Ideology and Experience: Anti-Semitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair 
by Stephen Wilson.
Associated University Presses, 812 pp., £30, August 1982, 0 8386 3037 5
Show More
Cinq Années de ma Vie 
by Alfred Dreyfus.
Maspéro, 263 pp., frs 15
Show More
La Républic et les Juifs après Copernic 
by Schmuel Trigano.
Les Presses d’Aujourd’hui, 272 pp., frs 75, April 1982, 2 901386 03 2
Show More
Show More

In 1965 I spent several weeks working in the manuscript section of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, reading documents which were relevant to the Dreyfus Affair. After I had returned to England I received a letter, sent to my university address, which told me that if, in any forthcoming book on Dreyfus, I wished to avoid the mistakes which had been made by so many previous historians, I would be well advised to call on the author. I saw that the writer of the letter had the same name as that of an officer who had played some part in the Affair, and I assumed she was his granddaughter. But how had she known that I was writing a book about Dreyfus? She gave no explanation and her short and cryptic letter was intriguing. Naturally I replied, and after a short correspondence I arranged to go to Paris and to call on her in her flat in Neuilly. This I did, one wintry afternoon. She led me into a darkened room and invited me to sit down in a wicker chair which, she told me, had been sat in by General Billot (who had been Minister for War during a crucial period of the Dreyfus case). By sitting in it, she said, I would know that I was now fully immersed in the Affair.

This lively old lady (she explained that she was the daughter of the officer who had been involved with Dreyfus) then moved from gentle courtesies to a most imposing formality. She realised, she said, that I spoke French, but in order that we might avoid any possible misunderstanding she wanted to put a question to me in English. Then, speaking excellent English, she asked: ‘Professor Johnson, are you Jewish?’ I looked her straight in the eyes and replied that to the best of my knowledge I was not Jewish. There followed a long silence. I wondered if I should have been more vehement in my denial. But I filled in the embarrassing pause by saying that I was born in Edinburgh. This was a foolish remark, since, as I need hardly say, one can be Jewish and be born in Edinburgh: but it was nonetheless a happy inspiration. She was delighted and, presumably, reassured. She added that she had not really needed this information, for she had already analysed my handwriting and knew that I was to be trusted. I had no need of General Billot’s wicker chair to realise that I was, indeed, deeply immersed in the world of the Dreyfus Affair.

She then produced, and put into my hands, a bulky, typewritten manuscript. I was told that it was the journal kept by her father, which no one, other than she herself, had looked at. I started to read it with considerable interest, but was hampered by the darkness of the room and by the lady’s ceaseless conversation, which was all the more distracting because it was entirely about Dreyfus and his contemporaries. It was ironical that whilst I had supposedly come to Neuilly in order to avoid the errors of earlier historians, I must have behaved like all my predecessors when they were faced with new documents. ‘Do these papers contain the secret of the Affair?’ I asked myself as I tried to read the typescript. I was wondering how I could inquire if I might be allowed to take the manuscript to a table, and whether she would let me make notes, when my visit was abruptly terminated. ‘Now you see,’ she said, and took the papers away, making me solemnly promise that I would not use any of the material I had gleaned from the manuscript in my book. I had no alternative but to accept, and I gave my word. But as I prepared to leave I did not hide my disappointment.

Perhaps it was for this reason that I was asked if I would like to see a most remarkable sight. I was then taken into a narrow corridor, and by the light of a baladeuse, and standing too close for comfort, I was shown what was clearly a beautiful picture. I was told that this was not only a Poussin, but the Poussin, the original Holy Family on the Steps, of which the version which had been sold to a Washington gallery (by a Jewish dealer) was a fake. Hesitatingly I asked whether the art experts agreed, and was shown an article by a Soviet art historian (written in Russian) which purported to confirm the genuineness of her Poussin. I inquired whether Anthony Blunt had been consulted and she was scornful. You would not, she explained, expect an Englishman like Blunt to agree with a Soviet specialist.

Before I left the flat, I asked how it was that she knew of my interest in Dreyfus. ‘I too have my service de renseignements’ was her answer, and it was on this mysterious note that we parted. All the elements of the Dreyfus affair had been present in this short interview. It wasn’t merely the anti-semitism and the unnecessary secrecy: my character had been judged on the basis of my handwriting; I had a strong sense of being watched and spied upon and a feeling (in the event unfulfilled) that something important was about to be revealed.

