Mary Louise Roberts: It’s a great honor to have Annette Becker here today. She’s a professor of contemporary history at Paris Nanterre La Défense and a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. She has written extensively on the two World Wars and the extreme violence that they nurtured, with an emphasis on military occupations and two genocides, against the Armenians and against the Jews in the Holocaust. She has devoted research to humanitarian politics, trauma and memories, particularly among intellectuals and artists.
So, you know, typical of Annette, between the time we wrote this introduction and now, she’s published a new book. [laughter] She’s probably writing an article right now as I’m speaking, which will then be published. So this is called L’immontrable: Guerres and violences extrêmes dans l’art et la littérature, which means basically “The Unshowable,” right? “Extreme War and Violence in Art and in Literature.” She also wrote an amazing book on Guillaume Apollinaire, Biographie de guerre de Guillaume Apollinaire 1914-1918 in 2009. Which won two incredibly prestigious prizes, Prix de la biographie littéraire de l’Académie française and the Prix Honneur et Patrie. And finally again on the First World War, she’s written Les cicatrices rouges, 14-18, France et Belgique occupées.
Now our topic for today is this absolutely amazing book, which I had the great honor to read in French and now in English — I have to say I think the translation is terrific — and it’s on two men, Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) and Jan Karski (1914-2000). Both of, Lemkin was a lawyer and inventor of the term “genocide,” and Karski was an activist and member of the Polish background. So let me send it to your capable hands.
Annette Becker: Thank you so much. We decided with Skye that I would do a very short introduction, but the bulk will be the question of Lou. I’m very eager to have a conversation with her. I think you were one of the first enthusiastic readers of my book when it was out in French. But first I want to thank the Mosse Center and Skye and the University of Wisconsin Press
because I think the American edition, it’s so beautiful. First it is incredibly well-translated by Käthe Roth, and you found her and she’s a fantastic translator. And then, the way the book was done. And I want just to start with the cover, which is very different from the — hold up, you have the French edition here. And I did choose the French cover. And we discussed this one. And I think their choice, the choice of Wisconsin, is so much more intelligent because — no, no, but it’s true, because it’s exactly what I want to say in the book. Here it is the repression, the Holocaust is in already, when here, they don’t know. It is 1940. The Jews of Warsaw are round up and sent to the, what they called the Jewish Quarter. It’s even not called the ghetto at the time. They know they are persecuted, obviously began immediately when the war was on in 1939. But they have no idea of what is going to happen. And it is what I like about this cover, because it is again an outline of what is the book saying, that even when people have ideas, even when they know what is going on, they cannot take it, because it’s impossible to take something of this magnitude. So this is the idea behind the book. And so I’m very, very grateful that the image on the book conveys it so intelligently. I hope for the Press that it will be a book that you sell very well, because really, you deserve it, and I hope it will be quite great for the series.
Being in Madison every time I think of my friendship with George Mosse, with a lot of warmth and a little bit of sadness, obviously. I was seeing the stops in this city and I remember he told me that only in Wisconsin you can have four stops and the people know how to do it. And he told me in France, it will be immediately world war. [laughter] So I just wanted to quote him. And yesterday I saw one like that, I said oh, George, dear old George.
So back very quickly to the book before the conversation with Lou. I put this quotation of Marc Bloch (1886-1944) who is my favorite historian, it’s not very difficult. Marc Bloch was a medievalist but fought in the two wars, and finally was shot
by the Germans when he was taken as an underground fighter. And he thought a lot, even if he was a medievalist, about the time he was living in. He thought about the First World War, where he was a veteran, and he thought about the Second World War, where he was again a veteran. And Strange Defeat (1946) is probably one of the most famous books in history, in the entire academic world, I would say. And what he says there, it’s about the First World War. “It looks like most men travel through life eyes half shut, in an exterior world they ignore to look at.” It is actually the intellectual logic of my work in this book, try to discover back what people saw, but could not see, that they knew, but could not believe they were knowing it.
And to have an entry in this world, I choose to follow two Poles. One was very easy to pick: it was obviously Raphael Lemkin because he invented the word “genocide.” But my first idea when I began to do this work, perhaps ten years ago all together, was really to know more about Lemkin. He is very famous now, and we are going to speak alas about genocide later on. And obviously now he’s very well known. More and more every month, there is always new work on him. But ten years ago, he was not, or nearly not. And my idea was how can this guy have been to this world within? So it was my first entrance.
