HIST 276: France Since 1871
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France Since 1871
HIST 276 - Lecture 9 - General Boulanger and Captain Dreyfus
Chapter 1. The Anti-semitic Context: France and the Jews in the Nineteenth Century [00:00:00]
Professor John Merriman: I want today to talk about two very well known crises in the Third Republic. One is the Boulanger Affair and the second is the more well known, the Dreyfus Affair. And I guess what makes the Dreyfus Affair even more poignant is that Alfred Dreyfus’s granddaughter died at Auschwitz, in 1944, I think. So, and the context for this is to — most of the time I’m going to talk about the Boulanger Affair, and in a way that sets up the Dreyfus Affair, because the Dreyfus Affair is more well known. But I agree with the interpretation that views the Boulanger Affair as the emergence of the far Right in France, events that parallel, for example, the rise of the far Right in Austria, and in other places as well, and particularly the sort of propaganda campaign, the anti-Semitism, and the sort of street thug tactics are rather similar to movements that we would become all too familiar with, not personally of course, but in the 1920s and 1930s.
So, that’s what I want to talk about today. And the background of this is, of course, the rise of anti-Semitism. World War I unleashed the demons of the twentieth century to a great extent, there’s no question about that. For Adolf Hitler it transformed his anti-socialism and subsequent anti-communism into a frenzy, but it added the dimension that was the most pernicious aspect of his horrible existence, which was anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism was already out there. And Karl Lueger, who was the mayor of Vienna, said, “I decide who’s a Jew,” and the old liberal Vienna sort of disappeared in this sort of frenzy of anti-Semitism. Well, anti-Semitism was — characterized, unfortunately, many centuries in Europe, and certainly the Third Republic did not invent anti-Semitism in France, either.
There were riots against Jews after 1848. One of the members of the Committee of Public Safety in the French Revolution, who was from Alsace, where there were lots of Jews, was extraordinarily anti-Semitic, and all of this is sadly known. But certainly the political dimensions of anti-Semitism in the ’80s and ’90s help explain the intensity of these two big affairs. And for the Dreyfus Affair, it was so important and so wrenching that people simply referred to it as l’affaire, the affair, because it was so — it preoccupied dinner-table discussions and brawls, political newspapers and everything else for a very long time.
Now, in addition to the sort of growth of anti-Semitism, continued growth, in France and other places, the other part of the context that needs to be briefly explained has two dimensions. First, there was the question of revenge, of vengeance, of the recapture of Alsace and the parts of Lorraine that had been so rudely snatched away. It’s possible to exaggerate, of course, the impact, as one of my former students, Rachel Chrastil has argued, of revengisme, revenge thinking, on French political life in the 1870s and 1880s. But by the end of the 1880s it still is an important part in political thinking, and Boulanger’s campaign reflected that fact.
And the second is that — the second sort of aspect of background is the perceived weakness of the republican government in that in order to protect France against Caesarism; which, I’ve explained before, was the fear of, who knows, another Napoleon or some sort of strong leader riding a horse and starting wars, or repressing their own people, rather like Napoleon III had done — they create a constitutional framework that invests power in the Chamber of Deputies, basically. And the Chambre des Députés is a political club, which I’ve said before, and the same members are often returned year after year, the same bribes are given, big casks of wine or barrels of wine are put up near a voting booth and everything proceeds — at least this is in the popular imagination — as a political club of swinging door ministries.
And certainly if you look at, just take 1889 to 1893 — and you’re not responsible for this because basically who cares about these details — but there are 546 different sessions between 1889 and 1893, 873 bills introduced; between ‘93 and ‘98 there are 633 sessions with 1,112 bills, with the government presenting on its own well over 2000. But, in fact, if you look at the accomplishments, besides providing a certain stability, the accomplishments seem to be rather pale when you’ve got people, both on the Left and the Right, saying that the big issue is over there; and over there is in the east of what had been France, that is Alsace and Lorraine, and — because each bill had to be discussed by a whole commission of deputies, and it went on and on, commissions become sort of mini-ministries.
