Thursday 4 July 2013

The Dreyfus Affair

This selection was excluded from That Line of Darkness: Dracula's Shadow and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2012 because I decided to limit for reasons of space my discussion to Oscar Wilde. The original intent was to compare anti-Semitism in France during the Dreyfus Affair with homophobia in England during the Oscar Wilde trials.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, an officer on the French General Staff, was arrested in October 1894 for treason as a German spy after the cleaner who emptied waste baskets at the German embassy in Paris found a bordereau or memorandum unsigned in which a French officer was willing to betray military secrets to the Germans and the official in charge of counter-espionage determined that the handwriting was that of Dreyfus. When news of his arrest and ethnic origin became public, it set off an angry tirade of anti-Semitic invective in the press. After a secret court–martial, the judges convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence. It consisted of the questionable document, dubious because the handwriting experts could not agree the purloined testimony of an officer who indicated that a “secret informer” had identified Dreyfus as the spy, and a secret dossier of “incriminating” evidence provided by the Minister of War. Having already publicly pronounced Dreyfus guilty before the trial, the Minister submitted these documents on the trial’s last day claiming they were so sensitive that a war would ensue if they were made public and therefore disallowed their release to the defence. Recognizing that these procedures constituted blatant violation of due process, the judges justified them on the grounds of national security. Because no details of the evidence for his conviction for high treason were available to the public, and the unanimous vote to court-martial him was undertaken by some of the country’s most respected military leaders, there was no reason at the time for the public or his later defenders to doubt his guilt. Dreyfus was subsequently publicly degraded and cashiered out of the army in the inner courtyard of the War College in a drum-head ceremony that involved breaking his sabre in front of him. The humiliation turned him into a “walking cadaver,” while a baying mob outside its gates howled for his physical extinction. For journalists who witnessed this “monster of evil,” his return to prison was “greeted by an immense relief. The air seemed purer, we breathed easier.” Within six weeks he was dispatched to serve a living death life sentence on the site of a former leper colony on Devil’s Island that was a remote tropical rocky strip of land off the coast of French Guiana in South America. The sole prisoner on the island, Dreyfus, who was forbidden to speak and constantly watched, was shackled, a punishment that lacerated his ankles when he was forced to sleep in an unchanging position. His only respite, and one that probably prevented him from going mad, was that he was allowed books to read and paper to write on.
The site where Dreyfus was confined on Devils Island

The injustice Dreyfus endured did not occur in a vacuum. Anti-Semitism that did so much to disfigure French public life was firmly etched into the cultural Zeitgeist. Its most infamous purveyor was Edouard Drumont who had published a huge best seller in 1886, the phantasmagorical stink bomb, La France Juive (Jewish France) a pseudo-history of the country that pitted Aryans against Semites. Presenting himself as the champion of the downtrodden who inveighed against tyranny and social injustice, Drumont employed simple, emotionally charged prose to argue that the Jews had ruined France and were responsible for its economic and social ills. During their expulsion from France from 1394 to 1789, Drumont with breathtaking ignorance portrayed the country as experiencing a golden age that was abruptly shattered with the French Revolution. From that point, the established Jewish families with their refined veneer had held France in their grip. With the Emancipation Decree in 1791, which had given them civic equality, Jews now possessed the means to take over the financial apparatus of the country. This development gave rise to major scandals and colossal fortunes like those garnered by the Rothschilds. Drumont stressed the contrast between the wealth of the Jewish bankers and industrialists who had “figuratively grown fat through their parasitical draining of the French body” and the poverty of the workers and the peasants. This kind of argument appealed to the anti-capitalist socialists. Drawing also upon the new scientific racism found in anthropology and biology, he focused upon the Jewish physiognomy that curried favour with the conservative nationalists. In a style that anticipated Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer, Drumont asserted that after the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, the “hookednosed tribes” with their huge ears and soft and slimy hands had infected France like microbes on a host. Not only was “he…susceptible to all maladies indicating corruption of the blood…but…the Jew seems to enjoy a particular immunity to epidemics. It seems there is a sort of a permanent plague inside him, which protects him from the ordinary plague.” The Catholic press enthusiastically endorsed Drumont’s polemic against the Jews by stigmatizing them as “insatiable vampires.” This sort of bilious anti-Semitic rhetoric seems less in keeping with the spirit of the late nineteenth century than of the Middle Ages when Jews were portrayed as satanic entities. Yet according to Drumont, these “Galician kikes with their curly forelocks, who, come together for some ritual murder, laugh with one another while, from the open wound of the victim there runs blood pure and crimson for the sweet bread of Purim” [sic].

