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<I>l'Humanité,</I> Obituary for Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Obituary for Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Maurice Ulrich, >l'Humanité

Original French title: "Pierre Vidal-Naquet n’est plus,"
by Maurice Ulrich, translated by Patrick Bolland

An internationally recognised historian, a rigorous and committed intellectual, Pierre Vidal-Naquet was actively engaged in all the struggles for justice in his incessant and courageous search for “fragments of truth”. He died last week [July 29, 2006] at the age of 76.

“It is human beings, real people, who are killed by torture” he told Jean-Paul Montferran in an interview published in l’Humanité on 3 November 2000.

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who fell victim to a cerebral hemorrhage last Monday passed away on Friday night. He had decribed himself as “an activist historian, determined to participate in society as a full citizen”. He directed his erudite passion to Ancient Greece where the very idea of democracy was born. He also led the most principled struggles of our own times for justice and truth.He was one of the 12 signatories of the Manifesto for acknowledging the systematic torture in Algeria as a state crime, a petition coordinated by Charles Silvestre and launched by the radio programme France-Inter in October 2000. Throughout his life he was at the forefront of combatting revisionism and negationism about the reality of extermination in the nazi concentration camps. In 1958 he was one of the signatories of the “Appeal of the 121” against the war in Algeria (1) and was suspended by Lille University for taking this stand.

He was the author of one of the two books which shook the conscience of tens of thousands of French men and women, ensuring their long-term commitment against the war Algeria. The other book was Henri Alleg’s “The Question”. Pierre Vidal-Naquet wrote “L’Affaire Maurice Audin”, in which he attacked the lies surrounding the disappearance of a young, communist mathematician, who was arrested by the French army in 1957 and simply disappeared, supposedly having “escaped”. Pierre Vidal-Naquet became president of the Maurice Audin Committee.

A world-renowned historian

He was a research director at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, a specialist in Ancient Greece like his friend and colleague Jean-Pierre Vernant, with whom he co-authored several books. He was born into a Jewish family of the Comtat Venaissain in southern France, a family that was profoundly republican and strictly seculqr. His father, a lawyer, told him in detail about the Dreyfus affair and this affected him profoundly, even before history would cruelly bear its mark on him. He was 11 years old when this same father was denied the right to practise his profession because he was a Jew. In May 1944, his parents were arrested in Marseille. They would never return. As he wrote in his “Memoires”, they were “the fracture and the wait for their return” – an endless wait “which nothing will ever be able to replace”. (The first volume of his autobiography was titled La brisure et l’attente.

As a young man after the war, he lived in Paris and continued his studies at the Lycée Carnot where he immersed himself in literature and tragedy, so much so that we was able to recall by heart long passages from Sophocles, Corneille and Racine. A brilliant student, he chose to study history for his finals at the lycée, because he felt that this subject was at the crossroads of literature and philosophy.

Like thousands of other intellectuals of his generations, in 1947-48 he was tempted to join the communist party – “It was the only Party one could imagine belonging to”. But he was convinced that the Rajk trial – named after the Hungarian communist leader who was the victim, along with 17 others, of one of the major Stalinist trials of the post-war period – was “a monumental frame-up”. This persuaded him not to join the Party: “My decision was final: I would never become a member of the communist party.” Nor of any other party, except the PSU (Unified Socialist Party) for a few years, which he considered principally a discussion group. This was not, however, an obstacle to political commitment, quite the contrary, and this independence doubtless allowed him to become freer to defend the causes which he would espouse without, perhaps, having to always justify them. Thus, as he said about the Audin Committee where he worked alongside communists, “We have developed our reasoning outside political parties and the positions we have adopted would not have been conceivable in the framework of a political party”.

In the same way, when he considered becoming a historian of the Spanish Civil War, he chose instead Greek Antiquity in order to “avoid complex political issues to resolve”, by studying “a world that was so distant”. This distant world became familiar to him as he deconstructed myths and fabulations, confrontations between memory and history, in a constant search for “fragments of truth”. This search was at the root of his political convictions. For this historian, the enormous heritage of Athenian democracy – with its well-known limits, of slavery and the exploitation of women – was, above all, the term “democracy” itself: “Without the word democracy one cannot explain that from the Middle Ages there were democratic movements ... What was characteristic of the Greek state and was a true invention can be found in the texts of the 7th Century BC, under such formulas as “The people agreed that ... ” and “The people decided that ... “.

A way of thinking that is so relevant today. In these times which are so threatening, we have lost a very great voice.

[Translator’s note]

(1) Along with Jean-Paul Sartre and many others, he signed the Manifeste des 121, a call for civil disobedience against the Algerian war.

[Some of Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s publications: The Assassins of Memory and Other Essays La Grèce ancienne - Du mythe à la raison, with Jean-Pierre Vernant, Le Seuil, coll. Points, 1990 L’Affaire Audin, 1957-1978, éditions de Minuit, 1989 [new edition with added material] La torture dans la République : essai d’histoire et de politique contemporaine, 1954-1962, Minuit, 1998 (Torture: Cancer in Democracy, out of print) La solution finale dans l’histoire, with Arno Mayer, La Découverte, 2002 Mémoires t.1 - La brisure et l’attente, 1930-1955, Le Seuil, 1998.]