About the Poussin I felt there was some lunacy. But I was wrong. I told my story to Sir Ellis Waterhouse, without (as promised) mentioning the lady’s name, but he immediately identified her. Now I am told that the Poussin in question has recently been bought by the Museum of Art in Cleveland, and I learn that experts believe that it is, in fact, a variant painted by Poussin himself (see the article on it by Ann Tzeutschler Lurie in the Burlington Magazine for November 1982). As to the comment on Blunt, it has of course considerable irony. Perhaps I should have been more insistent about seeing the manuscript. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that the Dreyfus Affair, even as an academic matter, is surrounded by a picturesque unpredictability.

In recent months, Dreyfus has re-emerged as part of the anguished debate on anti-semitism which has been exercising many Frenchmen. The devastating attack on the synagogue in the Rue Copernic, in 1980, and at least eight terrorist attacks on Jews or Jewish property during the summer of 1982, culminating in the shoot-up at Jo Goldenburg’s restaurant in the Rue des Rosiers, with its six deaths, have urgently raised the question, ‘La France: estelle anti-sémite?’ The fact that Léon Blum was the object of violent hostility because he was Jewish, the realisation that under Vichy there were many Frenchmen who were more enthusiastic about persecuting the Jews than their German masters required them to be, the recollection of how the late Pierre-Mendès-curieusement-surnommé-France was ostracised and the allegations of racialism loudly voiced against the French Communist Party, make an affirmative answer distressingly plausible. Stephen Wilson’s large and learned book, in which he studies the political, social and intellectual aspects of anti-semitism in France at the end of the 19th century, is therefore very timely, as is the reprinting of Dreyfus’s recollections of his conviction and imprisonment, with an important preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet and a postscript by Dreyfus’s grandson, Jean-Louis Lévy. First published in 1901, the memoir is a restrained, discreet and objective account of suffering and injustice. But is it about anti-semitism?

Stephen Wilson, a distinguished historian, thoroughly conversant with his subject, has no doubts: the Dreyfus Affair was a public manifestation of anti-semitism and it was perceived as such at the time. He has redoubtable support for this view from contemporaries. Zola wrote that the Affair was the history of the crucifixion of the Jew, and Péguy saw Dreyfus as a symbol of the destiny of Israel, of the Jew being offered as a sacrifice for the salvation of other nations. Dr Wilson goes on to assure us that Dreyfus’s original arrest and conviction stemmed from the anti-Jewish prejudice of the officer corps and their attachment to the legend of the Jew as Iscariot, the founder of a race of traitors. It is clear too, he tells us, that the explosion of ‘the Dreyfus Case’ into ‘the Dreyfus Affair’ was the result of an organised anti-semitic movement to which was joined a widespread belief in the existence of a Jewish conspiracy in France.

Vidal-Naquet, however, remarks on the absence of similar inferences on the part of Dreyfus himself. In Cinq Années de ma Vie there is no mention at all of the anti-semitic campaign, and no mention either of the request for a visit from the Chief Rabbi, Zadoc Kahn, which he made when he was in the prison of the Rue du Cherche-Midi, in Paris – a request which was refused. In some notes written in 1899, which Jean-Louis Lévy has made available for this edition, Dreyfus recalled that at the Ecole de Guerre General Bonnefond used systematically to mark down those officers who were Jewish and that he himself had protested about this to General de Dionne, who had admitted the justice of the complaint. Dreyfus makes no comment on the campaign against Jewish officers carried out by the newspaper La Libre Parole in 1892, which can be regarded as a premonitory sign of the Affair and which has even been described as preparing the way for a scandal which would harm French Jews.

The mechanism of the Affair does not, however, support these suggestions. Assuming, as seems likely, that Madame Bastian, the charwoman whose special task it was to retrieve the contents of the German Military Attaché’s wastepaper basket and hand them surreptitiously to Commandant Henry, gave Henry the original incriminating document on 26 September 1894, and that Henry communicated the news of this discovery to his superiors the next day, it is remarkable that nothing happened for more than a week. Everyone believed that the document revealed the existence of an officer who was supplying the German Embassy with secret military information, but no one seems to have had any information about the possible identity of the traitor and their inquiries appeared to have come to a dead end. It was not until 6 October that a Colonel d’Aboville, having returned from leave and being shown the document for the first time, made a suggestion. From the internal evidence of the lettre missive (or bordereau as it came to be known) he deduced that the unknown writer was an artilleryman who had access to all four bureaux of the War Ministry. Such a person could well be a stagiaire, or an officer who was training for a General Staff appointment. Amongst the list of artillery officers who were stagiaires appeared the name of Captain Dreyfus. A specimen of his handwriting was readily available as he had just filled in a form. As luck would have it, his hand resembled that of the unknown author of the bordereau.

