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.
I have sometimes wondered if Rassinier’s impulse to deny or downplay his own experience wasn’t, in some respect, normal—a pitiable but human impulse to cope with an experience of extreme suffering by denying that anything extreme has happened. But then, if Rassinier’s impulse was normal, wouldn’t there be other examples of people responding to catastrophic suffering in the same way? It is hard to find other examples, though. The literature of the German camps, the literature of the Soviet gulag, and the 19th century American literature of “slave narratives” (by slaves who escaped to the free states and recounted their experiences)—the several literatures of horrendous suffering under extreme social conditions—do not seem to contain a place for fantasists like Rassinier.
Rassinier was a freak, then. But was he a psychological freak, or an ideological one? Elhanan Yakira, the Israeli philosopher, takes the view (in a book called Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust) that Rassinier’s ideas are an example of “ideology gone mad.” This may describe Rassinier’s disciple, Faurisson, as well. Psychologically, nothing may be wrong with Faurisson. He spent his working career as a professor of literature at the University of Lyon, with a specialty in close examination of texts, and, apart from his hobbyhorse about Nazis and Zionists, he did not draw attention to himself.
He has summed up his thesis in this fashion, which I translate from a dossier of the controversy around him, Vérité historique ou vérité politique?, that was brought out by his supporters:
1. The Hitlerian “gas chambers” never existed. 2. The “genocide” (or the “attempted genocide”) of the Jews never took place; in plain language, Hitler never gave the order (or permission) that anyone should be killed because of his race or religion. 3. The so-called “gas chambers” and the so-called “genocide” are one and the same lie. 4. This lie, which is essentially of Zionist origin, has permitted a gigantic politico-financial fraud of which the State of Israel is the principal beneficiary. 5. The principal victims of this lie and this fraud are the German people and the Palestinian people. 6. The colossal power of the official means of information has, until now, guaranteed the success of the lie and censured the freedom of expression of those who denounced the lie.
The same quotation, with insignificant variations, can be found in various places within the Faurisonnian oeuvre. It is his formula, though perhaps one other element of the doctrine should be mentioned, which is his belief that Germany in WWII acted in self-defense against the Jews. Faurissonism is, in short, a postwar extension of Nazism—as ought to be obvious at a glance.
Rassinier was originally a man of the left, but his disciple Faurisson is a man with ultraright-wing origins, and some of the early successes of his thesis came about, as might be expected, on the ultraright. In the United States, Faurisson was taken up by the right-wing champions of the old isolationist movement, who were eager to show that, just as Wilhelmine Germany in WWI was not as bad as the prowar argument in that era had maintained, neither was Nazi Germany as bad as was said by the supporters of WWII. The old-time isolationists were glad to have an opportunity to condemn Israel and the Zionists, too. And they went about promoting Faurisson at their conferences and at their Institute for Historical Review, which, with its conferences and its journal, has exerted an influence in sundry corners of the world.
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.
He introduced this idea in the preface to Faurisson’s book. “One can ask,” he wrote in the final paragraph, “whether Faurisson is truly an anti-Semite or Nazi. As I have said, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read, in large part because of the nature of the attacks made against him, I do not see any proof that would lead to such conclusions. I find no credible proof in the documents, published text or private correspondence, that I have read concerning him. As far as I can judge, Faurisson is a sort of relatively apolitical liberal.”
And he stuck by this argument. In response to a long article of mine in The Village Voice, Chomsky insisted, in the Voice, July 1, 1981, that he had no knowledge of Faurisson having called the Holocaust a Zionist lie (which was never believable, by the way, given that Faurisson calls the Holocaust a Zionist lie on the back cover of the very book that contains Chomsky’s preface, and in many other places, such that to read Robert Faurisson is to stumble across the claim about a Zionist lie every 10 minutes). But Chomsky took the view that, even if Faurisson did say such a thing, there was no reason to hold it against him. “Does this prove that he is an anti-Semite? Is it anti-Semitic to speak of ‘Zionist lies’? Is Zionism the first nationalist movement in history to have concocted lies in its own interest?” Addressing me by name: “Berman’s accusation reduces to the fact that Faurisson denies that the Nazis committed the crimes of the Holocaust. If this is sufficient proof of anti-Semitism, then most American intellectuals are racists and ‘virulent bigots’ because they deny that the U.S. committed monstrous war crimes against the people of Indochina…”
He stuck by Pierre Guillaume, the publisher, too—in this case in the Voice, March 18, 1986, responding once again to something I had written. Guillaume, he wrote, is “a principled libertarian and anti-fascist who, as Berman correctly asserts, finds merit in Faurisson’s views on gas chambers.” It was odd to describe Guillaume as an anti-fascist, given that Guillaume’s principal argument rests on the contention that anti-Nazism serves as an ideological cloud to conceal the crimes of imperialism. Chomsky was sincere, though. Guillaume became one of Chomsky’s publishers in France. In one of the volumes that Guillaume brought out, the publisher composed a preface of his own extolling the virtues of his author, Noam Chomsky, just to make plain that Chomsky and France’s leading publisher of Holocaust-denial literature had struck up an alliance.
