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’.

The real problems were very different. The issue of social reform had to be confronted if the burgeoning and desperately alienated proletariat was to be integrated into the nation. French agriculture was in a lamentable state of backwardness, and urgent measures for its modernisation were clearly required. Above all, a modern French industrial state had to be built. The convulsion of the Dreyfus Affair ensured that none of these problems was adequately addressed. Instead, whole new generations were educated into seeing politics as essentially a battleground between clerical anti-republicans and anti-clerical republicans. Thus the Affair did not lance an abcess but greatly prolonged its life – and the renewal and reinforcement of all the old oppositions and hatreds which it brought about bear a considerable responsibility for the stagnation of the Third Republic.

This effect was achieved despite the fact that the main impact of the Affair was confined almost exclusively to the literate, opinion-forming élites. There was, as Bredin notes, little evidence that the peasant masses were much touched by it, and probably the same was largely true of factory workers. This was almost necessarily so, for the Affair was the true father of Watergate in that it was fought out exclusively in the press (parliament playing no role). The Drefusard press was massively outgunned. L’Aurore, which printed Zola’s famous ‘J’accuse’, had a sale of only 25,000 (though for a few weeks after this salvo its sales rose to 150,000). Only 11 per cent of newspaper sales in Paris and 15 per cent in France overall were of Dreyfusard papers. It wasn’t the case that all the others were hostile – the mass-circulation papers such as Le Petit Journal (one million plus sales), Le Petit Parisien (700,000 plus) and Le Journal (450,000) paid little attention to the Affair. But the real long-term damage to the political and social climate was done by the Catholic press, La Croix (170,000), La Libre Parole (100,000) and their innumerable provincial counterparts. Bredin argues that while the Dreyfusard press had a powerful impact on procedure, the Catholic press had a far deeper and more insidious effect: ‘nurturing and cultivating the state of mind of the impoverished or irritated middle classes, stirring up the anti-Judaic traditions of Christianity, encouraging hatred for foreigners, Jews, parliament, and all those who disturb the traditional balance and its peaceful order’. There is a direct sense in which this press prepared Catholic and middle-class opinion to adopt an attitude of benign equanimity towards the anti-Jewish atrocities carried out under Vichy. Moreover, the Affair played a key role in welding together a coherent right-wing faction of the intelligentsia which was insistently influential throughout the inter-war period, continuously pushing anti-democratic, xenophobic, nationalist and fascist themes into the bloodstream of public debate.

But the Affair had a fundamental effect on the French intelligentsia as a whole. While artists, poets and writers had long been in the habit of making sporadic individual interventions in French public life, the Affair saw, as Bredin puts it, ‘the coming together of intellectuals into a collective involvement with the life of the polis’. At the Affair’s end, matching the intellectuals of the Right, there was for the first time a coherent liberal and Left intelligentsia ready to play its part in the French political arena.

The emergence of this Left intelligentsia has been one of the decisive facts of French life in the 20th century. Throughout the inter-war period the group sparred endlessly with its rightist counterpart, but while the rightist intelligentsia hailed Vichy as the triumph of the anti-Dreyfusards – and thus went down with the Vichy ship – the Left intelligentsia threw in its lot with the Resistance. And since the triumph of the Resistance was, as Maurras bitterly observed, the revenge of the Dreyfusards, the Left intelligentsia came wholly into its own after 1945 and ruled the cultural scene almost unchallenged until the late 1970s. It makes some sense, indeed, to see Sartre, not only as the direct cultural descendant of Zola, but as his beneficiary: Zola had brought together the Left intelligentsia for the first time, but under Sartre there was virtually no other sort of intelligentsia – and Sartre’s influence thus extended right across the cultural continuum. The whole style of Sartre’s intervention – the fierce commitment to the Left, the determination to expose ‘bad faith’ however uncomfortable the results, his siding with the Algerian Revolution against the tide of a furious French nationalism (and, once again, the French Army) – was that of the victorious Dreyfusard intellectual let loose on the world of the 1950s and 1960s. The 1980s have seen the re-emergence of a rightist intelligentsia, and it is clear that the Affair lives on there too – for example, in the figure of Louis Pauwels, the editor of Figaro-magazine. Maurras, Lemaître and Barrès would have recognised themselves only too well in the xenophobic nationalism of Pauwels’s anti-immigrant campaigns, his flirting with the integrist themes of Le Pen’s Front National, and the venom of his attacks on his cultural opponents – student resistance to Chirac’s abortive university reform was characterised as ‘a form of mental Aids’.