It does not seem to matter that the head of the counter-espionage service, Colonel Sandherr, was known to have uttered many anti-Jewish remarks prior to this date. He had no hand in the ‘discovery’. Nor does it matter that Colonel d’Aboville’s father was allegedly anti-semitic. If the name Dreyfus was singled out from a relatively short list it need not be a proof of anti-semitism: he was the only Jew on the list and was therefore the more noticeable. Besides, he was not popular and he had not been getting good grades. The fact that a number of his superiors were ready to believe that he was a traitor may very well denote anti-semitism, but also important was the fact that he was from Alsace (as were a great many of the officers involved in the Affair). His family fortune was based in Mulhouse, which had been annexed to Germany. It was there that his brother lived, it was possible that he might envisage living in Germany after retirement. He might well, therefore, be a man of divided loyalties.

It is noticeable that after this ‘identification’ six days passed before any orders were given to arrest Dreyfus and no arrangements were made to have him watched. The two handwriting experts, or supposed experts, who were consulted, were not told the name of the suspect, although the first, Commandant Du Paty de Clam (whom Zola was to denounce as ‘l’ouvrier diabolique de l’erreur judiciaire’), was informed once he had pronounced that Dreyfus had written the bordereau, and the second, Gobert, managed to find out for himself.

From then, the uninhibited deceit and eventual perversion of justice can be explained by many factors. The Minister for War, aware of his own vulnerability, was committed to proving Dreyfus’s guilt. There was rivalry and hostility between the different ministries: the Minister of Foreign Affairs was reluctant to see Dreyfus prosecuted – the suggestion that the German Military Attaché was a spy could cause diplomatic embarrassment – and he insisted that Dreyfus should be released if proper evidence of his guilt was not found, thereby conferring on certain officers what amounted to an obligation to manufacture evidence. A multitude of newspapers vied with each other in spreading excited rumours. Military officials, who had had some reason to believe, before September 1894, that there were important leaks of information, were determined to hold on to their one traitor and to stop any attempt to lower the reputation of the Army further by discovering any other. There was also lunacy: Commandant du Paty de Clam believed that if a guilty man crossed his feet during sleep and a careful observer were to lift the bedcovering without waking him, the guilty man’s feet would be found to be quivering. He was anxious to put Dreyfus to this test. Such nonsense apart, it seemed quite reasonable to many to suppose that Dreyfus was guilty: it was the attempts to fasten the guilt on other officers which seemed unreasonable.

What part did anti-semitism play in all this? Dr Wilson explains that it was very prominent. Not only was there what has to be called the traditional anti-semitism of those who live in regions where Jews have an important role in the community and are therefore the objects of an almost routine hostility, but there was also an ideological and intellectual anti-semitism. Some people derive a sort of self-justification from denouncing Jews and from creating or sustaining an anti-Jewish mythology; and this was made more respectable – or systematic – by a number of left-wing thinkers who were known to be anti-semitic: Fourier, Toussenel and Proudhon all considered the Jews unacceptable elements within the society they were determined to renovate. This traditional anti-semitism was brought to life by three national crises: the defeat of 1870 and the consequent revolution of the Paris Commune in 1871; the economic crisis associated with the great depression of the years 1879 to 1893; and the growth of anti-clericalism during the 1880s, which took the form of an attack on the activities as well as the ideology of the Catholic Church. French identity, as well as French unity, was insecure for many reasons and anti-semitism should be seen in this context.

Dr Wilson describes other, seemingly minor events which also had important effects. There was, for example, the failure in 1882 of the Union Générale: a Catholic bank which was supposedly ruined as a result of the machinations of its Jewish rivals, led by the Rothschilds. Many small investors were ruined in this crash, and many more were made extremely anxious. It confirmed the stereotype of the Jew as an unscrupulous manipulator of mysterious high finance, and it could be that this scandal promoted a new type of anti-semitism (although it should be noted that when this episode was made the subject of Emile Zola’s novel L’Argent the Catholic banker Saccard sets up in business with the idea of undermining the financial power of the Jews and his obsessional detestation of the Jews precedes his ruin). The failure of the Union Générale was followed by other financial scandals, involving or allegedly involving Jews, so that the accident of a Jewish officer being charged with treason occurred at a time when anti-semitism was enjoying a certain vogue, and when the successful anti-semitic newspaper La Libre Parole (founded in 1892) was able to combine its attacks on Jewish finance with attacks on the Jews for not being true-born Frenchmen and for attempting to corrupt the Republic.