Following upon this sensational success and notoriety, Drumont founded the flagship of anti-Semitism La Libre Parole, a splenetic scandal sheet that mined the vein of fear and ignorance that gripped France at the fin-de-siècle as it experienced the upheaval of modernism and secularism. As the publisher of the newspaper, whose motto was “France for the French” and who first broke the news that the officer arrested on the general staff was Jewish, he fed the fear that the Jews were dangerous outsiders, “a nation within a nation.” Connecting the historical blood libel with contemporary secular materialism, he contended that the Jews “in the past attacked the body of children; today it is their souls which [they are] after by teaching them atheism.” The following typified Drumont’s views during the investigation of Dreyfus in 1894, ones that he would repeat in the following years: "If France is defeated, these words ‘The Jews! It is the Jews!’ will once more regain the true meaning they used to have for the French. They will sum up all their indignation, and justify their every impulse. Perhaps a few innocent people will be caught up among the cowardly criminals who have abused the most naïve and the most generous of hospitalities.…We have been called forth from within the people…to predict the invaders from Judea the fearful punishment that awaits them."

This type of inflammatory prose contributed to igniting a series of anti-Semitic riots in early 1898 when French nationalists vandalized Jewish shops and synagogues. Although no lives were lost in continental France, the cancer of modern anti–Semitism that transformed Frenchmen into ugly mobs bellowing rancorous imprecations like “Death to the Jews,” demonstrated how the Jews made a convenient whipping boy for those who felt threatened by the transformation of France into a modern pluralistic society.

In a desperate effort to combat what they considered alien forces and to win over their increasingly indifferent congregations to Catholicism, French priests and the Catholic press exploited the same fears and prejudices as Drumont. Demagogic priests fanned the flames of Judeo-phobia in their sermons with the standard-issue Jew-baiting stereotypes: the Jew as revolutionary, financier, traitor, ritual murderer and killer of Christ. The wildly popular and rabidly Judeo-phobic newspaper La Croix published by the Assumptionists, an order of priests, blamed the Jews for everything they perceived as anti-Christian and secular in society: the destruction of religious orders and the French army, removal of the crucifix from schools and hospitals, even universal suffrage. Through its hysterically distorted depiction of Jewish people in France as “the deicide people,” the newspaper contributed to the miasma of hatred that was wafting through French society in the late 1890s.  Not all Catholics or priests, however, subscribed to this strategy of re-energizing Christian feelings by scapegoating the Jews. But it is a telling indictment that the Church disciplined the minority of liberal French priests who resisted this demagogy as “modernist.” 

While Dreyfus endured his torments of dysentery, malaria and a struggle with suicidal despair, evidence gradually emerged to challenge the guilty verdict with the revelation that the writing of another officer, a Major Esterhazy, was identical to that found in the Embassy documents. Whereas Dreyfus who came from a patriotic, wealthy Jewish family and had no apparent motive for betraying his country, Esterhazy, a swaggering rake of Austrian-Hungarian descent, with an abiding hatred for the French, a string of unpaid debts and a dissolute lifestyle, had plenty of reason. In the meantime, the intelligence officer who perjured himself at Dreyfus’ trial was arrested, confessed that he had forged crucial evidence against Dreyfus and promptly committed suicide. The journalist Georges Clemenceau, who never questioned the original verdict, reflected on these revelations to first raise doubts about the case and gradually as the evidence unfolded to use his editorial page in L’ Aurore as a platform to exculpate Dreyfus. The army likely recognized that it had made a mistake but decided to close ranks, and they were supported by the government who refused to order the case be reopened for fear of undermining confidence in the army. When Esterhazy demanded a trial to clear his name and then was acquitted in January 1898, the legal matters and the figure of Dreyfus were superseded by the larger political and societal issues. The Dreyfus Affair obsessed France because it put the Republic itself on trial before its countrymen and the world.

Two days after the Esterhazy acquittal, which to many smacked of a blatant miscarriage of justice, Clemenceau provided editorial space for Zola to write his impassioned polemic J’ Accuse, an open letter to the President of the Republic. Naming ministers and generals, he charged that the court in the court-martial of Esterhazy had “knowingly” acquitted a guilty man and had colluded with the government, Army and Church to frame Dreyfus by fabricating evidence. Moreover, he warned of the malevolent threat posed by a military coup. In high dudgeon, he fulminated: “What we are faced with here is the sabre, the master that may be imposed upon us tomorrow.” Defiantly he added, “Should we kiss the hilt of that sabre, that god with pious devotion? No, we should not.” They are responsible for crushing the “nation under its boots” and sacrificing a “dirty Jew.” It is the “odious bastion of anti-Semitism” that will destroy the Republic. It was as though a bombshell had exploded in the body politic; Zola’s incendiary languageFrench officers had resorted to “low police tactics, inquisitorial and tyrannical methods,” the whole army high command were “a nest of Jesuits”ensured that the Affair would put the French state on trial. 
Notwithstanding this electrifying outburst, Zola had written five letters in the previous year and a half in which he assailed the fanaticism and chauvinistic nationalism that polluted public discourse for years, especially since the arrest of Dreyfus in 1894. Zola assailed “the gutter press in heat…[that were] driving the public mad for the sake of selling its drivel” that has poisoned people with “their rabid hatred of Jews” turning decent people into “Jew-baiters” and most reprehensibly “in the name of morality.” He did not mince words when he described them as “false patriots” and “braying anti–Semites...who thrive on the public debacle.” He accused the clergy of fomenting the fanaticism of a holy war starting with the Jews and then unleashing hatred against the Protestants, allegations that were more reminiscent of sixteenth-century France than a country about to enter the twentieth century. While lies and filth drove people into the streets in a state of bigoted frenzy, the government lapsed into silence; deputies who were afraid of alienating their voters refused to speak out and denounce the lies because the few who did were vilified.    

It was a foregone conclusion that the serious allegations and the inflammatory language deployed in J’ Accuse would result in Zola being charged with defamation of the Army. Nonetheless, he turned the courtroom into a platform to hold France accountable to the ideals of liberty and justice bequeathed to its citizens by the French Revolution. He reminded France of that legacy when he addressed the jury:

By now, gentleman, the Dreyfus Affair is a very minor matter, very remote and very minor and very blurred, compared to the terrifying questions it has raised. There is no Dreyfus Affair any longer. There is only one issue: is France still the France of the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man? The France that gave the world liberty, and was supposed to give it justice? Are we the noblest, most fraternal, most generous of peoples? Are we going to keep our reputation in Europe as a humane and fair-minded nation?…Open your eyes! Realize that if the soul of France is in such disarray, it must have been stirred to its innermost depths because the danger is truly awful.
Emile Zola
If the people repudiated that inclusive spiritand the anti-Semitic riots that occurred that year did constitute ominous signsZola warned that its plight would be similar to the diseased individual. “A miscarriage has been committed, and long as it has not been corrected, France will be weak and sickly and suffer from a secret cancer of gnawing at its flesh.” Unsurprisingly, the court found him guilty and he was sentenced to a year in jail. He successfully appealed the decision, was retried, found guilty and given the sentence of his first trial. Zola did not hesitate to seek sanctuary in England before the sentence could be carried out. During his trials, he endured the catcalls and concerted volleys of abuse with the rhythmic chant “death to Zola” and “death to the traitors.” The fear that a mob of “cannibals” exuding raw hatred whose numbers reached six thousand were prepared to kill him or harm his family was sufficient incentive for him to reluctantly decamp to England. As Zola predicted, French society became deeply polarized over the next two years duels, riots, arson and the stoning of individualsraged between the partisans and the adversaries of Dreyfus. In 1898 during January and February alone, there were sixty-nine anti-Semitic riots that were comparable to the Russian pogroms of 1881-82. In an evocative Bosch-like tableau, the essayist, Paul Stapfer, visualized the terror that Dreyfusards could confront, of being devoured by the hideous, monstrous masses: “Oh the majority, that hydra with millions of heads hissing and howling jaws, crazed tongues, dull, meagre and empty minds, that is my nightmare.” 

Meantime, revelations that challenged Dreyfus’ guilt and the hasty (and permanent) retreat of Esterhazy to England did nothing to disabuse the die-hard anti–Dreyfusards of his guilt. For them Dreyfus was guilty simply because he was a rich alien Jew, and no evidence, however persuasive, would change that reality. Along with the fiercely anti-Semitic Drumont, who exulted, “the Yids and the accomplices are wallowing in the mud, the filth, the torrent of shit they unleashed and…spatter[ed] the army,” the strident nationalist press discharged a maelstrom of vitriol toward Jews. In areas where there were Jewish residents, mobs pillaged stores, desecrated synagogues, and attacked rabbis. In French Algeria, instigated by the taunting of a friend of Drumont who wrote, “We will water our liberty tree with Jewish blood,” mobs carried out pogroms resulting in the murder of Jews.  Tragically, Zola’s J’ Accuse that arguably had resuscitated the dispirited pro–Dreyfusards may have also responsible for intensifying a flagging anti–Semitic campaign.
It is ironical that Zola, who has often been portrayed as a symbol of justice and friend of the Jews, had been hostile to them, as had so many others on the left that had viewed them as capitalist exploiters. In his novels, his characterization of Jews could easily fit the stereotype of the demagogic Drumont who presented himself as a prophet of social justice waging war on the cosmopolitan, avaricious, scheming Jewish plutocrats. For example, in L’ Argent published as recently as 1891, Zola’s portrayal of Jews was scabrous in his examination of the world of high finance, the stock market and the rise and fall of a Catholic Banking House. He compares “a pack of Jews” to “dried up vultures with hooked noses emitting guttural sounds as if preparing to devour their prey.” Here is one character’s venomous assessment of the vampiric Jews: “He had against the Jew the ancient grudge against that race, found especially in the south of France. He in his mind, accused that despised race which no longer has a country or a prince, which lives like a parasite amongst the various nations pretending to recognize their laws, but in reality obeying only its God of theft, blood and anger – and its mission given to them by God, of ferocious conquest, was being fulfilled everywhere, establishing itself in every country – like the spider of the web – in order to stalk its prey, drain its blood, to fatten himself at the expense of others.” (My Italics)
Had Zola undertaken to explore the anti-Semitic mind, he might have increased the readers’ understanding of that pathology, but since there is no attempt to distance the narrator from this perspective, the conclusion appears inescapable that Zola shared to some extent these views. Yet remarkably within five years, before he was convinced of Dreyfus’ innocence, he wrote his passionate polemics against anti-Semitism. Whether he changed his views, or as a rationalist he recognized its irrational pathological character, is hard to say because there is no documentary evidence of a conscious evolution of his thinking on the issue. What is extant is his letter “On behalf of the Jews” that warned how this ancient hatred of the Jews, which he described as “atavistic” because it would inevitably plunge the country back in time, could precipitate horrific massacres of “a reign of terror.” Appalled by the primitive frenzy to “gobble them up, massacre them, exterminate them, to burn them at the stake,” he believed the task of “civilizations is to erase this savage need to throw ourselves upon someone else who is not exactly like us.” His solution was to call upon Catholics to embrace Jews and for Jews the price was that they must assimilate and abandon any cultural distinctiveness. His reservations about them as a people were coded in the language he used; Catholics were referred to as “you” while Jews were alluded to as “them.” Yet Zola’s actions connote a change from his own poisonous attitudes that he had imbibed from his early days growing up in the south of France, a confronting of his own views in the last decade of his life.  It is probably true that Dreyfus the man meant little to him, and that he was animated more by the fear of a military dictatorship.  In other words, justice for Dreyfus, important as that was to Zola, was secondary to the survival of the Republic. But the courage he demonstrated and the risks he took in challenging the formidable prestige of the Army, and the obloquy he incurred from the press, government officials and even students, whom he believed would be more tolerant, needs to be emphasized. Without Zola’s impassioned crusade to assail a flagrant injustice, it is unlikely that the Dreyfus case would have become the Dreyfus Affair, a cause célèbre that garnered world attention, or whether Dreyfus would have been eventually exonerated. 

