The Dreyfus Affair's Lessons on anti-Semitism Are as Relevant as Ever

What is it about the Dreyfus Affair, which polarized fin-de-siecle France that still resonates with an immediacy that makes one wonder if humanity is truly capable of learning from its mistakes?

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David Green
David B. Green

The release last month of “An Officer and a Spy,” the Roman Polanski-directed adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel about the Dreyfus Affair, raises the question of the enduring universal fascination with a drama that, after all, took place 125 years ago. There’s no doubt that the story of Alfred Dreyfus – the Jewish-French army officer falsely charged with treason and sentenced to life in solitary confinement on a remote island in the south Atlantic, who continued to fight for vindication even though the entire French government and military were unjustly aligned against him – has the ingredients of a powerful and moving legal thriller and moral tale. 

Harris and Polanski chose to focus their retelling of the tale on Georges Picquart, the intelligence officer who, despite his own dislike for Dreyfus, and Jews in general, put his own career on the line to establish the innocence of Dreyfus and incriminate the actual spy, once he became convinced that the Jew had been framed. That too is an inspiring story in its own right.

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But the Dreyfus saga is more than just a good story. It also has an evergreen quality – a constantly renewing freshness and immediacy – because many of the issues it raised remain painfully relevant today, in many societies.

For Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Nazi Germany and scholar of totalitarianism, a direct line could be drawn from the anti-Semitism on display during the Dreyfus Affair to the Nazi attempt to eliminate the Jews. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” she called the affair “a huge dress rehearsal for a performance that had to be put off for more than three decades.”

In 2009, when lawyer and novelist Louis Begley wrote “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters,” he was preoccupied by the then-recently exposed abuses by U.S. troops of Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and, more generally, by a post-9/11 erosion of civil rights at home, through such legislation as the Patriot Act, designed to battle terrorism. The fear and xenophobia of early 21st-century America reminded Begley of the atmosphere in French society in the 1890s. Today, Begley’s indignation over racism and erosion of due process may seem a bit quaint, through no fault on his part.

What is it about the Dreyfus Affair that so polarized France in the 1890s, and continues to resonate today with an uncanny immediacy that makes one wonder if humanity is really capable of learning from its past mistakes? And what in fact were the “lessons” of the affair?

‘Crisis of the French Republic’

Among students of Zionist history, conventional wisdom has long been that it was his experience covering the original conviction and “degradation” of Dreyfus, in 1894-95, that convinced Theodor Herzl that the Jews would never succeed in assimilating into European society, and thus needed their own state. Although Herzl biographer Shlomo Avineri has demonstrated that Herzl’s Zionist awakening was directly sparked by the anti-Semitism he witnessed in his own native Vienna, rather than in France, he still agrees that Herzl eventually came to understand the Dreyfus Affair in Jewish terms. But Avineri thinks that for France, the anti-Semitism of the affair was just one factor in a complex of symptoms that divided a nation.

“In the Israeli and Jewish memory, it’s the ‘Dreyfus Affair,’” says Avineri, emeritus professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “but this was a crisis of the French Republic. And it was a crisis in a wounded country.”

An 1896 photogravure of the battle of Bazeilles, Sept. 1, 1870, in which French forces were crushed by Bavarian soldiers. The French were still shaken by the Franco-Prussian War defeat in 1894.
An 1896 photogravure of the battle of Bazeilles, Sept. 1, 1870, in which French forces were crushed by Bavarian soldiers. The French were still shaken by the Franco-Prussian War defeat in 1894.Credit: Library of Congress

As monumental as the Dreyfus Affair was for fin-de-siècle France, it was really the continuation of a crisis that had gripped the country for more than two decades. In the 15 years that preceded Dreyfus’ arrest, says Avineri, France experienced “an attempted military coup by a general, the assassination of a president, and anarchist attacks on members of parliament. It was a very unstable republic.” 

The arrest of Alfred Dreyfus in October 1894, on charges of selling defense secrets to the German military attaché in Paris, and the ensuing “affair,” would not have happened had France not lost the Franco-Prussian war to Germany, in 1870. It was a humiliating defeat, which left the country feeling weak and vulnerable. In its wake, with the fall of the Napoleonic Second Empire, a democracy, the Third Republic, was established, seemingly a positive development. But the republic, says Avineri, “was viewed by at least half of the population as illegitimate.” 

Says Avineri: “The Dreyfus affair was a bellwether, because it became emblematic of the divide in France between a republican, largely secular population, and a royalist, nationalist, Catholic half ... The fact that Dreyfus was Jewish only just made it deeper.” Today, the values of the Enlightenment are still pitted in many places against “traditional” values, be they religious, paternalistic or tribal. 

