Robert Faurisson and the Study of the Past
The history of ideas provides us with the names of those few men and women who challenged the boundaries of tolerance. Professor Robert Faurisson was one such man. Faurisson, who died last Sunday at age 89, was a French academic who didn’t believe in the validity of parts of the Holocaust narrative. He argued that gas chambers in Auschwitz were the “biggest lie of the 20th century,” and contended that deported Jews had died of disease and malnutrition. Faurisson also questioned the authenticity of the Diary of Anne Frank many years before the Swiss foundation that holds the copyright to the famous diary “alerted publishers that her father (Otto Frank) is not only the ‘editor’ but also legally the ‘co-author’ of the celebrated book” (NY Times).
In the France of the late 1960s-1970s Faurisson had reason to believe that his maverick attitude toward the past would receive a kosher pass. He was wrong. Faurisson may have failed to grasp the role of the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish politics and culture. And he did not grasp that Jewish power is literally the power to silence opposition to Jewish power.
In 1990 France made holocaust revisionism into the crime of history denial. Faurisson was repeatedly prosecuted, beaten and fined for his writings. He was dismissed from his academic post at Lyon University in 1991.
I am bothered by the question of why Jews and others attached to their politics are desperate to restrict the story of their past. This question extends far beyond the holocaust. Israel has enacted a law that bans discussion of the Nakba – the racially motivated ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people that occurred a mere three years after the liberation of Auschwitz. Similarly, exploring the role of Jews in the slave trade will cost your job or lead to your expulsion from the labour party. My attempt to analyse the true nature of the Yiddish Speaking International Brigade in the 1936 Spanish Civil War outraged some of my Jewish ‘progressive’ friends.
Jean-François Lyotard addressed this question. History may claim to relate what actually occurred, but what it does more often is operate to conceal our shame. The task of an authentic historian is, according to Lyotard, similar to that of the psychoanalyst. It is all about removing layers of shame, concealment and suppression to try to uncover the truth.
It was the work of Faurisson that helped me to define the historical endeavour in philosophical terms. I define history as the attempt to narrate the past as we move along. To deal with history for real, is to continually re-visit and revise the past in light of our cultural, social and ideological changes. For instance, the 1948 Nakba came to be thought of in terms of ethnic cleansing in the early 2000s when the notion of ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered our vocabulary (and our way of understanding a conflict) following the crisis in Kosovo. The real historian reevaluates the past and embraces adjustments that place our understanding of that past in line with our contemporaneous reality and terminology.
Professor Faurisson and the controversy around his work illuminates the distinction between real history and religion. While history is a vibrant dynamic matter subject to constant ‘revision,’ the religious approach to the past is limited to the production of a rigid unchanging chronicle of events. Authentic history invokes ethical thinking to examine the past in light of the present and vice versa, religious history often operates by denying or rejecting increasing ethical insight – it judges actions and events according to set predefined parameters. The question at stake is not what happened in the past but the freedom to research and evaluate the past without being threatened by ‘history laws.’ In the same manner I support ‘progress’ in cancer research, although I do not produce scholarly comments on related scientific findings, I support the past being continually re-examined although I offer no judgment of any kind regarding the validity of those historical findings. For history to be a valid and an ethical universal pursuit, history laws must be abolished.
In 2014 I met Robert Faurisson and discussed with him different questions about the meaning of history and what the past meant to him.