The Matter of Dreyfus

Ruth Harris, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century”

Frederic Brown, “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus”

Louis Begley, “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters”

I was surprised when two books on the Dreyfus affair, by Ruth Harris and Frederic Brown, came out within a short time of one another in 2010. This is a subject that I have wanted to understand better, so I decided to jump in and read both in 2011. When I ordered the Harris and Brown books on Amazon.com, through a “pop up” mechanism, Amazon kindly suggested that people who had purchased the two books might also be interested in reading Louis Begley’s “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters.” I try to resist these pop ups but, after being severely tempted on many previous occasions, this time I succumbed. I really did want to learn why Dreyfus matters in the 21st century.

Although I read Harris’ book first, it would have made more sense to reverse the order. Brown emphasizes the background of the Affair. In the first 174 pages of his 265 page book, he treats the social, political and intellectual climate in which the Dreyfus Affair arose. At about the two-thirds mark, he begins to recount the story of a French cleaning lady emptying her wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris in September 1894 and finding pieces of a torn-up, unsigned document containing low-level military secrets. This discovery set in motion the matter that would ensnare Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young Jewish Army officer from Alsace. In contrast, Harris starts with the cleaning lady in the German Embassy. The two books work well together, presenting a comprehensive and balanced view of the Affair.

Begley’s book, published a year earlier in 2009, covers succinctly the background and details of the Affair. Although eager to learn why someone versed in the Affair thinks that it might matter for us today, over a century later, I was disappointed by Begley’s book. I am skeptical of this genre (and learned that Begley’s book on Dreyfus is part of a Yale University Press series on why various people, places or things matter). Explaining why an historical figure or event matters appears to involve a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. Begley analogizes Dreyfus’ case to those of terrorist suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Naval Base. He failed to convince me that this is the best analogy, and I found his argument jarring and out of place in his narrative.

The hard and cold facts of the Dreyfus Affair hide the polemical debate which it generated and the fissures in French society which it revealed. Shortly after finding that shredded document in the wastebasket in the German Embassy in September 1894, the cleaning lady, herself a spy for French intelligence, turned the shreds over to her superiors. They pieced it together, concluded that it was evidence of a spy for Germany within the French army, and quickly determined that Dreyfus was the culprit. Dreyfus was arrested for treason shortly thereafter, summarily convicted in a secret court martial, and stripped of his rank in front of a crowd screaming, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana in early 1895.

In 1896, a new chief of French intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, found evidence that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Esterhzy and that Dreyfus was innocent. Picquart was silenced by a military cover up. In 1899, after a passionate campaign by the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison, then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated Dreyfus.

Brown’s book is excellent in laying out the background to the affair. As his sub-title indicates, that background involves French cultural wars dating back to the French Revolution of the previous century, in which conservative institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and the military, considered themselves and the traditional France they represented to be under siege by a republican France, cosmopolitan, secular and fused with the values of the 18th century Enlightenment. In this climate, a virulent anti-Semitism flourished as the pervasive common denominator which drove the frenzy against Dreyfus.

In wide swaths of late 19th century French society, Jews were considered to be outsiders even when born on French soil, “created by God to serve as a spy wherever treason is afoot,” as one Catholic publication stated (Brown, p.216 n.*). Brown discusses a “fortress-France nationalism,” defending the country against the forces of modernity, especially the democratic and liberal Third French Republic — often termed a “Jewish, Masonic Republic” (Brown, p.208). But, Brown observes, “beneath the political agenda one observed a spiritual reaction against decadence by people who understood that defense of French interests to be that of a completed civilization at war with the new mobility of things and beings” (Brown, p.208, quoting historian Michel Winock).

Brown’s story begins in 1870 with Napoleon III’s abdication and the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with the humiliating loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, a loss many on the political right attributed to the Enlightenment and the forces of modernity. Among the immediate predicates to the Dreyfus Affair, the most critical in Brown’s view was that involving Georges Boulanger, a general in the French Army who, in 1889, led an unsuccessful movement of French conservatives threatening to take over the state and restore the monarchy. According to Prime Minister Léon Blum, who would become France’s first Jewish Prime Minister in 1936, one “cannot understand the Dreyfus Affair unless one remembers that it broke out less than eight years after a failed [Boulanger-led] revolution. The Boulangists sought revenge . . . and the discrediting of institutions and parties” (Brown, p.123).

Construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 was another factor fueling the French cultural wars. Conservatives regarded the tower as a sacrilege to traditional France, a sign that “mercantile fantasies” were in the ascendance and France was becoming “more American than America” (Brown, p.147). Lording over the French past and future, the tower was a “cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of ‘Israel’” (Brown, p.151). The Sacré Coeur basilica, which faces the Eiffel Tower from Paris’ highest perch in Montmarte, was constructed a few years later to serve as the counterpoint to the Tower: a “sanctuary for refugees from Babylon, a Parisian home for a devotion of specifically French origin, a monument embodying allegiance to the pope . . .” (Brown, p.35).

Harris dwells only in passing on the background to the Affair, concentrating on the moment Dreyfus was fingered as a traitor. She agrees with Brown and most other historians of the period that at one level, the Dreyfus debate was a “struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment” (Harris, p.8). The Anti-Dreyfusards:

Rejected the universalism of the Rights of Man in favour of a conception of French identity that was based on language and race. They believed that a “true” French morality had to exclude Jews, Protestants and Freemasons in order to preserve a unique national community (Harris, p.8).

On the other side, the Dreyfusards “retained a belief in a universal moral code and trusted in rationality as a guide to ethical conduct. Correct judgments, they held, could be made only on the basis of evidence, and they maintained that Catholicism and anti-Semitism were roads back to a pre-Enlightenment obscurantism” (Harris, p. 8-9).

Harris excels in exposing the complexities underlying both sides, showing that the Affair was far more than a Manichean struggle between monolithic blocks. There was “neither a single, unified Catholic vision, nor a single, unified ‘secular’ response” (Harris, p. 373). Dreyfusards were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, all trying to overcome backward elements within their own religions, but plagued by their own fears, animosities and inflexibilities. The more radical Dreyfusards, she contends, “abandoned much of their liberal humanitarianism and cemented their victory through an all-out assault on the Church, closing down congregations, expelling orders of priests and establishing an iron grip over the educational system” (Harris, p.9). They were “as emotionally vested in their ideology as the anti-Dreyfusards. . . They insisted that their opponents alone were guilty of muddled thinking and obscurantist tendencies. This belief was central to creating, and intensifying, the gulf between the two sides” (Harris, p. 168).

Harris closes with her own observations on why the Dreyfus affair might matter today. She cites the “widespread anxiety about how to integrate a large immigrant – and predominantly Islamic – minority” (Harris, p.385). Despite the very altered circumstances in twenty-first century France:

The debate resonates with the ferocity (and many of the same ideological oppositions) of the earlier [Dreyfus] period. Today right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education. Where else in the Western world would the wearing of headscarves produce such ire and even national legislation . . .As much as in the early stages of the Dryefus Affair, the debate surrounding headscarves does not fit neatly into a tidy left/right divide. Even if, in time, the headscarf issue fades from view, Muslim resistance to the values of laïcité [secularism] means that many French citizens will continue to face the problem of living comfortably with multiple identities. This tension is one of the many aspects of French political culture that were strengthened, and, in some measure created, by the Dreyfus Affair (Harris, p.385).

Harris’ view of why Dreyfus might manner in the 21st century is more convincing than that of Louis Begley. About halfway through his first chapter, Begley jumps from a factual summation of the Affair to a 17 page digression on United States treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Naval Base, including discussions of some of the key Supreme Court decisions addressing the legality of maintenance of the base as a prison for detainees captured in the war on terror. Citing a poll taken around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 that showed that 44% of the respondents did not favor closing the prison, Begley concludes: “Just as the outset of the Dreyfus Affair the French found it easy to believe that Dreyfus must be a traitor because he was a Jew, many Americans had had no trouble believing that the detainees at Guatánomo – and those in CIA jails – were terrorists simply because they were Muslims” (p.43). Begley does not return to the Guatánomo theme in any meaningful sense until the final paragraph of his book.

