Trial of the Century

One of these, and a figure crucial to the eventual success of the Dreyfusards, was the novelist Émile Zola. On the heels of the cover-up, he started to publish newspaper articles in support of Dreyfus. In January of 1898, Zola published his famous open letter. It is now best known by its title, J'accuse. “He exposes the whole false conviction and coverup,” said Samuels. “He accuses all the leaders of the French Army by name for participating in it. He has a very specific gambit in mind. Dreyfus had been convicted by a military court that was able to keep all the evidence secret. Zola's idea is that he will accuse the Army of a coverup, forcing them to sue him for libel. This would be a civil trial, and then the evidence would come out. That's exactly what happens. Zola is actually found guilty of libel. He's forced to go into exile in England for a couple of years, but it does come out that there is no evidence against Dreyfus.”

Zola, Samuels points out, was prior to this an unlikely defender of a figure like Dreyfus. “He was something of an anti-Semite before the Dreyfus Affair. He had written a novel called Money, L'Argent, in the early 1890's about the stock exchange. In that novel the characters, if not the narrator, voice anti-Semitic opinions: capitalism is being run by the Jews; it's all a scam run for the profit of Jews. Zola, like a lot of quasi-socialists on the Left, harbored those views — that there are all these Jewish bankers and they're up to no good. But during the Dreyfus Affair, he began to see the ways in which the right wing was using anti-Semitism for anti-democratic ends. Ultimately, Zola really believed in the French Republic and in democracy. So he woke up, I would say, and realized the dangers of anti-Semitism and played this very heroic role. And he paid for it. He lost a huge amount of money, he was forced into exile, and some people even say that his death from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902 was the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards.”

In 1899, Dreyfus is brought back to France for another trial. Samuels highlights this year as one of the starkest points of sociopolitical division over the case. "The reactionary, Catholic Right has come out heavily in favor of the Army," he told us. "That milieu is also impregnated with anti-Semitism in France. The Left, by and large, defends Dreyfus. It's interesting to trace the way various people on the Left react. Several of the key socialist leaders at the time, like Jean Jaures and Georges Clemenceau, had originally been somewhat anti-Semitic. They saw the Dreyfus Affair in class terms: ‘Here is a bourgeois guy, why would we defend him?’ But later on they actually switched sides and became ardent Dreyfusards. That's a moment when the socialist Left is really redeemed in France.”

That trial saw Dreyfus found guilty again, but pardoned — a pardon he accepted against the wishes of some of his supporters. He was not fully exonerated until 1906.

The divide the case opened up proved to be a long-lasting one. Samuels argues that it continues to this day. “I like to say that there's an ongoing war in France over the legacy of the French Revolution and over, in general terms, the modernity that the Revolution brings with it. France was the first European country to grant the Jews full civil rights, and it was the only country that specifically singled out the Jews as worthy of rights in 1790 and '91 — an extension of the concept of revolutionary universalism, that one law must pertain to all citizens equally. In fact, I argued in my last book that the Jews become the test case for revolutionary principles. The French revolutionaries debate whether to give the Jews citizenship on something like 30 separate occasions, even though they're a tiny minority. They see them as symbolically important for defining their revolutionary mission of universalism. By and large, anti-Semitism is a stand-in for the debate over that. People who are in favor of parliamentary democracy, republicanism, liberalism both political and economic, and capitalism by and large are not anti-Semitic or even are philo-Semitic in France. The people who are left behind by modernity — dispossessed aristocrats, reactionary Catholics, and poor workers — are much more liable to become anti-Semitic. This debate you see playing out throughout the 19th Century. The Dreyfus Affair is really  one climax of it.”

Samuels also drew an explicit link between the Affair and France’s behavior in World War II. “The revenge for the Dreyfus Affair happens in Vichy,” he said. “After the Dreyfus Affair, in 1905, the liberals pass the Combes Law, the Loi Combes, which separates church and state. This is hated by the Right and by Catholics in France. Then, during World War II, the Nazis occupy the North and the puppet government under Marechal Pétain takes shape with a capital in Vichy in southern France. They put into action a whole reactionary, fascist program — the next phase in that what they call the Franco-French war. It's an anti-modern, anti-liberal government program that takes anti-Semitism as one of its prime pillars. Le Pen and that whole crew are really the heirs of that tradition. But most of the violence in France against Jews now is coming from a different group. It's almost all perpetrated by disaffected Muslim youth. The reactionary Right has not gone away in France, but they're not the ones killing Jews in supermarkets or opening fire on Jewish schoolchildren. Those are Islamists. I think you could argue that there's an element of anti-modernity also in what they're doing, but it's not the same.”

Given the current political atmosphere, the subject of anti-Semitism has become one of high importance for American discourse. It may be hard for American Jews, in many ways a highly assimilated population, to imagine that there exists a dark undercurrent of hatred against them. It may be easy to imagine that it can’t happen here. The case of Alfred Dreyfus shows, sadly, that it can.