Georges Bensoussan, L’histoire confisquée de la destruction des Juifs d’Europe (“Hijacking the History of the Destruction of the Jews of Europe”) (French) Paris: PUF, 2016, 480pp.
Prolific historian and philosopher Georges Bensoussan is a leading expert on the subject of the Holocaust, its causes and its aftermath in Europe. His recent book, L’histoire confisquée de la destruction des Juifs d’Europe, published in September 2016, follows two previous studies on similar topics: Europe, Une passion génocidaire: Essai d’histoire culturelle (“Europe, a Genocidal Passion: An Historical-Cultural Essay”) (2006), and Un Nom impérissable: Israël, le sionisme, et la destruction des Juifs d’Europe (“A Name that cannot Die: Israel, Zionism and the destruction of the Jews of Europe”), published in 2008.1 L’histoire confisquée brings new insight into some of the topics discussed in his previous works, such as the intellectual and cultural foundations of modern antisemitism as background of the Holocaust, Christian antisemitism, the role of the Shoah in the rise of the State of Israel and the memory of the Shoah throughout Israel’s history. The work also introduces several additional themes which we shall discuss below.
L’histoire confisquée stresses the following subjects: the reasons for the persistence of European antisemitism after the Shoah; the cultural and ideological foundations of European antisemitism that led to the Shoah; the abandonment of the Jews by the Western powers; the history of Eastern and Western European attempts to obfuscate and/or minimize the gravity of the Holocaust and the culpability of Germany in the destruction of the Jews; and the efforts to rewrite the history of this problematic past in order to make it more palatable to present sensibilities. After pointing out the lack of foresight that led many to believe that antisemitism was destined to disappear in the wake of revelations regarding the Shoah, Bensoussan explores the reasons for this “moral illusion … through a form of laziness, that violence would stop further violence and that the history of the Shoah would eradicate antisemitism.”(15) He then relates the background of and the history of the Holocaust because “the destruction of the Jews of Europe cannot be understood without the study of a European culture which for centuries fantasized about their death.”(25) He describes the anti-Jewish myths that permeated European Christian and secular culture and concludes that “Nazism… is a historical fact rooted in the very depths of German culture and partially European.” (27) His graphic descriptions of the Holocaust are indeed painful for the reader. Bensoussan, however, believes that it is necessary to present the Shoah in great detail in order to discredit attempts to idealize or mollify the past, such as the 1997 film “Life is Beautiful.”
The author mentions facts of contemporary history that have not received sufficient attention. For example, he contrasts the present veneration of Holocaust survivors with the shameful attitude toward those emerging from concentration camps and hiding places in the immediate postwar years, as follows: “The survivor of 1950 appears degraded and damaged by suffering. Worse, sometime this anti-hero is almost suspect because he survived. Like Ben-Gurion, many believed that ‘those who came back were not the best.”(80) In addition, with the onset of the Cold War, the focus on Soviet totalitarianism erased the specificity of Nazi terror. Bensoussan points out that In Eastern Europe, there were attempts to draw parallels between Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps in order to obfuscate the collaboration of local populations with the Nazis and their participation in the killing of Jews. For example, “in Rumania the former torturers were the first to affirm the equivalence of Nazism and communism…coining the notion of a ‘red Holocaust’ parallel to a ‘brown Holocaust’. What was there to understand but that Jews, victims of the second, were responsible for the first?” (109) Often Jews were falsely blamed for the Communist takeover of the different Eastern European countries.
