Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 413-415
[Access article in PDF]
The Haunting Past: History, Memory, and Justice in Contemporary France. By Henry Rousso. Translated by Ralph Schoolcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. xxii, 96 pp. $29.95. ISBN 0-8122-3645-9.
The Haunting Past is a brief but richly textured treatment of the role of the historian in dealing with information about contemporary political and legal matters. Originally published as La hantise du passé: Entretien avec Philippe Petit (Paris: Éditions Textuel, 1998), the book consists of three interviews conducted by Petit, an independent Parisian journalist, with Henry Rousso, director of the Institut d'histoire du temps présent, author of The Vichy Syndrome (1987), and coauthor with Eric Conan of Vichy: An Ever-Present Past (1994).
Rousso's book is one of several recent publications that focus on shifting perceptions of past events and how they are commemorated. (What really happened? It depends on who is remembering.) Pierre Nora's Realms of Memory (Columbia University Press, 1996-98) and Daniel Sherman's The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (University of Chicago Press, 1999) come to mind, along with Avner Ben-Amos's Funerals, Politics, and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996 (Oxford University Press, 2000). While Rousso also discusses the issues of memory, commemoration, and historical writing, he is mainly concerned with the role of the historian as participant in legal controversies such as the trials of those accused of collaboration during the occupation of France during World War II. Rousso defends in a convincing manner his premise that historians should [End Page 413] serve "truth" rather than any particular cause, even one in which they might wholeheartedly believe.
As France began reluctantly to examine the Vichy years, highly publicized trials turned into what Rousso has described as "vectors of memory" (xii). The courts were supposed to reveal just who had been responsible for which crimes, especially those concerned with the persecution and deportation of Jews in France. Rousso covered the 1994 trial of Paul Touvier, the former member of a Vichy militia and the first Frenchman condemned for crimes against humanity, for the newspaper Libération. His doubts as to the real value of the trial were described in Vichy: An Ever-Present Past. However, it was the later case of Maurice Papon that attracted the greatest attention not only of historians and the press but the general public as well. Papon had been a much more important figure than Touvier, even serving as the prefect of Paris police under de Gaulle and finance minister under Giscard d'Estaing. During World War II Papon had been secretary general of the prefecture of the occupied Gironde region and was thus implicated in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux. Although Papon was indicted for crimes against humanity in 1983, his case did not come to trial until 1997, when he was eighty-eight years old, and in 1998 he was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Rousso was one of the leading historians of the Vichy period who was asked to testify at Papon's trial. In a letter to the presiding chief justice in Bordeaux, Rousso wrote that he did not wish to testify at the trial and presented his reasons based on "ethical grounds and a question of principle" (85). He wrote that "in my soul and conscience, I believe that historians cannot be 'witnesses' and that a role as 'expert witness' rather poorly suits the rules and objectives of a court trial. It is one thing to try to understand history in the context of a research project or course lesson, with the intellectual freedom that such activities presuppose; it is quite another to try to do so under oath when an individual's fate hangs in the balance." He went on to explain that "the argumentation developed in a trial is not of the same nature as that produced by scholars" (86).
The interviews with Philippe Petit in The Haunting Past continue to elaborate Rousso's reasons for refusing to testify at the Papon trial...