Stone on Kuby, 'Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945'

Emma Kuby
Dan Stone

Emma Kuby. Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. xii + 295 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3279-9.

Reviewed by Dan Stone (Royal Holloway, University of London) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Political Survivors is a first-rate work of intellectual history. Its focus is on the International Commission against the Concentration Camp Regime (Commission Internationale contre le Régime Concentrationnaire, or CICRC), a body established in 1949 by the former Buchenwald inmate and French intellectual David Rousset. Its aim was to use the experience of the survivors of the Nazi camps to reveal the continued use of concentration camps in different regimes across the world after the war, thus exposing the feebleness of the “never again” response and the cynicism of states which, despite the revelations that accompanied the “liberation” of Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau, continued to incarcerate their supposed enemies in camp systems that remained inaccessible to the workings of “regular” legal systems. Following its establishment, the CICRC conducted investigations into putative camp systems in Spain, the Soviet Union, French Algeria, China, French Tunisia, and Greece.

Scholars often claim that in postwar France there was a tendency to talk about “les camps” in the abstract, without mentioning Jews.[1] The CICRC, Rousset’s landmark 1946 book, L’univers concentrationnaire (A World Apart, 1951), and his subsequent successful court case against Communist Party intellectual Pierre Daix in 1950-51 have played a notable role in such analyses. In his introduction to a 2015 collection on post-Holocaust France, for example, Seán Hand observed: “one of the best-known early attempts at a lucid expression of experience, David Rousset’s L’univers concentrationnaire, is not specifically Jewish in its account of the Nazi extermination machine. Indeed, its insistence on a universalist and antifascist thesis was implicitly the refutation of any specifically Jewish category of genocide. As demonstrated subsequently by the concerted vilification of Rousset as an agent provocateur during the period when he exposed the existence of the Soviet gulags and helped in 1950 to found an international commission against concentration camps, the events related to survival and return were generally subordinated to the political imperatives of the day, which themselves were soon dominated by Cold War realpolitik.”[2]

This Cold War context has generally been the lens through which the CICRC has been seen; Emma Kuby does not disagree but, in her deeply researched book, she provides a subtle and multifaceted analysis that complicates the picture, revealing how the group was shaped not just by the changing postwar geopolitical climate but by a shifting memory (particularly in France) of the war and the murder of the Jews, and most significantly by internal disagreements over the implications of decolonization—again, especially with respect to France, and most important, the struggle for Algeria. On the one hand her analysis displays admiration for Rousset and the CICRC’s work—“No contemporaneous European entity so visibly promoted the principle that states on both sides of the Iron Curtain should be held internationally accountable for criminalizing dissent” (p. 2)—but on the other she does not shrink from placing that effort in a succession of contexts that reveal Rousset himself to have been a difficult man to work with, and the CICRC gradually to have been undermined by its inflexibility in the face of a changing world.

The CICRC was, as Hand and many others have noted, forged in the antifascist crucible. Its remit was, unusually, to argue that the bodily experiences of the Nazi camp survivors made them uniquely able to recognize concentration camps wherever in the world they might appear. This seemingly strange claim certainly led the CICRC into some awkward conundrums, for over time disagreements amongst the group’s members made it clear that simply having been there was insufficient qualification for assessing postwar regimes’ carceral systems. And the group was never able to rid itself of the charge—exemplified by Daix’s accusation that Rousset had invented many of his claims about the Soviet Union out of an anticommunist animus—that it was an icebreaker for Western liberal capitalist values, a charge that in postwar France, with its powerful Communist Party and pro-communist intellectual scene, was regarded with extreme distaste.

Yet as Kuby shows, both points, although not without merit, do not tell the whole story. By stressing their physical experiences in the Nazi camps and the need to collect the testimony of those who had lived through camp systems (with Rousset’s book as the archetype), the CICRC foreshadowed a later twentieth-century concern with the collection of testimony. Only small Jewish groups such as the National Committee of Hungarian Jews for Attending Deportees in Hungary, the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center in Paris, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, historical commissions in the DP camps, and the Wiener Library in London had undertaken similar initiatives, and their work remained very much under the radar in the first two postwar decades. With respect to communism and anticommunism, it was certainly true that Rousset and his colleagues’ politics was closer to the anticommunist Left, but this was not the main problem facing the group’s work. Rather, the real challenge to its authority came in the 1950s, when “the fraught politics of decolonization scrambled the Cold War alliances upon which the group was built” (p. 9).

More important still was the fact that the CICRC defined itself as a community of resisters, maintaining a strict distinction between those who had resisted the Nazis and those who had been deported for other, usually “racial” reasons. The former, Rousset believed, were expert witnesses whose authority derived from their experience; and although Rousset employed the pioneering Jewish historian Léon Poliakov (whose 1951 Bréviaire de la haine [Harvest of Hate, 1956] remains a major synthetic study of the Holocaust) and former Drancy inmate Théo Bernard, and sometimes made appeals based on the millions of victims of the Nazi camps, ironically the CICRC’s basic position excluded from its membership and purview the vast majority of those millions, both conflating and exploiting the difference between concentration camps such as Buchenwald and death camps such as Treblinka. It was indeed “a strange spectacle” to see “a former Drancy inmate and a historian of the Final Solution attacking the ‘racial character’ of Eastern European justice on behalf of a collective that did not welcome survivors of Hitler’s ‘racial’ deportation to join its ranks” (p. 183). By contrast, Kuby rightly notes that the French Communist Party could be more inclusive: “French communist collective memory of the camps, despite its heavy emphasis on political martyrdom, could nevertheless partially accommodate the Jewish Holocaust in a way that Rousset’s own ‘universalizing’ approach failed to do” (p. 64).

Here Kuby’s analysis is significant because it challenges the claim, popularized especially by Michael Rothberg’s concept of “multidirectional memory,” that the memories of one event (say, the genocide of the Jews) had a bearing on the ways in which other events (say, decolonization) were understood and memorialized.[3] The history of the CICRC shows that, rather than providing uncomfortable echoes of the past, their particular understanding of the camps and the role played by the Resistance left them unable to empathize with Muslim anticolonial fighters in Algeria, because “France’s abusive practices in the Algerian War … failed to map neatly onto those once employed in the Nazi SS camps” (p. 80). Indeed, the CICRC’s origin myth—“a fairy-tale vision of the Nazi camps as arenas of international friendship, models for a future ‘European’ or global community”—hindered a happy spectacle of a world unified against abuse as much as it sustained it. As communist priest and CICRC member Michel Riquet acknowledged, “for most French survivors the camps were incubators of neighborly hatreds: ‘They returned more xenophobic than ever’” (p. 81). Kuby by no means rejects Rothberg’s analysis but complicates it, showing how both the CICRC’s emphasis on their own experience of the Nazi camps as the template for assessing other regimes and their sense that postwar France represented to some extent the inheritance of the Resistance left them ill-equipped to challenge a different sort of terror.

Kuby is extremely good on the machinations that Rousset and his colleagues—most notably ethnologist Germaine Tillion—had to engage in to get access to these camps. Their bravery and sheer pig-headedness are not in doubt. But the results rarely justified the effort involved, for the simple reason that the investigations were to a large extent stymied by the group having one foot permanently in the past, meaning that they judged the present by the past’s standards. In Spain, for example, the CICRC’s understanding of concentrationnaire “excluded from considerations the various French internment facilities through which many Spaniards had passed between 1939 and 1944” (p. 141). As former resister and Ravensbrück inmate Elisabeth Ingrand frankly noted in the CICRC’s 1953 book on Spain, the CICRC’s method entailed “a double risk of error”: “first would be to consider acceptable everything which does not reach the degree of intensity of the Hitlerian concentrationary regime.… Inversely [the second error] would be to consider concentrationary everything which does not seem acceptable” (p. 152).

Over time, the CICRC’s stubborn maintenance of its idée fixe meant that it gradually lost the ability to convince a broad public of its moral authority. With respect to antisemitic persecution in the communist bloc, for example, from the show trials of 1948 to Joseph Stalin’s uncovering of the “Doctors’ Plot,” the CICRC drew the wrong conclusion: “while scores of observers in the West rushed to depict rising antisemitic persecutions in the Eastern bloc as an echo of Hitler’s projects, CICRC members stubbornly refused to draw the parallel: their idiosyncratic conceptualization of the similarity between the Nazi and Soviet camp systems still depended on an elision of racially or religiously motivated violence.… The organization’s membership politics remained tethered to a Resistance-centric schema of deportation memory” (pp. 166-67). Only in 1954 did Rousset “come to believe that discussion of Hitler’s victimization of Jews, qua Jews, was no longer strategically harmful in attacking Eastern bloc regimes” (p. 185). Likewise, in the face of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the idea that concentrationary suffering was the crucial defining characteristic of terror lost its relevance and Rousset, Kuby asserts, “appears to have lost confidence that the ‘witnessing’ the commission had engaged in constituted a meaningful form of action in a still-violent world” (p. 192).

The greatest challenge to the CICRC’s upholding of concentrationary terror as the hallmark of an abusive regime came when it was faced with French actions in Algeria, and with decolonization more generally. Kuby notes that “the German concentrationary standard not only set an impossible benchmark for a ‘guilty’ verdict. It also mapped poorly onto the geography of French repression in Algeria” (p. 207). She notes the impressive political negotiations in which the CICRC engaged in order to win access to Algerian carceral facilities but, in light of the CICRC’s vacillation over—and, indeed, partial justification for—what they had seen in Algeria, regards the group’s efforts here as its nadir: “Memory, it transpired, was a powerful rhetorical weapon with which to wage the Algerian War, but it was not the lever for a unified, coherent response to its violence among survivors” (p. 215).

Beyond these insightful comments on the details of the CICRC’s anti-concentration camp campaign, readers of H-Diplo will also find much of interest concerning the funding of the group. Kuby notes with great care the limits of her sources, which often cannot be verified by CIA sources, which remain inaccessible. But there are certainly compelling hints that from 1951 the CICRC was covertly funded by the CIA, up until the point at which the latter organization felt that its own interests were no longer being supported, that is, by the time of the Algerian War, when the US, opposed to the French position in Algeria but clandestinely supporting it as a crucial Cold War ally, feared the consequences should the fact that it was funding an investigation into French detention procedures in Algeria become public. It thus withdrew financial support for the CICRC in 1957; but as Kuby also shows, Rousset, despite the many accusations against him, was never a pliable collaborator but was quite ready and willing to bite the hand that fed him. Rousset refused to back down from tackling Algeria, even though it would mean the loss of funding. The fact that the CICRC’s report on Algeria was mangled and inconclusive was ironic given Rousset’s tough refusal to buckle before American demands. Indeed, the CICRC’s Algerian investigations showed that ultimately, “the shared experience of victimization did not provide survivors with an enduring basis for unified political action” (p. 224).

Although, as with any such detailed work, one sometimes feels that the focus on the CICRC leads Kuby to overstate its importance, Political Survivors is a nuanced work that offers keen insights into French political history, the memories of World War II, the Resistance, and the Holocaust, and the operation of international organizations. If the CICRC was in the end a minor player in the larger Cold War context, such bodies—and the ideas which fed them—are the stuff from which everyday politics were and are made; their seeming “minor” status should not detract from the fact that they had considerable impact. The CICRC, and its members such as Tillion and Poliakov, were significant intellectuals in their own right and, if the CICRC’s static, monodirectional memory ultimately brought about its demise, it also contributed to the maintenance of the memory of the camps in ways that informed and continue to inform debates about their significance for the contemporary world.


[1]. See, for example: Annette Wieviorka, “Deportation and Memory: Official History and the Rewriting of World War II,” in Thinking about the Holocaust after Fifty Years, ed. Alvin H. Rosenfeld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 273-99; Susan Rubin Suleiman, “Commemorating the Illustrious Dead: Jean Moulin and André Malraux,” in her Crises of Memory and the Second World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 62-76; and Samuel Moyn, “In the Aftermath of Camps,” in Histories of the Aftermath: The Legacies of the Second World War in Europe, ed. Frank Biess and Robert G. Moeller (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 49-64.

[2]. Seán Hand, “Introduction,” in Post-Holocaust France and the Jews, 1945-1955, ed. Seán Hand and Steven T. Katz (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 12.

[3]. Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent books are The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath (2015) and Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (2019). He is currently completing a book on the International Tracing Service.

Citation: Dan Stone. Review of Kuby, Emma, Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL:

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