Other important points include debunking the claim of Austrian innocence, which finally was refuted by the election of Kurt Waldheim as president in 1986, and the false claim that the Wehrmacht had not participated in war crimes. According to the author, the subject of the Shoah was taboo in German society and school curricula in the immediate postwar years. Likewise, there was silence regarding the massive despoliation of Jewish wealth which led to an equally massive transfer of wealth. “It is mostly in Germany that spoliations transformed millions of citizens into distant accessories to the genocide…. Looting and ‘redistribution of riches’ stolen bought the connivance of populations.” (176) Another myth debunked by Bensoussan is that the State of Israel owes its existence only to the Holocaust (140). It is refuted at length in a previous book as well.2
According to Bensoussan, these lacunae and myths are part of a global European attempt to rewrite history and make it palatable by stating “we did not know, we could not have known, we did not see, we did not understand.” (115) He also rejects the specious argument that all of us could have been Nazi murderers and insists that it is the Germans who bear the blame for the Holocaust. Nonetheless, other nations are responsible for measures that prevented the rescue of Jews and their deportation. He remarks that, “at the hour of greatest danger, the Palestinian refuge was closed to the Jews of Europe. London, depository of the Mandate in the name of the League of Nations, yielded to the pressure of the Arab world.” (187) He also recalls that “… that the Statutes enacted concerning the Jews were a French initiative and that only French policemen took part in the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup [the mass arrests of the Jews of Paris, July 16-17, 1942] and that patience is required to absorb the fact that “the process of civilization led to the programmed elimination of part of the human race.”(237)
In his chapter entitled “The Christianization of the Jewish Catastrophe,” Bensoussan discusses the silence of Pope Pius XII and the role of the Catholic Church during and after the war. He deals with Christian scholars who attributed antisemitism to the Jewish rejection of Jesus and with others, such as the famous Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain who argued that: “Our Jewish brothers are hated, in fact, because they gave Christ to the world.”(261) The chapter notes the persistence of the doctrine of Supersession (the Church replaces the Jews as God’s Chosen People) even in the declaration of the Second Vatican Council in 1964 and the fact that the Vatican recognized Israel only in 1993, after the Oslo Accords.
Bensoussan emphasizes recent attempts to “de-Judaize” the Holocaust “in the name of the universality of the victims, especially in post-modern circles where the ‘Jewish sign’ is intolerable. The tendency is, therefore, to obfuscate one supremely central fact: [the] victims were killed only because of that sign of identity, ‘Born Jewish.’”(372) Furthermore, “defenders of universalism believe that another people could have been victim of a Holocaust… but it did not happen. And so ‘Judeocide’ appears thus to be one of the rare examples of a historical disaster more and more commemorated, while the names of the victims are so bothersome that an attempt is made to gloss over their memory.”(383)
The book is replete with references to the connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism and hostility toward the State of Israel. He attributes the root cause of the disproportionate number of condemnations of the State of Israel to the well-known dictum that “they will never forgive us for the evil they did to us.” Here, he returns to the his argument against the myth of the State of Israel solely as the result of the Holocaust and adds that “making the Holocaust the first and last source of the creation of the State of Israel is to refuse to grant that state any legitimacy except for compassion. From then on the road is open to distort the history of Zionism, and even to [transform it into] the travesty of a new Nazism.” (386)
Bensoussan has studied the largely forgotten plight of Jews of Arab lands, who were victims of Muslim intolerance well before the creation of the State of Israel. His book, Les Territoires perdus de la République (“The Lost Territories of the [French] Republic”),3 written in 2002, under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, describes the breakdown of law and order in the suburbs and neighborhoods of large cities throughout France where the police do not enter because of fear of violent confrontations. These “lost territories,” populated by first, second and third generations of Muslim immigrants from former French North Africa are hotbeds of antisemitism. Fifteen years later, he notes that “the memory of the Holocaust seems powerless against the antisemitism still being fostered in some of the families coming from the Maghreb immigration, where this transmission keeps alive prejudice and fears inherited from traditions.”(472)
Despite the occasional lack of rigor and tendency toward repetition, L’histoire confisquée provides much food for thought, but little hope. In fact, recently Georges Bensoussan, has been officially accused of racism and is being sued by the CCIF (Collective against Islamophobia) with the backing of the Jewish LICRA (International League against Racism and Antisemitism) for his statements on endemic Jew-hatred among Muslims of North African origin in France. On March 8, 2017, the court acquitted Bensoussan of charges of racism. The prosecution is appealing that decision.
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The reviewer has provided the translations from L’histoire confisquée.
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