The war with Germany gets almost no mention in the film version of “An Officer and a Spy,” which is extremely odd, considering that it’s Germany that was the feared and hated enemy Dreyfus was accused of spying for. France lost not only its honor to Germany in 1870, but also the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Dreyfus was himself born in the former, in 1859, but when the war began, his Yiddish-speaking, French-identifying family uprooted itself and moved to Paris. There, he attended the Ecole Polytechnique military school, and in 1880 was commissioned as an officer. His rise in the army was steady, despite attempts by some of his superiors to keep him down. 

Dreyfus’ initial success there was testament to the values of the new French meritocracy, but these were values that were not universally embraced in France at the time, not even among the army’s general staff, where, when evidence was received of a mole in the ranks, suspicion immediately fell on Dreyfus, for little reason other than that he was a Jew. As the influential writer and promoter of anti-Semitism Maurice Barres wrote at the time, “That Dreyfus was capable of treason, I concluded from his race.” Or as arch-Jew-hater Edouard Drumont wrote, shortly after Dreyfus’ arrest: “The affair of Capt. Dreyfus … is simply another episode in Jewish history…. This is all just a fatal running to type, the curse of the race.” Ho-hum, what else was one to expect from a Jew? 

Consider the parallels, if in reverse, to the split in Israel over the case of Elor Azaria, the Israel Defense Forces medic who in 2016, in full view of fellow soldiers, shot and killed a Palestinian stabber who had already been incapacitated and arrested. For much of the Israeli public, and much of the cabinet, Azaria was a hero, who, with his prosecution by the army, became a victim: He had killed someone who deserved to die, both by virtue of having attacked our forces and because he belonged to the enemy. 

On the other hand, for the IDF brass, for then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – hardly a softie with regard to Palestinians – and for members of the public for whom the concepts “rule of law” and “due process” still had meaning, it was critical that Azaria be subject to military justice for having acted on his own and violating the army’s ethical code. Hence, with both the Dreyfus and Azaria cases, you had one group that judged the people involved on the basis of nationality, and expected the outcome of the proceedings to follow from that, versus a public that recognized that it was especially in such cases, where emotions run high, that the proceedings be guided by the facts and by the law.

In a similar way, national identity can be understood as the heart of the Dreyfus Affair, and helped turn it into a watershed moment for France. In the wake of the affair, the vast differences in how Frenchmen understood their nationality emerged as clear battle lines. And whether one thought a Jew could ever be a real Frenchman was something of a litmus test of where one stood. 

‘General Revanche’

The outbreak of the affair occurred less than a decade after another episode that shook France politically. In the 1880s, Gen. Georges Ernest Boulanger, a military hero-turned-popular war minister, became the object of the hopes and worshipful adoration of an unlikely coalition of anti-republican groups, and seemed on the verge of perpetrating a military coup, before a warrant was issued for his arrest. 

Nicknamed “General Revanche” (the French word implies a combination of “revenge” and “satisfaction,” and Boulanger indeed personified something between the dream of defeating Germany and reclaiming the lost provinces, and a vaguer hope of restoring France’s imperial glory), the distinguished-looking Boulanger was, to his supporters, “a savior whom one addressed in almost godlike fashion,” wrote Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his comparative history “The Culture of Defeat.” “‘Save us from the abyss,’ wrote one [Boulanger] admirer. ‘Lead our legions into glory. Guide our two sisters Alsace and Lorraine back home with your strong hand….’”

Dreyfus depicted as “Le Traître,” in an 1899 illustration by Victor Lenepveu.
Dreyfus depicted as “Le Traître,” in an 1899 illustration by Victor Lenepveu.

In the end, though, Boulanger couldn’t deliver the goods. A wanted man, he fled the country, before committing suicide in 1891.

According to Hebrew University political scientist and Haaretz columnist Zeev Sternhell, “The Dreyfus Affair wouldn’t have occurred and developed if not for the preparation of the Boulanger crisis before it.” The enormously popular Boulanger acted to subvert French democracy from within, explains Sternhell, “recruiting nationalism and the motherland against liberal democracy.” Anti-Semitism was virtually inherent to these values.

“The Dreyfus affair raises the issue of citizenship vs. nationality,” Sternhell told me. “Does that remind you of anything?” his raised eyebrow almost discernible over the phone line. I assume that he was referring to the passage in Israel of the Nation-State Law in 2018, which reminded the country’s non-Jewish citizens that, to paraphrase George Orwell, “some Israelis are more equal than others.” But the growth of nationalism, often in a mystical or radicalized form, is a phenomenon found on every continent today, except maybe Antarctica, and is a perhaps predictable reaction to globalization, endless waves of refugees, and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.

