Dreyfus’ Crime

In 1896 Bernard Lazare wrote, “Because he was a Jew he was arrested, because he was a Jew he was convicted, because he was a Jew the voices of justice and of truth could not be heard in his favor.”  If not for the year, this description could fit the Damascus Affair or any of the centuries of blood libel faced by Jews.  Alfred Dreyfus was the man of the hour in 1895 when the French military intelligence service was frantically searching for a double agent.  Dreyfus never had any real defense or real justice, and became another victim of a system that would let Jews rise but never succeed.

The Jewish community reacted to Dreyfus’ show trial with fear, seeking to hide and forget the affair and to move on.  A strong reaction would bring retribution.  When Lazare and his circle of intelligentsia, including popular figures such as Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, and Joseph Reinach, protested Dreyfus’ innocence and the military’s complicity in his destruction, French intelligentsia and politics was polarized into a nationalist dichotomy.  One was either for the Jews or for France, despite French Jews’ near-assimilation into the middle and upper classes.  The former aristocracy, students, and professionals were mainly against the Jews, and many even believed in a sort of Protocols conspiracy.  Jewish intellectuals and their allies in salons believed in a clerical-military conspiracy.  Popular sentiment, especially as expressed in mainstream media, was against the Dreyfusards, but beginning in 1897 the birth of new philosemitic papers and even the use of photography and cinema as propaganda tools by leftist Jewish artists and intellectuals began to sway public opinion, as well as politics.

In 1899 Dreyfus was pardoned and retired, to the fury of his allies.  They wanted total victory over the antisemites, and they got it, but at a cost.  There is something to be said for incrementalism; though change is slow, it is accomplished before anyone realizes it.  The progress of Jewish French, Germans, and British had always been incremental and largely driven by business and the intelligentsia, with assimilated aristocrats and distinct Jewish and Gentile underclasses.  The French had tolerated Jews in all parts of society, but faced with such a fierce Jewish campaign for supremacy in intellectual and political circles, many reacted with fear.  Jews were taking over French culture.  Politicians favored Jews and believed in their racial supremacy.  Jewish atheists and anarchists were behind the attacks on clergy.  Tolerance turned to distrust, and the chief antisemites of the 1890s coalesced into the fascist Vichy regime of the 1940s.

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