21. Negationists?

You wrote in La Banquise # 1: "The concentration camp is the hell of a world whose heaven is the supermarket." Because of this statement and of your publishing La Banquise, you've been attacked by many people. What's the situation today and what do you think now of the positions of La Banquise?

Nazi Germany deliberately killed millions of Jews and a lot of them in gas chambers. These are historical facts. Since the end of the 1960s (but not immediately after 1945), this genocide has been interpreted in Europe and the US as the major landmark of the 20th century, an event absolutely different from all others, as it inaugurated an entirely new epoch in human history. Auschwitz has been taken out of its historical context.

Social critique can and must question this interpretation. This does not mean disputing the materiality of the real empirical evidence upon which the interpretation is based. (These facts are well documented in R. Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, the two volumes of Saul Friedländer's Nazi Germany & the Jews, and in a synthetic form in the 6th chapter of R. Paxton's Anatomy of Fascism.) What we have to do is put Auschwitz back into history, and in what dominates the history of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries: capitalism.

This is asking for trouble, because capitalism won't account for its horrors. However the New Deal is interpreted, it is considered as a part of the history of capitalism, and many people will credit capitalism for these reforms. Yet when it turns Nazi, capitalism is no longer regarded as capitalism, but just as Nazism. According to common wisdom, Roosevelt was an intelligent capitalist leader, but Hitler was not an enraged capitalist leader: he was just an enraged Nazi.

We're guilty of going against this common wisdom. There lies the root of the scandal.

We never denied the Nazi genocide of the Jews, nor supported those who deny it. But it's no use trying to prove we didn't. We'll never convince people who prefer to know of us and judge us by ten quotations that have been selected as proofs of our "negationism".

In this matter, reactions to us fall into three categories.

A number of people (journalists, academics or passers-by) have never had and still don't have any interest whatsoever in what we do and say in general, and their curiosity is only roused inasmuch as we are said to be negationists. We obviously have nothing to say to them. Our alleged negationism is only to be discussed (if it is to be) with people who share more in common with us than the negationism/antinegationism discussion.

Secondly, in the revolutionary milieu (let's use that awkward phrase for convenience's sake), some individuals and groups, who did not care much about us in general, nor about La Banquise when it came out in 1983, discovered thirteen years later how disreputable we'd been for a long time, most likely as early as the 1970s. When their daily paper informed them how bad we were, they realised we were not to be associated with, and they now act as if some dubious destiny had returned to claim us. But they never associated with us anyway. If now some people want any quote from us, or the mere mention of one of our names, to come with a reminder of our shady past, like government health warnings on cigarette packets, well, let it be.

Thirdly and fortunately, those with an interest in (and possible disagreement with) our past and present activities do not let our bad reputation put an end to their interest.

If we ever deal in depth with the matter, one of the conditions will be to inquire into the exact nature of the notion of "negationism", which deserves as much critical assessment as for example "terrorism". (A very helpful book in that respect is P. Novick's The Holocaust and collective memory.) For the moment, we'll just reproduce our 1999 comment on the sentence you quote. This is enough to show the difference between our approach and that of the accusers and insinuators.

"The concentration camp is the hell of a world whose heaven is the supermarket. (La Banquise, # 1, 1983) Clearly for us there exists neither heaven nor hell. A horrible reality created its infernal representation. Modern consumerism produces its heavenly images. In both cases, the expression used by La Banquise dealt with images and did not compare the realities upon which either is based, far less deny their existence.

The "normal" regime of exploitation does not have a different picture from that of the camps. The camp is simply a clearer picture of the somewhat veiled hell where so many people live around the world. (Robert Antelme, Pauvre-Prolétaire-Deporté, 1948) Of course the final solution is not specifically referred to in this statement, as Antelme is talking about concentration camps rather than extermination camps. But who would accuse Antelme of minimising the atrocity of the camps ? (He was no ultra-leftist, rather a radical humanist, who joined the French CP in 1946 and was expelled a few years later.)

The concentration camps are the hell of a world whose heaven is the supermarket. Why is this phrase unacceptable ? Why does the leftist, forgetting everything we've just said, forgetting even Antelme whom he may have read, understand this as an odious comparison between a gas chamber and people queuing at Tesco's ? Because, although he does not love supermarkets, he sees no horror in them. Just as he would like a democratic society with reduced wage differentials, he dreams of a consumer-friendly shopping centre, with bicycle lanes, linking together the local community, displaying more educational CD-Roms than Barbie dolls, selling organic food and "fair" priced Bolivian coffee. In other words, commodity with a human face. For those who have no critique of the supermarket as a concentration of market relations and a place of overall deprivation, La Banquise's turn of phrase sounds weirdly paradoxical, even abominable.

For us, just as much as for our accusers, it is how we view the supermarket (and society) which determines how we view the camps, not the other way round. So it would be a hopeless task to try and disarm our prosecutors by defending our position on Auschwitz when what matters is to attack them on the supermarket question. The central issue has never been an analysis of Nazism or of genocide, rather a question of how we relate to this society here and now." (The X-Filers, 1999)