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For The Soul Of France: Culture Wars In The Age Of Dreyfus

By Frederick Brown

Knopf, 336 pages, $28.95

La Droite C?est Moi: Populist hero Gen. Georges Boulanger personified the strengths and weaknesses of the right in France. Image by WIKI COMMONS

The Dreyfus case has never been out of season. A century and more has passed since the conviction by court-martial for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the subsequent legal campaign on his behalf, the ultimate reversal in 1906 of his conviction and the European firestorm the case generated. Still, the key dynamics of the sordid matter — French anti-Semitism and European racial anti-Semitism, the honor of the Army of France, the honor of France itself — continue to be explored.

But there has been a disturbing tendency in recent historiography, including historiography of the Dreyfus Affair — almost an obsession on the part of some historians — to find contemporary “relevance” in historical events. Mercifully, Frederick Brown’s fine work, “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus,” is agenda-free. Brown is a historian who believes that things actually happened in history, and he has one interest: telling the story. And he tells it very well, indeed.

But Brown is more than a good narrative historian of the French 19th-century experience, although his prose is brisk and readable. Brown — author of highly regarded biographies of Zola and Flaubert — deftly interweaves intellectual, social and political history. The eponymous “culture wars” of his title (and here Brown picks up on the clash-of-ideologies formulation visited upon us a couple of decades ago by social scientist James Davison Hunter) are the struggles between the left and the right in France dating back to the Revolution. Brown uses the word “culture” as a broad rubric encompassing politics, social struggles — including xenophobic anti-Semitism — and intellectual currents.

It is the thesis of “For the Soul of France” that the culture wars of right and left came to a head in l’affaire Dreyfus. On the right were those — the Catholic clergy, unreconstructed monarchists, the Army of France — who yearned for the France of a pre-modern era. On the left: a range of anti-religionists, socialists and others who believed that the future of French society could best be achieved through progressive approaches to economics, politics and social structures — primarily education.

How did this state of affairs — right versus left — which informed French society from the Revolution through the 19th century and beyond, come to be? As told by Brown, the story begins with the defeat of France by the new German empire in the Franco-Prussian War; carries through the 1871 civil war, in which the Paris Commune defied the National Assembly; and culminates in the Dreyfus affair. Brown is sure-footed in his discussion of political, military and diplomatic history; but it is the intellectual and religious context he sets for the narrative that makes “For the Soul of France” truly worth reading. Religion and culture, more than politics, divided France into right and left, with no room for compromise between the two extremes. By 1890 — the Dreyfus decade — the pattern was well established.

Brown fleshes out his story through a series of chapters depicting the beginnings of the Republic, mid-century financial scandals scapegoating — guess who? — the Jews of France, and populist hero Gen. Georges Boulanger, who personified both the strengths and weaknesses of the right. He continues with the fascinating chapters on “The Ogre of Modernity: Eiffel’s Tower,” which to many represented a newly regnant secular culture and, finally, the Dreyfus Affair. The chapter on Dreyfus, in which all the strands of the culture wars come together, is a tour de force: in 56 exceptionally concentrated pages, it constitutes one of the most cogent narratives and analyses of the affair — its causes, its resolution and the issues that lay at its heart (especially French anti-Semitism) — and beautifully contextualizes Dreyfus. Each chapter demonstrates both a structural episode of 19th-century France in which the right-left battle was played out and a lens through which to view French history.

Anti-Semitism in Europe from Voltaire onward was, of course, of a different piece from that of earlier centuries. It would have been useful to provide some discussion of the differences between classic, Church-based anti-Semitism, which was primarily religious; and modern, “scientific” anti-Semitism — wherein the “new” sciences of biology and anthropology were hijacked to serve the cause of xenophobic bigotry — which was racial. The racist dynamic in French anti-Semitism should not be minimized; the “new” and “scientific” anti-Semitism of 19th-century Europe, in which the Jew is “other” and therefore alien, dovetailed nicely with the agendas of the forces of the right (to say nothing of those of the Church) and led directly to l’affaire Dreyfus. The reader would have benefited from this history being laid out.

Nonetheless, Brown has presented us with a compelling case study on the effects of ideological strife on social and political history. Without drawing any attention to contemporary “relevance,” “For the Soul of France” is a cogent morality play about the ideological breakdown of societal consensus and the resultant fissures within that society. Modern parallels are not hard to find.

Jerome A. Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is the author of ‘A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism’ through the Ages and is editor of the forthcoming The Future of American Judaism.

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