Skip to main content

The Eclipse of Memory

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

Nearly two years after the conclusion of the Klaus Barbie trial in France, Alain Finkielkraut’s latest book, devoted to this event, has only just been published. The lapse of time, I suspect, was due to more than prolonged reflection on the part of the young French intellectual; a good deal of the book, after all, is the continuation and application of themes pursued by Finkielkraut in earlier works. The lag, it seems, is a deliberate response to what Finkielkraut, in the title of an earlier work, termed the “defeat of thought.” The phrase points to an illness of our age, of which the Barbie trial is just a symptom: the transformation of the furniture of our intellectual and moral universe into commodities to be bought, digested, and immediately forgotten. La Mémoire Vaine (Futile Memory) is a brilliant and pessimistic analysis of the eclipse of memory and neglect of history in an age of instant commentary and immediate gratification.

The news of Barbie’s arrest in Bolivia and his extradition to France sparked a firestorm of interest and controversy among the French. Though piled and mixed together, the tinder for the flames came from two principal sources, one narrowly historical, the other broadly juridical in nature. The latter first had to do with the legitimacy of the charge of crimes against humanity as applied to Barbie. Barbie was tried under a French law modeled on that of the Nuremberg tribunals; it was introduced in 1964 in order to parry the 20-year French expiration date on all crimes, including those of war, committed in France. The French version resembled the Nuremberg antecedent in that both laws were formulated retroactively—a point of jurisprudence that remains controversial. No less controversial, however, was the issue of the moral legitimacy and pedagogic relevance of frying a relatively small fish like Barbie. After all, Barbie’s official functions in the Nazi bureaucracy were relatively modest. The chief of the SS stationed in Lyon, Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie was a subordinate who obeyed rather than issued orders; a cog in the malefic engine of the Nazi machine. This was the argument not only of Jacques Vergès, the defense counsel for the accused, but the sentiment of many neutral observers. (The recent film of Marcel Ophuls, Hotel Terminus, forcefully drives home this point.) After 40 years, it was claimed, the juridical doubts concerning the Nuremberg rulings were now compounded by the fundamental imbalance between the magnitude of the charge and the functions of the charged.

Yet Finkielkraut reminds the reader of the original intent of the crime against humanity: it affirms that states are run, that bureaucracies are inhabited, that administrations are administered by men. A prosaic observation which points to an important truth: criminal acts, even when elaborated by the state, are in fact committed by individuals. There are certain universal moral precepts to which man must bear witness, regardless of the laws of the society in which he lives. The Nuremberg jurists took a page from the Enlightenment credo of Baron d’Holbach in affirming that there is a single ethical code which holds “for nations and individuals; for rulers and ruled; for the minister and simple citizen.” This assertion is no less applicable in the case of those states, like that of Nazi Germany, where lawlessness becomes law, bloodthirstiness is enshrined as civic responsibility, and man is invited to become an accomplice in a public and criminal enterprise. Barbie’s very insignificance is the most important of reasons for his being hauled into a court of law and confronted by his peers. According to Finkielkraut, the trial should have served as an exemplar, a means to “re-establish the bond between the individual and a crime snapped by the techno-administrative machine” that ran the Nazi state. By treating Barbie as a man and not a cog, the trial would be a reminder that service to the State does not and must not “exonerate the member of any bureaucracy, or the scientist of any laboratory, from his responsibilities as an individual.”

But the trial fell short of this goal of remembrance, for history—the second source of controversy—kept getting in the way. Despite the passage of more than 40 years since France’s liberation, the French still are in the thralls of what one historian, Henry Rousso, has called the “Vichy syndrome.” Rousso was referring to the changing constellation of myths, evasions, repressions, and falsehoods that the French have used in explicating or beclouding these four short and nasty years to others and to themselves. During the course of the Barbie trial, the manifestations of this syndrome appeared time and again—so often, in fact, that it could be said that, along with Barbie, it was both a certain idea of France and a certain definition of the Holocaust that stood trial. In short, the courtroom at Lyon became the arena in which the historical and legal imperatives of the trial collided, and its raison d’être was lost in the resulting commotion.


The original charges elaborated by Christian Riss, the Lyon prosecutor, had been based solely on Barbie’s actions against civilians and Jews: it was, in particular, the Jews’ arrest, deportation, and near total extinction in the death factories in the east that constituted the “butcher of Lyon’s” crimes against humanity. As originally defined by the prosecutor, these charges related only “to massacres, murders and deportations inflicted upon civilian populations during the war and the occupation . . .such as genocide and the taking of hostages.” Yet the limitations of this dossier were contested by the various resistance associations, which sought the inclusion of Barbie’s police actions against the résistants. Their concerted efforts ultimately succeeded, and in 1985 the ocour de cassation (appeals court) of Lyon ruled that the interpretation of crimes against humanity ought to be broadened— in its words, “made less sensitive (frileuse)”—so as to include in its sanction those inhuman acts committed against men and women not only because of their race or religion, but also because they were active adversaries of the occupying force which was responsible for these acts.

This “competition of memories” between the Jewish and resistance organizations led to some unhappy categorical confusions, but also to unexpected partnerships. First, broadening of the category of crimes against humanity diluted the essence of what the law was designed to highlight and condemn—the refusal by a government or society to share this world with a certain group of people, and then to act upon this belief by seeking to exterminate them. As Saul Friedlánder has written, from the moment that a regime, by basing itself on a particular set of criteria, decides “that certain groups are no longer authorized to live on the earth and must be completely annihilated, a fundamental step has been taken. And I think that this limit has been reached just one time in modern history: by the Nazis.” The German historian Eberhard Jäckel, in the course of what has come to be known as the Historikerstreit—the “historians’ debate” in West Germany over the meaning of the Holocaust—gave what is probably the clearest definition of the singularity of the crime for which this charge was created: “Never before had a state decided and announced through the authority of its leader that a certain human group, the elderly, women and babies included, must be exterminated as completely as possible—a decision which the state then executed with all the means at its disposal.”

The most liberal reading of Jäcket’s definition, or the loosest rendering of the original Nuremberg law could not make them applicable to the actions of the resistance fighters. Their participation was freely chosen and the consequences were foreseeable. As one resístante, Alice Vansteenberghe, partially paralysed from being tortured, testified during the trial, “we knew the risks we were taking and I accept all that I underwent.” She then went on to recount a scene in which she saw Barbie tear a Jewish mother away from her child and affirmed that “this wasn’t war, but something vile.” The word for vile in French is immonde, which Finkielkraut juxtaposes to the word for world, monde. The actions of Mme. Vansteenberghe and her comrades were of this world—a world to which war and its consequences belonged. They were free to give a political and moral sense to their lives, and in a tragic number of cases, their deaths gave an even greater meaning to their commitment. The situation forced on the Jews, as this courageous and lucid old woman underlined, was something totally other and not of this world, but instead something immonde. The difference, as Finkielkraut points out, between these two realms is the difference between being an enemy and a hunted animal.

Yet Mme. Vansteenberghe was an exception among her camarades, the great majority of whom wanted their day in court. The resistance fighters, by trying to depict their undeniable torment and sacrifices through the prism of crimes against humanity, not only undersold their own valor but also fudged the enormity of the crime. The French resistance fighter Georges Altman wrote that to resist meant the refusal to accept “the abdication of the nation, the submission of man, and the pseudo-inevitability of history.” The problem for the Jew was that, rather than having the freedom to refuse, he himself was refused: stripped of his nationality, denied his humanity, sacrificed to the perceived ineluctability of history. For political, ideological, or psychological reasons one chose to join the resistance; one did not choose to be a Jew. Instead, the choices were made for him. He was selected for extermination, kicked into cattle cars, and carted to the gas chambers by “virtue” of his birth, not by the birth of political virtue that took root among the resistance fighters. One of the small, riveting ironies of the trial was that Barbie himself implicitly recognized this fundamental distinction when, in one of his few interventions, he asserted: “I fought against the Resistance, which I respected, with severity, but it was the war and the war is now over.”

As Finkielkraut remarks, it is in this unexpected and fleeting parallel between the historical interpretations of Barbie and the Jewish plaintiffs that one finds the only legitimate definition of crimes against humanity. Yet the surviving resistance fighters—the men and women of the “army of the shadows”—in their attempt to prevent their history from disappearing into the less welcome shadows of modern forgetfulness, succeeded only in blurring their great merit: namely, that the resistance, limited to a relative handful of exceptional individuals, was a vocation. But it was not only the eagerness of the resistance fighters to shed their fraying garb of the hero in order to don the dubious laurels of the victim that distorted the trial’s function and purpose; there was also the strategy of the defense which made a mockery, not only of the law’s intent, but of history itself. It thus was with a mixture of anxiety and titillation, cultivated by the defense counsel and abetted by the French media, that the public waited for the opening of a trial which increasingly had less to do with any single past, be it Klaus Barbie’s or France’s, and more to do with the future of the past.


From the outset, the three lawyers representing Barbie— Nabil Boua’ita (Algerian), Jean-Martin M’Bemba (Congolese) and most especially Jacques Vergès (of French and Vietnamese parentage)—undertook what may be termed “defense by rupture.” Rather than acknowledging the moral equity of France’s legal system and accepting its authority, they instead denounced its class-determined failings and disassociated themselves from it. In short, they made it clear that, rather than their client, it was an imperialist, racist, and bloody-minded West which stood accused. The charges against their client? Irrelevant. Just as a century before, when part of the French Left considered the Dreyfus Affair to be an in-house matter for the bourgeoisie, or when they similarly thought fifty years later that the struggle between Nazi Germany and Great Britain had nothing to do with their own specific class interests (at least until 1941 and Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union), their political descendants, now entrusted with the defense of Barbie, dismissed the moral and legal pertinence of the charges. After all, it was a matter for the whites; be it with chains or foreign debts, Marines or the gentils organisateurs of Club Med, they were and remain our oppressors, our executioners. In the defense’s litany of the crimes and horrors committed in the unfolding of the West’s imperial nightmare, and by the lawyers having “displayed their colors like flags,” their implicit assumption was crystal clear: that which had been considered a universal and timeless crime was nothing more than a family affair.

Yet if there is a point to Auschwitz, it is the utter repudiation of the confident belief, inherited from the Enlightenment, that humanity could not die, that despite the twists, turns, and sidesteps, we ineluctably were getting things somehow right in the evolutionary scheme of things. The rail platform at Auschwitz is the terminus of the intellectual conceit that Humanity marches on, not so much despite the torment and failure of so many individual lives, but because of them (the famous cracked eggs of the Western omelet). The singular importance of Nuremberg is that, in the words of Theodor Adorno, we can no longer “chalk up the death camps as so many work-associated accidents in the victorious advance of civilization.” The trial revealed that man could only believe in Man, that humanity only could be confounded with Humanity, at the risk of our very existence. For it was the totalitarian and racist dream of the Nazis, their belief that they were acting for the benefit of Humanity by eliminating those elements harmful to its development, that led to the Final Solution. Thus the significance of the concept of crimes against humanity: it is, in the phrase of Finkielkraut, the “juridical trace that men are not means, instruments or representatives of a superior being—Humanity— which realizes itself through them, but that humanity is our responsibility and that we are its guardians.”

This lesson was threatened by the character of Barbie’s defense. Vergès’ devaluation of the Holocaust through his insistence that it was a local affair that did not concern the peoples of the Third World—the true and objective victims of racism—went hand in hand with the resurrection of the idea of Man and the concept of History. Implicit in the logic of Vergès’ argumentation was that a world-historical struggle between man and his oppressors was still being fought, and that the former did not have the time to pay his respects to casualties in the latter’s camp. As a result, the joining of forces between a Nazi executioner and self-advertized representatives of the Third World was less of an anomaly than it seemed at first glance. Both Barbie and his lawyers were men whose acts were directed and justified by ideologies— ideologies that were different in their interpretations of the ends of history but identical in their disdain for the diversity of humanity and in their belief that men are means rather than ends.

Our age has been described as practical and hard-headed; ideologies, be they derived from a potted reading of Marx or Darwin or the Koran, gave up the ghost long ago. Yet if ideology is, as Hannah Arendt argued, the logic of a single idea—an idea which presupposes a direction upon history and bends men and truth to conform to this direction—then the collaboration of Klaus Barbie and Jacques Vergès suggests that the reports of its death have been premature. In fact, the trial accomplished the amazing feat of reintroducing through the back door the very concept it supposedly was condemning, in the person of Barbie, in the courtroom. The prominence given by the media to Vergès and the quasi-unanimous refusal of Third World governments and intellectuals to disassociate themselves from his démarche all contributed to a rehabilitation of the logic that led to Auschwitz—or, for that matter, Cambodia. (It is telling that the crimes of Pol Pot were not mentioned in the list of horrors committed against the innocent that Vergès repeatedly referred to in order to relativize the nature of the Holocaust.) As Vergès’ defense plea made clear, ideology substitutes the concept of necessity for the sense of moral duty and asserts the primacy of “scientific” law of evolution over the transcendence of juridical or moral imperatives. Totalitarianism—the empire of a sole and master idea—thus not only has survived the carnage of World War II but proudly reasserted itself in the very setting where it was to be officially arraigned and condemned for the first time in France.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the Barbie trial was not the fundamental accord between Barbie and Vergès, but rather the disturbing parallel between the motivations of these individuals and their staunchest opponents. It cannot be forgotten that the path to hells on this earth, from the Gulag to Auschwitz to Cambodia, has been paved with good intentions. Once again, there are important differences between racist and Marxist ideologies, but they are similar in their shared, profound repulsion for human diversity and in their concomitant desire for racial or social harmony. They each envision a future free of dissent and strife, a society in which fraternity reigns. The fact that they have powered ineffably murderous regimes into existence issues not from a deep strain of cynicism but instead from a deep strain of morality. In a word, the inhuman character of ideology, in Finkielkraut’s words, derives from its impatient desire for human fraternity: the most horrific of this century’s violence has issued not from the antagonism between men, but “from the certainty of forever delivering men from it.”

