Dreyfus and the Birth of Intellectual Protest

Zola inspired other writers and artists to defend the jailed Jewish officer. Yet he himself was not free of the taint of anti-Semitism

Piers Paul Read

    On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola published his celebrated open letter to the President of France, J’Accuse, in which he accused senior officers in the French army of thwarting a revision of the case against Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of selling secrets to the enemy four years before and then serving a life sentence on Devil’s Island. Furthermore, wrote Zola, these officers in the Army High Command had conspired to protect the true traitor, Charles Walsin-Esterhazy.  
Where Zola led, other eminent writers, scholars, artists and academics were quick to follow. On January 14, the day after the publication of J’Accuse, a petition calling for a revision was published in L’Aurore under the headline “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” — the first mobilisation in modern times of scholars, writers and artists as a force shaping public opinion. It had been drawn up by Zola himself with Emile Duclaux, head of the Institut Pasteur. Duclaux and Lucien Herr, the librarian at the Ecole normale supérieure, circulated the petition among the scientists and scholars at their institutions.  The net was extended by younger writers such as Marcel Proust who went around Paris collecting signatures. “I was the first Dreyfusard,” Proust would later claim, “for it was I who went to ask Anatole France for his signature.” The term “intellectual”, already used by the novelist Guy de Maupassant and by the nationalist man of letters Maurice Barrès, was ridiculed by the anti-Dreyfusards. Barrès referred to the signatories of the manifesto as the “demi-intellectuals”, and the literary critic Ferdinand Brunetière questioned the very idea that authors and academics should possess some superior wisdom when it came to the law. “The intervention of a novelist,” he wrote, “even a famous one, in a matter of military justice seems to me as out of place as the intervention, in a question concerning the origins of Romanticism, of a colonel in the police force.” He castigated scientists too for their arrogant assumption that their insights into the working of the material world somehow placed them on the moral high ground. To Brunetière, the Dreyfusard intellectuals’ impugning of the integrity of the French High Command was symptomatic of the wider takeover of France by arrivistes — “Freemasons, Protestants and Jews”. Barrès was even more specific in associating the Dreyfusards with those “foreign” elements in French society — the sons of immigrants like Zola, rootless cosmopolitans, Germanised philosophers, and of course the academics at the Ecole normale where “many students and the most respected masters were Jewish”. Though anti-Semitism was endemic in France in the 1890s, historians still differ on the extent to which Alfred Dreyfus was deemed a traitor because he was a Jew. In the months prior to his arrest, the rabble-rousing anti-Semitic broadsheet La Libre Parole, edited by Edouard Drumont, had campaigned against the admission of Jews into the officer corps of the French army. Most French Jews came from Alsace; their mother-tongue was a Germanic dialect (Dreyfus himself spoke with a German accent); and a number of German Jews had become naturalised Frenchmen: the politician Joseph Reinach, an early supporter of Dreyfus, was the son of a German banker. Other Jewish bankers like the Rothschilds, or merchants like the Ephrussis, were of foreign provenance. To French nationalists, such Jews were not “true Frenchmen from France” and so could not be trusted with the defence of the realm. It was also widely believed by many French Catholics, particularly the lesser clergy, that their Jewish fellow-citizens, heirs to a Talmudic enmity towards the Catholic Church, had combined with the French atheists, Protestants and Freemasons to support the anti-clerical programmes of successive Republican governments —  in particular, the assault upon Catholic education. Sceptics such as Barrès and atheists like the young Charles Maurras shared this view. Catholicism was integral to French identity and the army was the last bastion of Catholic France — immune, unlike the politicians, from the corrupting influence of Jewish and Protestant high finance. The campaign to free Dreyfus was therefore perceived both as an attempt by the Jewish “syndicate” to save one of their own, and as a conspiracy to discredit the “holy of holies” of the true France, the Army High Command.
The case for a revision rested on a judgment that while the handwriting of the traitor on the compromising document filched from the German embassy may have been similar to that of Dreyfus, it was identical to that of Esterhazy. “Take from the street a passing child,” wrote Zola, “and show him the two samples: ‘It’s the same gentleman who wrote the two.’ He doesn’t need experts — the fact that the two are identical is obvious for all to see!” However, neither the child in the street nor Zola were expert graphologists who, on this question, had taken divergent views. Moreover, successive Ministers of War had insisted that there was other, incontrovertible evidence that proved the guilt of Dreyfus which, for reasons of national security, could not be made public. In the event, it turned out that these ministers were the dupes of French military intelligence. The secret documents that supposedly proved the guilt of Dreyfus were either forged or non-existent.  However, this was by no means clear at the time. The issue was whether or not one trusted the Army High Command and here, another passionately held prejudice came into play — by no means comparable to anti-Semitism but equally virulent. “Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi,” Léon Gambetta had said in 1876, and for much of the last three decades of the 19th century anti-clericalism was the unifying ideology on the Left. To the Dreyfusards, the French officer corps was dominated by an aristocratic, Jesuit-educated elite; and the conspiracy against Dreyfus was directed by the former headmaster of a Jesuit crammer, Père du Lac.
In reality, only one of the officers at the heart of the Dreyfus Affair had been educated by the Jesuits, and the prime mover, General Mercier, was a bona fide republican with an English and Protestant wife. A Jesuit conspiracy was as much a symptom of paranoia on the republican Left as the belief in a Jewish “syndicate” was on the nationalist Right. Nevertheless, Dreyfus was innocent and the anti-Dreyfusards have been punished for being wrong. As Maurice Barrès foresaw, “If Dreyfus and his friends become historians and write textbooks, we shall be villains in the eyes of posterity.” Quite how villainous, Barrès could not have anticipated: the enormity of the Holocaust lay in the future and was beyond anyone’s imagination. “After the Nazi genocide,” wrote the historian Stephen Wilson, “the endemic prejudice of non-Jews against Jews has assumed a monstrously inhuman dimension that has unbalanced the study of the Affair.” As a result, it has been too readily assumed that all the anti-Dreyfusard intellectuals were anti-Semites and all the Dreyfusard intellectuals free from anti-Semitic prejudices.   Certainly, the prolific and popular novelist Gyp (the pen name of Gabrielle de Mirabeau, Comtesse de Martel de Janville) conformed to type. An ardent anti-Dreyfusard who gave her profession in a court case as “anti-Semite”, she quarrelled with her Jewish publisher Calman-Levy over the Jewish stereotypes in some of her fiction. However, the anti-Dreyfusard Paul Bourget mocks the anti-Semitic prejudices of Catholics in his novel Mensonges (translated as Our Lady of Lies). In this the heroine Suzanne, in her campaign to seduce a young writer, says of her husband Paul: 

