Anti-Semitism, Captain Dreyfus and Mr. Zola

Zola's house at Medan
Emile Zola's country estate at Médan, west of Paris.

Readers' Reactions to 'Bare-Bones' Account

eMail from Robert Broether, via the Internet:
Dear Ric -

Wednesday, 14. January 1998:- Its amazing that you could write even a 'bare-bones' account of the Dreyfus affair and not mention its most significant feature, the endemic anti-Semitism that fueled and surrounded the matter. But for that, its likely the whole matter never would have happened.

Bob Roether


eMail from a 'Reader in California,' via the Internet:
Dear Ric -

Wednesday, 14. January 1998:- [....] the most convenient and fairly comprehensive source I know of is the write-up in Shirer's 'The Collapse of the Third Republic,' (pages 48-69). Another is in Alfred Cobban's 'A History of Modern France,' (Vol. 3, pages 48-57). [....] It's hardly an original thought, but my take on things is that the brutal suppression of the 1871 commune, the Dreyfus affair, the carnage of WWI, and Vichy and the Occupation are the four 500 kg gorillas of the French national sub-conscious.

Regards, 'name witheld'


Anti-Semitism and the French Army
Dear Readers,

Paris:- Sunday, 18. January 1998:- With 'J'Accuse...!' Emile Zola wrote not a history, but an accusation of corruption of justice. At the time of the text's composition, Zola was fully aware of the context of his age - so he could evoke this context with a few key phrases.

The first is, when writing about the army chief, General Boisdeffre, Zola writes, "...qui parait avoir cédé à sa passion cléricale." He repeats this in discussing how the army chiefs, Mercier, Boisdeffre and Gonse, could be so dense as to believe the accusations against Dreyfus. They gave way to "passions religieuses du milieu..." - the general religious tendencies of the army, in other words.

Zola accuses Commander du Paty de Clam, who led the prosecution, of being "au milieu clérical où il se trouvait, de la chasse aux 'sales juifs.'" Du Paty de Clam was from the clerical circles where one found the persecution of 'dirty Jews,' and Zola added, "qui déshonore notre époque."

Commander Estherazy probably wrote the 'bordereau' which was the only 'evidence' against Dreyfus. Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart who believed Dreyfus to be innocent, was shunted off to Tunisia, and then was accused of forging the telegram which implicated Estherazy - which, by extension, would have exonerated Dreyfus.

Zola asks the motive for this: why? for what purpose?: "Est-ce que celui-là aussi est payé par les juifs?" Zola is ironic, "Le joli de l'historie est qu'il était justement antisémite." Yes, the guy, Picquart, who trying to get Dreyfus off, is himself known to be anti-Semitic.

He likens the campaign against Dreyfus to the 'morals of the inquisition,' and goes on to list the social crimes of the leadership, one of which is inciting intolerance; from 'behind a screen of odious anti-Semitism, that will kill liberal France and its Human Rights.'

In the fourth paragraph of the concluding list of 'J'accuse...' he indites the generals Boisdeffre and Gonse. One of whom - Boisdeffre - without doubt, on account of his 'passion cléricale.'

The key, I think, is the phrase 'passion cléricale' can be directly translated into 'active anti-semitism.'

The context behind Zola's allusions fills many history books today, and with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Emile Zola's 'J'Accuse...!' another ten or twenty have been added to bookstore shelves.

Just over a 100 years previously, France had a revolution, which wrested power from the centuries-old absolute monarchy and transferred it to... citizens' representatives. The hierarchy of the church prospered from its alliance with the monarchy; and when it went, so did the church's privileges.

In the name of 'national defense,' Napoléon Bonaparte transformed himself from being a Republican soldier into being the Emperor of France. During the 19th century, a see-saw battle was waged between supporters of royalty and the republic; with either one or the other on top. The church generally sided with the royalists; while everyone else who had nothing to gain from a restoration of the monarchy, generally sided with Republican factions.

It was a militant church that wholly supported the army leadership during the Dreyfus Affair. A militant Catholic church, was by definition, anti-Semitic.

Ironically, the original Revolution also launched the idea of nationalism - because the young republic was under pressure from all surrounding monarchies. After 1815, France's neighbors decided to leave it alone - because by then another new notion was in the air - colonialism.

Nationalism, colonialism and racial intolerance; are all at odds with how we are in the world at the very end of the 20th century, and it looks as if we will be carrying the leftovers of all these into the coming century.

The optimistic view is that nationalism, which is the illness that has caused so much sorrow and suffering, is an idea whose time has expired - the 'global' markets are annoyed by borders. Churches too, no longer rely on monarchies for hand-outs and privileges, and these also operate on a global basis. Colonialism still exists, but it is no longer a prize for anybody.

But, for some unknown reason, there always seems to be a part of mankind that believes it has some moral right to impose its views on the rest of mankind. Against this threat to individual and collective liberty, we have to be constantly 'on guard.'

The French elections of 1899 brought in René Waldeck-Rousseau, a staunch Republican, and all political activity by the army was forbidden. The reaction to the Dreyfus Affair brought even more radicals, freemasons, and liberals into the government in 1902.

The new Prime Minister was Emile Combes, a provincial medical doctor and one-time doctor of theology, who had converted to a 'ferocious anticlericalism,' according to Pierre Goubert. In 1904, members of religious orders were forbidden to teach in public schools. The ban was lifted by the Vichy regime in 1940 and 1942.

Regards, Ric
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