This anti-semitism was, however, a movement of opinion, effective only within a fairly restricted circle, as Dr Wilson is careful to document. Not everyone feared the concentration of Jewish capital and not everyone indulged in Saccard-like revulsion at the physical presence of a Jew. The most senior officer of the French Army, the Military Governor of Paris, General Saussier, had recommended that Dreyfus should not be prosecuted, since an anti-Jewish scandal would cause Jewish investments to leave France. And it was because this same General Saussier was known to have a Jewish mistress that many officers were anxious that there should, be no further search for a traitor. They feared that part of the proof of Dreyfus’s innocence would be the discovery of Saussier’s indiscreet liaison with a woman whose husband was suspected of being an enemy agent. Yet the effect of the Affair was to cause anti-semitism to become an organised movement, with its own clubs, associations and leagues. Scattered groups of politicians found in anti-semitism the weapon which they needed to win elections and the prop which enabled them to assume the gravitas of patriotic statesmanship. Leaders emerged who could incite people not only to indignation but to riot.

Yet much of this anti-semitism remained rhetoric and rodomontade: a reaction to modernisation and to social change (but this time there was no pogrom), a method of discharging accumulated frustrations, whose proponents eventually became sated with verbal violence and imaginary sadism. It could be, too, that this was an early manifestation of irrational democratic politics which elsewhere, and later, led to Fascism. In the 1890s the ritualistic mouthings of the anti-semites was paralleled by the equally ritualistic mouthings of the Socialists, who talked about revolution and the destruction of the bourgeois world, whilst accommodating themselves very readily to bourgeois institutions and practices. (It is odd to think that Walter Mitty was not a Frenchman.)

All this is admirably explained by Dr Wilson who lays bare, for the first time, the basic nature of individual and small-town anti-semitism. What is also important is the reaction of the Jewish community. Pierre Vidal-Naquet quotes the letter which Bernard Lazare, one of the earliest and most incisive Dreyfusards, wrote to Dreyfus after having read Cinq Années de ma Vie in 1901. ‘Jamais je n’oublierai ce que j’ai souffert dans ma chair de juif le jour de votre dégradation alors que vous représentiez toute ma race martyre et insultée.’ Lazare believed that Dreyfus’s determination, his conviction that he would eventually triumph and even his fatalistic resignation, showed him to be more Jewish than he realised. In this way, as Schmuel Trigano suggests, the idea of the abstract Jew is created, and the Affair, from being a part of French history, becomes a part of the history of persecution. There were other Jews who were more reticent. Like Proust’s Swann, they believed that they had ‘un nom trop hébraïque pour ne pas faire mauvais effet’, and regretted the very existence of the Affair: their one hope was that it would go away and be forgotten.

It has always been difficult to know exactly how involved the ordinary people of France were in this prolonged controversy and scandal. Dr Wilson’s careful researches take us much nearer to understanding this than those of any other historian. But we must not forget that, for all those who were active in the agitation, this was a period of exultation. There were those who were delighted at last to have been able to identify enemies and to denounce them in a clear and precise context. There were those who were delighted to be able to attack the privileged military establishment and to indulge in an anti-militarism that was both patriotic and righteous. Some believed sincerely in a Jewish conspiracy. Some were convinced that there was a dangerous Army plot, led by the Jesuits. There were those who claimed that it did not matter whether or not Dreyfus was guilty, provided the Army was protected and reassured. And there were those who did not mind how long Dreyfus languished in prison, provided the day came when they would be able to take their revenge on that part of France which had been anti-Dreyfusard. There were the jealousies of those who saw Jews succeeding in their various enterprises. There were the apprehensions of those young men who were reluctant to leave home and their families to suffer the discomforts of compulsory military service. French anti-semitism has to be considered alongside French anti-clericalism and anti-militarism, xenophobia and chauvinism, socialism and anarchism, the fear of foreign armies once again invading France, the suspicion of colonial adventures and the uncertainties which beset positivists and Catholics alike. Amidst all this, the central figure of Dreyfus remained aloof: ‘Je n’étais qu ‘un officier d’ artillerie qu’une tragique erreur a empêché de suivre son chemin.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences