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Obituary: Leon Poliakov

Leon Poliakov, historian: born St Petersburg 25 November 1910; married (one son); died Paris 8 December 1997.

"I wanted to find out why certain people have it in for me." This was the answer the very great historiographer Leon Poliakov used to give when asked why he was devoting his life to a history of anti-Semitism.

He had been born in St Petersburg the day after Tolstoy's death, and his parents named him after that great Russian. His father was a newspaper editor. The family fled to Berlin on the outbreak of the Bolshevist Revolution but, sensing early the rising tides of anti-Jewish sentiment, moved in 1924 to Paris, where Leon attended the Lycee Janson-de-Sailly and read law at the Faculte de Droit.

In 1933, Leon and his father started a brave but doomed project, a newspaper for German refugees, the anti-Hitler Pariser Tageblatt. During the Second World War, they joined the Resistance. When the Poliakovs returned to Paris at the Liberation in 1945, Leon became the co-founder of the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine, involving the collection of all records concerning the plight of Jews during the Second World War. This was to become one of the sources of his monumental five-volume Histoire de l'antisemitisme (1956-94), for which he was awarded the Prix Edmond Weil (1960) and the Prix du Judaisme Francais (1981).

As a leading authority on the subject, the government asked him to translate the archives of the Gestapo and to accompany the French delegation to the Nuremberg war criminal trials. This harrowing experience led Poliakov to write his first book on the Nazi genocide and the "final solution", Le Breviaire de la haine ("The Breviary of Hatred"), for which no publisher could be found until the philosopher Raymond Aron, condemning French indifference to this embarrassing theme, finally persuaded Calmann-Levy to publish it in 1951. This book is now considered the leading work of reference on the subject.

In 1954, Poliakov was made director of research at the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique) where he stayed until 1971, establishing a vast network of scholarly relationships all over the world, and acquiring disciples and friends in every walk of life. Among the important archives he was authorised to bring back to Paris were those of the leading Nazi Alfred Rosenberg, hanged in Nuremberg in 1946.

But in his patient study of these hundreds of thousands of documents, Leon Poliakov began to see that Nazi anti- Semitism had a very long history that stretched back into the mists of time, and he began to devote himself to researching its roots, from the time of Christ to 20th-century "suicidal Europe". One of the shorter texts that emerged from these labours was Le Mythe aryen (1971), which analyses this most powerful of racist phantasms.

It is profoundly ironical that in the week when Leon Poliakov died President Jacques Chirac caused offence to Jewish deportation organisations by ordering the list of Jews hounded during the Occupation by both French and German military police to be deposited in the crypt of the Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr. This impressive cenotaph in an underground bunker behind Notre Dame, on the prow of the Ile de la Cite, is a stark reminder of what those deportees suffered. But leading Jews protested that the list had paradoxically subjected Jews to further exclusion by not being preserved in the National Archives, available for display and for consultation by researchers.

In the same week, Maurice Papon's trial was resumed: he is accused of having sent hundreds of Jews to torture and extermination at Drancy, the Parisian transit camp for Auschwitz. At the same time, there was discussion about the advisability of teaching le devoir de la memoire ("the duty of keeping memory alive") among schoolchildren. The philosopher Emma Shnur disagreed with the principle of fighting oblivion by confronting children with the atrocities of Nazi prison camps. Her argument, expressed forcibly in an essay entitled "Should We Teach the Shoah?", was that it is morally irresponsible, as memory is a psychic process, both selective and forgetful, and should not be subject to moral control.

As a final obscene footnote there were repeated verbal onslaughts by the extreme right-wing revisionist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reiterated his imbecile rant that the gas chambers were only "a detail" in the history of the war - a pernicious falsehood for which he had already been condemned in March 1991. This latest outburst was particularly vile, addressed as it was to the former Waffen SS Franz Schoenhuber at a neo-Fascist rally in Munich during what Le Pen called his "homage to the German people who had been the martyrs of Europe". The chance accumulation of these events at the time of Poliakov's death show that his history of anti-Semitism must never be allowed to die with its greatest exponent.

But Poliakov wrote other important works, notably the 1964 Les Banquiers juifs et Le Saint-Siege ("Jewish Bankers and the Holy See") based on an early study, helped by Raymond Aron and Fernand Braudel, of the archives housed in the Roman ghetto. The two volumes of Essai sur la causalite diabolique appeared between 1980 and 1985, on the origin of persecutions and their history from Mongol times to Leninism. Totalitarismes du 20me siecle followed in 1987, in which Poliakov emerged as one of the leaders in the discipline of the "history of mentalities" and demonstrated his passion for interdisciplinary studies. He examined the situation in Israel since 1948 in his De l'antisionisme a antisemitisme (1969) as a passionately engaged witness to his times. His huge bibliography includes his memoirs, L'Auberge des musiciens (1981).

As Leon Poliakov commented on his pursuit of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, with wry humour: "It was something of a personal matter."