Only, why did Chomsky get involved in all of this? I think Yakira’s argument in Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust identifies the logic. It is a matter of “ideology gone mad,” with the ideology, in this instance, being—well, the correct word cannot be “anti-Zionism,” though I think anti-Zionism is the concept. Anti-Zionism cannot be the correct word because Chomsky has from time to time intruded into his political writings a phrase or two to suggest that Zionism represents, at least in principle, a reasonable response to the millennia of Jewish oppression. In practice, though, Zionism outrages Chomsky. Perhaps the correct word to describe his own ideology ought to be “anti-Israelism,” as Yakira suggests. It is a matter, in any event, of a profound and abiding anger, and it leads Chomsky to seek out a virtue in even the worst of Israel’s enemies. In the case of Faurisson and Pierre Guillaume and his publishing house, Chomsky has never gone so far as to endorse Holocaust denial himself. But he refuses to agree that Holocaust deniers should be banned from the universe of admirable people with arguable opinions. And his refusal rests, I think, on a certain habit of thinking that surrounds Israel.
Zionists have never looked upon the crimes of the Nazis as grounds for Israel’s legitimacy, and that is because, for Zionists, there are other grounds. Anti-Zionists, though, like to suppose that, if Israel has enjoyed a legitimacy in the eyes of the world, it is precisely because of the crimes of the Nazis, and for no other reason. From an anti-Zionist standpoint, therefore (or from a standpoint that is tantamount to anti-Zionism), if a doubt can be thrown across the crimes of Nazism, a shadow would fall across Israel’s legitimacy. A doubt does not require a full embrace of Holocaust-denial theorizing. A full embrace might even be counterproductive, given how absurd is the theory. A dose of skepticism, though—this would suffice. A respectful nod to Faurisson and Guillaume, the “liberal” and the “principled libertarian and anti-fascist,” provides the dose. Such is the logic, I think. And so, Chomsky’s interventions offer yet another example of “ideology gone mad,” even if his particular madness is not exactly the same as Rassinier’s, which is not the same as Faurisson’s.
There was a moment in the late 1970s when a lot of people waited to see which way the wind was going to blow in regard to Faurisson, given his success at Le Monde and the respectful homages by well-known intellectuals. But quickly enough the serious historians mobilized to rebut Faurisson, which was not hard to do, and the editors of Le Monde came to their senses, and, in the Western countries, the wind blew in an anti-Faurissonian direction. Faurisson failed to advance into the ranks of liberalism. Chomsky’s friend Thion eventually lost his academic position in France as a result of Holocaust denial. Guillaume and his bookstore and his publishing house, fashionable once upon a time, fell out of fashion. Some of Guillaume’s well-known friends pulled away from him. Chomsky himself did not appear to burnish his own prestige. Even among his keenest admirers, the tendency in response to the Faurisson affair has always been to pretend that Chomsky had merely argued for free speech. Or the tendency has been to express a little embarrassment for Chomsky as if, amidst his many efforts for noble causes, he had committed a minor blunder, as anyone might do. A workaholic’s misstep.
Then again, no one has failed to notice that, regardless of his misadventures with Faurisson and Guillaume, a Chomsky-mania has become a worldwide phenomenon. It is not every writer who can claim to have a book on Bin Laden’s bookshelf and, at the same time, to be a favorite of Hugo Chávez. Success on that scale is daunting to consider. And, in a modest way, Faurisson has likewise gone on to enjoy some additional successes, here and there around the world.
