Rousset, (Elisee) David

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ROUSSET, (Elisee) David

Nationality: French. Born: Roanne, 18 January 1912. Education: University of Paris, licencie es lettres 1932. Military Service: Joined the Resistance movement, 1939-43: arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Nazi concentration camps, 1943-44. Family: Married Susie Elliott in 1939; three sons. Career: Joined Socialist Students, 1931; leader, Trotskyist movement, 1935-43; member, Central Committee of the Workers' International Party, 1936; political and economic correspondent, Life and Fortune magazines, 1939-40; writer, Revue Internationale, Temps Modernes Franc-Tireur, Combat, Figaro, Confluences, and The Nation, 1947, Preuves, 1950-64, Le Monde, 1950-69, Nouvel Observateur, 1952, Esope, Demain, 1956, Problems of Communism, 1959, Arguments, 1961, Atlas, 1962, Candide and Le Nouveau Candide, 1963-67, and The New Leader, 1963; grand reporter, Figaro, 1963-66, Notre Republique, 1966, L'Express, 1973, Match and La Nation, 1968, Nouvel Observateur, 1984. Also worked as a radio and television commentator. Cofounder, Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire, 1948; founder and vice president, International Commission against Concentration Camp Practices, 1949-58; organizer of enquiries on forced labor camps and political prisons in the U.S.S.R., Spain, Greece, Tunisia, People's Republic of China, and Algeria, 1951-58; deputy, fifth constituency of Isere, French Assemblee National, 1968-73. Founder and editor, Saturne, 1955-59, and of English edition, 1957. Awards: Prix Theophraste Renaudot, 1946, for L'Univers concentrationnaire. Inducted as officer of French Legion of Honor; named to Order of Orange-Nassau, ordre de L'Etoile brillante, and Greek Legion of Honor. Died: 1997.



L'Univers concentrationnaire. 1945; as A World Apart, 1951.


Les Jours de notre mort [The Days of Our Death]. 1947.

Le Pitre de Rit Pas. 1948.

Les Entretiens sur la politique, with Gerard Rosenthal and Jean-Paul Sartre. 1949.

Pour la verite sur les camps concentrationnaires, with Theo Bernard and Rosenthal. 1951; as Police State Methods in the Soviet Union, 1953.

Le Sens de notre combat. 1957.

La Societe eclatee de la premiere la seconde revolution mondiale. 1973; first volume translated as The Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution, 1982.

Sur la guerre: Sommes-Nous en danger de guerre nucleaire? 1987.


Critical Study:

The Boundaries of Holocaust Literature: The Emergence of a Canon (dissertation) by Naomi Diamant, Columbia University, 1992.

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Born in 1912, David Rousset was a member of the resistance and a militant Trotskyite (he was a key member of the International Workers Party). He was arrested in 1943 and tortured and deported to Buchenwald in 1944. Later he was sent to various camps, including Neuengamme.

His account of the camps, L'Univers concentrationnaire, was published in 1945 and won the Prix Theophraste Renaudot in 1946. It was translated into English as A World Apart in 1951. Although he may have had surrealist sympathies—especially in relation to the black humor of the absurd—his account of the camps L'Univers concentrationnaire is not at all surreal in form (despite the incredible events it describes), as is sometimes claimed. It is a realist report on the "depths of the camps." It covers not only a litany of atrocities and murder but also the range of different nationalities in the camps.

The fact that this book was one of the earliest accounts has had both good and bad consequences. As a report of the events, it was clearly very influential. In many ways it set the agenda for the early reception of the Holocaust, introducing the idea that the camps, a polyglot and evil kingdom of their own, were cut off from the world. On the other hand, the immensity of the Nazi genocide of the Jews is not immediately apparent (although Rousset does describe the gas chambers, it is not from firsthand evidence). More than this, he offers an interpretation of the Holocaust along conventional Marxist lines, suggesting that, although the camps came from Germany, they "sprang from the economic and social foundations of capitalism and imperialism" and so they may reappear anywhere. It "would be easy to prove that the most characteristic traits of SS mentality and of social substructure may both be found in many other sectors of world society, although they may not be as pronounced." One effect of this is that he finds positive things quite easily in his experience: human solidarity, individual bravery, and resources to both confirm Marxist doctrine and combat Fascists and capitalists.

The experience had a profound effect on Rousset. As his career as a journalist and political figure flourished, he continued to support leftist causes. In the 1950s he was one of the first to denounce Soviet gulags and Stalinism—a brave action for somebody from the left. He was opposed to French colonial actions in Algeria, Morocco, and Indochina. He was connected with Sartre, Camus, and Breton and later became a deputy (a "Gaullist of the Left") in the French parliament.

Other Holocaust texts by David Rousset include Les Jours de notre mort (1947; The Days of Our Death ), a "novel" based on the acts of witnessing to the camps and death camps, and sections of his Fragments d'autobiographie. Neither of these has the same power, however, as L'Univers concentrationnaire, not least because it was written so soon after the events.

—Robert Eaglestone

See the essay on A World Apart.