And the second entrance was Karski, and I thought Karski was very interesting because he was not Jewish. And because he was not Jewish, he was an underground fighter, but he finally, very early on, even before Lemkin, in a way, during the war he found out about the “Jewish problem” in Poland very early on. And he understood what was going on because a lot of Poles were opposed to the Nazis, but did not see what was going on with the Jews. He saw that. So it was the beginning of my book, how these two men and others obviously around, but they are the two main characters, can bring the unicity of what will be called later the Holocaust. I will call it
the Jewish persecution first, and then the Jewish extermination. What were called at the time, and resonant with today, war crimes. And these war crimes, everybody knew about them. But only very few people could understand there was something special about it. So it was really the bulk of the work.
That’s why I thought and I still think that we have to move to a new question from who knew what, which was the question forever — there is a million books of Roosevelt knew, yes, he knew, obviously. But it’s not because he knew, that he knew! And so the second question: one, who denied it; two, why was it impossible to believe people like Karski or Lemkin or Varian Fry (1907-1967) who when he came back from France immediately wrote about it, wrote about extermination. And Varian Fry is very important to me for a number of reasons. First, because he saved so many people in Marseilles during the Second World War before coming back to the States. One who was working with him was my belated friend, Albert Hirschman (1915-2012), who was in Marseilles with him. I spend a lot of time at Princeton with Hirschman about this story, and it will be another book, I hope, one day.
But when I was friends with Hirschman, I didn’t know about Fry having written so early on on the fact that what was going on in 42 in Europe was like in the Armenian case. I had no idea of that about fifteen years ago when I was friends with Albert, and suddenly here it was.
And I was, when I began this project, a specialist on the First World War, and so I put the two together. There was something going on in the Second World War and something of the same magnitude had happened in First World War, but it was pushed on the side. The Armenians were totally pushed on the side. And more, there were war crimes during the First World War, what were called German atrocities mainly, but there was also Russian atrocities — those are long stories we can go
until today — and this has been totally repressed.
And here it was coming, and people like Fry and the guy Raphael Lemkin actually, in 1933, he had already thought about it. And he was on the way to invent the word “genocide,” but he did not go all the way and he invented only in 43, probably, and it was published for the first time in January 1944. So the time it was printed, obviously it was in the year 43 that it was invented.
So it’s about the idea of the book and what I want to show through images, it is the way things were known, but could not be believed. Some are in the book, some are not. This is the file in the National Archives in Kew, in London. And I was there to look at files about Karski. Karski being a courier and coming with microfilms in his watch or somewhere else, and obviously I didn’t know what I was going to find. And once this file arrives, my god, “Warning: Some images may cause distress.” And you know, it’s just amazing! The archivists are so nice. You know, poor people, it was in 2011 or something like that, that was in this archives, you know, they’re so nice. And I had all the papers, writings, I had no idea it was full of images. These images were terrible. So these kind of images. So I show only one, it will be enough for the moment.
And on the right is a secretary of Churchill who says a number of things. “Some more horrible photograph, different one this time. We don’t want to see them again.” So, you see? So they have something very special. They know it comes from Warsaw. They know this kid is dead of hunger, obviously. And they don’t want to see it, other of this series. So it is when they take all the dead bodies and they push them — did I —
Roberts: No, I just want to make sure everyone can see the pictures. Yeah.
Becker: Yeah, I’m not sure you want to see.
Roberts: Even if they don’t want to see.
Becker: I don’t want to see. In the case we don’t want to see them. So this is the real — to tell you the truth, they are not Karski’s photos.
They are another courier’s photos because the ones Karski had, nobody knows where they are, they are lost, but it is the same kind of photos probably he had from what he said. So you can see, they are the same. In 1940, they were still, some were very well dressed, bourgeois, obviously, Jews. And they have been eating normally. And there it is two years later. So you can see that they are the same, obviously.
So this was in archives. Only Churchill, the secretary, the Foreign Office could see them obviously. And then I go to that, and the first time I saw it, it was the same day, it was just amazing because I had an appointment in the Wiener Collection, big Jewish collection in London. The afternoon, I discovered this. And I was alternating my two archives. And so I wanted to see “Let My People Go,” which is a very famous pamphlet about the massacre of the Jews by Victor Gollancz (1893-1967). And there was another one called “Stop Them Now” that I did not know at the time, but I found out it was very famous.
And what was in this, so this is the original photo. Cropped, I’m sorry. And what was in it? The same photos. It meant this little pamphlet of 19 — of the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, add these photos. And you could buy it in London as you wanted. There were rallies from the Polish Jews who were in London to try to wake the British to what was happening. And they were saying, there is an awful warring, and it is what Churchill, then Roosevelt would say all the time. The war is awful, but they were saying something more: the war will be finished at some point, and it will be won by us, and the perpetrator will be punished. So that’s why the official specialists they never saw, stopped. But what was in these people? The Jews of Europe, who have been disappeared. It will not be any more Jew. And for this, there was no word. There was something which had never happened, except in the Armenian case, but very few people at the time did the link between the two.
