Saturday, April 05, 2008

A century later: The Dreyfus case

Boston University is currently showing an exhibit, with a symposium, on the Dreyfus affair, the legal case and scandal that engulfed France between 1894 and 1906. The bare facts are easy enough to state. The French military's general staff had a turncoat in its midst, a certain Colonel Esterhazy, who prepared, for sale to Germany, France's enemy, a complex document (bordereau) of military secrets. He framed Dreyfus for this treason. Dreyfus was then tried and convicted, with falsified evidence, and sent to the French penal colony at Devil's Island, off the coast of Guyana. He was tried and falsely convicted again by a military court in 1899, but pardoned by the French president.

The exhibit ("The Power of Prejudice: The Dreyfus Affair," with participation by such Boston luminaries as Alan Dershowitz) tries hard to connect l'Affaire (as it still called in France) to the present-day, and there are some connections and echos, although many aspects of it seem strange today - the past really is a foreign country. And unfortunately, some of the real lessons of the Dreyfus scandal (shouldn't it be called the Esterhazy scandal?) are not the ones the exhibit so clearly and earnestly wants to draw.

At the heart of the injustice lay the French military and military courts, which were dominated by officers of a strongly royalist, aristocratic, and Catholic-reactionary bent, deeply hostile to successive French revolutions and the contemporary Third Republic. Although France underwent strong, if uneven, economic growth then, and the whole pre-1914 era is remembered as la Belle Époque - the era of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, and of Saint-Saens, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and Satie - French political life in that era did exhibit deep weaknesses, constant scandals, and incessantly falling governments. (To prevent a new Bonaparte, the Third Republic had a weak presidency and incoherent parliamentary-cabinet government.) Strong political subcultures arose at the end of the 19th century in reaction to these developments, all of them hostile to the Third Republic. Among these tendencies was what might be called an anti-patriotic Right. Hostile to the republicanism, egalitarianism, dynamism, and secularism of modern France, they dreamed vainly of restoration - restoration of the monarchy, the established Church, the landed aristocracy, and the pre-industrial, pre-democratic age generally. Under modern conditions, these tendencies could not go but nowhere, but they seeded something that would later flower in demonic form - the word had not yet been coined by Mussolini - the phenomenon of fascism. Actually, it isn't quite correct to call them "anti-patriotic." They were deeply chauvinistic (to use the word the French themselves use) about all things connected to what they called "deep France" (la France profonde, a somewhat mythical place), but viscerally antagonistic to the post-1789 world of middle- and working-class France, of republican institutions, and lack of respect for the Old Regime and its manifestations. The roots of their own treason to France lay here, although it would be a generation after Dreyfus before the rot came to its fullness.

Contrary to legend often repeated later, the intellectual and educated classes of France did not, by and large, rush to Dreyfus' defense at the time of his first and second trials. Educated opinion in France was divided among a small but devoted group of Dreyfusards, a larger and vicious group of anti-Dreyfusards, and a lot of people of mixed or no opinion in the middle who were eventually swayed by a certain Colonel Picquart, who came forward after the first trial with definitive proof that Dreyfus was framed and his writing on the bordereau forged. After the first trial, the Dreyfusards came under the leadership of novelist Émile Zola, but it was well after Dreyfus' second trial before most educated French opinion came to see the truth of how Dreyfus had been railroaded. (Zola quipped that the original Dreyfusard party could be fit into a small room.) Educated persons outside of France were, on the whole, more sympathetic to his plight - they could see more clearly the conflict between democratic-republican France (exemplified by an emancipated Jew falsely accused of treason) and the heavily reactionary French military, which had never reconciled itself to the post-1789 world.*