When the Jews were emancipated in France, in 1789, they were recognized as full-fledged citizens, and welcome to participate fully in civil life. “But now, with the Dreyfus Affair, there were those saying, the French nation does not belong to all of the citizens,” Sternhell continues. “Anyone can be a citizen… [But] to be a Frenchman – that’s a concept, a result of history, a mentality. It’s brain and heart. This is basically the point of the Dreyfus Affair.”

‘La France Juive’

Perhaps it figures that the question of French nationality took on a special virulence in Algeria. Certainly, it was natural that there would be racial tensions in this overseas colony, which France occupied in 1830. In addition to the country’s native Arab-Muslim and Berber populations, Algeria in the second half of the 19th century was a destination for many Europeans – not only colonists from France, but also immigrants from Italy, Malta and Spain. It was among them, rather than the indigenous Muslims, that anti-Semitism was rampant. 

Part of that was based on economic competition during a time of local and global economic crises, part on an aversion to Jews’ alleged inability to assimilate, and part of it on cynical political manipulation of people liable to the first two inclinations.

In her 2018 book “Citizenship and Antisemitism in French Colonial Algeria, 1870-1962,” historian Sophie B. Roberts describes in disquieting detail the way political figures, especially at the local level, built careers on cultivating people’s hatred of Jews. So significant was the phenomenon, she writes, that “It is important not to look at the Algerian anti-Semitic crisis through the lens of the Dreyfus Affair. Rather, one must examine the Dreyfus Affair through the lens of Algerian antisemitism and understand it as the Algerian and metropolitan antisemites did: as an opportunity.”

Roberts describes, for example, the rise of Max Régis, an Algerian-born French citizen of Italian descent, who during a brief term as mayor of Algiers, introduced a slew of anti-Jewish ordinances. More significantly, the demagogic Régis, who talked about “water[ing] the tree of our liberties with Jewish blood,” instigated a wave of riots across Algeria at the end of the 1890s, resulting in deaths and significant property damage among the Jews. These had their parallels in metropolitan France, where 30 towns saw attacks on Jewish-owned businesses.

An anti-Semitic cartoon on the front page of La Libre Parole, 1893.
An anti-Semitic cartoon on the front page of La Libre Parole, 1893.

Roberts also cites a 1911 French novel called “Daniel Ulm: Officier Juif et Patriote,” by the writer Jean Steene. The title character is a young Jew of Alsatian descent, but born in Algeria, who travels to Paris to become an officer in the French army. There, this patriotic believer in the ideals of the French republic – very much like Dreyfus – encounters hatred of Jews. When he returns home after the 1898 anti-Jewish riots, Daniel asks his father what he makes of the Dreyfus Affair and what he sees as the reasons for the violence in Algiers.

The father responds rhetorically: “Is it the Dreyfus affair? But it seems it was only a pretext ... Is it a lack of patriotism? But all Algerian Jews have been strong patriots. They have proved it in assimilating with astonishing speed the language, the customs and French ideas... And what is this patriotism in whose name all Spaniards and Maltese naturalized yesterday act?” 

In 1898, Algeria was allotted six seats in the French Chamber of Deputies: Four of those seats were won by professional anti-Semites, most notably the journalist Edouard Drumont, who was probably the most influential anti-Semitic figure in French history. Drumont’s 1,200-page “La France Juive,” published in 1886, meticulously described how the Jews were responsible for almost every ill that had ever affected France, and offered a quasi-scientific explanation for Jews’ racial inferiority, to which he added their eternal perfidy. As Oxford University historian Ruth Harris wrote in her 2010 book, “The Man on Devil’s Island,” Drumont’s “combination of… two strands, religion and science, gave the book its particular power.”

In his newspaper La Libre Parole (The Free Word), Drumont reported with glee, in October 1894, on the arrest of a Jewish army officer on suspicion of passing secrets to the Germany enemy, followed a month later by publishing the officer’s name. For Drumont, however, the case of Alfred Dreyfus was just the latest in a series of scandals and affairs that could be attributed to the nefarious Jews. These included the 1882 collapse of the Union Generale Bank (founded by a Catholic financier, who blamed his company’s failure, which contributed to a 15-year-long economic slump, on a conspiracy of “Jewish finance” and “governmental freemasonry); a bribery scandal related to the construction of the Panama Canal, which ended up depriving thousands of French families of their savings, and several of whose principals were Jews; and a variety of overseas military adventures whose failures could be blamed on Jews.

The anti-Dreyfusard

In a 1994 article that examined the myths employed by both the anti-Dreyfusards and Dreyfus supporters, historian Michael Marrus quotes another anti-Semitic activist, Maurice Barres – the man who had said that Dreyfus’ guilt could be inferred from “his race.” Writing about “the influence of Rothschild” – without specifying any particular member of the banking family – Barres described a figure whose power, both visible and covert, over people’s economic lives was almost total. 

