David Rousset, the son of a metalworker, was born in Roanne, Loire, on 18th January, 1912. As a teenager he joined the French Socialist Party but was disillusioned by the leadership of Léon Blum and by 1933 was a supporter of Leon Trotsky.
In 1936, Rousset attempted to establish a Trotskyist organisation in Morocco. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was involved in negotiations between the Moroccan nationalists and the Spanish Anarchists in an attempt to organise an uprising.
On the invasion of France in May 1940, Rousset joined the French Resistance. He was captured by the Gestapo in October, 1943. He was imprisoned in was sent to a jail at Fresnes before being deported to work in the salt mines, and then was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The Marxist critic, Ian Birchall, has commented: "Here, as a Trotskyist, he confronted a double problem – not only the Nazi regime, but the German Stalinists, who, with the complicity of the SS, managed many aspects of camp life. Rousset survived, but at a terrible cost. Before his arrest, he had weighed nearly 15 stone; on his return he weighed just over eight." He was liberated by the United States Army in April 1945.
In October 1945, Rousset argued: "The Soviet bureaucracy today finds itself constrained... to pose and carry through the Socialist revolution abroad ... in the new period which we have entered... the Soviet forces represent the sole effective guarantee in the world for the Socialist revolution. With all its defects, its conservative, reactionary neutrality, the Stalinist bureaucracy represents one of the decisive bastions of the Socialist revolution in the world in the present period. In consequence, we must keep silent about part of our disagreements with Stalinism, and do so consciously and thoroughly."
In 1946 Rousset published an account of his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi Germany. His book, The The Truth About the Camps received the Renaudot Prize that year. New York Times pointed out: "Mr. Rousset defined the Nazi extermination program not as a monstrous aberration of war, but rather as an integral part of German society, a product of its ideology and a key factor in Germany's economy. He did not distinguish between death camps and concentration camps. Both, he wrote, were designed on the principle that certain groups of people were not human beings."
This was followed by The Other Kingdom (1947). As John V. Fleming, the author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) has pointed out, there were good reasons why this was effective propaganda: "Rousset was not an American, not a CIA agent, not a capitalist running dog. He was a far left journalist who bore in his body the most precious political stigmata of his own suffering in a Nazi concentration camp. It is true that to the Communists he was a Trotskyite, a deviationist from the Party line; but that theological distinction meant little outside the Communist Party."
Although strongly anti-communist, Rousset remained a socialist revolutionary. In February, 1948, he wrote in the Le Franc-Tireur: "Amid the decay of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain Social Democracy, and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe that an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of liberty and human dignity by linking them to the struggle for social revolution."
Inspired by the court-case won by Victor Kravchenko over the publication of I Choose Freedom, about life under Joseph Stalin. Rousset took out a two-page advertisement in Le Figaro. It was an appeal addressed to all former political prisoners who, like himself, had been confined in Nazi concentration camps. It asked their support in establishing an International Committee Against Concentration Camps to look into the question of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.
Louis Aragon commissioned Pierre Daix to write an article for the French Communist Party weekly, Les Lettres Françaises, on Rousset. Daix later recalled the attack consisted of: "(1) that Rousset falsely maintained that Soviet citizens could be condemned to forced labour by administrative organs; and (2) that the alleged eyewitness accounts of Soviet concentration camps were nothing more nor less recycled Nazi propaganda." As a result of the article, Rousset sued André Wurmser, Aragon and Daix.
The court-case began in November, 1950. Several witnesses who managed to escape gave evidence in support of Rousset. This included Elinor Lipper, the author of Eleven Years in Soviet Prisons and Concentration Camps (1950) and Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, the author of The Conspiracy of Silence (1950). Józef Czapski, the author of The Inhuman Land (1951) gave testimony about his time in the internment camp in Starobilsk. He praised Rousset's attempts to discover the truth about the labour camps. He also reported on his investigation of the Katyn Massacre. The defence lawyer, Joë Nordmann, accused Czapski of "rehashing old Nazi propaganda" that had been invented by Joseph Goebbels.
Another important witness was Margarete Buber-Neumann. In the 1930s she was married to Heinz Neumann. Both were members of the German Communist Party, and after Adolf Hitler took power they fled to the Soviet Union. However, they were both critical of Joseph Stalin and they were eventually arrested and sent to the Gulag. Neumann was executed on 27th November, 1937, whereas Margarete was handed over to the Nazi government in 1940. She was imprisoned in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp but was released at the end of the war.
Valentín González was one of the three generals in the Spanish Communist Party that fought in the Spanish Civil War. He claimed that the communists "had established a reign of crime and terror in the Republican zone, both at the front and behind it". This supported what George Orwell had recorded in his book, Homage to Catalonia (1938). González said he discovered that during the war Soviet communism was "fascism with a red flag". After the defeat of the Popular Front government González escaped to the Soviet Union. However, he came to regret this decision as he would have "preferred ten years of incarceration in France to five years of freedom in Moscow".
González was considered to be an "unreliable" supporter of Joseph Stalin and was sent to the Vorkuta labour camp in Siberia where he was forced to work in a coal mine. González managed to escape during the Ashgabat Earthquake in 1948. González testified that in the camps he was in "a small minority of hard-core criminals - murderers, rapists, armed robbers, united in their depravity and their bond of thieves' honor - exercised an internal reign of terror over the much larger population of politicals." He added that the guards had the right to rape any woman in the camp they desired.
Rousset won support from François Mauriac who argued in Le Figaro that: "David Rousset has already won... We don't need any other proof beyond the maladroit attempt of the Stalinists to keep the witnesses from appearing. You see, André Wurmser, he (Stalin) should have killed them all. Your masters are still too humane, for a few victims escaped." The court agreed and the judge awarded Rousset 100,000 francs.
Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle broke with Rousset over the case. David S. Bell has argued: "Although no rational defence could be made of the Soviet system, Sartre rose to the challenge. While Sartre ran up a moral balance sheet and found Stalin in the black, Rousset went on to the offensive against the camp system. He continued to work to make known the facts about concentration camps and labour camps as well as to write prolifically in leading journals in France and America, and continued to write books about both the camps and general political topics."
Rousset became sympathetic to General Charles de Gaulle and in June 1968 he was elected left-wing Gaullist deputy for the Isere (Vienne). However he resigned the Gaullist whip in November 1970, describing him as a ''madman who wants to change the world.'' In 1974 supported Francois Mitterrand.
David Rousset died on 13th December, 1997.
The Soviet bureaucracy today finds itself constrained... to pose and carry through the Socialist revolution abroad ... in the new period which we have entered... the Soviet forces represent the sole effective guarantee in the world for the Socialist revolution. With all its defects, its conservative, reactionary neutrality, the Stalinist bureaucracy represents one of the decisive bastions of the Socialist revolution in the world in the present period. In consequence, we must keep silent about part of our disagreements with Stalinism, and do so consciously and thoroughly.
Amid the decay of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain Social Democracy, and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe that an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of liberty and human dignity by linking them to the struggle for social revolution.
David Rousset, writer, politician and activist: born Roanne, France 18 January 1912; died Paris 13 December 1997.
David Rousset was a resistance fighter, an intellectual, a Gaullist deputy and a self- defined activist of the Left. His long list of accomplishments does not, however, serve to classify an individual who was reviled in his time by the fellow-travelling Left (who he tried to force to face realities) and who was a distinctive moral voice in a turbulent century. There is something of the crystal spirit about Rousset, who lived through appalling times but who refused to compromise, and who remained an inspiration to many who were politically active.
Rousset was born in 1912 at Roanne, the son of a metalworker. He was involved in socialist politics and then in Trotskyism during the social turbulence of the 1930s. Before the Second World War he was a journalist and contributor to many publications (including Time magazine).
His Resistance activities led him to be captured by the Gestapo in October 1943. He was deported and worked in the salt mines, and then was sent to Buchenwald. He survived in the camps despite his Trotskyist background and was liberated by the American army in April 1945. On his capture he had celebrated a certain embonpoint but on his return he was a bag of bones.
He immediately set out to write his experiences and his memoir revealed in personal and detailed terms the extermination machine of Nazi Germany. His L'Univers Concentrationnaire is a harrowing account of the camps but also reveals the systems and the mechanism of Nazi Germany and its regime. The book received the Renaudot prize in 1946.
Rousset entered politics at the side of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the short-lived political group Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire, but he began to distance himself from them as the Cold War gained in intensity. In particular he decided to reveal the existence of the "gulag archipelago" in the Soviet Union and was one of the founders in November 1949 of the International Committee Against Concentration Camps. Spain, China and other countries also came under investigation and condemnation.
It was with this issue of the Soviet camps that Rousset entered French public life with a shattering effect. Coming shortly after the trial in Paris over Victor Kravchenko's 1949 book I Chose Liberty on the same theme, Rousset's exposition caused the Communist Party to react. Rousset published an article in Le Figaro on the Soviet labour camps, using the term "gulag" before it became current. Through Louis Aragon and Pierre Daix the Communist journal Les Lettres Francaises brought Rousset to court for defamation. The court case, which lasted from November 1950 to July 1951, was the occasion for a succession of witnesses to testify to the horror of the camps. Rousset published his own book Pour la Verite sur les camps in 1951. He won the court case but was sent to Coventry by the intellectual Left.
Rousset broke with Sartre and his circle over the camps. Although no rational defence could be made of the Soviet system, Sartre rose to the challenge. While Sartre ran up a moral balance sheet and found Stalin in the black, Rousset went on to the offensive against the camp system. He continued to work to make known the facts about concentration camps and labour camps as well as to write prolifically in leading journals in France and America, and continued to write books about both the camps and general political topics.