The perception is that this is an impotent system, it’s an impotent system, that’s condemned France to be less than virile. And remember, this is the time when the population — people are becoming very afraid of the fact that the population is not reproducing itself. So, this is one of the big images of simply — of instability. And it’s the same people, it’s the same ministries that are reconstituted, rather like Italian politics and much of the post-World World II Era. There were 180 ministries between 1870 and 1940, and the average tenure is about three years. But that’s really not much. But yet, I mean, this is to exaggerate because the Third Republic does provide stability for all of these great affairs. The Republic survives these two big affairs. The Republic raises enough money to pay off the indemnity to the newly formed German Empire, but people react as to what they’re thinking and not necessarily the reality of the people who are looking at this deeper.
Chapter 2. The Boulanger Crisis: General Boulanger, General Victory [00:07:47]
So, thus the Boulanger Affair, or the crisis, is more — let’s call it the Boulanger Crisis and the Dreyfus Affair is better — is more significant than the events, which are interesting in their own way. And, of course, the other background, as I said the other day, or the other context are these political crises of corruption, which in our country we are all too familiar with as well, the Panama Crisis and the sale of Légion d’honneur by the president’s son-in-law, et cetera, et cetera. But this kind of frustration then builds up an anti-parliamentarian movement in France, and the temptation of trying to find a strong man who will right this wrong and who will reattach the right arm of France, Alsace and Lorraine, to France.
The General Ferry, whom you’ve read about, Jules Ferry, he wrote in 1885 that “the general impression is that the Republic is at the end of its rope. Next year we will have revolutionary excesses again and then a violent reaction. What will come out of this? Surely some sort of dictatorship” — the feeling that the government was powerless. Now, a guy called Paul Déroulède creates in May of 1882 the League of the Patriots. He called himself a simple bell ringer for this anti-parliamentary, ultra nationalistic movement. And it quickly has 182,000 members, which is a phenomenal amount, and there are great echoes of aggressive patriotism, et cetera, et cetera.
And with this began the rapidly rising career of General Georges Boulanger, who was born in 1837, the son of a Breton farmer and a Welsh mother. He had fought in four campaigns, he was wounded six times. He was lucky in that he wasn’t killed. He was wounded during the Paris Commune but before the great reprisals took place; so he wasn’t identified with the massacre of ordinary people. The campaigns, he’d fought in Africa, he’d fought in Italy, and he’d fought in Vietnam, or what they called in those days Indo-China. He was a brave, heroic figure. He cut a mean image on a horse; he was a good horseman. He wasn’t very bright but that never hurt him at all. He received one promotion after another. He’s the head of a whole military division at the age of forty-eight, which is extremely young. He had lots of energy but, as I said, not many brains and no particular talent for organization, but he fit the image of what many people in France who were fed up with the Republic believed that they — that France needed.
He was sent to the U.S. (that is, this place) at Yorktown, in order to represent France at the centennial of essentially the British surrender in the American Revolution, and he caused a stir by refusing to leave the ship on which he’d arrived in America until they took down the German flags that were also being flown at the same time. And it’s precisely the ’80s, when the mass press is developing in France. And so these are just fabulous gros titres, big headlines, in the newspaper. So, he becomes part of the chouchoux, he becomes kind of the darling of a press which is dominated by, as always in France, by the rightwing press because of big money, as is the case traditionally in the United States and other countries as well. But he’s on good terms with Clemenceau, who was the republican par excellence. Both had graduated from the same high school, or lycée, in Nantes, on the edge of Brittany. He shared Clemenceau’s residual or at least inherent anti-clericalism, and that’s something he would temper later as he’s going after rightwing support.
He became the Director of the Infantry at the War Office and his superiors noted that he had a taste for clumsy intrigue, and complained about the civilians, or the pekins, as they were called, the Peking people, the civilians, and they were treated with contempt by the military; and of course the rule in the French Army, really all the way through to the Algerian War, has been this tension between the officer corps, very, very rightwing, and the civilian population — thus the attempts to kill de Gaulle himself, in the time of the Algerian situation. And, so, he as an operator — and he was that — he took every possible opportunity to be seen in front of his troops. He welcomed recruits with military music as well as with the Marseillaise. It was his idea to paint all the sentry boxes red, white and blue. And he at one point had been insulted by somebody in the Chamber of Deputies and he fights a duel (and people fought duels a lot then) and his adoring public forgave him for the fact that his gun actually didn’t go off, and that nobody was hurt.