A photo from the opening of Dreyfus’ retrial, August 7, 1899, where his conviction was upheld.
A photo from the opening of Dreyfus’ retrial, August 7, 1899, where his conviction was upheld. Credit: Library of Congress / Valerian Gribayedoff

In the mining regions of northern and southern France, for example, “whole populations live at his mercy; the ground is excavated, scooped out in every direction by his workings, right under the foundations of the houses and the roots of his crops. But elsewhere too, where his power is not apparent, it is probably just as great. There seems indeed to be no limit to what Rothschild can do, since the finances of the great European Powers are completely dependent on him.” 

Dan Diner, professor of modern history at the Hebrew University, sees a common thread between such thinking then and now. “The Jews symbolize something specific. And all of the propaganda [today] related to [billionaire philanthropist George] Soros touches on it. On the one hand, you can say that the Jews are gatekeepers of egalitarianism, liberalism and openness – it’s as if the Jews keep the gates open with relationship to the foreigner, and in the 19th century, they symbolize the liberal world, with equality. But on other hand – and this is connected to our conflict here [in Israel-Palestine] – if you look back at 1898 Algeria, you can see how the Jews stand between the European French in Algeria, and the Muslims. And the Jews are very vulnerable with such a status. They are connected but not connected to the French and to Frenchness, and they are connected and not connected to the population that enters the political and civilian reservoir of French.”

The forming of a camp of dedicated supporters around the cause of Dreyfus’ innocence – personified by Emile Zola, author of the legendary essay “J’Accuse” (and a man who, a decade earlier, had helped popularize the myth that the Rothschilds were behind the collapse of Union Generale), but also including Georges Clemenceau, Bernard Lazare, Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Solomon Reinach and of course Georges Picquart – is an essential part of the Dreyfus saga, and there is good reason to believe that without the courage and support of the group, and that of the Dreyfus family, Alfred Dreyfus would have died on Devil’s Island, without a retrial, a subsequent presidential pardon (after his second conviction) and eventually, in 1906, his complete vindication.

But his supporters were a diverse group, and by the end of the affair, they had split bitterly over the decision by Dreyfus to accept the pardon, in 1899. A pardon freed Dreyfus, but it did not exonerate him, nor did it lead to the prosecution of any of those responsible for framing Dreyfus – in fact, everyone involved in the case received an amnesty, the following year.

For Ruth Harris, the final disagreement among the Dreyfusards was tragic, but was indicative of the highly emotional pitch that existed in both camps. In her book, she describes the two main accusations directed at the Dreyfus family for choosing to accept the pardon and thus save Alfred’s “skin,” rather than continuing to fight to establish his innocence: that they were “selfish to the point of cowardice, and that they were unable to see or embody higher principles. Mathieu [Alfred’s brother and chief ally], in turn, was enraged because only he and Lucie [Alfred’s steadfast wife] knew that Alfred had barely survived, that ‘saving his skin’ had been no simple matter.”

Both Picquart and the lawyer Ferdinand Labori, who had been shot and seriously wounded while leading Dreyfus’ defense at the second court martial, in Rennes, “began to believe,” writes Prof. Harris, “that Alfred, Mathieu, and [politician and writer Joseph] Reinach were too concerned with ‘narrow’ Jewish interests.” The former two even tried to drive a wedge between the two brothers. 

With the end of the campaign for Dreyfus’ innocence, the need for unity and restraint fell by the wayside, and petty hurts, but also differences of principle, came to the fore. The bad feelings became public, and a press greedy for gossip was happy to publish the mutual accusations and slights, as members of the Dreyfusard camp began to attack each other. 

In a phone conversation, Harris elaborated: “They turn on each other, the Dreyfusards, because [those who believed Dreyfus should have kept fighting] think that the Jews are trying to protect themselves more than they are defending France. It’s a terrible story, what happens to them, and it’s been written out of the histories, because it’s so shameful.” 

According to Harris, “there’s an authoritarianism of the left that gets more accentuated, because they are alarmed by fears, by the fact that they really are battling a conspiracy. And so, in the aftermath of the affair, they begin to persecute Catholics in the military, and other things. This is what interested me, the emotional undercurrent of what happens. When people avoid facts, can’t say they’re sorry, can’t move on.”

For Harris, an American at Oxford, a latter-day echo of this came during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, “When Trump said, I could shoot someone in Manhattan and nobody would care, and I would get away with it – there was a profound truth [in that,] that we didn’t realize at the time. It doesn’t matter how many lies Trump tells – for the right, he was speaking about some truth that goes beyond the factual.”

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