Their Affair and Our Affair

R.W. Johnson

  • The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus by Jean-Denis Bredin, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
    Sidgwick, 628 pp, £20.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 283 99443 6
  • Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France by Zeev Sternhell, translated by David Maisel
    California, 416 pp, £38.25, December 1986, ISBN 0 520 05207 2

John Weightman, reviewing Jean-Denis Bredin’s monumental work in the Observer, wrote of the Dreyfus Affair that ‘it was perhaps a good thing for France that the abscess burst when it did, because this brought tensions out into the open and revealed the “undeclared civil war” which would need to be resolved in the 20th century.’ It is, perhaps, a curious notion that there could be any time when it would be ‘a good thing’ for a country to experience a racking political scandal which, over a 12-year period, led to the unparalleled expression of group hatreds, brought about suicides, the ruination of careers and the fall of governments, and which produced anti-semitic riots without number in which Jews were robbed, vilified and killed. But it is worth pausing over Weightman’s judgment, for it encapsulates a marvellously Anglo-Saxon misunderstanding not only of the Dreyfus Affair but of the ways in which social cleavages operate and opinion is formed and crystallised.

Crudely, the model is this. There was a Jewish officer working for the French General Staff, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who in 1894 was falsely accused and imprisoned for being a German spy. Once Emile Zola had written his famous ‘J’accuse’ open letter there was a great taking of sides, with the forces of the republican and anti-clerical Left ranged against the forces of the conservative Establishment, especially the Army and the Church. In the ensuing 12-year social explosion, ended only by the freeing of Dreyfus and the conferment on him of the Legion of Honour, the French gave themselves over to a frenzy of ideological confrontation. In so doing, they ‘burst the abscess’ of the bad feeling which had dwelt at the heart of French society ever since the Revolution. For these battles concerned essentially 19th or even 18th-century matters – the monarchy versus the republic, clericals versus anti-clericals – and these issues just had to be ‘resolved’ before France could get on with living in the 20th century. The paradigm is clearly that of the naughty child who has to vent his burst of bad temper before he can settle down and sensibly adapt himself to living his life according to the Whig interpretation of history. While he’s still got those bad feelings, he simply can’t get on with things, you see, and we have to be indulgently parental about his having a jolly good scream and kick because this is what it is to ‘work something out of your system’.

The Dreyfus Affair was no more like this than any social explosion great enough to change people’s lives ever can be. Paradoxical though it may seem, the lasting importance of the Affair was not all that much to do with Alfred Dreyfus, who, after his release, fought well in the war and then lived a quiet and unremarkable life until his death in 1935. Jean-Denis Bredin has provided us with what will probably stand as the definitive account of the Affair and of its impact on the politics of the period: there is not that much that is new that can be said of the Affair itself, but the political context has never been better or more fully treated. Even that is only part of the story, however. The really difficult project is to descry the long-term impact of the Affair and, through that prism, to understand how ideas and alignments feed through and inform a long-running social and political climate.

At the turn of the century France was a society bearing the psychological scar of a quite unbearable defeat. Frenchmen, used to the idea that the country of Charlemagne, Louis XIV and Napoleon was the dominant power of continental Europe, had to face the fact that Prussia had comprehensively vanquished them in just a few weeks in 1870, inflicted huge reparations payments, and detached the sacred lands of Alsace and Lorraine from the motherland. Worse, the new and mighty state of united Germany continued to outstrip France in wealth, production, population and power at a quite terrifying rate. It was intolerable that France should accept such a permanently diminished status, but no one could feel truly confident that France could match the ever-strengthening German juggernaut, particularly since the democratic regime installed in France after 1871 threatened continuously to teeter over, through weakness, instability and corruption, into a mere banana republic. The implications of the situation were too painful to be faced: instead, there was a collective averting of the eyes, a determined insistence that the French Army was still Europe’s finest, a refusal to accept that the era of France’s greatness might be behind her. The fact that such assertions of national greatness rang somewhat hollow, that they involved a collective act of bad faith, that the underlying sense of defeat could never really be disposed of, gave a fragile, febrile quality to the political climate. Moreover, lurking within the body politic was an army whose amour propre had been desperately wounded, a Catholic bloc far from reconciled to the new Republic, and a republican Left which would need little provocation to have a further go at its traditional enemies.

The Dreyfus Affair derived much of its power from the fact that it tapped into this unexpressed, indeed well-nigh inexpressible sense of national defeat. When Barrès sought to explain what the anti-Dreyfusards were fighting for, he mentioned not only the nation, the Army, Honour and God. What was at stake, he said, was ‘the house of our fathers, our land, our dead’. It is worth reflecting long and hard about that ‘our dead’.

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