The history lesson

The Italian chemist Primo Levi (1919-1987), sent to Auschwitz in 1944, went down in history as the author, in 1947, of If it’s a man, one of the most precise and moving accounts of life in the Nazi concentration camps. He subsequently published several books of different genres, all driven by the desire to understand this upsurge of absolute evil in history.

In the eponymous short storyAuschwitz, quiet town (Albin Michel, 2022, 208 pages), a collection of penetrating narrative texts, between the short story and the essay, brought together for the first time, Levi reiterates his obsession with understanding those he calls the lords of evil. The psychology of these monsters of cruelty—Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Goebbels and others—has been studied in hundreds of books, notes Levi, without any satisfactory conclusions being drawn.

In this mission, notes the writer, the documentary approach shows its limits because “it almost never has the power to restore to us the background of a human being: it is the business, more than historian or psychologist, playwright or poet.

The short story of Levi therefore tells a story, that of Mertens, a young German chemist who accepts, in the hope of professional advancement, to go to work at the Buna rubber factories in Auschwitz, Poland, in which work forces thousands of Jewish prisoners, including Levi. When he comes back to Germany, for holidays, during the war, we ask him questions, we ask him how things are going at Auschwitz, and he only answers banalities.

Several years later, hearing about him, Levi sends him a letter. “I told him, summarizes the writer, that if Hitler came to power, if he devastated Europe and led Germany to ruin, it was because many good German citizens behaved like him. , trying not to see and hiding what they saw. »

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It is precisely of the same cowardice that the vast majority of French citizens of the same period were accused. In the summer of 1940, France was defeated and occupied by Germany, with the exception of a so-called free zone, run from Vichy by the government of Marshal Pétain, inclined to please the Germans.

Serious historians, such as the American Robert Paxton, and a host of poignant films depict the French of that time as passive accomplices or “functional collaborators” with the occupier, which would explain, in particular, the cruel fate reserved for the Jews. of France. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac, in a historic speech, acknowledged France’s responsibility in the persecution and deportation of the country’s Jews.

A specialist in genocide, extreme violence and civil resistance in Nazi Europe, the great French historian Jacques Semelin, who is also a psychologist, contests this reading of events in A French enigma (Albin Michel, 2022, 224 pages), a remarkable essay that stands out as a history lesson.

The enigma of the title, submitted to the historian by the survivor Simone Veil, is the following: “How is it that so many Jews were able to survive in France despite the Vichy government? Despite the Nazis? You should know, in fact, that 75% of the Jews of France survived, whereas they were only 25% to get by in the Netherlands and 52% in Belgium.

Semelin, in 2008, embarked on the investigation. His main book on the subject, Persecutions and mutual aid in occupied France (Threshold), will be published in 2013. In A French enigma, he mainly returns to his approach. A blind researcher and friend from Quebec, where he came to teach in 2017, Semelin is a determined and subtle man. He patiently collects testimonials and quantitative data. He evokes his mind listening to the voices of the past in an effort to understand, his concern to “write history without knowing the end of the story” by avoiding the trap of anachronism and his refusal to give reason to those who, like the troublemaker Éric Zemmour, want to use this figure – 75% of Jews saved in France – to feed far-right patriotism.

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The collaborating Vichy government, Semelin insists, pursued a criminal policy. It was not he who saved the Jews of France. 75% of the latter owe their survival rather to their own resourcefulness, to the 3,800 French people recognized as Righteous by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem and to “the sincere sympathy of all French people” for the Jews of the country, since hey understood, from the summer of 1942, the fate reserved for them.

A model historian, Semelin, in this brilliant investigative supplement, restores the honor of France, without forgetting its weaknesses.

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