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The Dreyfus Wars

They were fought on several fronts.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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In some ways, then, Harris’s narrative actually enhances the traditional picture of good triumphing over injustice, with the French secular left wearing the white hat. But she expertly identifies the exceptions. In spite of the lion-like role played by Jaurès, founder of the modern French left, there were many socialists who identified the Jews with capitalism and who wanted to de-Judaize the whole issue for tactical reasons. Charles Maurras, I was somewhat surprised to learn, opportunistically employed the imagery of martyred blood and the Sacred Heart—France herself being the Christ-figure betrayed by loathsome Iscariots—without having any real Catholic convictions of his own. In comparable ways, many who detested Catholicism made emotional use of the image of Dreyfus as the victim of a new Calvary. Still, nothing can efface the foul record of the Assumptionist and other Catholic factions, who quite simply and ardently saw the Dreyfus case as the occasion for a final solution to the Jewish question, as well as an excuse to settle accounts with Protestants and Freemasons. They took especial delight in the fact that Zola was himself prosecuted on the anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s seventh apparition at Lourdes, a shrine which Zola had previously subjected to ridicule. Their easy resort to violence and their hatred for democracy marks them out as the spiritual ancestors of those who, mustered under the Croix de Feu in the 1930s, bellowed that they preferred Adolf Hitler to the Jewish Socialist Léon Blum (himself an early and distinguished Dreyfusard).

There had been nothing like it since Voltaire had unmasked his batteries against throne and altar in the cause célèbre of Jean Calas, a French Protestant first framed and then broken on the wheel. But Voltaire was defending a man who was already horribly dead, while Dreyfus remained reproachfully on the scene until his death in 1935. Several of his descendants were murdered by the Nazis, more than one of them in combat against the occupation. And was it not Vichy that recast the French coinage to read “Famille, Travail, Patrie” instead of the deathless trio of slogans from 1789? It seems quite thinkable to argue that the “laicization” of French society was a direct consequence of the Dreyfus wars, social and ideological and religious. Harris is to be thanked for the care and measure of her sifting and weighing, and for the deep historical perspective that she brings to the undertaking. 

Today in Paris, and in other French cities, there are neighborhoods where it is physically risky to be a Jew, and where raucous clerics openly insult and try to subvert the secular republic. Faced with this challenge a century later, the French left has not been able to find itself a comfortable or uncompromising position. The lesson of the Dreyfus case may well be that the search for such a position is a futile as well as a degrading one.

Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is the author, most recently, of Hitch-22: A Memoir.

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