David Rousset, a former Communist militant and a Nazi concentration camp survivor who was among the first French intellectuals to denounce the horrors of the Soviet Gulag, died on Dec. 13 in Paris. He was 85.
Mr. Rousset, who joined the French Resistance in World War II and was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, won the Prix Renaudot, a prestigious French literary award, in 1947 for ''The Concentration Camp Universe,'' in which he described the atrocities and systematic breakdown of the human spirit orchestrated by the Nazis.
Two years later, he attacked the Gulag - the forced labor camps - of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Rousset was born on Jan. 18, 1912, in Roanne, in the Loire Valley, the son of a Protestant minister. He received a degree in literature at the Sorbonne and went on to a career in journalism, writing for Time and Fortune in the late 1930's.
He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, accused of writing and disseminating anti-Nazi propaganda and sent to Buchenwald.
By the time American troops liberated the camp in 1945, Mr. Rousset was, in the words of his friend, the writer Maurice Nadeau, ''an old, wrinkled child, a little pile of bones.''
Mr. Rousset defined the Nazi extermination program not as a monstrous aberration of war, but rather as an integral part of German society, a product of its ideology and a key factor in Germany's economy. He did not distinguish between death camps and concentration camps. Both, he wrote, were designed on the principle that certain groups of people were not human beings.
After the war Mr. Rousset went on to denounce the Soviet Gulag as ''an imposing institution within the state, with its many services, and one of the Soviet Union's biggest economic trusts.''
But many of France's postwar intellectuals belonged to the French Communist Party, and they refused to see the Gulag as the logical consequence of totalitarianism. Mr. Rousset was accused of falsifying history and being an instrument of anti-Soviet propaganda financed by American labor unions.
In 1968, he was elected to Parliament on a Gaullist ticket, but he resigned three years later, describing himself as a ''madman who wants to change the world.''
In 1936, Rousset was sent by the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste to establish a Trotskyist organisation in Morocco. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was involved in negotiations between the Moroccan nationalists and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalists for the former to organise a rising in Spanish Morocco in return for the recognition of independence. Eventually, the deal was quashed by the Madrid government.
After the German occupation of France, he was involved in clandestine activity, but was arrested in October 1943. Initially, he was sent to a jail at Fresnes to the south of Paris. He tells how, to communicate with comrades outside, messages were written on cigarette paper and inserted into the crotch of dirty underpants being sent home for washing; the underpants were encrusted with damp bread to discourage close investigation by guards.
Then he was sent to Buchenwald, and later other Nazi camps. Here, as a Trotskyist, he confronted a double problem – not only the Nazi regime, but the German Stalinists, who, with the complicity of the SS, managed many aspects of camp life...
For a while, Rousset collaborated with Pierre Naville on La Revue Internationale. Then, in 1948, he played a key rôle in the founding of the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire. Although at the time and later, the RDR was generally associated with its most prestigious member, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rousset was in fact the main political driving force in the organisation. An impressive orator, he had great hopes that the RDR could rapidly become a mass organisation...
In 1949, Rousset visited the USA to raise money from the American unions for the RDR. In his autobiography, he rather naïvely notes his surprise at the fact that when he went to the AFL-CIO offices in New York, the bureaucrats there immediately put through a call to the State Department.
Rousset’s growing pro-Americanism assisted the disintegration of the RDR; but it was his next move that led to his real break with the French left. In the autumn of 1949, he launched a campaign in the Figaro littéraire on the question of the Russian camps. Here the erstwhile critical supporter of Stalinism argued that the Russian camps were ‘the expression of new social relations based on a new type of exploitation of man’; that they were thus an essential defining feature of the Russian economic order and hence more dangerous than the Nazi camps which were ‘an accident of history’. This caused great consternation amongst the Stalinists, some of whom denied the existence of the camps, whilst others saw them as one of Russia’s most praiseworthy achievements, and a bitter court case against the journal Les Lettres Françaises ensued. It also led to a clean break, not only with Trotskyism, but with such independent leftists as Sartre and Claude Bourdet – not, as Douglas Johnson ignorantly implied in his Guardian obituary, because they supported the camps, but because they opposed a campaign in a right-wing paper which did not also attack the crimes of Western imperialism.
Rousset had now largely lost his bearings. He had links with the CIA-run Congress for Cultural Freedom, though he also opposed French repression in Algeria. In the 1960s, he became a so-called ‘left Gaullist’ – in 1967, whilst standing as a Gaullist candidate, he told a journalist that the political figures of the twentieth century he most admired were Lenin and Trotsky (imagine a British Tory doing the same). He later served as a Gaullist deputy, but by 1981 he was supporting Mitterrand.
David Rousset was a lucid witness to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century; as such he deserves our respect. But the period also demanded theoretical clarity, and Rousset failed this test.