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The Chronicle of Higher Education

August 13, 1999

Controversy Over Holocaust Denial Sparks Furor at 2 French Universities

Critics call for punishment of two professors who advised a right-wing editor


Paris -- A court case involving writings denying the existence of the Holocaust has sparked a new controversy at two French universities where such theories have been propagated in the past. Jean Plantin, editor of a right-wing political magazine called Akribeia -- the name is Greek for "exactitude" -- was fined and given a six-month suspended jail sentence in May by a court in Lyon, in southeastern France, for publishing excerpts from books banned for their negationist content. (The term "negationist" is used in France to refer to theories and writings that question the Holocaust or aspects of it.)

The trial brought to public attention Mr. Plantin's own Holocaust-related writings, including work that helped him earn graduate degrees at the Universities of Lyon II and III. In the aftermath of the trial, the two history professors who directed his graduate work resigned as research advisers, although they have remained on the faculties of their respective institutions and continue to teach and do research. Some student leaders have called for the professors to resign their faculty posts.

Among academics who have supported the professors, concern is now mounting that the public outcry might pressure French scholars of the Holocaust to put limits on their research. The integrity of the two professors -- Regis Ladous, of the University of Lyon III, or Yves Lequin, of the University of Lyon II -- has not been called into question. But their judgment has. Critics say the scholars were negligent in allowing Mr. Plantin to be awarded advanced degrees.

"I don't think either professor should be penalized -- both have long been adversaries of negationist theories," says Herve Joly, a professor of contemporary history at Lyon II. "But they have committed serious professional errors. The question is whether other students will want to work with them in the future."

Mr. Joly says that Mr. Lequin "should have interviewed Mr. Plantin more closely before agreeing to be his adviser, so as to know how he stood on the Holocaust." Mr. Lequin worked with Mr. Plantin on his research and essay for his advanced degree, known as the D.E.A., which in France is completed in preparation for the doctorate. The essay was a study of typhus in Nazi concentration camps. Negationist literature often attributes the deaths of the Jews in the camps to the spread of typhus, rather than to a deliberate act of extermination by gas.

Mr. Lequin acknowledges that he was wrong to approve Mr. Plantin for his D.E.A. He says he did not know Mr. Plantin's views on the Holocaust. "I was tricked by this student, and that means I made a mistake," he says in an interview. "That is why I have stepped down as research director." Mr. Lequin adds, however, that his approval of Mr. Plantin's work was qualified. "His work was of mediocre quality, and I did not give him a high enough grade for him to continue his studies toward a doctorate."

French universities are not required to keep D.E.A. essays on file, and at Lyon II, no trace exists of Mr. Plantin's study. At the University of Lyon III, Mr. Ladous directed Mr. Plantin's 1990 master's essay on the writings of Paul Rassinier, who in the 1950s wrote several books expressing doubt about the existence of gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps. Mr. Ladous could not be reached to comment on the controversy. However, the French news media have quoted him as saying that Mr. Plantin's essay "was so grotesque that I thought that no one would ever take Rassinier seriously again after that." He has defended his decision to grant the degree to Mr. Plantin, noting that the essay itself did not espouse Rassinier's views.

The University of Lyon III is investigating the circumstances surrounding the granting of the master's degree to Mr. Plantin. Students are now calling for the annulment of Mr. Plantin's two graduate degrees, as well as the formation of a national commission to look into negationism at French universities.

"Our universities' respectability is at risk," says Mathieu Pasquio, the chairman of the largest student association at Lyon II and III. "Our diplomas have been devalued because people like Plantin have gotten degrees from Lyon." He worries that, because Mr. Plantin has advanced degrees and can call himself a historian, his ideas attract attention and win credibility that would otherwise be denied.

Over the past three decades, the two universities -- which at one time were a single institution -- have earned a reputation as a stronghold of negationist studies. Roger Faurisson, an assistant professor of history at the University of Lyon II in the late 1970s, who subscribed to theories questioning the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz, had followers around the world. In the 1980s, a group of right-wing professors at Lyon III established a controversial research center called the Institute of Indo-European Studies, which critics denounced as an ideological laboratory for the extreme right. Under pressure from students -- and under review by an international committee of scholars -- the institute closed its doors last October.

Bruno Gelas, the president of Lyon II, is critical of Mr. Lequin for the way he handled his dealings with Mr. Plantin. But he has refused to annul the diploma. "I am not going to cancel a degree just because a student, eight years later, has done something that is against the law," he says. "I have no proof at this stage that the D.E.A. essay was negationist. The document no longer exists." But Mr. Gelas has decided to change how things are done at the university. "From now on," he says, "Lyon II will keep all D.E.A. essays on file, even though the law does not require us to do so. And, as of the fall, all subjects of D.E.A. essays will be publicized" on the university's site on the World-Wide Web.

Noting that most negationist scholarship in France has originated at the Universities of Lyon II and III, critics say that even if it is proved that Mr. Plantin's essays did not overtly express negationist theories, the two institutions remain a magnet for those who want to explore such ideas. In an attempt to head off future problems, Mr. Gelas, has set up a commission for both universities that will try to answer questions such as, What is negationist discourse? Made up of historians from the two institutions, the panel also will examine the relationship between negationist theory and the extreme right in France.

Arnaud Burtin, the national president of the French Jewish Students Union, says that the actions taken by the two universities do not go far enough. His organization is calling for the two professors to step down. "This incident shows that Lyon has a problem," he says. "Lyon is the capital of negationism, and any Lyon-based commission will just not be credible. The commission has to be national."

Many professors at both universities are now asking how all this could have happened. They want clearer guidelines on how many students one research adviser should take on, saying that the negligence in the two cases involving Mr. Plantin may have been partly caused by the excessive workloads of professors. They have noted that one of the Lyon II professors who served on the jury for Mr. Plantin's advanced degree admits to not having read his now-controversial essay. Several prominent historians in France are now circulating a petition in support of Mr. Ladous, accompanied by a strongly worded note of caution about the need for scholars to feel free to pursue any avenues of research. "The existence of taboo subjects of research," their statement said, "can only lead to the stagnation of academic reflection."

Mr Irving comments:. This is a repeat performance of the farce which led to the solemn withdrawal of the Lyons University degree awarded to historian Henri Rocques for his analysis of the Gerstein Report -- a highly-suspect, key document on the holocaust. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, when degrees can be rescinded under political pressure the conclusion has to be drawn that they can also be awarded as a result of the same pressures.

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