In 1886, during the Strike of Decazville, he did a very clever thing, in one of those sound bytes before there were sound bytes. Somebody said, “what do you think about the strike in Decazville, of the miners in Decazville?” And he replied, “at this very moment French soldiers are sharing their rations with striking workers.” It was perfect. And, so, he gets the support, at least in the early days, of many workers who could imagine a kind of Napoleonic figure who could at least talk a good game of caring about them, even though he really didn’t at all. On the 14th of July, 1886, all eyes are on him, and they start writing songs about him: “our brave general, Boulanger, who will bring back Alsace and Lorraine.” He is called General Victory, fairly soon. One of the lines goes, “look at him over there, he’s smiling at us as he passes us by; he has just brought us back Lorraine and Alsace.”
And, so, the German situation, tensions with the German Empire increase his popularity. Bismarck himself, that is Otto von Bismarck, the cagey chancellor of the second Reich was aware of him, and he uses Boulanger’s popularity for his own internal benefit in Germany, saying, “when France has any reason to believe that she is stronger than we are, on that day I believe that war is certain.” And one of the few ways of — that the Reichstag had in trying to reign in the Kaiser, arguably, was attempting to have some control over military budgets. So, Bismarck uses him very effectively. And then there’s a spy crisis that’s terribly uninteresting, and it helps Boulanger. So, this begins to scare people, and Jules Grévy, whose son was the one implicated in the sale of Légion d’honneur, says that he’s got to go.
Well, what do you do with him? You can’t really make him a martyr. If you make him a martyr then it looks like he — who knows? Maybe there’ll be some sort of a coup d’état attempt. He is not allowed to run for office because he’s still in the army, but as a write-in candidate he gets something like — he gets 39,000 votes, which is a large amount. And, so, the government says, “let’s get rid of him before the next July 14th, so he can’t ride his horse down the Champs-Elysées again.” And, so, they send him to — decide to send him to Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne, and he’s supposed to leave from the Gare de Lyon, on the train, on the 8th of July, and huge crowds start singing, “tout à l’Élysée” that is seize power, and they block the tracks. It’s the first case that I know of, of people actually physically blocking railroad tracks as a sign of political protest. And they’re singing the Marseillaise also which is — for one thing it’s the song of the French Revolution, but you have this sort of mix, because you’ve got this old sort of Jacobin, “we’ll take what we want” attitude, mixing with this sort of anti-republican Right; and Boulanger seems like somebody who could please everybody.
In the early days he gets — well, he would soon be a real candidate — he gets votes from the Left while he’s getting money, lots of it, from the far Right, and among all from monarchists who somehow see him as a way of bringing back the monarchy. There’s this very wealthy monarchist duchess from — originally the family is from Uzes in the Gard, in the south of France, and she gives him lots of big bucks. And Clemenceau dumps him as a friend, saying that “General Boulanger’s popularity has come too soon, for one who likes noise so very much.” And then this incident I keep referring to, this crisis, this scandal of Grévy’s son-in-law begins to come along, and there are demonstrations against the Republic’s very existence. The Republic, again, it cannot take back Alsace Lorraine and seems as rampant by this sort of pourri, this sort of corruption, corrupt politics here and there.
And who comes along to be President of France but Sardi Carnot, the same one who is going to be assassinated in 1894, as you’ve already heard. And when he’s elected — there was a famous line went around, somebody said — the president is elected by the deputies, not by the French population — and someone says to Clemenceau, “who shall we vote for, Georges? Who should we vote for?” And he says, “vote for the stupidest, vote for Sardi Carnot.” And, arguably, Sardi Carnot was the stupidest and so he becomes President of France. I’ll let any further comments go. Anyway, the contrast between Boulanger and between — and this sort of impotent republic become more and more marked.
Now, one thing leads to another, and Chip Sowerwine tells the story, but it comes down to the fact that he’s sitting in a restaurant, in Paris, in 1889. He’s now no longer ineligible to be a candidate, and he’s elected to the Chamber of Deputies, and he’s dining in a restaurant near the Church of the Madeleine. One could imagine it being Maxime’s, a favorite — a famous restaurant there. And there was crowds of people in the streets; and this particular restaurant is not far from the Chamber of Deputies, it’s right across the river basically from the Chamber of Deputies. And he hears the crowd shouting for him to take action, to go out and greet his adorers. And then, who knows, as the rightists would try to do on February 6th, 1934, to go across the river and to end this impotent republic. But he just sits there, and he sits there — en France, on mange quand même — and he sits there and he finishes his elaborate meal.
I would’ve been there, not with him, I wouldn’t have dined with him, but I would have finished every plate myself, and every glass of wine as well. And then he goes upstairs with his mistress, to a nearby hotel, and the opportunity is past. And while he hesitates, as someone once wrote, his enemies do not. They eliminate the electoral procedure that allowed him to be elected. He is worried that they’re going to arrest him and so he goes off to Brussels, he goes off to Belgium. And this makes him seem a little less dashing and a little less brave as he scurries across the frontier. And there’s a committee working for him in France, but he stays there, and in the end what he does is — he was very devoted to his mistress, for all these years, and she becomes ill in 1891, and she dies after a long, horrible illness. And Boulanger, notre brave géneral, on the 30th of September, 1891, he went alone to her grave and blew his brains out, and that was the end of Boulanger.
Chapter 3. Developments in Mass Politics: The Spread of Images and Imaginaire [00:22:16]
The Republic emerged strengthened by this crisis. But that’s only one thing that’s important about it. What’s more important about it is what was happening to the Right, in this context, and what does this have to tell us about mass politics? What it has to tell us is that it’s the mass politics — that Boulanger and this crisis is one of the great examples of this new political world that you could find. I had one of my TAs years ago, whose dissertation I directed, il y a longtemps,ça passe vite les temps, a long, long time ago, he went off for his thesis, which became a very interesting book, and was interested in this very question; and, so, I draw on some of his findings that I discussed with him very often. What he did, incidentally this is what one does with some dissertations, he went off and he looked at four different parts of France. And one was the Marne, that is the department of Reims; one was the Isère, which is Grenoble’s department; one is the Gers, famous for its foie gras, and its Armagnac too, at least in part; and the other was the Orne, which is a Norman department in the west, the capital of which is Alençon. And what he was more interested in is how the message got out to very ordinary people, living in those places. How do they know about Boulanger? And what — and this is part of mass politics.
One of the ways that people for centuries had learned how to read, or not, if they didn’t even know how to read, but how to imagine religious and political and military events was in reading the equivalent — I’m not dissing them like calling them comic strips, but their format was rather like that; they were called the images d’Epinal; they were images that were cranked out that were produced in the town of Epinal in the east of France, in the Vosges that would describe or show you pictures of saints, it would show you pictures of generals, it would show you Napoleon, it would show you all sorts of things. And these are pedaled to villages by these colporteurs, they’re called in French, by these peddlers who carry these huge leather sacks that look like medicine balls but they’re about three times bigger than that. And a lot of them were from the Haute-Garonne, from the area of Toulouse; a lot of them were from the Cantal, that is in the mountains of the Massif Central, and a lot of them, above all, were from the mountains of the Alps, near Grenoble.
And these people had their whole credit networks established, where they could get credit to get to their next stops, always through France. It’s a tremendously interesting phenomenon, and they followed the same routes year after year. They were known, anticipated. They sold pins, they sold pens, they sold images of the Virgin Mary, they sold images of Saint-Sebastian, though you wouldn’t get away with selling that in parts of France. They sold cups, anything that they could carry and they could sell. And they sold these images of — they became political life. And, so, Boulanger is plugged into this sort of popular library, if you will, at a time when most people could now read. The kinds of pamphlets and images of him arrive with these peddlers, carrying this stuff on their backs — these were hardy people — and now arriving also by train. And so this stuff is arriving in Charon, en Champagne, or wherever — this stuff gets dumped off at the dock, and it goes to its next stop on horse-drawn wagons, or on the backs of these people.
And, so, what Burns found was that in all of these départements that these images just inundate the place — and this is modern political life, this is really the emergence of modern political life. So, there are two things really interesting about Boulanger in the end, besides the Republic survives. The first really is that — and I’ll make this case hopefully clearer in a minute — it’s the origins maybe of the modern Right, but it’s also part of this sort of mass politics that happens. And these are very rural départements. The Gers — again, I’m sorry, g-e-r-s — the Gers, the capital of which is Auch, which has a wonderful cathedral, is eighty-three percent rural, at the time we’re talking about.
So, these peddlers are going around to farmhouses, or people are coming to the market and they’re hearing these sort of speakers, along with sort of charlatans and jugglers on market day. They’re hearing people talk about notre brave géneral, our brave General Boulanger; and talking about how they hate Jews. And, so, this merges with the anti-Semitism. A remarkable thing about this Department of the Marne — now, as I’ve said before, there’s Reims, and Charon, and now all those graves, all those graves — is that the anti-Semitic propaganda has a tremendous impact in the Department of the Marne, which supports Boulanger and the people who follow him; and there were no Jews in the Department of the Marne. So, what happens is the anti-Semites and this mass politics constructs the Other, the imagined Other, that literally does not exist in the Department of the Marne. So, but it lodges in what the French would call theimaginaire, in the mental universe, the mental world of ordinary people — not all of them, to be sure.
But it is this sort of onslaught of images of Boulanger that become part of this enormous propaganda campaign. In France they would print out ballots; and, so, political lists would already be printed out, and you pick your list. It’s still a case in municipal elections today, at least where we live, it must be everywhere. And how many millions of the ballots are printed? In 1889 Boulanger posters, five million posters — that’s a phenomenal amount — seven million ballots and, talking about mass politics, photos. They are no longer just dependent upon images that some clever person with crayons and pens have sketched that become these images of Epinal. There are real photos of the guy on his horse. And you had — before you had to imagine what Napoleon looked like, you had to imagine what the king looked like; although Louis XVI is identified by somebody who once saw him from a distance when he tries to escape to Varenne. Somebody had actually seen him, and somebody else knew it was him because his nose looked the same as his face on a coin.
But you didn’t see people. But here you could see Boulanger, you could imagine what he looked like, and even if you lived in the Pyrenees, if you lived in the Ariège or the Bas-Pyrénés, you could imagine what Alsace looked like. And it feeds into this kind of frenzy of publications about Alsace-Lorraine. The most famous is called the Tour de France par deux enfants, in which two brothers promise their father on his deathbed that they will see France. And it was the biggest selling book, outside of the Bible, in nineteenth-century France; and they go around in this very banal, boring book, and they see people all wearing different costumes, and eating different things, and doing different work, but their hearts all pound the same way, and they’re practically in tears and a state of collapse when they imagine Alsace-Lorraine, and these Alsatian young women dressed in Alsatian costumes, and thinking of la belle France, and having to put up les borschts, with the Germans and all of this stuff.
But, so, the numbers are — they just flood the countryside, and these songs that people could sing in music halls; and a lot of the music halls in Paris — there might have been a lot of them in Montmartre — that were singing anarchist songs in the 1890s, but a lot of the other music halls are singing about General Boulanger. And songs like The Big Sweep, that is with a broom, sweeping away the corruption of these deputies, of the Chambre des Députés, and putting in your kind of big, heroic guy. And what about busts? If you think about busts, that is sculptured busts, this is the time when the image of the Republic, Marianne, as I’ve said before, is elbowing the Virgin Mary out of the way and there’s this sort of battle over space, on classroom walls and in the streets of cities and villages and all of that. The mission crosses are being broken off in the middle of the night by their enemies, et cetera, et cetera.
And Maurice Agulhon, who’s a great historian, one of the books that he did, one of the many, many, many books that he did was on the images of the Republic in town halls, in the mairie where people get married and the kinds of statues that they put up in the Third Republic, comparable to the kind of work being done on war memorials after World War I. And, so, Boulanger fits right into that because there’s 100,000 busts of Boulanger, and you can — you don’t have to buy one, they will give one to you to put it up where you want, on your dresser or whatever. And, so, this is really mass politics. And he erodes Republican support in some places; he doesn’t do well everywhere. The Republic is really stronger than its opponents, that’s obviously one of the points. In one of the departments that I mentioned, it doesn’t matter which one — it was the Gers — but he builds upon strong support for Bonapartism in that part of France. And of course, one thing that he does is that he is able to — it plays off beautifully with the anti-Semites and their newspapers.
Drumont — there’s a newspaper called La libre parole, the free word or the open word, is sort of the classic, virulent, rightwing newspaper. And Charles Maurras, who was a monarchist and he was a salaud, but he was a really great writer, Maurras was, just a fantastic writer, he also is just vehemently anti-Semitic, though in a less — well, anti-Semitism is vulgar, totally, but he’s more restrained in his criticism, et cetera, et cetera. But this just fits right into the image of Boulanger. And Boulanger is willing to go along with this. Who knows if he was anti-Semitic or not? Probably because of the long traditions of anti-Semitism in the army — more about this later — one imagines that he was. But this is what’s important about him, that and the fact that for the first time these people are in — the Right is in the streets, and they’re toughs, they’re tough guys. And this anticipates the 1920s and the 1930s also, that — and Paris has changed too.
I’m going to do a whole lecture on Paris one day. But Paris is no longer the Paris of radical republican sans-culottes, of the artisans and the petty bourgeois who supported Maximilien Robespierre, in the French Revolution. It’s no longer the Paris of 1848. The geographic shifts in social structure of Paris have transformed it, and henceforth, until 1968, the big demonstrations, les grands manifs, demonstrations, are those of the Right for the canonization of Joan of Arc, after 1920, against the Republic in 1934. So, it’s a different Paris. But this is, as my friend William Irvine has argued, he was one of the first to argue this I think, it is a turning point in the history of the Right, as well. Now, to be sure, you can’t always look through those wonderful glasses of hindsight, and if you’re trying to explain Auschwitz or you’re trying to explain the arrests of the Jews, the Jewish children, and their parents, and grandparents, in Paris in ‘42 and ‘43, by the French, it’s a little much to go back and say, “c’est bien la faute du Boulanger,” but that’s the kind of connection — it’s Boulanger’s fault, that’s the kind of connection that hindsight gives you, that you have to be a little careful with. But this stuff was out there. It was out there much more in Germany than it was in France.
Chapter 4. The Dreyfus Affair [00:36:16]
But Anti-Semitism was part of all of this, and it was part of the whole image of this man, of this poor man who had had enough and blows his brains all over his mistress’s grave. Now, that’s a long way of getting to the Dreyfus Affair, and I’ll say less about that because the Dreyfus Affair is more obvious than the Boulanger Affair. The Dreyfus Affair reflects this anti-Semitism that had been accentuated by the economic crisis that begins in the mid-1870s, in 1873 and 1874, where it was easy to blame it on the Jews, blame it on the Jewish bankers, blame it on the Jewish department stores, blame it on somebody. And, but it fits rather nicely into all that, from the point of view of trying to analyze all that. Now, Drumont — Edward was his name, I never did say his first name — Edward, Edward, Drumont, his newspaper La libre parole had been very — at the forefront of denouncing the scandals of the Republic, arguing that the scandals were inherent in a Republic by its very form of — its very existence, and by the fact that it’s the Jews who dominate le mur d’argent, that is the wall of money controlled by the Rothschilds and all of this, the usual kind of claims.
He had published a book in which he claimed that Jewish financiers were conspiring to dominate France, and that they indeed had done so. And he is at the forefront of this, of l’affaire. And what the affair does is it pits basically against — it pits Right against Left, it pits the French Army, and the Catholic Church, and the monarchists, who are against Dreyfus, it pits them against the Republicans, against socialists who supported Alfred Dreyfus. Now, he’s worth a minute. In fact there’s a very good book called — written again by my former student Michael Burns, called Dreyfus, a Family Affair, about the Dreyfus family, not just about Dreyfus — there’ve been probably forty books written about him; but it’s about his whole family. And that’s interesting in itself. He was the son of an old Jewish family from Alsace. His family had been peddlers, and there were many Jewish peddlers in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland but in other places as well. His family became textile manufacturers in the town of Mulhouse and then end up in a place, a beautiful place, called Ribeauvillé where the — oh-la-la — it’s magnificent where the vineyards go right down to the bord. But they’re assimilated and proudly consider themselves French.
Following 1871, for obvious reasons, they move, and they move to Paris, they move to the 16th arrondissement, that is the fancy part of Paris. Now, again, in the history of Jewish movement, physical movement in France, and from other places to France, you have a growing gap between assimilated Jews with origins in Germany or Alsace and other places who were more assimilated, who come, who have more money, they’re more friqué, they have more money — they’re not all wealthy — but they see themselves as very assimilated and they live in the fancier quarters; and the huge number of Jewish immigrants who arrive with virtually nothing from the old Pale, from where they were allowed to settle in the Russian Empire, and from Poland; Poland had lost its independence in 1795 and wouldn’t get it again until — with the Third Partition it wouldn’t get it again until 1918. And they come to Paris carrying virtually nothing.
There’s one story about these Jews who carried an empty suitcase and they said, “why are you carrying an empty suitcase when you’re leaving Russia?” And they said, “because it’s too shameful to have nothing to carry. We want people to think that we have something.” And they had nothing. And they get to Paris and some of the assimilated Jews said, “hey, we don’t want those people here because they’re going to fit into this anti-Semitic propaganda of these characters, the dirty Jew coming from Poland, coming from Congress Poland, and coming from Russia. And they settle in the Marais in Paris, and they work in the garment industry, and some of them are anarchists and some of them are Marxists, and they were all extremely interesting people.