Lessons today? The one Professor Dershowitz wants us to learn is that we should doubt the conviction of anyone on trial for anything. But - sorry, Alan - that's not the point. (The exhibit features his disembodied head and voice droning on about such things.) The most striking facet of the scandal to the modern eye is the largely negative and sensationalistic role played by the then-new mass media in their graphical, dumbed-down form, featuring crude antisemitic cartoons and the like. The French mass media, too, was slow to come around to Dreyfus' innocence. The point about miscarriages of justice is not that everyone accused is innocent - we have trials to make that determination - but that crimes and trials can be expressions of larger political conflicts, ones in which individual innocence and guilt don't matter. There was a guilty officer in this case, but it was Esterhazy. He came precisely from the reactionary aristocratic class mentioned earlier. Beyond simple personal sympathy for Dreyfus, it is this conflict that energized Zola, who had a remarkable intuition of the dangers posed by an official institution so antagonistic to the larger public order and society. The hostile ambivalence that this class felt toward the French republic was to show its full face in the 1930s, culminating in the disgrace of defeat and surrender to Germany in 1940, followed by the Vichy episode. This anti-patriotic Right was hostile enough to France itself, that they felt, better to be ruled by the Germans than by some damned - **

At the top of the list of striking continuities remains the immense power and usefulness of antisemitism: it's the rocket fuel of a certain type of ugly politics. The Dreyfus affair began shortly after the rise of the first modern antisemitic parties in Austria, Germany, and France, in the 1870s and 1880s. Antisemites repeatedly attribute to Jews a preternatural power of protean shape-shifting - "rootless cosmopolitanism" it was to be called in Stalinist Russia. But the most striking protean power is antisemitism itself. Sometimes used by the 19th century Left to agitate against the mysteries of international finance and the then-new commercial society, it proved useful to reactionary classes of the late 19th century, who then passed it on to a new force, the antisemitic populism that succeeded the old politics of aristocracy with an anti-democratic but mass politics of agitation and bigotry.† The most successful practitioner of this politics would turn out to be Hitler, but junior versions of the same type appeared all over Europe in the generation before 1914 and became a dominant force in the interwar years. While the Left belatedly joined the Dreyfusards by the time of his exoneration, it largely felt out of tune with a middle-class republic and typically middle-class concepts like individual guilt and innocence, as well as Zola's intense patriotism and love of republican France. And, while modern, political Zionism was already in existence by that point, the impact of the Dreyfus case on Theodor Herzl, visiting from Vienna, sent him in a new and unexpected direction: the realization that Jews were not just a religion, but a people as well.

Antisemitism of course has moved on since 1945 to new forms. Within the Western world today, its main carriers are to be found on the Left, who, like those displaced and resentful French aristocrats of a century ago, resent the nature and evolution of modern capitalist society and global civilization. As always, it's starts with a need for scapegoats and reaches its climax with a general crisis of society or civilization - it's really not about Jews. It never is.

Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906. He went on to serve in French military ministries at the cabinet level and then with distinction on the western front in 1914-18, along with millions of French and German troops, counting many thousands of Jewish soldiers and officers among them on both sides. But that's another story.
* It was amusing to read the reaction of the overwhelmingly pro-Dreyfus British and American educated classes to the obvious injustice of the Dreyfus case - the Anglo-Saxon tendency to view the French as "degenerate" and "perverse" has a long history :)

One imaginative artist's sketch from 1896 has the military court sitting under a large painting of Jesus on the cross. At first, you might think this is supposed to symbolize the hyper-Catholic class dominating the proceedings. But it's really one railroaded innocent Jew looking down on another. It was probably understood that way at the time.

** The last French prime ministers before the German invasion in 1940 were Léon Blum, a French-Jewish socialist, and Édouard Daladier, leader of the middle-class Radicals - not the "right sort of the people," in either case.

There's no real analogue in American experience to a large political force of this type, except in some respects the wave of nostalgia that swept over the South after the Civil War. The admittedly tiny fringe of the "militia movement" of the 1990s might fit: intensely racist, believing in an America that's never existed, hating the actual one.

† It would be wrong to view the French aristocracy and Church as uniformly opposed to the Republic, the 1789 revolution, and its emancipation of the French Jews. After all, the earliest stages of revolution were led precisely by liberal aristocrats and clerics. While the middle class was the backbone of the revolution and the peasants and working classes its foot soldiers, these aristocrats and clerics had something the toiling classes lacked, which were leisure and contemplation. They were pivotal in the spread of the Enlightenment, and the modern world is profoundly in their debt.

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