So I wanted to show these images because it was really what made me shape the book, and after that, a lot of evidence like that. So you can really draw your case. This is the first one I showed you in the leaflet now. And what I wanted to show also is that because I, it is because I was visiting Richard (Goodkin, Professor of French, UW-Madison) that I went to the University of Wisconsin a lot. You have incredible files of old magazines of the Second World War and you see in Collier’s, which is very difficult to find. I think they have one copy in the New York Library, I think, Public Library, and this one right here. And you have the same kind of drawing when Karski was interviewed, he was speaking about it. He spoke also to the great writer Koestler (b. Kösztler Artúr, 1905-1983) and that’s why Koestler in Arrival and Departure (1943) could speak about the extermination of the Jews. But even if there was all that, people could even not believe.
And I love cartoons, I think it’s a great way to enter a culture or a civilization. And you see how light it is. It is in the spring of 1944. And it is a New Yorker. She’s wonderful, the cartoonist, but you see what this is. “I don’t think I can stand another concentration camp.” So “the whole thing was terribly dated. Nobody ever commits murder with prussic acid anymore.” And this is my favorite, and I stopped on this one. [surprised sounds from audience] Can you believe it? When I found that, I was in this library [Memorial Library at UW-Madison], just across. And I was beginning to scream. And okay, it is a world where Jews were exterminated. We are in America, but you have the same thing in Britain. I mean, Brits are a little less blunt about it, but they were saying the same thing, but the cartoon’s really incredible.
And during the same time, Lemkin was working at the [unclear] but he’d come back later. Just as a conclusion, Lemkin saying while the losses of war can be repaired, the losses of genocide are irreparable. And I think something is very critical, and so we need that for discussion, and Lemkin was so upset, as you know, in Nuremburg, the word will not be accepted. It was said, but not accepted. And he was so upset, he was writing all the time genocide all over, and especially cultural genocide like here.
And cultural genocide ‘til today has not been accepted. As you know, it’s not in the convention. And we can still think about it. To you!
Roberts: Okay. Thank you. That was very helpful. I have to say, I was crossing out my questions. [laughter] I have also experienced denial in my work. I seem to also be uncovering things people don’t want to look at. So I wrote a book about GIs and French women, What Soldiers Do (2013), and in that, I portrayed the GIs in less than “the good generation” terms. I kind of gave the lie to the Great Generation. And I’ve received really vicious responses to that book. I mean, I got good criticism, I won prizes and things.
Becker: Yeah, it’s a wonderful book.
Roberts: In fact —
Becker: But out of academia, I suppose?
Roberts: Yes. Among veterans, in particular veterans of Vietnam War. And in general, people thought this was the good war. We need this war to be good. So at one point, we had a police person watching my door. That was how —
Becker: I didn’t know that!
Roberts: Yeah, that was how insanely…
And then my most recent book, Sheer Misery (2021), is about really just the horrible effect of war on the body. You know, I write about infantrymen mostly, and how they physically suffered so much. And again, I’ve received a lot of resistance from that. Because people want to think wars are all about victory and heroism, and so on and so forth. So I was really interested, and you did talk about this a little bit, but I was mostly interested in this book is about denial, you know. It’s really about denial. And denial on several levels, right? Not only denial of people at the time, but denial of historians. The fact that this had been so unknown meant that also there was an element in the historiography of denial.
And you also quote, besides Marc Bloch, who is one of my favorite historians by the way, you also quote one of my other favorite thinkers, Charles Péguy (1873-1914). And he says, “We must always see what we see.”
So I’d love to hear a little bit more on how you can explain the denial of this book. Like what is it about humans that really they just can, not only unconsciously, but consciously deny things they don’t want to hear.
And is it a lack of imagination? And I don’t quite believe that it was because it never happened before. Because it did happen before.
Becker: It did happen right before.
Roberts: So, yeah, any insight about that I would be really interested to hear on that.
Becker: I think the main reason is that it was during the war, and that the sufferings of people at war, and to take the people at the center of it, the Poles, the sufferings of the Poles during Second World War, I mean all the Poles, had been atrocious. And when you’re suffering so much, you don’t want to hear about other sufferings. Perhaps it’s a short psychological explanation, but I know that the Red Cross psychologists, and not only the Red Cross, but in general humanitarian organizations, they’ve been a lot working about that, and they call it the kilometer of compassion, that you can’t have compassion for something which is far from you. If it is at home, it’s okay. But not far. And the Jews are far. They don’t care about the Jews.
Roberts: Yeah. Right.
Becker: And they’re suffering so much already, what are they going to do with these other guys? That’s why Karski’s so extraordinary, because Lemkin is Jewish so you can say okay, let my people not suffer. But Karski is a devout Catholic. And to be a devout Catholic in Poland in 1940 is to be antisemitic.
Becker: I don’t deny that he is antisemitic. He’s not strongly antisemitic, he just doesn’t care. But when he does his first reports before meeting the real Holocaust, but when it is his first reports on the situation, he speaks a little bit about Jews. He sees that there is a problem, but it is not important to him, really. And probably if he had not met these two guys in the ghetto, perhaps he would have been like the others. But suddenly, he was struck by something different. And I think we all are the same. We have a difficulty for alterity. And the difficulty for alterity is even bigger in time of war, especially because this war was atrocious. Nazi atrocious are all over the place. They are not atrocious against the Jews. And in a way, it’s very different from the genocide
and the Armenians because when the Young Turks and the Ottomans in general begin to deport and to kill the Armenians, there is a war on, obviously, and there is a lot of problems. But the individual people don’t suffer. They could see immediately there is something special. And actually it was seen at the time.
Becker: But it was seen not enough to intervene or to do something. But they had the impression. I don’t know if I can, yeah, I use it in the book probably. Another culture in the north of France because the north of France between 1914 and 1918 was occupied by Germans, and it was very bad, the situation. It was not atrocious, but it was very bad. And when they hear of what happens in Armenia, in the Ottoman Empire, there is a cartoon in 1916 where it says, “You complain? What would you say if you were in Armenia?” So on the real time, they had understood, what had to happen after was that it was totally repressed for a number of reasons I’m not going to go into.
But for the Second World War, the situation is different because in Europe, the sufferings are atrocious. And also, the ones who were taking notice of the special situation of the Jews in Germany since 1933, they had been militants. But the militancy at some point stops because they are all at war and the Jews are left for themselves. During the campaign, the different electoral campaign we just had in France, there was a lot about it because one of the crazy candidates was saying that Vichy France helped the Jews against the Germans. Against all odds. It is something we can speak about it also. It is at least during the time of the book there was no historian saying that what was the non-reality was wrong. Now the expertise is lost, you know? I am a journalist, I can say what I want. And what the historian said, who cares?
So this is an aspect which is important in the book, it is the fake news. The things which are true about the atrocities of the First World War and the Second World War, and the things which are not true. And how people
can do the market in all this. So to finish with the question, it is all this put together,
Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.
Becker: which builds up to denial.
Becker: And I would say that for certain people, it’s active denial. But somebody like Roosevelt, because it is a much well-known denial, I mean, he has received reports as early as 1941 when the gas chamber were not in but the open-air killings was —
Becker: Yeah, Einsatzgruppen and Babi Yar.
Roberts: Right, Babi Yar, right.
Becker: We’ve talked about it so much recently. He knew all about that. And he would not deny it. But he would not say it was something special inside the war. For him, it was something like the rest. He could not see there was another step. And this is what is complicated to understand because he had people on his staff a lot who were aware of it, and who were telling him it’s different. And he never wanted — so there was a problem of it is a war of the Jews, the Americans didn’t want — all this exists, but I think there is a psychological block in a way which is higher than the political block, I would say.
Becker: And I think Philip Roth shows it so wonderfully in his uchronia, how is it called, about Lindbergh [The Plot Against America].
Other Voice: The Plot Against America.
Becker: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. He shows that so wonderfully. It’s a uchronia and it is incredibly good history.
Roberts: Okay. I wonder if we could put another factor in here in terms of explaining denial. The philosopher Judith Butler once said that some deaths are more grievable than others. And you know, many of the things which Putin has done in Ukraine, he did in Aleppo, right? In Syria. And there was much less ado about the people of Aleppo who were literally bombed and bombed and bombed. So going back to your book, I’m wondering did it make a difference that Lemkin and Karski were Polish? Did it make a difference that they were both talking about atrocities happening in Poland? And what would have been the difference if either of them were British or French, or if the atrocities were happening in France?
Becker: That’s a good question. The answer always in the question. [laughter]
Roberts: I guess I set you up, didn’t I? Yeah. No, but I mean, I am wondering if this is a factor.
Becker: No, no, no, no, no, I totally agree with you. And I’m going to go with your Aleppo case. Because they were Poles, and also they were refugees in America. And Lemkin by example was badly treated. Really. He was sort of the crazy guy, and if he had been, imagine Marc Bloch. You know Marc Bloch wanted to immigrate to America and he was accepted, contrary to Lemkin, who was not and had to find another way, when he was accepted as a great historian, he did not come because all his family couldn’t have come, and he didn’t want his family to be split. So he would be saved but not the rest of his family.
So if Marc Bloch, famous as he was already at the time would have said that, perhaps it could. The fact they were refugees, and what infuriates me ‘til now, and you can imagine how I am all in measure to help the Ukrainian refugees, and I do what I can in my little labor in France, but it infuriates me that when the Wagner Division was killing the people in Aleppo, and there were refugees from Aleppo, nobody cared.
Roberts: Right. Right.
Becker: It’s the same. And what you said is absolutely the truth. And if they had not been poor refugees — because when Lemkin came, he was nothing, and when Karski came, he had a certain aura for a while, and then he could not go back to Poland, obviously, because Poland was become communist after Nazis.
Becker: If he had been back to Poland, he would have been killed like [Witold] Pilecki (1901-1948). Pilecki was one of the great witnesses of his time. Also, Pilecki was a non-Jewish Pole, was the head of the resistance, much higher than Karski. And he let himself intern into Auschwitz, which was not very difficult, actually. But he did. It was not difficult but very incredibly courageous, and to witness what was going on in Auschwitz. And first he wanted to witness about the Poles in Auschwitz, the Christian Poles in Auschwitz, because it was a normal camp. And then it became an extermination site, Birkenau, he was still there. And he wanted to witness and he could flee. People are just incredible heroes. They are the real heroes.
Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.
Becker: And then he entered the Polish Army and fought in the Polish Army and went back to Poland. He was anti-communists and he was shot by the Soviet infantry or by the Polish communists. So he did what would have happened to Karski.
So Karski was this poor migrant, this poor refugee in America. And the fact there are refugees speaking, the fact at the time, and it is part of the book, the Roosevelt administration was much worse than him. And there was a board which was taking care of refugees, but most of the policy was we have enough refugees, and behind this, we have too many Jewish refugees. That’s it. And to do something about Europe, we’d have to have more refugees coming. So this is a story which is very well-documented, but I did add a little bit of personal letters in the book, because one of the archivists at the Holocaust Memorial [Museum] in Washington had done a new dissertation and she was very nice to share with me her findings. And there were letters which ‘til now had not been public where really it was written black and white we could do something about the Holocaust, about the fate of the Jews, but we cannot accommodate all these Jews. So it was between let them die and they cannot come to America. And this is really my enmity under the guise of the New Deal. It is a progress, it’s just incredible. But I cannot say anything, because the French, if they had been in that situation, would have been the same. I mean, in Évian in 38, nobody want the Jews. And it was finished. It was settled in 38 and it was, nobody’s going to change their policy, even if there was something new, because in Évian was just the persecution.
Roberts: Okay. There’s so much to follow up on here. [laughter]
Becker: I tried to be shorter on that one!
Roberts: First, I want to just, I just want to confirm and actually Ludwig could talk about this at length, that you are absolutely right that boats were turned back of Jews from Europe. There’s a woman named Mary Felstiner who’s written a book about a woman artist. And she got on the boat that got across the Atlantic Ocean, that got into New York Harbor, and then they were turned away. So that leads to my next question, which is why did they both end up in the United States? I understand that they wouldn’t have been able to go back to Poland, right? But what was it about the
I mean, this is a moment of enormous migration of Jews to the United States. So how did they illuminate that?
Becker: So the two different, the easiest to understand is Karski, because when Karski spoke to — he was sent to England, to France first, before the defeat of France, between the defeat of Poland in the fall of 39 and the defeat of France of May 40, the Polish government in exile, it was in France.
Becker: Then they went to England.
Becker: So he came a first time to do a first report because he was very young but he had an incredible memory. He had like a crazy memory, actually, at the time. After, he lost it a little bit, but not so much. So he was able to read the thirty pages and [makes fast noise]. So they knew that in the resistance, so he was sent to France. Then when the Polish government in exile went to England, he went to England. And he had so much to say, they sent him to America in 43. It was quite late. And when he arrived in 43 in America, he cannot go back.
Becker: So that’s the reasoning. Because at the time he begins to work in America, to do his mission. He writes memoirs, which at the time were really an incredible hit. It’s after 45 that he begins to have a lot of problems. ‘Til 45, he’s fine, but when the war is over and Poland’s communist, and he’s forgotten because the Poles is repressed and nobody cares.
And for Lemkin, he was a lawyer and he was a kind of half-academic lawyer. So he had, he had friends in America. And one guy was in Duke. And he went, when the war was over, 39, it was very quickly for him. Because he had been working already on minorities, on Jewish minorities, since 1933, and even a little before, he knew that he was in danger, obviously. And he went to the east of Poland where his parents were living to ask them to leave and try to go very quickly in Sweden. And he wanted to go to America. And the parents refused. They said that they had been living all their life there. And the parents were killed in Treblinka.
So he went to Sweden again. And there he took a lot of contact with his European friends and his American friends and tried through this scholars-in-exile program, the one where Bloch was accepted immediately, actually. I wanted to see the file of Lemkin and I found the file of Bloch, and nobody in France had ever seen that. It was a big hit. Because of my friend archivist in Washington.
Roberts: I was going to say, that’s a good day at the archive. [laughter]
Becker: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just amazing. You are looking for Lemkin, nobody cares. And you have Bloch in the middle. And so finally, like a lot of Polish Jews or Jews from Eastern Europe, he had family in America. And finally wrote them and they paid money for him to come.
Becker: And so it’s how he came.
Roberts: That’s how he came.
Becker: And he came by, it was before ‘41, because after, he could not do that. From Sweden, he went to Finland. Finland, Soviet Union. Soviet to Siberia. And he entered United States through Alaska. [laughter]
Roberts: A lot of, you know, I just finished this book by Colm Tóibín (b. 1955) called The Magician. I don’t know if it’s —
Becker: I’ve never read it. I should.
Roberts: Well, it’s brand new.
Becker: Oh, it’s the last one?
Roberts: Yeah, the last one.
Becker: Ah, okay.
Roberts: Yeah, yeah. And that’s how he gets out as well, through Sweden. And I never thought of Sweden as the escape route. But it makes sense now that I think about it because it was neutral.
Becker: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Roberts: Okay. So I have one other question, then I want to talk about genocide a little bit. You use the trope of the messenger, the messager, throughout. And I was really fascinated with that. What is a messager, exactly, right? I wonder if you could just talk about that a little bit, and how it might have been different — if at all, maybe not, maybe probably not — if this had come through normal intelligence channels, which they were getting, right? Roosevelt was getting — but they were different. They were not in the United States or British government. So let’s talk a little bit about the messager, the messenger.
Becker: Yeah. I think the idea came from Primo Levi (1919-1987). Because Primo Levi was always quoting Dante [Alighieri, 1265-1321]. And it is in, he is not the only one—a lot of people, and Lemkin himself quotes Dante
but not the quote about the messenger. And Dante at some point says that the messengers have a message and who is going to be the messenger for the messenger.
Becker: I love this idea.
Roberts: Yeah, yeah.
Becker: And it goes a little bit with a verse from Paul Celan (1920-1970) where Celan says, I’m sorry, I’m not going to say it in German, my German is too bad. [laughter]
Other Voice: You just need ein Pils, bitte, that’s all you need.
Becker: And it is something like nobody can witness for the witness. And it is the same idea that the one who can’t come forward, who is going to say something for them? So I think I quote Dante in the introduction. And then I quote Celan later because this French writer, Yannick Haenel (b. 1967), who wrote a book on Karski, put that as an epigraph to the book, the quote by Celan. Except they did a mistake in the prose. And the mistake is very sad. It’s not a mistake. He quoted wrongly. He doesn’t ask like Celan who is going to witness for the witness, he says nobody can witness for the witness, which is even much more pessimistic.
Roberts: Right. Right, that’s great. Yeah, yeah. A little different.
Becker: So I will put the two together —
Roberts: That’s cool.
Becker: — to do the messenger. What about the other part of the question? What was the question?
Roberts: What is it?
Becker: There was another part to the question? No, it was a question?
Roberts: No, it was a question, yeah. I’m just thinking about the importance of who the messenger is. And the reason was, a lot of my work has been about African Americans in France who were lynched, accused of rape and lynched. And this was completely kept secret by the United States government. And then in the late 1940s, a senator from Alabama [Mississippi], I can’t remember his name [James Eastland, 1904-1986], goes to Europe, and he comes back with the message that Black GIs were accused of rape in high numbers. He forgets or he leaves out the persecution of African Americans for alleged rapes. But no one believes him in the African American community because he’s got like a sniper tongue. He’s a horrible, horrible racist. So here this man is bringing something
which is really scandalous and horrible and the African American community should know it. But because, his name is Easton, I think, because Easton was the messenger, they didn’t believe it. So the messenger is so important, you know, in terms of the message. So —
Becker: Yeah, I totally agree with that. You put it very well. It’s very important.
Roberts: Yeah, yeah. So in some ways, Karski is the really powerful messenger?
Becker: Yeah. I think he was much powerful messenger because he was not Jewish.
Roberts: Right. Exactly.
Becker: It is for sure. And he says that later on, not during the war, but because he lives very long. He was forgotten ‘til the end of the 70s. But early 80s, there was these conferences. When he came back, he came to speak. He was speaking extremely well. He was extremely anti-communist so everybody in this country would love him for that. But the rest of the, and I would agree with him, I must say naturally, and the, so the rest of the message came in. So who is the messenger in terms of the message, I think it’s a great quote you quoted.
Roberts: Okay. Thank you so much. So the other night, I’m watching PBS News, the news hour, and they start talking about Biden’s calling Ukraine a genocide, and actually my very well esteemed colleague Fran Hirsch has come out and interpreted in an article on The Hill de-Ukrainization as genocide. And so Judy Woodruff (b. 1946) is pondering all this. And afterwards, sometimes they have these little messages. And it said, you know, “The word ‘genocide’ was created by Lemkin.” And I was like, yes! You know? [laughter]
Becker: I know everything about him! [laughs]
Roberts: Good timing! So I’m just wondering if you think, what would make this a genocide, what would not make this a genocide. And I really encourage other people at this point to join the conversation.
Becker: Okay. So you can imagine in the last week or so —
Becker: — even more, because Putin very early on with his denazification and the fact that he said very early on that the Ukrainians were committing a genocide against the Donbas population, the Crimean populations. You know, but with the messengers in term of message, you really have it here.
Becker: So I’ve been asked a lot, and yesterday morning here, so it was after Biden spoke in France with the difference of, I got the message from my brother, what thinks a specialist on your specialty? [laughter] So I, and what does the specialist think? The specialist thinks that the, the main thing about genocide is a concerted plan. So we could say now since there is no concerted plan, but when you look at all the ideologues, and now I suppose it is the same here, but in France we have a lot of colleagues, specialists of Russia, of Ukraine, who translate all of this sort of gray literature — which is just amazing. I had no idea about it, all these guys, they’re all men, obviously, around Putin, who write the most incredible things — and they’ve been writing that for months, and some of them, for years. So you could say it’s a concerted plan because they’ve been organizing the idea that the Ukrainians as a people are a threat for the Russians of Ukraine and ideologues, because they are sure that Ukrainians want to take Moscow and perhaps Siberia, I don’t know. I’ve read some of these texts. You can’t believe it! It’s incredible.
So, for this, first, my first idea will be no, it’s a war of aggression. It’s war crimes. I mean, it’s not a war crime, there is a number of war crimes. At the moment, there are already all the people from the Hague Tribunal and the International Tribunal are already, different countries — French have been, I think, Americans have been — sending policemen, specialists in war crime, and looking at bodies and how they were killed, and so the investigation for war crime is on obviously.
Roberts: Right. Already.
Becker: These war crimes are against civilians. So we go from war crimes to crimes against humanity. And the genocide in French law and I think in most of the laws of countries which recognize genocide is a first crime against humanity. So you see, we are not very far. If it can, and you know
it’s what I answer my brother yesterday, if the lawyers at the international court can make juridically working that the Ukrainian have been targeted as Ukrainian, the Ukrainian culture, and that’s why, then Ukrainian will know the law very well. I mean, these guys around [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy (b. 1978), they are incredible. The way they are organized intellectually to fight is just incredible. But there have been since 2014, and even more. And sometime, I suppose you have the same in America, but France being the intellectual nation, that you have all these [laughter] you have all these self-appointed specialists of war with, “the first time there is a war in Europe.” Okay, yes, what were they doing when Donbas was…I don’t know, but it was the first one. And “finally we have a war.” And the same were saying that the war against the Covid was a big thing. And I was saying, for two years I’ve been saying, you know, to have a war, you have to hate the people you are fighting. You cannot hate Covid. I mean, it’s not a war. But now there are self-appointed who are good at Crimean war, the Ukrainian war.
So, if you can make the point that the Ukrainian as a nation, as a people, as a culture, as a language, their cities are destroyed and the civilians, because they are Ukrainian are main targets, probably you can say it’s a genocide. But you see, it’s sort of still complicated.
And the other thing is that there are very few genocides in the history of the twentieth century. And there is Rwanda, which personally I think is a genocide, and which has never been accepted as a genocide by nearly nobody, except for Lemkin, it is the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine between 1931 and 1932. And something perhaps you have ideas and it’s a question of me, I don’t understand why at the moment, neither the Soviets — the Soviets, did I say [laughter] — neither the Russians but because Putin in a way is the heir of Stalin — now it is his new thing, you know, the big Patriotic War, the long Patriotic War was won by Stalin — so perhaps there is a little bit by Stalin problems but not so much. He was the savior of our nation. And the fact that he closed the organization Memorial, which one week, I mean, two weeks before the beginning of the war, it’s not by accident. This separation of whole history, especially about the immense repression of the Soviet area and the Gulag and so on. So I don’t know what I wanted to say now. So they don’t speak about this genocide, this I understand very well. But you have an idea. But why the Ukrainian don’t speak about it, they speak very little about it.
Nathan MacBrien: I don’t know, but I have heard Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) talking about this recently. And I think he’s written about it. And he has a long interview with Chris Hayes on the Chris Hayes podcast, why is this —
Becker: Yeah, but I read that, and I was not convinced by his argument.
MacBrien: You weren’t?
MacBrien: That was what I was going to ask you if you were.
Becker: No, I was not convinced.
MacBrien: Putin has this kind of long-term project that includes explicitly denying Ukrainian peoplehood. And it goes back to this famine. What I do find interesting about that, and as a publisher, I can’t help but make a plug. We have a book coming out next year by Alex Mihailovic at Bennington. And he’s been doing this reading of — and thank God he’s doing it so that we don’t have to — of these extreme, far-right Russian intellectuals and their sort of transnational connections with the right in the United States and elsewhere, and this kind of extreme orthodox Christian populist elitism that defines a certain kind of Russianness that sort of both incorporates the periphery while excluding it. You know, and that Ukraine plays a part of this, in this project.
Becker: I agree completely. But it doesn’t say why at the moment the Ukrainian don’t speak about it. This is what I don’t understand. And I ask my friends in France, Nicolas Werth (b. 1950), one of the best specialists of the Gulag in the world, and he has no answer, either. Because Lemkin, I mean, it is page 165-66, I did look at this morning. He has long pages on the Ukrainian genocide, what he calls genocide. It was never accepted by United Nations or any, but at the time, it was. And what Zelenskyy and these
incredible communication teams, who knows about Lvov and everything, why they don’t use it, this is the thing I don’t understand. And I thought Timothy would, Tim would answer that. And he doesn’t. But otherwise what he says it’s very good. But this, sorry, I don’t —
Roberts: I was just going to say, we only have a few more minutes, unfortunately. So if anybody would like to ask a question generally. Ludwig, yeah?
Ludwig Decke: First of all, thank you so much for being here. I really regret that I haven’t read the book yet, but I will definitely do it as soon as possible. So my question is about language. So you’re characterizing Karski and Lemkin as messengers, and I’m wondering how, in which language, did they convey their message? And I’m asking this against the background that in my own research, I looked at the American Jewish Committee and Jewish scholars who came from Europe to the United States and tried to understand what’s going on in Europe and to plan ahead for the post war period, and what they did, they understood the Holocaust and the longue durée of Jewish suffering, so they tried to rationalize the Nazi genocide in terms of like history. And the concept of genocide is a new concept, right? So do you have any idea of how the two of them framed like just unprecedented dimension of atrocities?
Becker: Excellent question. I really like it. At the beginning of the book, you will see I speak about the encounter between Lemkin and [Simon] Dubnow (1860-1941). And Dubnow is absolutely the kind of person you are speaking about who speaks about the long suffering, I mean, he’s a historian of Judaism and of the suffering of the Jews. And he’s killed in the, killed by bullet, as you see here, in the Baltic states early on in 41. So Lemkin did he really tell him that or not, Lemkin was a little paranoid sometime, and he loved to show off that he speaks about the Armenian genocide when the word doesn’t exist. He’s not a great historian for that. And then he says that Dubnow tell him, “you have something new.” And the new thing — I’m sure Dubnow had not said it — we are not sure he has met him, but which is interesting is that Lemkin and I come to your question, had understood that you need something new. And it’s a new phenomenon.
He says that all the time. And for this you need a new language. And he says we have languages for a lot of things, but we don’t have language for what is going on. And what I say in the book, I never found it in the archive, I would love to find it, that he’s a great linguist. Actually he did study in Lviv, so famous now, linguistics, before going to law. And he spoke at least ten languages. And he had a very classical education, so Latin and Greek. So he decides to create a word, and he creates a barbarism, because genos is Greek and occidere, to kill, is Latin. And he does it on purpose. So the crime of crime is inside the word. And I think it answers really your question. There is no language to say that. So he invents something with his classical education, but not a Greek name or Latin name or any name, a barbarism.
Roberts: Yeah. I would like to say it’s an amazing honor to be able to sit at this table with you. And I have had so much fun. Thank you so much, Annette. [applause]