“You will find him a charming man. He is not much taken with art, but he has great business capacity. Unfortunately we live in a period when it is necessary to be of Israel to rise very high.” Jew-hating was, it may well be believed, quite foreign to Suzanne, who reckoned among her pleasant functions two or three dinners in Jewish mansions where the hospitality was princely, but she thought that phrase would complete the religious tone she wished to give herself in the young man’s eyes.

 Among the Dreyfusard authors, a charge of creating derogatory Jewish stereotypes is most plausibly made against Zola himself. In his novel L’Argent, a drama based on the collapse of the Union Générale Bank in 1882, Zola has a rascally gentile financier, Saccard (based on Eugène Bontoux), as its principal protagonist. When his bank collapses, Saccard blames the Jewish banker, Gunderman (supposedly based on Baron James de Rothschild). “As Saccard ascended the broad stone staircase,” wrote Zola,

he felt an inextinguishable hatred for this man rising within him. Ah! the Jew! Against the Jew he harboured all the old racial resentment, to be found especially in the South of France; and it was something like a revolt of his very flesh, a repugnance of the skin, which, at the idea of the slightest contact, filled him with disgust and anger, a sensation which no reasoning could allay, which he was quite unable to overcome. He indicted the whole Hebrew race, the cursed race without a country, without a prince, which lives as a parasite upon the nations, pretending to recognise their laws, but in reality only obeying its Jehovah — its God of robbery, blood, and wrath; and he pointed to it fulfilling on all sides the mission of ferocious conquest which this God has assigned to it, establishing itself among every people, like a spider in the centre of its web, in order to watch its prey, to suck the blood of one and all, to fatten itself by devouring others…

 ”There is a strong Jewish element in this story,” wrote Ernest Alfred Vizetelly in the introduction to his 1894 English translation of L’Argent, “and here and there some very unpleasant things are said of the chosen people. It should be remembered, however, that these remarks are the remarks of M. Zola’s characters and not of M. Zola himself.” But is this true? The group of “hawker-brokers” trading in the shares of defunct companies in the street outside the Paris stock-exchange, are described not by Saccard but by Zola as

an unclean Jewry…gathered in a tumultuous group — fat, shining faces, withered profiles like those of voracious birds, an extraordinary assemblage of typical noses, all drawn together as by a prey, all eagerly, angrily disputing, with guttural shouts, and seemingly ready to devour one another.

 Among them is Busch, a German-Jewish debt-collector “with his flat dirty face, greasy frock-coat and white cravat twisted like a cord”, scavenging for ancient IOUs and pitiless in squeezing the last sou out of his victims. Busch’s only redeeming feature is his affection for his dying brother, Sigismond, an idealistic socialist, once editor of the New Rhenish Gazette and friend of Karl Marx. In all other respects, Busch is a character quite as unpleasant as Charles Dickens’s Fagin.
There can be no doubt that Zola was appalled by the explosion of anti-Semitism ignited by the Dreyfus Affair, but in some of his writing at the time he seemed to accept some of the charges made against the Jews and to differ only as to who was to blame. “The Jews have their faults, their vices,” he wrote in an article written prior to J’Accuse, “Pour les Juifs”: 

They are accused of being a nation in the nation, of being…a kind of international sect without real homeland; above all, of carrying in their blood a need for lucre, a love for money, a prodigious intelligence for business which, in less than a century, has led to the accumulation of enormous fortunes in their hands. But these separatist Jews, so poorly absorbed into the nation, overly avid, obsessed with the conquest of gold, are in fact the creation of Christians, the work of our eighteen hundred years of imbecilic persecution.

 Another derogatory stereotype is found in a novel by the Dreyfusard author Marcel Prévost, Les Demi-Vierges, published in the year of Dreyfus’s arrest, 1894. Baron Aaron, a naturalised German Jew and convert to Catholicism who runs a Catholic savings bank (Comptoir), is enormously rich and, though married, lusts after the beautiful and aristocratic Maud de Rouvre. Maud is in love with a handsome young wastrel, Julien de Suberceaux, and has granted him, during secret assignations, all but her “final favours” (hence the title of the novel). Because Julien has no money, she decides to marry a rich provincial aristocrat, Maxime de Chantel, whom she has met while with her mother at a spa. The Chantels come to Paris so that Maxime can pay court to Maud. Mme de Rouvre, Maud’s mother, is afraid that they might meet Aaron in her salon: 

I don’t think we need to show off such a person-fake Alsatian and fake Catholic, who exploits the parish priests, the good sisters, the religious communities, and lets it be known that he is in love with you, as if a daughter of the Rouvres might consider a usurer from Frankfurt, and a married man too! 

Aaron is described as “a small round man with a blotchy face, perspiring and pot-bellied, with the manner of a Frankfurt money-lender, despite the English cut of his coat, the red gardenia in his button-hole, despite the shine on his hat and his shoes”. He is absurd and repulsive but he is rich and when Maud’s cynical scheme to marry Maxime and yet retain Julien as her lover collapses, she sells herself to Aaron. “There will be some bad years…but I’ll know how to break him in, the Jew! He is married, but one can divorce. And one day, who knows? No one quibbles about the past of the wife of a banker when she has an income of eight hundred thousand francs.”

Perhaps the most interesting because it is the most ambivalent portrayal of French Jews by Dreyfusard novelists is found in the work of Anatole France — particularly in the four novels that make up his Chronicles of our Time. These describe the political and amorous intrigues in a French provincial town at the time of the Affair. Each novel is made up of a series of witty vignettes interspersed with chapters in which France’s own mouthpiece, M. Bergeret, holds forth on issues of the time. 
France is a sublime cynic. In an early novel, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, the curmudgeonly bookworm Bonnard (another mouthpiece for the author) explains that his large library is “just the reason that I do not know anything; for there is not a single one of those books which does not contradict some other book; so that by the time one has read them all one does not know what to think about anything”. In France’s novel Thaïs the sagacious stoic Nicias tells the Christian zealot Paphnuce: “All discussions are useless. My opinion is to have no opinion. My life is devoid of trouble because I have no preferences”; and again: “I suspect no evil, for I believe that men are equally incapable of doing evil or doing good. Good and evil exist only in the opinion of others. The wise man has only custom and usage to guide him in his acts.”
Among the characters that appear in the four volumes of France’s Chronicles of our Time is the Jewish prefect of the department, Worms-Clavelin, a man as cynical as France himself:

M. le préfet Worms-Clavelin was not credulous. He only thought of religion from a political point of view. He had inherited no creed from his parents, who were aliens to every superstition, as they were to every land. His soul had sucked none of the nourishment of the past from any soil. 

