are no longer with us, and their testimonies are highly valuable for historians, educators and documentarians. This type of project is used for other events, such as the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Defendant Adolf Eichmann (inside glass booth) is sentenced to death by the court at the conclusion of the Eichmann
Trial. At the left table seated with two persons, the person on the right (with white hair and headphones) is defense
counsel Robert Servatius | Israeli GPO photographer. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

In one of your books, Auschwitz Explained to My Child (1999), you explain how the questions your daughter put to you were the same ones you asked yourself, but in other terms, questions that endeavour to explain how the Jewish genocide was possible. The world of education does the vital job of passing on the history and memory of the Shoah to new generations. In your opinion, what are the biggest difficulties these new generations face and what tools can they rely on to overcome them?

In this short book published in 1999, which is still used and has been translated into some twenty languages, I gave a history lesson intended for third-year students in conversational format. My daughter Mathilde gave her input; her rereading made it possible to elucidate what teenagers found difficult to understand. I also grouped together my students’ questions (I taught for twenty years in schools and secondary schools before joining the CNRS [French National Centre for Scientific Research]). Teachers today face the same challenges – teaching history – in very different situations. The first element is obviously the passage of time. Students will no longer touch the number tattooed on the forearm of an Auschwitz survivor. Young people today have grandparents born after the Second World War, and what it was is no longer passed on in families. Taking the case of France, in particular the Paris region, many students come from non-European geographical areas that were not affected by the Second World War, or barely so. Lastly, the virtuous years, those that go from the fall of communism to the attack on the Twin Towers are behind us. In those years, the idea of a worldwide victory of democracy and human rights was widespread and the teaching of the history of the Shoah was an instrument. Since then, other subjects have come into the field of history and memory, notably slavery and colonisation, with a new lexicon (the emergence of words such as “racialised”, “decolonial”, “cancel culture” and, just recently, “woke”).

Public memory policies often create tools and spaces to help shape and strengthen civic values based on past struggles. But have these spaces fulfilled their purpose in such a digital, changing and diverse world? Should memorials be spaces for preventing democratic crises and possible rises of the extreme right?

A number of European countries are exemplary in this area. I am thinking of Germany and France in particular. Yes, memory policies have created a large number of instruments (especially commemorations) and memorials. However, in these very countries, we have witnessed the rebirth of an extreme right that sometimes aligns itself with Nazism. And above all, social networks divide society and disseminate hate speech and “fake” histories at great speed. It might be worse without public policies!

Can we “explain” to a child what remains, in part, enigmatic? How do you
get a young girl to understand today that the Nazis spent so much energy
going to the four corners of Europe and exterminating millions of men,
women and children, simply because they were Jews? | Seuil, 1999
“We knew. The world had heard about it. But so far none of us had seen it.
It’s like we’ve finally stepped inside the very folds of this evil heart.” |

Based on your experience, do you believe a genuine interaction between memory and citizenship, academia and political institutions is possible?

At least that is what is attempted in democracies. But the “goodies” aren’t on one side – that is, academics, the teaching world, political institutions –, and “baddies” – racists, anti-Semites and haters – on the other. There is a certain porosity between these stakeholders. And we have seen, with Poland and Hungary, how judicial or political institutions could topple. In Poland, our fellow historians – I am thinking of Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski in particular –, who have carried out considerable historical work on the past of their countries, have just been taken to court for one of their books. Luckily, they won their appeal. While we believed that Poland had faced its past, that it had eradicated anti-Semitism, we have seen that this was not the case. But the work undertaken cannot be completely erased.

In September 2019, the European Parliament adopted the resolution on “The importance of European historical memory for the future of Europe” (2019/2819 (RSP), a text which sparked great controversy, in particular between Western European memorial associations and academia because of the assimilation it makes between Nazism and Communism. What is your opinion on this subject?

Political resolutions, even European ones, do not intend to write history. When I vote for a member of parliament, whether French or European, or for the French President, I do not expect them to deal with history! Absolutely not! We have come up against this problem in France with memory laws. Putting Nazism and Communism on the same footing in the declaration disregards history. It is asserted that the German-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939 was the root cause of the war. This is nonsense. Any secondary school student who has studied the march to war knows that this was one of Hitler’s goals and that it stemmed from the Nazi plan for the conquest of “living space” and world dominion. Generally speaking, the writing of history is only a matter of democracy because it requires freedom and access to archives, which is generally a matter of law. Yes, it is important that organisations dedicated to history and memory, such as the Memorial in Russia, are able to work. That’s not the case today. I also notice that in certain countries with former popular democracies – I am thinking of Poland and Hungary – the denunciation of communist crimes is accompanied by anti-Semitism.

Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski | © Jacek Dominski

What is your assessment of the European Commission’s memory policies and what are the main challenges it faces?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to answer this question. I think the main challenges facing the European Commission are the maintenance of democracy in Europe, such as the independence of judicial systems, the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia and for the respect of human rights. And that memory policies are not separate to these issues.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial