Minor point?

IN the years since World War II, the countries of Western Europe have proved themselves solidly democratic. The disastrous experiments with fascism, which nearly put the lights out in the West, are past. We can be confident that the lessons of history have, on the whole, been learned; there need be no condemnation to repeat that history. But the price of that confidence is the need for constant alertness to any sign of fascism attempting to creep back into the public dialogue.

Hence the deservedly strong reaction in France these last few days to right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen's broadcast comments about the gas chambers of the Holocaust. ``I am not saying that gas chambers didn't exist ... but I believe that it is a minor point in the history of World War II.''

These callous comments are all the more troubling coming as they do as a time when Mr. Le Pen's National Front, which aims to ``keep France French'' by reducing nonwhite immigration, has the polling support of some 12 to 15 percent of the French electorate.

Among those to condemn his remarks were former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who noted that ``some of my relatives were victims of this `minor point,''' and Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris. The cardinal, who is of Jewish background, lost his mother to Auschwitz.

It is these observers who have the clearer eye for history.

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