This passage suggests that France conceded the point made by the French nationalists that Jews were not “true Frenchmen of France”; but he parodies such an attitude in an exchange between the local notables, the Duc and Duchesse de Brécé, and a Catholic priest, the Abbé Guitrel, about the Dreyfus Affair. 

“I am convinced,” said M. de Brécé, “as I said before, that the fuss made over this affair is, and can only be, some abominable plot instigated by the enemies of France.””And of religion,” gently added Abbé Guitrel. “It is impossible to be a good Frenchman without being a good Christian. And it is clear that the scandal was started in the first place by free-thinkers and freemasons, by Protestants.””Naturally,” said the Duke, “Christian France should belong to Frenchmen and Christians, not to Jews and Protestants.” 

France’s long-term mistress, Madame Arman, was a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and in Chronicles of Our Time France makes fun of a similar convert, the Baronne de Bonmont who, in drawing up a guest list for a reception, 

had been tactful enough to send no invitations to the Jewish landowners, although she had friends and relations among them.  After the death of her husband she was baptised, and had now been five years naturalised. She was wholly devoted to her religion and country.  Like her brother Wallstein, of Vienna, she was careful to distinguish herself from her former co-religionists by a sincere anti-Semitism.

 Alas, her tact over the guest list and conversion to Catholicism is insufficient to gain acceptance by the de Brécés who persist in seeing her as a Jew:

“Allow me to point out, Monsieur,” says the Abbé Guitrel to the duke, “that Madame Jules de Bonmont is a Catholic.””Nonsense,” cried the Duke. “She is an Austrian Jewess, and her maiden name was Wallstein. The real name of her late husband, the Baron de Bonmont, was Gutenberg.””I do not deny that the Baronne de Bonmont is of Jewish descent.  What I mean is that she has been converted and baptised, and is therefore a Christian. She is a good Christian, I might add, and gives largely to our charities, in fact, she is an example to…””I am acquainted with your ideas,” interrupted the Duke, “and I respect them as I respect your cloth. But to me a converted Jew remains a Jew; I cannot make any distinction between the two.””Neither can I,” said Madame de Brécé.

 What is interesting about France’s Chronicles of Our Time in relation to the Dreyfus Affair is the way it shows the complex cross-currents of opinion. “My dear Bergeret,” says one character to the author’s alter ego:

I am a patriot and a republican; I do not know whether Dreyfus is guilty or innocent. I do not want to know; it’s not my business. He may be innocent, but there is no doubt that the Dreyfusites are guilty. They have been guilty of a great impertinence in substituting their own personal opinion for a decision given by republican justice. Besides, they have stirred up the whole country. Trade is suffering.

Bergeret, like France, is a Dreyfusard but “the town, which numbered 150,000 inhabitants, only contained five people of the same opinion as himself with regard to the Affair”. The prefect, Worms-Clavelin, 

held himself bound, by the very fact that he was a Jew, to serve the interests of the anti-Semites in his administration with greater zeal than a Catholic prefect would have displayed in his place. With a prompt and sure hand he stifled in his department the growing faction in favour of revision…And Monsieur Worms-Clavelin, who since the judgment of 1894 was fully convinced that Dreyfus was innocent, made no mystery of that conviction after dinner as he smoked his cigar, though the Nationalists, whose cause he favoured, had good reason to count on a loyal support which was not dependent upon personal feelings. 

In the wake of the Affair, which he brilliantly satirised in his novel Penguin Island (1908), Anatole France became the prototype of the celebrity intellectual. He became a friend of the socialist politician, Jean Jaurès, and signed numerous revolutionary petitions at Jaurès’s instigation even while writing a novel, Les Dieux ont Soif, denouncing the Jacobin fanaticism in the Revolution of 1789. Like some of his successors among champagne socialists, he signed manifestos with his left hand even as his right hand was writing best-selling books. France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921 but, along with Prévost, Mirbeau and Bourget, is now seldom read-his reputation eclipsed by the young Dreyfusard who first persuaded him to sign the manifesto of the intellectuals, Marcel Proust.

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