Begley’s elevation of Guatánomo as the most pertinent contemporary analogy to Dreyfus strikes me as a stretch. In a recent Washington Post article, Karen Greenberg writes that Guatánomo is a “ready symbol of the country’s willingness to allow national security to trump the rule of law,” (Karen Greenberg, A World Without Gitmo,” Washington Post, January 15, 2012, B2), a view I accept. Dreyfus’ flagrant mistreatment within the French legal system was justified by some as necessary to defend the security of a civilization thought to be under siege, and in this sense there may be superficial similarities to the detainees at Guatánomo. But few of the detainees are United States citizens, whereas one of the core themes of the Dreyfus Affairis is the insider as outsider. Born French and a loyal and patriotic citizen serving in his country’s army, Dreyfus threatened traditional institutions because he was a Jew and in the eyes of many of his countrymen could never be French in the true sense of the term.

But the question why Dreyfus matters does not have to be a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. One could argue that the Affair matters because it is crucial to any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century French history. These three books contribute significantly to this understanding. My guess is that scholars would contend that Harris breaks the most new ground, providing an iconoclastic view of the Dreyfusards, with their own warts. Brown sets forth a richly detailed picture of the environment in which the Affair arose. Although his discussion of Guatánomo seems misplaced, Begley offers a solid summation of the Affair. That three English language books on the subject were published within a two-year period demonstrates that the matter of Dreyfus continues to matter.

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9 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History, Politics

9 responses to “The Matter of Dreyfus

  1. Very much enjoyed the review. It is a subject I too would like to know more about, and now you’ve pointed me in the right direction.

  2. One of the reasons the Dreyfus Affair matters is it dealt with collective hysteria which, if properly kindled, can endanger a nation, a continent or the whole world.

  3. Thanks for your insightful point, Chanh. In addition, when one knows a little about Dreyfus, the extent of French collaboration with the Nazis during WWII occupation becomes less surprising. Many Americans, familiar with the dark history of Dreyfus and the German occupation, ask me if anti-Semitism remains a serious problem in France today. I respond that while I don’t think it has diminished to quite the same extent as in the United States, it is no longer the pervasively malignant force it once was in France. France is no longer in denial of what happened during the occupation (thanks in no small measure to former President Chirac forcing attention to this issue) and I sense that the average French person today does not entertain the stereotypes and negative views of Jews that were widespread a couple of generations ago. There is still anti-Semitism on the margins in France (as there is in the US), sadly including segments of France’s Muslim population. But I don’t live in France and Chanh does. I think we would all be interested in learning Chanh’s views on this subject.

  4. Tom gave me a daunting task! In addition to his expertise in international and Central and East European Europe affairs and his extensive knowledge of the E.U., Tom is at least as familiar with France as I am. What would I dare say about the current situation in France? Nothing much of interest, I am afraid! I therefore ask Tom to forgive me for tentatively venturing the general opinion that history often repeats itself because man fails to learn from mistakes – a difficult process especially when the mistakes and the parties involved are numerous. But the challenge is worthwhile, considering the stake.

  5. Thanks for the balanced survey of the author’s positions. To me the contemporary parallel is the Bradly Manning trial. I once heard that the Case was the first time newspapers serialized and sensationalized trials..I think this remark was around the time of the O.J. Simpson Murder.. I am attaching a link to very chatty and fact rich lectures from John Merriman of Yale — France 1871-Present. http://academicearth.org/lectures/france-since-1871-intro

  6. Diane, Thank you so much for your comment on the Dreyfus books and the matter of Dreyfus (could this be a family matter?). I welcome your regular participation in our discussion of books and questions and issues related to them. I would be grateful to learn more about why you think that the case of Bradley Manning is analogous to that of Dreyfus. Thanks also for the link to Professor Merriman’s course on modern France. Tom

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