Before the Affair it was not uncommon to find anti-semitic references in the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the Left, though Jews such as the Rothschilds were held up as symbols of capitalism rather than as an ethnic scourge in their own right. The Affair put such rhetoric beyond the pale: henceforth anti-semitism was not just mainly the preserve of the Right, but its exclusive preserve. And there were further beneficial effects for the Left. The Affair brought to an end the absolute dominance of committees of notables over political life, as unions, co-operatives, academic associations and professional societies burst into the political debate – thereafter regarding themselves as permanent participants in public life. The Affair also pulled the first generation of women into political life: during the Affair the first group of socialist women was founded; a Dreyfusard feminist newspaper, La Fronde, was launched; and thanks to the initiative of the Dreyfusard Viviani, the legal profession was opened to women for the first time in 1898. But the Affair had more paradoxical results for the Left too. By rallying to the defence of Dreyfus and thus the Republic, the Left moved decisively towards the integration of itself and its proletarian supporters into that same bourgeois republic. And for all that the Dreyfusards found themselves struggling against the overweening claims of an integrist French nationalism, rallying to the Republic meant that they were, in effect, rallying to the national idea themselves. As always, the notions of national security and national crisis provided treacherous ground for the Left (when Dreyfus was first convicted as a spy, the Socialist leader Jaurès waxed indignant that he had not been shot). Adopting the cause of Dreyfus meant forging links with men like Clemenceau – most fiery of the Dreyfusards – who was to have no scruple in ordering out the Army to repress the workers in 1906.

There is a straight line from the Left’s ralliement to Dreyfus and its ralliement to the flag in 1914. The resulting union sacrée with the likes of Clemenceau was thereafter seen on the Left as a tragic betrayal of the French working class. The union sacrée was an exaltation of the nation, and Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards were joined in a blind and ultimately murderous patriotic fervour. Such was the climate that even the arch anti-Dreyfusard Barrès attended the funeral of Jaurès. The Socialist Minister of War, Millerrand, astonished even the anti-Dreyfusards by authorising the summary execution within twenty-four hours of suspected spies: the Army’s morale demanded nothing less, he claimed. The fact that precisely this form of argument had been so execrated by the Left during the Affair, and that the whole institution of special military tribunals had been discredited by the Affair, now counted for nothing. (The Dreyfusard hatred of such tribunals remains potent. When, in 1981, the Mitterrand Government finally abolished special military tribunals, the conservative deputy Olivier Stirn infuriated his right-wing colleagues by openly congratulating the Government: he is, after all, the great-nephew of Dreyfus. Stirn has since joined the Socialists.)

On Jews, too, the Affair had a mixed impact. Prominent French Jews were so assimilationist that there was no Jewish community as such, and the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie – Dreyfus’s peers – tended to shun him. Indeed, Léon Blum was to speak of their ‘cowardly neutralism’, inspired by the fear of attracting anti-semitism upon themselves. The Affair did not halt the drive towards assimilation. As Bredin points out, it is likely that the Affair’s impact was stronger upon poorer Jews, for whom assimilation was anyway a difficult option. It certainly had a decisive effect on the thinking of Theodore Herzl, and thus provided Zionism with its major dynamic. Having been the victims of nationalism, Jews would seek to appropriate the nationalist idea for themselves. Given that Dreyfus always refused to speak of himself as a Jew or to react against anti-semitism as such, his role as an effective founding father of the State of Israel is not without an irony of its own.

Bredin’s work overlaps at many points with Stemhell’s magisterial survey of Fascist thought in France – his third large book on this theme. (Bredin and Sternhell have, incidentally, each been well served by their translators, though in both cases there is a tendency to over-literalism.) Sternhell provides a comprehensive and subtle guide to the writings and thought of the whole pantheon of the French Far Right – not just Barrès, Maurras and Péguy, but Valois, Mounier, de Man, Déat and many others. Inevitably, the effect is encyclopedic and beyond summary, and there is the further difficulty of differentiating truly Fascist thought, given that sociologically its proponents tended to shade off into a more traditional conservatism. Parting company with those who have somewhat simplistically seen extreme nationalism as the necessary ideological ground-floor of any Fascist movement, Sternhell suggests that Fascism and Communism derive their common revolutionary character from their unusual willingness to defy the nationalist imperative in the last resort. ‘Nationalism,’ he argues, ‘far from being a factor that brings fascists and conservatives together, is precisely the factor that divides them ... Pure, quintessential nationalism was a doctrine of moderates: the radical right, for whom nationalism was the revolutionary factor par excellence, engaged in a war that was an ideological war par excellence – a war in which the defeat of the nation would not be too high a price to pay for the victory of certain ideas.’ Like all distinctions based purely on ideas, this is neat but historically somewhat difficult to referee. The cry ‘Better Hitler than Blum’ was, after all, a fairly common one among conservatives who loathed the Popular Front: but does that imply that French conservatives had all been captured by Fascism? The privileging of domestic social enmities over national solidarity is not all that unusual, even if it does carry heavy significance. How many Conservatives would have rallied to the Union Jack in 1940 if Nye Bevan, not Churchill, had been prime minister? And was not the deep objection to the Falklands War among many on the left rooted in the fact that acceptance of the war meant accepting, at least temporarily, the leadership of Mrs Thatcher?

Sternhell is at his best in describing how the intelligentsia of the Far Right, though always a radical minority, were able to exercise a long-run cultural influence out of all proportion to their numbers. As he points out, the effective function of the small-circulation intellectual journals of the Right – Combat, L’Ordre Nouveau, Plans, Revue du Siècle and the Revue Francaise – was to act as forcing houses for an ideology which, in suitably bowdlerised form, then fed through into the popular right-wing press. All these little reviews put together sold only 12,000 copies, but the ideological material they generated was recycled in the 1930s by such papers as L’Ami du Peuple (an organ of the popular suburban Right, with sales of 600,000), and by the scabrous Candide (300,000) and Gringoire (600,000). Then, as now, the Left had no real counter-weight to such papers.

All this might have come to nothing: after all, the Daily Mail campaigned against allowing German Jewish refugees into 1930s Britain at the same time as L’Ami du Peuple was campaigning against Albert Einstein being invited to join the Collège de France. The difference was that in 1940 France experienced a national crisis which gave such poison its chance. The work of the Far Right reviews and the yellow press suddenly then became of great moment, for an ideological substructure to the Vichy regime already existed in incubation. Sternhell argues persuasively that the Vichy ‘revolution would probably never have been possible without the fascist impregnation and the respectability acquired by anti-democratic ideas ... fascism owed its real success to the support it received from outside its ranks, to the fact that its main concepts – as opposed to its methods – aroused the sympathy of vast sections of the public.’ It is difficult to argue with this, for, as Sternhell points out, nobody forced one million Frenchmen to go to the cinema to see the Naziepic, Jew Süss, or to buy Fascist papers by the hundreds of thousand, or to make a bestseller of Rebatet’s Les Décombres. Similarly, no French publisher was obliged to sign a censorship agreement with the German authorities in Paris, but all did so, and there was no German pressure brought to bear on Vichy to bring itself into line with Nazi racial legislation in October 1940 – the regime did so because it was putting into practice ideas which already held an autonomous legitimacy in France. ‘Far more than the presence of the occupying power,’ says Sternhell, ‘it was the delegitimisation of French democracy that explains Vichy legislation.’

It is impossible to ponder such questions without reflecting on the obvious and contemporary British parallels. Taking at random merely the single issue of a newspaper appearing on the same day that this article was written, I find stories of a further government bill to strip local authorities of their powers, of the removal of all bargaining rights from an entire occupation group, of a consultant physician in a major London hospital, who had voiced concern about the rundown of the NHS, being threatened with the loss of his contract in a phone-call from Downing Street, of the cancellation of an entire BBC TV series that might have embarrassed the Government, of the Prime Minister’s refusal to allow an enquiry to be made into nothing less than an alleged attempt to de-stabilise the preceding Labour Government, and, finally, of moves to impose a new set of model rules on all Conservative Associations without prior consideration by those Associations, which would make it impossible for Tory Party members to call a special meeting of the Party’s council, and remove the right of reply from ‘debates’ at Tory Party Conferences. All this from just one day’s newspaper.

How can such profoundly anti-democratic trends be explained in Britain, the ‘land of the free’? The biggest culprit is the selfish, indeed suicidal unwillingness of the three main anti-Thatcherite parties, which collectively constitute a large electoral majority, to stand together in the face of the clear threat to liberty represented by the Thatcher Government. The potential erosion of all our freedoms under five more years of Thatcherism threatens to give the petty disagreements between these parties the dimensions of a historical tragedy.

To understand the weakness of popular resistance to this anti-democratic tide one must look at the way extreme right-wing and authoritarian views have percolated downwards from the ‘little reviews’ to the now predominantly Far Right ‘quality press’ and thence to the mass-circulation yellow press. The past decade has seen continuous saturation campaigns by this press, with all manner of xenophobic and racialist themes to the fore, with a degradingly deferential and voyeuristic pursuit of royal and other celebrities, with a casual, day-by-day degradation of women, with invented stories, with, indeed, the whole panoply of devices deployed by Candide and Gringoire. The slow seepage of this poison into our body politic goes a long way to explain how protagonists of quite ordinary liberal causes have been thrown on the defensive.

We too are a country which, like France after 1870, is feeling a profound sense of psychological defeat. For the notion that we lost our empire without pain must surely be revised. That loss is now re-interpreted as our ‘national decline’, and in Thatcherism we are experiencing the full fury of the dispossessed imperial backlash. Our government even feels indignation that it cannot make Australian judges behave as tamely as the thoroughly domesticated British species.

And we, too, have the spy mania which tends to characterise such periods of defeatedness. The difference is that while Fin-de-Siècle French spy mania found its ultimate target in the Jews, our endless recycling of Burgess, Philby, Maclean, Blunt et al – villains from all of thirty years ago, for heaven’s sake – has a rather different target. The story, in its endless retelling, fastens ever more compulsively not on the spies themselves but on their social milieu: inter-war Cambridge, the foppish upper classes, the leftish intelligentsia. What is under attack is the world of Keynes, of intellectuals in general, of anyone who ever sympathised with the Spanish Republic or was a ‘premature anti-fascist’, even the wettish Tory gentry of the Macmillan era who are now reviled for leading us into national decline. If Burgess, Maclean and the rest had not existed, the Thatcherite press would invent them, for the interminable recycling of these clapped-out spy sagas undoubtedly does Thatcher’s work. The huge popularity of the Le Carré books, with their pursuit of the enemy within rather than the enemy without, has a parallel cultural significance.

There are, then, many lessons for us in the French experience, and it little becomes us to react to that experience with an arrogant English particularism. The Dreyfus Affair still has a contemporary significance for the French – and if one reflects about it, for us. It is our affair too.