The Dreyfus Case is still relevant after 125 years

Dreyfus, A Family Affair, 1789-1945 by Michael Burns, Harper Collins, 1991.

More than two thousand books and articles have been written about the infamous court martial of French Jew Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. While most histories focus on the case itself, Michael Burns provides a broader view, chronicling the emergence of the Dreyfus family as wealthy cotton manufacturers in Alsace, examining the case in great detail, and then following up on the roles the Dreyfus family and his supporters played in both world wars.

The Dreyfus family story has as much relevance today as it did at the turn of the century––not just in France where anti-Semitism has never gone away and has resurfaced recently in deadly fashion, not just in Europe––ditto its presence, but in the United States as well.

For those who forgot the short mention of the Dreyfus affair in their European History class, it is important to recall that at a young age Alfred Dreyfus became dedicated to France and to the French military, and he never waivered in that dedication. Despite his loyalty, Dreyfus was convicted of spying for France’s bitter enemy Germany, which had humiliated France in 1870 and taken part of Alsace as its reward.

The Dreyfus case coincided with the growing antagonism to Jews in France, as a result of their increasing integration into mainstream French society in general and in the ranks of the French military in particular. The plot, hatched by clerical and nationalist elements in the military and supported by vocal anti-Semites, led to Dreyfus spending five years on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana. Dreyfus endured incredible deprivation, which Burns details, and barely survived. Yet, as a result of a campaign led by his brother Mathieu and the strength he gained from the support of his wife Lucie, Dreyfus survived to face a second court martial. Although he was convicted a second time, as the facts of his innocence had begun to emerge, he was eventually pardoned and his military rank was restored.

Jews world-wide know of the Dreyfus case because a Hungarian journalist who covered the initial trail cited it as an influence in his decision to join the nascent Zionist movement. Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) was apparently influenced not just by the case itself but also by the massive public outcry he witnessed against Dreyfus and against French Jews. Chants of “Death to Jews,” he wrote, were heard throughout the country.

The irony of the Dreyfus case was that the Dreyfusards––those who believed in Dreyfus innocence, downplayed the anti-Semitic motivation of his framers. The Dreyfus family had taken advantage of France’s emancipation of the Jews to become wealthy and to take advantage of the open doors to French society. Along the way, their Judaism was reduced to the equivalent of a regional family affiliation. At family funerals even Kaddish, the prayer cited for the dead, had to be recited in French.

The consequences of the Dreyfus’ family’s unwavering devotion to France was that several young men of the next generation including Mathieu’s son Emile, went to their deaths fighting for France in the first world war, and Alfred, who never fully recovered his health, insisted in returning to his post and put his life in danger defending Paris.

Despite the contributions of the Dreyfus family to that war, they were again victimized by French anti-Semite allies of the Nazis who helped send tens of thousands of French Jews, including those with medals for valor in the First World War, to Auschwitz.

Burns does not offer conclusions based on his thorough research, nor should he. That’s not the historian’s job. Conclusions based on the Dreyfus case are nevertheless the domain of reviewers.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the lesson of the Dreyfus case is that the promise of the French Revolution for Jews––emancipation and unrestricted opportunity––was never fulfilled. Yes, there were periods where Jews prospered and made inroads, but always at the expense of their commitment to Judaism, and always in the face of an undercurrent of resentment and hostility from those who needed a scapegoat for failures personal and national. Again and again, the undercurrent of resentment came to the surface whenever conditions justified the need for someone to blame.

Earlier I suggested the Dreyfus case offers lessons for Jews in the United States as well as in Europe. Recent history backs me up. When college students are bombarded by professors with accusations against Israel, when they are afraid to wear a Jewish star or kippah, and when members of Congress blame the Jewish Lobby (with a capital L) for buying their colleagues’ votes, events like the murders in Pittsburgh become all too likely.

Herzl’s vision came none too soon. Unfortunately, however, millions of Jews who might have benefitted were brutally murdered in the Holocaust or died as soldiers fighting the Nazi menace. What’s different today is that the state of Israel exists and at the moment one can be a practicing Jew and an American. Who knows whether both will last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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