At the same time, there were officials within military intelligence, especially Colonel Georges Picquart who became its head in 1896, who investigated the case independently of Zola. Despite a personal aversion to Dreyfus, Picquart and senior military officers worked to uncover sufficient evidence to cast serious doubt on the original verdict; they took it to their political masters who then revealed it to the public. Some of the anti-Dreyfusards were still convinced of his guilt, and those who relented, rationalized that the sacrifice of one innocent man on the altar of expediency was a small price to pay when France faced an existential threat from Germany. A demoralized army, fractured by the impugning of its integrity and its competence, would be vulnerable to a German attack. 
1991 film in which Richard Dreyfuss plays Colonel George Picquart

Nevertheless, because of the violent fissures and international condemnation, the French High Court granted Dreyfus a new trial. In the late summer of 1899, he appeared “an old man at forty” in a padded uniform to disguise his emaciated body, was found guilty but with “extenuating circumstances,” and sentenced to ten years detention. Internal and external pressure persisted, however, until the government acceded, and in September granted Dreyfus a presidential pardon, which he accepted much to the disappointment of his supporters because a pardon suggested that he had committed a wrong, and he still faced the visceral hatred of those who were unswervingly committed to the belief that Dreyfus was a traitor. A representative sample of the Catholic press that regularly denounced Dreyfus as a perfidious Jew was the Catholic daily in Florence which charged that the “colossus of Jewry” was taking over France using its gold to “buy an acquittal for the traitor.” In France Dreyfus thwarted at the last moment an assassination attempt by one enraged citizen. Murderous feelings did not abate even with his full exoneration and reinstatement in the French Army in 1906. Ostensibly, it was a victory for the Dreyfusards.

The reality was much more complex. Within their ranks there were many Dreyfusards that harboured anti–Semitic feelings about the economic and cultural influence of the Jews, among them, the two men probably most responsible for the vindication of Dreyfus, Zola and Picquart. There were also bitter divisions and bigotry within the Jewish community itself: whether to rally behind Dreyfus or keep quiet. Dreyfusards also often stooped to the same tactics as their opponents by associating physiognomy with degeneracy and investigating bloodlines for evidence of pathology. One observer compared Esterhazy’s “strange physiognomy” to “an animal of prey…a bird’s head, with a great beak of a nose.” A noted politician, who wrote an authoritative account of the Affair, echoed these sentiments and plumbed the traitor’s family history to conclude that his tainted heredity from a series of Franco-Hungarian unions predisposed him to treachery and lying. Moreover, the respect for truth and justice was eroded when Dreyfusards believed that their cause could justify whatever means were necessary to ensure victory. Once many of their supporters were elected in 1906, they resorted to duplicity and illicit manipulation of the legal system. For example, the French Premier secretly contacted the prefect of Rennes where Dreyfus’ retrial was held to instruct him to pressure the military prosecutor and judges to render a not guilty verdict.  Duplicity, rancour and bigotry within the Dreyfusards may complicate our perception of this case. But it should not obscure the larger reality that they and officials like Picquart did expose evidence of malfeasance on the part of both the French government and military corps who had permitted a flagrant injustice and subsequently tried to cover–up it up. The French authorities had allowed an innocent man to be disgraced and moulder in a hellish one-man concentration camp. The turbulence of the Dreyfus Affair was not only a stigma that stained the ideals of the French Revolution. It was in embryonic form a prototype for the virulent racism that gripped Nazi Germany thirty years later and a harbinger for what occurred during the Vichy Regime during the Second World War when French officials actively abetted the Third Reich in dispatching Jews to the death camps.


In The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, that Harvard University Press will publish in October 2013, Ben Urwand draws on a wealth of previously uncited documents to argue that Hollywood studios, in an effort to protect the German market for their movies, not only acquiesced to Nazi censorship but also actively and enthusiastically cooperated with that regime’s global propaganda effort. During the 1930s, Georg Gyssling, Hitler’s consul in Los Angeles, was invited to preview films before they were released. If Gyssling objected to any part of a movie—and he frequently did—the offending scenes were cut. As a result, according to Urwand, the Nazis had total veto power over the content of Hollywood movies. Among the cuts requested by Gyssling was that the word “Jew” be  not spoken in the 1937 The Life of Emile Zola which depicts the Dreyfus case. Jack Warner acceded to that request. Only when a member of the General Staff fingers Dreyfus from a list of names can the viewer spot the word "Jew." Zola does not allude to the anti-Semitism that poisoned France at the time. This is a film about a wrongly-convicted man without any personal or cultural context. Warner Bros. was disingenuous when the company reassured the German consul that Dreyfus was not a major figure in the movie given that most of the film is devoted to his degradation and attempt by a saintly Zola to vindicate him.

No comments:

Post a Comment