9. General Boulanger and Captain Dreyfus

9. General Boulanger and Captain Dreyfus


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.
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.
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 the
imaginaire, 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. 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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