Pierre Vidal-Naquet

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Pierre Vidal-Naquet, 76, French Opponent of Torture

par Margalit Fox
The New York Times - 14 septembre 2006

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an eminent French historian of the ancient world who became widely known for exposing wartime atrocities of the modern one, died on July 29 in Nice. He was 76.

The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage, his publisher, Éditions la Découverte, told the French newspaper Le Monde on July 30. Mr. Vidal-Naquet’s death has not been widely reported outside of Europe.

A leading scholar of Greek antiquity, Mr. Vidal-Naquet became known to a broad general readership as an outspoken opponent of Holocaust deniers. He was also one of the first people to document the systematic use of torture by the French during the Algerian war for independence in the 1950’s and early 60’s.

Reviewing Mr. Vidal-Naquet’s book “Assassins of Memory : Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust” in The New York Times Book Review, Walter Reich wrote : “Mr. Vidal-Naquet — a Jew whose parents were deported from France during the German occupation and whose mother died in Auschwitz — is a subtle writer whose passion about the subject is expressed by means of a gracefully piercing irony. His reader, though dragged through the mire of intellectual dishonesty that characterizes the writings of Holocaust deniers, is nevertheless elevated by the energy and nobility of Mr. Vidal-Naquet’s intellectual and moral power and achieves, in the end, a deep appreciation of the absolute centrality of truth to the twin tasks of writing history and preserving memory.”

Pierre Emmanuel Vidal-Naquet was born in Paris on July 23, 1930. His father, a lawyer, was an early member of the French Resistance in World War II ; after Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, the family fled to Marseille.
One day in 1944, as Pierre was headed home from school, friends intercepted him and warned him away : the Germans had just arrested his parents. He never saw them again. Pierre spent the war in hiding in the French countryside.

After the war, he returned to Paris, earning a degree in history from the Sorbonne in 1952. M. Vidal-Naquet was for many years director of research at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Mr. Vidal-Naquet is survived by his wife, Geneviève Railhac, and three sons, Denis, Jacques and Vincent, according to European news accounts.

In 1958, at the height of the Algerian war, M. Vidal-Naquet published “L’Affaire Audin.” The book, which caused a sensation in France, told the story of Maurice Audin, a young Communist mathematician in Algiers who had disappeared the year before while in French custody there. M. Vidal-Naquet established that M. Audin had been tortured to death by the French military, which then covered up the killing.

For years to come, Mr. Vidal-Naquet spoke out on French atrocities in Algeria. In 2001, France’s highest court ruled in his favor in a libel suit brought by the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Vidal-Naquet had publicly accused M. Le Pen, a former paratrooper, of torturing Algerians in 1957. (M. Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party, has routinely denied such accusations.)

Mr. Vidal-Naquet’s other books, many of which have been translated into English, include “Torture : Cancer of Democracy, France and Algeria, 1954-62” ; “The Black Hunter : Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World” ; and “The Jews : History, Memory, and the Present.”

In his writings on the Holocaust, Mr. Vidal-Naquet was committed in particular to refuting the work of Robert Faurisson, a French academic who has claimed publicly for decades that the systematic extermination of Jews in Nazi gas chambers never took place.

At the end of an essay on M. Faurisson in “Assassins of Memory,” Mr. Vidal-Naquet wrote : “Anyone can dream of a society in which Faurissons would be unthinkable and even attempt to work toward its realization. But they exist just as evil exists — around us and in us. Let us be happy if, in this gray world that is ours, we can accumulate a few parcels of truth, experience a few fragments of satisfaction.”

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