The lesson to be drawn from these examples of political millenarianism is that the essence of democracy, the reason for its immeasurable superiority over all other political systems, lies in its institutionalization of conflict and its acceptance of discord as the central fact of political life. Yet it seems that this lesson has not been learned. In the present generation’s mobilization against racism, there is the same incomprehension of difference, the same intolerance of contest, the same incapacity to move beyond a Manichean vision of the world. Like the very ideologies which they are combatting, this generation is repulsed by uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity—the inevitable fellow travelers of life— so much so that politics, the vessel in which society negotiates the bumps and potholes of the world, is pushed away for the juggernaut of nice sentiments and moralistic sloganeering. Their retreat before the real world of blurred values and smudged meanings and endless friction is marked by a desire for a make-believe world of simple signs and reassuring moralism and universal harmony. In short, people still long for fairy tales. But as Thomas Mann warned, the national socialism of Nazi Germany filled this role: the fact that it was also “a repulsive barbarism results from the fact that fairy tales become lies in the kingdom of politics.”

And so we return to Finkielkraut’s longstanding concern with the defeat of thought. In a book which made a great splash two years ago in France, L’Empire de l’éphémére (The Empire of the Ephemeral), the philosopher Gilíes Lipovetsky came to the defense of Madison Avenue, mass media, and mass consumerism. Democracy, he argued, finds its best defense in the rapid and endless succession of images and messages, in the razing of individuals, ideas, and events to the level of celebrity and entertainment. The media’s tendency to fragment and fracture the life of the world spills over into the life of the mind. Our growing distraction, our restless flight from one fashion, event, and individual to the next, Lipovetsky claimed, inoculates us against the return of ideology. After all, how can a single idea ever again tyrannize modern societies in which they, like the men who espouse them, are celebrated for no more than 15 minutes?

Finkielkraut is justifiably dubious of the ability of the electronic media’s fickleness to serve as a shield for democracy. It is for this reason that he hailed the French authorities’ refusal to televise the trial. The power and influence of justice, like that of religion, teaching, or theater, depends upon its the divorce from everyday life; it is the temporary suspension of our common distractions and needs that invests these activities with their force. The television collapses this difference, for rather than bringing the world into the living room, it instead brings the living room into the world. The events channeled through the tube are never beautiful enough, never horrific enough, never provocative enough to stop us from munching on an apple or carrying on a conversation. Television represents the domestication of the profundity and otherness of the world, the victory of the quotidien over the transcendent . . .the eating of an apple over the confrontation with an idea.

In a work published in 1980 and titled Le Juif imaginaire (The Imaginary Jew), Finkielkraut passionately argued that the present generation of young Jews, in France and elsewhere, had to define themselves not in terms of identification—for the Holocaust had put an effective end to this approach—but in terms of memory. What he terms the “imperative of memory” is the product of the recognition that an unbridgeable gap lies between the postwar generation of Jews and the world that was annihilated at Auschwitz. Yet this imperative to remember, of course, is the duty of all men, and in La Mémoire vaine, Finkielkraut underlines the ecumenical character to this responsibility. (For this reason, if none other, the work merits an English translation.) But as the title suggests, he seems skeptical of the chances for the triumph of memory and history. Stendhal once wrote, in a very different context, “I tremble that I have written only a sigh, when I believe to have noted a truth.” Let us hope, for the sake of past, present and future generations, that Alain Finkielkraut’s eloquent sigh is heeded.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading