Diana Johnstone and the Politics of Memory


The January 24-26 edition of CounterPunch contains an article by Diana Johnstone entitled Blasphemy in Secular France. The article is about the French comedian, Dieudonné, who has been accused of anti-Semitism, and who is a political ally of the far right National Front. Dieudonné has made jokes about the concentration camps and has expressed admiration for the Holocaust denier, Robert Farrison. Discussing the criticisms of Dieudonné, Johnstone writes:

    For his fans and supporters, those accusations are false and absurd. The most significant result of the Dieudonné uproar so far is probably the dawning realization, among more and more people, that the “Shoah”, or Holocaust, functions as the semi-official State Religion of France.

Oh. Really? Really?

Johnstone goes on:

    In addition to history courses, teachers organize commemorations of the Shoah and trips to Auschwitz. Media reminders of the Shoah are almost daily. Unique in French history, the so-called Gayssot law provides that any statement denying or minimizing the Shoah can be prosecuted and even lead to prison.

    Scores of messages received from French citizens in response to my earlier article (CounterPunch, January 1, 2014) as well as private conversations make it clear to me that reminders of the Shoah are widely experienced by people born decades after the defeat of Nazism as invitations to feel guilty or at least uncomfortable for crimes they did not commit. Like many demands for solemnity, the Shoah can be felt as a subject that imposes uneasy silence. Laughter is then felt as liberation.

Under the Vichy government, 76,000 French Jews were sent to concentration camps. Some would see the willingness of the French to discuss a shameful episode of their history as something admirable. Here in the U.S., some people get upset whenever one tries to talk about the genocide of Native Americans or the horrors of slavery. Johnstone, however, believes such discussions can only make people feel guilty and depressed. What’s more, she believes that they are based on a false view of history:

    The sacred nature of the Shoah is defended by the argument that keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust is essential to prevent it from “happening again”. By suggesting the possibility of repetition, it keeps fear alive.

    Nothing proves that repeated reminders of an immense historic event that happened in the past prevent it from happening again. History doesn’t work that way. As for the Shoah, gas chambers and all, it is quite preposterous to imagine that it could happen again considering all the factors that made it happen in the first place. Hitler had a project to confirm the role of Germans as the master “Aryan” race in Europe, and hated the Jews as a dangerous rival elite. Who now has such a project? Certainly not a Franco-African humorist! Hitler is not coming back, nor is Napoleon Bonaparte, nor is Attila the Hun.

Johnstone attacks an argument that no one makes. Nobody really believes that the Third Reich is going to happen all over again. Hatred, however, can take many forms, not just the form of a concentration camp. There were 614 anti-Semitic attacks, including physical and verbal attacks, recorded in France in 2012. In March of that year, three children and a rabbi were shot to death outside of a Jewish school. Given this context, it should not be surprising that some people do not find Dieudonné’s jokes about the Holocaust “liberating”.

2 Responses to “Diana Johnstone and the Politics of Memory”

  1. James Robb Says:

    This attempt by Diana Johnstone to pretty up Dieudonne’s humour as a bit of light-hearted ‘irreverence’ towards a ‘semi-official state religion’ of the holocaust is disgraceful. Would she defend ‘irreverant’ jokes about, say, the Sabra-Shatila massacre, or the Cambodian genocide, or other similar established facts of history? Perhaps she thinks educating people about the horrors of African slavery should be ended now – because it was all so long ago, and we want to ‘look ahead,’ and besides, it’s never going to come back? Most revealing is her statement that ‘reminders of the Shoah are widely experienced…as invitations to feel guilty…’ I wonder: why would you feel guilty, unless you felt some kind of identification with the regime that committed these crimes?

    However, the clumsy efforts of the French authorities and others to ban Dieudonne’s shows, silence him by crippling lawsuits and other anti-free-speech measures certainly confuse the issue and make matters worse. His brand of humour should be denounced, not repressed.

  2. The Spanish Prisoner Says:

    I agree with you. Censorship is never a good thing.

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