Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Historian of Ancient Greece who exposed the French government's use of torture in Algeria
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The Independent Online

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, historian: born Paris 23 July 1930; Directeur d'études, Ecole des Hautes Etudes 1966-98, Director, Centre Louis Gernet 1984-98; married 1952 Geneviève Railhac (three sons); died Nice, France 29 July 2006.

Pierre Vidal-Naquet had a double life as a fearless public campaigner against modern lies and as one of the founders of the new French scholarship on the Ancient Greek world. In the first role he came to prominence as the chief exposer of the systematic use of torture by the French government in Algeria.

Approached by the widow of a young university teacher of mathematics who had "disappeared" in 1957 in Algiers while in the custody of a paratroop regiment, he launched an investigation which resulted in a famous book L'Affaire Audin ("The Audin Affair", 1958), which concluded that Maurice Audin had been tortured to death, and that the military authorities had concocted an elaborate charade of an alleged escape from custody; the murderers were named, but what was important to Vidal-Naquet was the complicity of the authorities up to the highest level: in 2000 new evidence revealed the truth of his claims.

The subsequent public campaign against systematic torture in Indo-China and other French colonial territories led to his books La Raison d'état ("Reasons of State", 1962), Torture: cancer of democracy (1963, later published in France as La Torture dans la république 1972), and Les Crimes de l'armée française ("The Crimes of the French Army", 1975).

He took part in the events of 1968, and with one of the student leaders (now a professor at the Sorbonne) compiled the essential dossier of student documents, Journal de la commune étudiante (1969; translated as The French Student Uprising, 1971). In 1971 he joined with Michel Foucault in founding the Groupe d'information sur les prisons, which took up the rights of prisoners judged victims of injustice. He mounted a systematic attack on the infamous claims of Robert Faurisson denying the existence of the Nazi concentration camps (Les Assassins de la mémoire : "Un Eichmann de papier" et autres textes sur le révisionnisme, 1987; Assassins of Memory: essays on the denial of the Holocaust, 1992). His many campaigns for the truth in modern Jewish history are preserved in three volumes of Les Juifs, la mémoire et le présent (1981-95; Jews: history, memory and the present, 1996); but (despite disillusionment with the continuation of torture in independent Algeria) he was deeply critical of "Israeli arrogance", and supported the rights of the Palestinians; his last public act was to sign a manifesto against the war in Lebanon.

To the end he was active in denouncing publicly the lies to be found in the memoirs of retired generals, and challenging them to sue him for libel. He wrote to one general asking for a copy of his book on the "truth" of the North African war: the general replied, "It is free to the general public, 80 francs to traitors. For you it costs 40 francs." Vidal-Naquet sent him a personal cheque for 80 francs.

"Vaccinated against orthodoxy", Vidal-Naquet never joined the Communist or (except very briefly) any other party: "I am not a man for party politics," he said:

In a party one practises the conditional as soon as something does not fit its logic; one shows a sort of mistrust of the indicative truth . . . There is always a point where you must choose between party and truth.

It was his inheritance that explained his passion: he belonged to an extended clan of Jewish intellectual French patriots who included Alfred Dreyfus; he was taught by his father that the Dreyfus affair was part of his birthright. Vidal- Naquet believed in his campaigns for justice as the highest form of patriotism; and the success of the Audin campaign, which was one of the 10 cases that began Amnesty International, was based on explicit comparison with the Dreyfus affair.

His father was a prominent constitutional lawyer, and an early member of the Resistance; the family fled to Vichy Marseilles. On 15 May 1944, the 14-year-old Pierre Vidal-Naquet was returning from school when he was dragged off the tram by a teacher and some of his schoolmates: "The Germans have arrested your parents: you can't go home." By various means all the children escaped to be protected by Protestant communities in the mountains, but they never saw their parents again: the father was tortured by the Gestapo and both of them were murdered in Auschwitz. The detailed story is recorded in his Mémoires (1995-98), which demonstrate an amazing memory for events and people, both friends and betrayers, whom he never forgot or forgave.

In 1950 Vidal-Naquet declared to his future wife Geneviève Railhac that "as an atheist, history is for me the only possible substitute for religion". He describes in Le Choix de l'histoire ("My Choice of History", 2004) how he drifted into ancient rather than modern history almost by chance. A pupil of the Catholic historian and musicologist Henri-Irénée Marrou, who taught him to reject positivism, after a brief career in the provinces Vidal-Naquet joined J-P. Vernant in Paris in 1966 in the newly created Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes attached to the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, which was given the house of Auguste Comte (in rue Monsieur-le-Prince); when Vernant was elected to the Collège de France he became director of the renamed Centre Louis Gernet. This cramped huddle of five rooms with its library doubling up as a seminar room became the Mecca for serious historians of all ancient cultures throughout the world; the revolutionary approach to ancient history of the "École de Paris" has changed the face of modern scholarship.

Since his wartime childhood Vidal-Naquet had been a passionate anglophile who spoke excellent English; his knowledge of Shakespeare was exceptional, and he was immensely proud of his honorary doctorate from Bristol University, given to him in 1998. In 1976 he visited Oxford to give the Nellie Wallace lectures, an experience which he described as the happiest time of his life. There in the Ashmolean Museum he saw Uccello's famous picture The Night Hunt, which he used as a frontispiece for his first major book, Le Chasseur Noir (1981; The Black Hunter, 1986); in this he set out a modified structuralist analysis of the importance of rites of passage from adolescence to manhood in Greek society. He remained fascinated with the marginal and transitional elements in Greek society - slaves, women, resident aliens, children, foreigners - which he saw as a way of understanding the centre.

Marrou had set him the task of understanding why Plato hated history and historians so much. This began a lifelong interest in the relation between reality, the imagination and Utopianism, both of which he regarded as mirrors reflecting society. He wrote extensively on Plato, on Greek tragedy, and on the myth of Atlantis from antiquity to the present. He also studied the modern use of the myth of ancient democracy from the French revolution to the present; he was fascinated by the relation between truth, memory and history.

He claimed that his most personal work was that on Flavius Josephus (provocatively entitled Du bon usage de la trahison, "On the Right Use of Treason", 1977), a man "who refused to accept Jewish history as tragic and wished to make an entirely positive history of Judaism". It demonstrated "the role of the historian as eternal traitor". Josephus had actually of course changed sides: of himself Vidal-Naquet said, "I hope to be a more subtle traitor"; he certainly never changed sides.

Fierce but fair, honest with himself and others, he became more impatient in later life and was not always an easy colleague; but he was intensely loyal, not least to his many English friends. A botched operation in his mid-forties led to life-long medical problems which he bore with ill-concealed irritation, helped by his devoted wife Geneviève. He died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage on holiday at his beloved country retreat at Fayence.

Oswyn Murray