Interview with Henry Rousso.
Henry Rousso: When speaking of a "new phase," I am of course referring to the chronology I adopted in The Vichy Syndrome (the most recent American version was published in 1991), which I have since supplemented in Vichy: An Ever-Present Past (published in 1998) and in other, more recent works. (2) In The Vichy Syndrome, I had developed a periodization of the memory of Vichy after 1944. The term "Vichy" in this work covered the question of representations of the Petain regime and of the French state, the memory of various forms of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War, and the confrontation of the national conscience with the knowledge that French anti-Semitism had played a decisive role in the implementation of the "Final Solution" in France. Through this periodization, I identified four phases in the memory of Vichy until the beginning of the 1990s: the "unfinished mourning" phase (le deuil inacheve) from the Liberation to the mid-1950s; the "repressions" phase (le refoulement) of the 1960s; the "Broken Mirror phase" (le retour du refoule) in the early 1970s; and, finally, the "obsessions" phase (la phase obsessionnelle), characterized by the hypermnesia of memory, beginning in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, the question of the memory of Vichy reached a new stage when it became a major and recurring public issue. Public opinion confronted the state with the Vichy past, demanding that it intervene and make decisions regarding its legacies. The state was put under pressure by various groups, particularly by associations striving for the recognition of crimes that had been committed against Jews by the Vichy Regime. This emergence of the impact of public opinion and public pressure, which had already become manifest with the extradition (1983) and subsequent trial (1987) of Klaus Barbie, effected a major shift in representations of the World War II past in France. From that point on, the debate about Vichy was focused exclusively, or almost exclusively, on its role in the Shoah. Following the forms of recognition established across the public sphere--wherein the issues of Vichy, of collaboration, and of anti-Semitism were constantly discussed, studied, taught, narrated, and treated in films--everything seemed to point to the idea of official reparation for the crimes that had been committed. Reparation was symbolic in the first instance, taking the form of Jacques Chirac's famous speech in July 1995, which acknowledged France's responsibility in the deportation and mass murder of the Jews. This acknowledgment was decisive for future developments. It acquired a significant legal dimension with the Papon trial of 1997 and 1998, during which, for the first time, a senior French civil servant (and former minister) was condemned for complicity in crimes against humanity. It acquired a financial dimension with the creation of the Matteoli Commission (1997), whose task it was to evaluate the financial damages resulting from the dispossession of Jewish goods.
However, this far-reaching political quest for reparation provoked numerous controversies, especially as to whether or not the memory of the Shoah was a memory belonging to a specific community or if it was in fact a broader national memory. This provoked debates about the potential legal continuity between the Vichy Regime and the French Republic, which the presidents preceding Jacques Chirac had refused to acknowledge, echoing General de Gaulle's position in 1944. A decision by the Conseil d'Etat, the highest legal institution for administrative justice in France, finally settled the issue in April 2002 when, following the Papon trial, it recognized the civil responsibility of the current French Republic, requiring that it pay half of the damages and financial interests, nearly a million dollars, owed by Maurice Papon to his victims.
Lastly, starting in the early 2000s, one notices several major changes. On the one hand, the European and international dimension of the Shoah (of which, in the past few decades, the "Vichy Syndrome" was merely the French manifestation) had been fully established. In this regard, France participated in the creation of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, launched in Stockholm in 2000. France also contributed to the institutionalization of a day of European commemoration on January 27 (the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz) through the International Holocaust Remembrance Day decreed by the United Nations. In addition, the way in which the collective memory of the Shoah developed on the international level became a kind of paradigm of memorialization (paradigme memoriel) that inspired demands and encouraged politics of reparation where other historical events were concerned, specifically slavery and colonization. In short, if the recent past (le passe recent) continues to be a subject of debate in France, the question of Vichy seems, for the moment, to have abated somewhat.
PW and RJG: To what do you attribute the fascination for the Second World War and the Shoah in the contemporary novel?
HR: This is a long-standing fascination that began with the end of the war and that has not subsided since, especially in France. There have always been novels that were set between 1939 and 1945, even though they did not always constitute a literary "genre," as was the case in the 1970s with the mode retro, and doubtlessly again in the past few years. This period inspired most of the important postwar French writers, from Marcel Ayme to Romain Gary, not to mention emblematic authors like Patrick Modiano. Incidentally, if you look at the list of Goncourt prize winners since 1945, you will regularly find novels in which the Occupation, the war, or the persecution of Jews serves as a framework: Jean-Louis Bory's Mon Village a l'heure allemande (1945), Jean-Louis Curtis's Les Forets de la nuit (1947), Robert Merle's Week-end a Zuydcoote (1949), Beatrix Beck's Leon Morin, pretre (1952), Andre SchwarzBart's Le Dernier des justes (1959), etc.
