Historical News and Comment
Interview with Michel De Böuard on the Thesis of Nantes
This interview, which originally appeared in the French newspaper, Ouest-France (August I-2, 1986) has been translated from the French journal Revue d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaire [Review of Modern and Contemporary History], tome xxxiv, January-March 1987. The original was written by Jacques Lebailly.
When a member of the [French] Institute, with a brilliant career as a historian, and an incontestable patriotic record (Commander of the Legion of Honor, War Cross, Resistance Medal), dares to say, in the midst of a polemic in which the minister of higher education deemed himself obliged to enter: "Had I been a member of the jury, I would probably have given a grade of Very Good' to Mr. Roques' thesis," it may seem a provocation. At the very least it can only be an act of uncommon courage. It is that indeed, and furthermore, it's an appeal to intellectual rigor in the grave debate on deportation.
Michel de Böuard, former dean of the faculty of letters at Caen, is a renowned medievalist, a member of the Committee for the History of the Second World War, who campaigned against fascism before the war. He continues to proclaim his commitments as a Catholic and a man of the Left (today he still speaks with emotion of his long service in the ranks of the Communists, which he left in 1960). A scholar and a man not prone to exaggerate, he fought in the Resistance and was deported to Mauthausen, where he was registered as number 63584, category NN. He is one critic who can't be labeled either an amateur or a nostalgist for Nazism.
Mr. Roques' thesis defines itself in its title: The Confessions of Kurt Gerstein. A Comparative Study of the Different Versions - Critical Edition. Gerstein's testimony has been known since 1947. There were several versions available. It is an important text because everyone who has dealt with the concentration camps has adduced this testimony. It was poorly understood and has been used with a carelessness which a historian cannot tolerate. (Embarrassing passages were excised due to things which seemed untrue, different versions were conflated, etc.) The thesis is a good critical edition. It is true that one sensed perhaps a certain ... partiality, but where is the thesis without it? A thesis is not a catechism! A thesis is to be discussed, and if I had been a member of the jury I would have discussed it with the author. I don't agree with everything, but a critical study was needed. Its been done and I say: thank you Mr. Roques. In any case, according to my reading, it is not true that this thesis denies the existence of the gas chambers."
Ouest-France: "If one were to accept, like Mr. Roques, that the Gerstein testimony is to be completely rejected, would that change anything regarding your belief in the gas chambers?" Michel de Böuard: "Certainly not!"
And Mr. de Böuard explains that there is a distinction to be made between the conviction of the former deportee based on what he's seen, heard, (and also believed, because that derives from logic and common sense) and the "proofs" obligatory for a historian, for whom a deportee is not to be believed merely on the strength of his word. The fact that each day thousands of deportees entered a given place and were never seen leaving is the determinative element of conviction, he says, which doesn't prevent pointing out the danger of certain certitudes which he admits he himself was the victim of: "In the monograph on Mauthausen which I wrote for La Revue d'histoire de la Seconde Guerre mondiale [Review of the History of the Second World War] in 1954, in two places I spoke of a gas chamber. Reflecting on this later I said to myself: where did I acquire the conviction that there was a gas chamber at Mauthausen? It wasn't during my stay at the camp, for neither I nor anyone else suspected there was one there, it was rather a rumor I heard after the war, that's granted. Then I noticed that in my text -- although I supported most of my statements with references -- there was no reference concerning the gas chamber ...
"Now, I was a member of the French command of the international resistance organization at the camp and we were well informed about what happened there.
"Besides, it seems the specialists, notably those from the Institute for [Contemporary] History in Munich, have learned that gassings didn't take place anywhere but in the camps Chelmno, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Majdanek. There weren't any in the camps within Germany (within the borders of 1937)."
Michel de Böuard, without, however, giving in to new certitudes, remains sceptical about gassings at Mauthausen.
"It was also thought," he continues, "that there must have been a set-up for execution by shooting. About this I can say that I once saw a group of twenty or thirty men standing at the door of the building which housed the bunker and the crematorium. They went in one by one, at intervals of several seconds, and later I noticed while looking at the registries for deaths in the camp, on which I have done a good deal of work, that the deaths were entered at intervals of one minute."
"Whether the killings were carried out in one manner or another changes none of the horror of the camps, but it is not necessary to say anything on that. When the texts of this writer or that are invoked, let's begin by doing what is done in the study of every historical problem: establishing all the written, oral and material sources, everything there is, and then making a critical study, source by source, and there will be no more of these polemics."
Ouest-France: You've taken into consideration that your stand (which, in view of your past, can in no way be an ideological stance) could supply grist to the mill of certain ... nostalgics?"
Michel de Böuard: "I don't disregard that. Naturally I can't say that I give it no notice, but frankly what am I to do? I am a historian and the truth alone interests me. Besides all this won't benefit the fascists, etc. None of that is serious."
Ouest-France: "It's been said that the Roques thesis was accomplished in an irregular fashion."
Michel de Böuard: "That's another problem. If there were irregularities in form, it is unacceptable, but then one would have to say that is was necessary to nullify the oral dissertation."
Ouest-France: "You were president of the Association of Deportees of Calvados and you resigned. Why?"
Michel de Böuard: "I found myself torn between my conscience as a historian and the duties that entails, and my attachment to a group of comrades I love deeply but who don't wish to recognize the necessity of treating the historical fact of the deportation in accordance with sound historical method.
"I'm haunted by the thought that in a hundred years, or even fifty, historians will submit the concentration camp system of the Second World War to investigation and by the thought of what they will discover. The file is rotten. On the one hand there is a vast amount of tall tales and inaccuracies, repeated obstinately, particularly on the numerical scale, of amalgamations, generalizations, and, on the other hand, there are very solid critical studies which demonstrate how ridiculous these exaggerations are. I fear that historians will say, finally, that the deportation itself must have been a myth. Thats the danger. This thought haunts me."
- [In France the terms déporté, déportation, etc. connote more than deportation: they embrace the entire concentration camp experience. -- Ed.]
- The abbreviation NN is commonly interpreted to mean Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog). Another interpretation has been advanced as well: Nomen nescio [Name unknown].
- [An English translation of Henri Roques' thesis will soon be available from IHR.-Ed.]
From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1988 (Vol. 8, No. 3), pages 381-384.