But Dreyfus and his family were extremely assimilated, they were of some means, and so they live in the fancy neighborhoods. And now, in 1894 — I’ll just tell this story very briefly, for those of you who haven’t had time to read it yet — evidence surfaced from a wastepaper basket in the office of a German military attaché that somebody in the French Army was passing secret information to the Germans about French military operations on the edge — on the new frontier, that is the Vosges, and Alsace and Lorraine. And circumstantial evidence pointed to a captain, Dreyfus. And they confront him with the evidence. It looks like his handwriting. And when they do this — this is a very military gesture — they gave him, present him with a pistol, saying, “you too can blow out your brains.” And, in doing so, it meant your guilt. And he was shocked, he said, “moi, je ne suis pas coupable” — “I didn’t do this, it’s not me, it’s not me.” But that didn’t matter to the army at all. They convene him with — and the writing did look like his writing too, but then more things would come along to devastate the whole case. They convoke a secret court martial and find him guilty of treason.
He was stripped of his rank in a ceremony at the École Militaire, the big military school, and he’s sent to Devil’s Island, about which you have heard, off the coast of South America, the northern coast, a hellhole. Yet more documents continued to be leaked and the new Chief of Army Intelligence, a guy called Piccard — the name doesn’t matter; well, it does matter but you don’t have to know it for this — comes to the conclusion that it wasn’t Dreyfus, it couldn’t have been him, the writing is not really the same. Now, Piccard was an unlikely hero in all this scenario because he was an anti-Semite, he was a vicious anti-Semite like almost everybody in the Officer Corps at this same time. And he comes to the conclusion that they were penned by another Frenchman, Esterhazy, a Hungarian immigrant to — second or third generation, to France, Walsin Esterhazy. But high-ranking officers get together and they say, “it’s better to have this Jew languishing in misery than to admit that we made a mistake.” And then along comes the right wing of the Catholic Church, particularly the Assumptionist Order, which says the same thing: “he’s a Jew, thus he is guilty.” And, so, he is just — there he is, and nothing happens.
They send Piccard off to a post in Tunisia as punishment for having discovered the truth, and a court puts Esterhazy on trial in a military court and he is acquitted. Now, at this point Zola takes up the case, he writes the famous article in a newspaper with a headline, gros titres, J’accuse. He says, “I accuse the Army, I accuse the government of covering all this up, the man is innocent.” And, so, the political Right and the church hierarchy jump against Dreyfus and socialists, and generally socialists and radical republicans support Dreyfus. The newspaper of the Assumptionist Order demands that all Jews lose their citizenship and Charles Maurras, who I mentioned before, an anti-Semitic novelist, jumps into the fray against them. And soon some more documents were discovered and it turns out that these — they were added to Dreyfus’s file, long after he was languishing on the island, and they were suddenly discovered by a man called Henry, an officer. And he’d forged them to make it even clearer for those people who wanted to believe that Dreyfus was guilty, that Dreyfus had done other bad things too.
And, so, they — and Maurras at one point salutes Henry for his “patriotic forgery,” his patriotic forgery. If that doesn’t sound like some things in this country too, I don’t know what does. But, anyway, finally Henry slits his throat in the military prison, where he had been condemned for this forgery, and they bring Dreyfus back from his island, a broken man, and they find him guilty again — a military court, you’re not talking about a civil court it’s a military court — and they say he is guilty, but with “extenuating circumstances.” So, finally — and they send him back to Devil’s Island — finally he is pardoned in 1906; no, he’s pardoned actually before that, about 1900 he’s pardoned, or even 1899, but he’s not fully exonerated until 1906. But, still, this was another moment for the right, as well, particularly the anti-republican right, because they had concluded that Dreyfus was guilty by the very fact that he was a Jew, and it was better to have him in prison than to suffer the blow of the army having been caught up in its own snare. And he retreated to his own — sa petite vie, comme on dit, his own life, amazingly enough forgiving for all what had happened. And again, I said this earlier but I’ll simply end with this, one of the ironies of all this, and it helps us make the point of what happens to the Right, and the anti-Semitism in France and in Europe, is that his granddaughter dies in the death camp of Auschwitz. Have a good week; see you on Monday.
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