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Death of a Collaborator | The Nation

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Death of a Collaborator

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Remembrance of Things Past

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

But why bother at all to bring to justice a few guilty men who are on the brink of the grave? The obvious answer--because amnesia is a collective as well as an individual disease and a society that cannot come to terms with its past is handicapped in facing renewed dangers--is more relevant than ever at a time when racism once more raises its ugly head throughout Europe. When Turkish homes are torched in Germany, when "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia reminds us where prejudice can lead, the battle against racial and ethnic discrimination must again be waged, and memory is an important weapon in this struggle.

The two contradictory trends mentioned earlier are both gaining strength. Today in Paris, for instance, you can see two films, one fictional and not very good but purporting to show Pétain and Laval as villains, another a documentary, a selection of wartime newsreels compiled by Claude Chabrol to show Vichy propaganda in its ridiculous vulgarity and hypocritical repulsiveness. After Bousquet's murder, French public television showed a different documentary, in which four Jewish survivors tell how as toddlers they were deported by the French police.

Against this you must set the trend, not limited to France, of what is best described as sneaking or creeping revisionism. You start, say, by bluntly proclaiming that Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong because he was pro-Soviet, and his schoolmate Raymond Aron was right because he chose the American side, a case you can make more easily by removing the argument from its historical context. You then publish a book in Paris suggesting, without proving, that Jean Moulin, head of resistance on French soil, executed by the Nazis, was a Soviet agent (of course, you can't claim that helping the Russians during the war was treason, but wait...). From there, using the fashionable equation of "twin evils," you can maintain, like the German revisionist historians, that those who, like Heidegger, picked the lesser of two totalitarian evils, the Nazi rather than the Bolshevik one, were right. We are not at that point yet, but if we don't react strongly against the poison, it will continue to spread.

A trial of Bousquet would have had another benefit. It would have reminded criminals against humanity, not limited to Serbia or Croatia, that their turn may one day come. It would have warned those bastards all over the world that to claim "superior orders" or obedient service of state and country is no defense. It would have made it plain that the thugs doing the dirty work may not be the worst criminals, that distinguished gentlemen sitting behind their desks in the capital can do more harm with their pens (or, today, with their computers).

Yet the most crucial contribution of the trial would have been to advance the campaign against growing jingoism, against the mounting intolerance of the foreigner, the alien, the other. It does not always take spectacular forms like the burning of the Turks. In Germany you have hundreds of thousands of people born on German soil who are not second-class citizens but not citizens at all, and the government is still resisting widespread demands that it bestow nationality on people of a "different ethnic background." In France, politicians pandering to Jean-Marie Le Pen's ultraright constituency take all sorts of measures to render the lives of immigrants miserable. The first breaches have even been made in the jus soli, the principle that those born on French soil are entitled to French nationality. Kith and kin, blood brothers, that is the fashionable vocabulary. Start with jus sanguini, the law of the blood, and you end up with ethnic cleansing and buckets of blood spilled from Bosnia to Tajikistan.

The punishment meted out to old men like Bousquet has been irrelevant for some time. But the description and analysis of their crimes, thanks to a trial or by other methods, was and remains important. It is the crucial link between past and present, the indispensable connection. Although the Holocaust was, in a sense, unique, and although today the first victims would be not the Jews but the Turks in Germany and the Arabs in France, it is the same struggle. Rendered urgent again by growing mass unemployment and the resulting social strains, it is a struggle against the barbarian future, a battle against all the Bousquets of this world.

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