It is not easy to explain in detail this fascination, but I will give two simple, almost banal, reasons that in my opinion are fairly explanatory. On the one hand, this war is an inexhaustible reservoir of extraordinary experiences, both individual and collective, of tragic or historic destinies, of frequently overwhelming, extreme, and unprecedented situations. It is thus not at all surprising that it has been providing fertile ground for international literature for almost seventy years. On the other hand, this war haunts our present, it is a past that is not ready to pass, and it therefore offers incredible opportunities for whoever wants to explore all the possible configurations of the relationship between past and present in literature, one of the structural bases of any narration. In my latest book, La Derniere Catastrophe (The Last Catastrophe), I tried to explain that the two World Wars, and especially the Second World War, are events that inaugurated our present, as well as our way of thinking about the present. It is therefore not surprising, in my opinion, that the period between 1939 and 1945 continues to be an important prism through which writers talk about our era.
PW and RJG: In your opinion, are there links between, on the one hand, novels like Jan Karski by Yannick Haenel, HHhH by Laurent Binet, Le Terroriste noir by Tierno Monenembo, and Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell and, on the other hand, recent historiographic works on the war and the Shoah, such as Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, Hitler's Empire by Mark Mazower, Halik Kochanski's recent book The Eagle Unbound: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, and, of course, your own work as a historian? Where could there be some points of contact and points of divergence between historians and novelists?
HR: Indeed, the current enthusiasm for this period seems to me to be of another order. First, the writers you cite and those that are the most talked about no longer have a direct link to the events of the war, and therefore they write from an ex post facto position, with neither a testimonial dimension nor direct experience, unlike the writers I cited above. They are situated, whether explicitly or not, in the register of History, in a past that is partly over and partly present in memories, an era that they all clearly know constitutes a nodal point of contemporary collective conscience. This is another difference between them and the postwar writers. For example, while both the postwar writers and the new generation negotiate the same moral categories--the question of political engagement, of choice, of compassion, of the perversion of life in the face of the violence of this war--the new generation does so with the possibility of speaking with one eye on the event (even if in the form of fiction) and one eye on the memory of the event in its subsequent representation. The books you cited by Laurent Binet and Yannick Haenel, or even Fabrice Humbert's L'Origine de la violence (2009), seem to me emblematic of this constant interplay between history and memory, between a fiction anchored in the past and the constant presence of a narrator situated in our present. This dialectical game bears the mark of the age of memory, and these writers attempt to turn it into literary form, in ways entirely different than their elders.
Finally, along the same lines, these writers are obviously influenced by recent historiography. Whether or not they have read the works of historians does not matter, even though I am sure they have. These works, dealing with Nazism, the war, and the Shoah, are constantly discussed in public. Their conclusions, even if merely in distorted form, have seeped into public opinion and inform public discourse. For example, making Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes appear as a rupture in the contemporary perception of Nazism, as Pierre Nora did during an interview with the author, (3) is to forget to what extent the themes of the book, particularly the specific nature of the Nazi crimes, were the subject of several recent studies by German, American, French, and other historians. This does not diminish the merits--or the faults--of the book, but if one wants to analyze the context of its production, one might as well do so by taking into account the precise combination of factors at play there. In fact, unlike a writer like Patrick Modiano, who has always worked in a register other than that of history and who devised his own mode of access to the event, Littell and other writers of his generation are in a situation of, in a sense, translating the historiographic work of their time. They are great readers of history. They are very well acquainted with the important, sophisticated, and wide-ranging historiography of today. They have fully internalized it. And the historians mentioned above will, in turn, feed on this literature, which gives them another perspective--to speak only of the "professional" use they can make of it. This was my reaction when I read Laurent Binet's and Fabrice Humbert's books, which allowed me to think about and to experience the questions I had already broached, but in a different way. That some of these writers, or their supporters, fall into the trap of referential discourse, and that they enter into a competition with historians, is of little interest: to say that Littell has done more for the historiography of the Nazi period than any other historian is almost as ridiculous as saying that every historian who employs the imperfect of the subjunctive deserves to be inducted into the Academie Francaise.
PW and RJG: At the roundtable in Paris (and in New York) you spoke about the risk of falsifying history in a novel, and you brought up the possibility of a sort of worst-case scenario (un cas limite) wherein a novelist could write a negationist novel. Could you talk to us a bit more about the responsibilities of literature vis-a-vis the history of the Second World War? Is fiction subject to the same ethical and political imperatives as history?
HR: First of all, I would like to specify that, contrary to the prevailing view that identifies and celebrates an increasing blurring of boundaries between history and literature--much as the border between academic history and popular history is being blurred--I do not believe nor welcome this blurring of boundaries, this blending of genres, this rather silly idea that all forms of expression are equal and that the boundaries between them are being dissolved. This is the grand illusion of our era, which, in an effort to erase hierarchies, ends up denying differences. To claim to be a "professional historian" or an "academic," as I do openly, and without the slightest embarrassment, is not to invest oneself with an authority that is necessarily superior to that of a writer or filmmaker, or to express envy when faced with the success of certain writers. It is simply to hold oneself accountable to a certain standard of intellectual honesty, to state one's own frame of reference, one's real competence, nothing more and nothing less. In this sense, no historians are writers (very far from it!) and no writers who are writing about history have the talent of a historian-the Binet effect and the Littell effect are really exceptions. Moreover, there is no symmetry here. While a few writers have successfully captured the historical present, no professional historian has suddenly become a literary star by virtue of his professional skills. The recent attempt by Patrick Boucheron and Sylvain Venayre to enter the literary scene by telling the story of a forged document presented at the agregation d'histoire in 2058 is amusing, especially coming from an author, Patrick Boucheron, who advocates precisely the breaking down of barriers between history and literature. But I am somewhat skeptical: this experiment is more akin to uchronia, to counterfactual history more than fiction, and it gives me the strange feeling that the only way for a historian to experiment with fiction is to tackle the issue of "fake" versus "real," which, by the way, is exactly the type of binary opposition that Boucheron denounces. (4) In my opinion, the problem here is not the relationship between history and fiction, but the place and the function we accord to the past in our societies-whether we are historians, novelists, or filmmakers, activities that are not interchangeable and do not carry the same responsibilities.
Hence the question of responsibility, that is to say, taking responsibility not only for what we--historians or writers--say, but also for its implications and consequences, without, however, restraining our subjectivity. To argue that a writer is allowed to do anything, including cheating with facts, inventing characters, putting insane words into Roosevelt's mouth, or making Karski say rubbish, is, in my opinion, childish. Yes, he "has the right" to do so, and no one challenges that. Yannick Haenel provoked harsh criticism from some historians, but none of them tried to silence him. Such a reaction is both infantile and narcissistic, as if the writer insists on asserting: "Not only do I have the right to do this, but I also want everyone to look at me and to approve of me." Very well, but the problem does not lie in what is "right," but rather in the responsibility for what one writes. Haenel's book does not bother me because of its literary techniques, as long as he is honest about what he is doing. It bothers me because of its content, because of the political message it conveys, because of this deplorable idea that the Allies--evil Americans, neocolonialists, that is--are almost as responsible for the Shoah as the Nazis on the grounds that they did not intervene. What bothers me is that since he was not able to corroborate this thesis with intellectual arguments or convincing evidence, the author hides behind a fiction in which he is neither seen nor caught in the act of falsifying history. But if Yannick Haenel has the right to write about Karski, I also have the right to find his text irresponsible, to say it, and to write it. The question remains: how would all those who applauded the possibility of distorting existing texts by real people--in the service of expressing one's own political beliefs--react if a brilliant, particularly creative writer were to venture to write a negationist work of fiction? Would they proclaim him a genius? I will let you decide.
Interview conducted via e-mail by Philip Watts and Richard J. Golsan on 13 February 2013. Translated from the French by Laure Astourian. (1)
(1.) This interview, originally conducted in French, was first published in Marc Dambre, ed., Memoires occupees. Fictions francaises et Seconde Guerre mondiale (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2013) 159-64. The Romanic Review thanks Marc Dambre and the Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle for authorizing the publication of this translation.
(2.) Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991). [First edition: Le Syndrome de Vichy: De 1944 a nos jours, Paris, 1987]; Vichy: An Ever-Present Past, trans. Nathan Bracher (Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1998). [First edition: Vichy, un passe qui ne passe pas, Paris, 1994].
(3.) Jonathan Littell and Pierre Nora, "Conversation sur l'histoire et le roman," Le Debat 144.2 (2007): 25-44. See also Pierre Nora, "Histoire et roman: oU passent les frontieres?" Le Debat 165.3 (2011): 6-12.
(4.) Patrick Boucheron and Sylvain Venayre, L'Histoire au conditionnel: Textes et documents a l'usage de l'etudiant (Paris: Fayard, Mille et une nuits, 2012). See also Patrick Boucheron, "On nomme litterature la fragilite de l'histoire," Le Debat 165.3 (2011): 41-56.