Obituary: David Rousset

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.

In the 1960s he became sympathetic to General de Gaulle; he admired Gaullist foreign policy with its assertion of the autonomy of French action. In June 1967 he warned of the dangers to Israel in the Gaullist bulletin, and called for the intervention of the great powers to guarantee Israel's existence.

In June 1968 he was elected left-wing Gaullist deputy for the Isere (Vienne). However he resigned the Gaullist whip in November 1970 in disagreement with the direction the movement was then taking, and in 1974 supported Francois Mitterrand. Rousset's later works included a discussion of war and the possibilities of nuclear holocaust.