There was also something paradoxical in the spectacle of Resistance organizations demanding the broadened view of crimes against humanity. After all, having previously accepted the hierarchic superiority of war crimes, they were now asserting their right to a status that had formerly been rejected as unheroic. “We the victims have never asked to be considered as heroes,” Simone Veil intoned on behalf of the deported, “so why do the heroes now want to be treated as victims?”
The answer was plain. On account of the incorrect presumption that only crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations, the hierarchic ranking of war crimes and crimes against humanity had been surreptitiously inverted by the French criminal justice system. There were palpable consequences.
A result of this inversion, in addition to demeaning the Holocaust and enabling Holocaust denial, was Barbie’s own reversal of the role between defender and accused. If one had listened to Jacques Verges, Barbie’s defense lawyer, not only was the Holocaust a trifling matter of minor significance, but French colonial crimes were even more serious than those of the Nazis. This argument was intended to highlight France’s alleged lack of moral authority to even try Klaus Barbie. Known in law as tu quoque, this corollary defense strategy focused attention on all post-war crimes that had remained unpunished, especially the broadly generic crimes of “imperialism” and “racism” in which France had allegedly been so deeply involved.
In essence, the three lawyers for Barbie – the Congolese M’Bemba, the Algerian Bouaita, and the French-Vietnamese Verges – spoke as delegates of a despised nonwhite humanity, transferring the racism of the crime itself onto the memory of the crime. The six million Jews condemned by the Final Solution, therefore, had no right to any universal commiseration. After all, the Final Solution was simply a family affair, with white prisoners and white executioners. Here, counsel instructed, one could not properly expect sympathies of any kind from the “genuinely oppressed” peoples of the Third World.
More than a quarter-century ago, France’s 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie was notable for the manipulation of convenient Third World rhetoric to defend a notorious Nazi criminal. Rather than allow France, in a very small way, to finally “make up” for its abysmal wartime behavior, it ended up as just one more glaring expression of that country’s documented unconcern for Jewish memory and Jewish justice.
Looking ahead, we can only hope that France will somehow choose not to sacrifice Israel, now arguably, the individual Jew in macrocosm, to the genocide planners in Iran and “Palestine.” Any such glaring sacrifice could represent the ultimate triumph of what the Germans called realpolitik, or power politics, over justice.