From Dreyfus to Vichy: France’s dangerous liaisons with anti-Semitism

Alfred Dreyfus’ name should never have become so well known in France. In the minds of history students today, the name summons images of an ominous era which heralded the beginnings of twentieth century totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. He was by all accounts, an unremarkable captain of Jewish extractions in the French Army. Yet in 1894, he was wrongfully accused of treason by his superiors and unconstitutionally arrested. This single incident awoke an otherwise relatively latent feeling of anti-Semitism in France. Commencing with the outcry of intellectuals such as Emile Zola of the sheer injustice of Dreyfus’ arrest and trial, the nation was divided into ‘Dreyfusard’ and ‘anti-Dreyfusard’ sects. These groups stood to represent the stark contrasts in French society which had existed for some decades; those in favour of Dreyfus were subsequently staunch supporters of liberalism, the free press and widespread equality, the ‘anti-Dreyfusards’ were typically in favour of the military’s powerful position in society and passionate proponents of the hazily defined idea of ‘France for the French’.

Since the 1789 revolution, France had been plagued by an enduring tension between the ancien régime and the new system, particularly the traditional power blocks of the monarchy, military, and Catholic Church. By the 1890s, a century peppered with instability and the experience of war with Germany left a nation in a position where such an overwhelming display of extreme French nationalism was all too inviting. The Dreyfus Affair was not the first affront to liberalism in France’s new Republic, but it certainly was one of the most contradictory and corrosive moments in a nation that was founded on principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The historian Hannah Arendt argues that the Dreyfus Affair was a preview of twentieth century totalitarianism. There is certainly some parallels between the anti-Semetic domestic policies of totalitarian France in the 1940s and the ‘anti-Dreyfusard’ mindset during the years of the Affair. Popular animosity towards French Jews was uncomfortably pervasive . It is argued that had Emile Zola, one of Dreyfus’ most vocal supporters, been acquitted at his trial for libel, he would “never have left the courtroom alive”. In the two months alone during 1898, there were 69 anti-Semitic riots throughout France. The locations were diverse, from Lorraine in the east, to Angers in the west, and Paris in the north. This nationalized animosity had repercussions in the colonies too, with widespread pogroms in Algiers occurring under the complaisant eye of the French military.

The government’s condoning of the military’s anti-Semitic practices in the 1890s occurred in a different context, but took a similar form during the Vichy France years in the Second World War. It is contentious just how much the regime’s leader, Philipe Pétain, really was a product of German fascism, due to a blatantly slavish adherence to the old formulas of not so many decades before; the co-operation of the police, the increasingly military complexion of anti-Semitic mob violence, and uncomfortably strong ties between the military and the government.

In one of the many curious ironies of history, the Dreyfus Affair was a significant impetus for the strengthening of the French Left and the galvanizing of the free press. The role of writers and academics in society became increasingly influential, inspired by Emile Zola’s open letter ‘J’Accuse’, which had transformed the Dreyfus arrest from a piece of political news to grounds for a polarizing ideological offensive. It is argued that the eventual dissolving of the Third Republic in 1940 into the hands of collaborating forces was a direct result from a decline of leaders who were farsighted, active, and politically unswerving enough to counter the high generals and the institutionalized anti-Semitism which accompanied it.

The Dreyfus Affair was never quite put to rest until President Chirac drew the matter to a close by issuing a public apology in 2006. It is a gross and facetious leap to take between 19th century anti-Semitism and 21st century racial profiling, but it is of some concern that the very same administration proposed a nationwide burqa ban in 2003, prompting the debate of just how much the French nation learnt from the anti-liberalist years of the Affair. Just as worldwide Jewish immigration did in the 19th century, France’s widespread colonialism and subsequent immigration has changed the very face of what makes a French citizen. It is particularly timely for a nation which is currently faced with stark integration issues to re-examine the years of Dreyfus, for some of the answers may well lie in the outcries of the Dreyfusards from all those years ago.