It is worth glancing at a study by two historians at Tel Aviv University, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, titled From Empathy to Denial, on the topic of (as their subtitle puts it) “Arab Responses to the Holocaust.” Litvak and Webman have pored over many decades of the Arab press, and they remark that, when the news first began to emerge of the Nazi crimes, in 1944, one of the principal responses in Egypt and in the Arab League was a genuine and well-informed sympathy for the Jews, and outrage at the Nazis. But that was not the only response. Even in the 1940s, some people in Palestine, in Syria, and in Iraq were already equating the Zionists with the Nazis. By 1946, Sayyid Qutb, who would go on to become the grand theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, had come to the conclusion that WWII represented a victory for the Jews. By 1964, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, could say, “No person, not even the simplest one, takes seriously the lie of the six million Jews that were murdered.”
Eventually a widely shared belief arose in five parts, which were: (1) The Holocaust was good. (2) The Holocaust did not happen, and the belief otherwise is a Jewish lie. (3) It did happen, and it was bad, but it was small, and it has been exaggerated. (4) The Zionists were complicit in the Holocaust, and the Jews were victims of the Zionists. And (5) Israel is equivalent to the Nazis. The whole structure of the five-part argument appears to have arisen independently in the Arab world, without much input from Europe.
Beginning in the 1980s, though, a Western influence did enter into it, and this was from the Holocaust deniers—Faurisson especially, whose writings were translated into Arabic (and who was invited to address a conference in Iran), plus another of Pierre Guillaume’s authors, Roger Garaudy, the Communist philosopher who converted to Islam and Holocaust denial. From the standpoint of the Arab and Muslim world, Faurisson and Garaudy and a few other people with similar opinions looked like renowned scholars, controversial in Europe perhaps, and subject perhaps to occasional persecutions, but surrounded, even so, by well-regarded and even celebrated supporters—intellectual authorities, therefore, whose writings lent weight to arguments that had already taken shape in a variety of countries. And, in this fashion, Faurisson and his fellow-thinkers and supporters succeeded in doing something dreadful, which was to deepen the intellectual catastrophe in the larger Middle East.
There is the curious case of Mahmoud Abbas, who studied at a Soviet university and wrote a dissertation that he presented as a book in Arabic in 1984, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism. Abbas, as I learn from Litvak and Webman, the Tel Aviv historians, acknowledges a Jewish suffering in the war—as does Faurisson, for that matter. But, citing Faurisson, Abbas doubts the scale of the suffering. He contends that, after Kristallnacht in 1938, the Jews were sent to concentration camps for their own protection. And Abbas emphasizes a diabolical Zionist collaboration with the Nazis, which led the Zionists to oppose the Nazis in public (with the idea of goading Hitler to exterminate Jews), while secretly helping the Nazis deport Jews to the death camps, with the ultimate goal of establishing a Jewish national homeland (presumably on the basis of the Jewish population that was already in Palestine) in league with German imperialism. You can read some apposite quotations in an old MEMRI report.
Then again, after Abbas came to power in the Palestinian National Authority, he wisely repudiated his old ideas. Or he is said to have repudiated them. Or perhaps he did nothing of the sort. Perhaps he merely found a few occasions to underline portions of his original argument—the acknowledgment of Jewish suffering during the world war—that might sound pleasing to the Americans and the Europeans or even to the Israelis. On these matters, there appears to be no consensus. Back in 2009, Litvak and Webman, in their From Empathy to Denial, considered that Abbas did repudiate his old ideas. They regarded his intellectual growth as part of a larger trend among a good many Arab intellectuals to set aside the delusions and myths of the past, in favor of a serious effort to recognize reality. I wonder, though. My Tablet colleague Yair Rosenberg has more than once pointed out a few anomalies in Abbas’s reflections on world affairs. And Abbas has still more recently made yet other remarks suggesting that, even now, the delusions and myths of the past remain verdant and fertile. He attracted attention a few months ago with his description of Israel as a “colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism,” which, conceptually speaking, does seem in keeping with his old idea of Zionism as a diabolical plot against the Jews, in alliance with German imperialism.
Abbas’s intellectual convolutions ought to remind us, in any case, that it is good, it is necessary, to go on repeating that Robert Faurisson is a professional liar and a falsifier of history. It is good that Le Monde has been saying so. I add Tablet’s voice to Le Monde’s: Faurisson is a professional liar and a falsifier of history. It is good that, in France, and not for the first time, a court has issued a sensible ruling on the matter. Only, how can it be that, after 40 years of never-ending controversy over the preposterous and revolting Faurisson and his mad conspiracy theories, the controversy shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon? Here is a miserable mystery of the age.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.