This year marks the 125th anniversary of Alfred Dreyfus’ arrival at Devil’s Island. On April 14, the former captain in the French army, found guilty of treason a few months earlier by a military tribunal, began his life sentence as the sole prisoner on this malarial rock off the coast of French Guiana. As guards ushered Dreyfus into his prison cell — a stone hut thick with mosquitoes and rats — they were ordered, should the convict try to escape, to “blow his brains out.” The prison director feared that Jewish conspirers would send a vessel to the island to free the traitor.
No such attempt was ever made. Instead, four and one-half years after he began his sentence, Dreyfus was sent back to France for a retrial. It is this trial, and the events that surrounded it, which ignited the Dreyfus Affair. It was an affair, reflected in the fear of the prison official, heaved into being by a form of antisemitism unlike that cultivated by the Catholic Church. From the killer of Christ, the Jew had graduated into the killer of Christian nations, the agent of an occult and global power, driving both capitalism and communism, building both banks and barricades that sapped the strength of a people. In his two-volume work “La France juive” (Jewish France), Edouard Drumont warned of an international Jewish cabal determined “to ruin the French people and to monopolize the land of France.” That Drumont’s book was the largest bestseller in fin-de-siècle France suggests that for many French, his utterly fantastic and fact-free ravings were neither one nor the other.
Since 2016 and the making of President Donald Trump, many historical parallels have been proposed to make better sense of the events that have followed. Offering comparisons to the Rome of Nero or Mussolini, the Germany of Wilhelm or Hitler, the Russia of Ivan or Putin, or the America of Wallace or Nixon, professional and amateur historians have lurched across time and space in order to find, if not an explanation, at least the satisfaction in knowing we were not the first, and most probably not the last society to know such stark polarization and dark politics.
Largely overlooked in this mad scramble for historical parallels, however, have been the striking similarities between late 19th century France and early 21st century America. This is not a matter of antisemitism which, despite the occasional neo-Nazi march or presidential tweet, is not a clear and present danger in America. What joins Dreyfus and us, instead, is the fact that our two nations, both offspring of the Enlightenment, are both also divided over the nature of that legacy. Those who believed that Dreyfus was a traitor did so not despite, but because of the absence of evidence for his guilt. When the one piece of evidence against Dreyfus — the notorious bordereau, a crumpled memorandum containing French military secrets that a maid found in waste bin of the German embassy — was found not to have been written by the accused, army officers set about to manufacture the necessary evidence.
These machinations were also discovered and denounced by the Dreyfusards. There were the men and women who, on the basis of empirical fact and rational argument, held that Dreyfus was innocent. Equally important, they also held that their France was the instrument of liberty, equality and fraternity. While these were abstract truths, they were attached to a particular nation and event: the French Revolution of 1789. These truths infused the most important event of the Dreyfus Affair, the publication in 1898 of ‘J’accuse,” Émile Zola’s open letter to the French president. Writing that he was “haunted by the specter of an innocent man dying on Devil’s Island for a crime he did not commit,” Zola dissected and demolished the military’s case against Dreyfus. He did so dispassionately, he declared, feeling “neither malice nor hatred” for those who suppressed or fabricated evidence. Instead, he announced that he wrote the article as “the revolutionary means of hastening the explosion of truth and justice.”
At first, though, it hastened only the explosion of mobs massing around the homes of Zola and the Dreyfus family, bellowing death threats. While the police struggled to contain the right-wing riots that broke out in the streets of Paris, Zola was hauled into court and found guilty of libeling the French army. Countless anti-Dreyfusard protests convulsed Paris and provincial cities between Zola’s trial and Dreyfus’s retrial. The protestors clung even more firmly to the conviction that the only evidence required for Dreyfus’s guilt was his Jewishness. Any evidence to the contrary was due to the intrigues of a “Jewish Syndicate” which, conspiring with the Freemasons, conspired to steal France from the French. Though Dreyfus was again found guilty, he was pardoned by the president. In 1906, an appeals court annulled Dreyfus’s guilty verdict and the former inmate of Devil’s Island returned to active service.”
More than a century after the advent of the Age of Reason, France thus became the stage for an Age of Unreason. This was an age marked by a sustained economic recession and sharpening working class anxiety, great waves of immigration and glaring disparities between an educated urban class and struggling suburban and rural classes. It was an age that fed on fantasy instead of fact, superstition rather than science, and irrational belief in place of rational analysis. It was an age that rooted the nation in la terre et les morts: the native soil and the past generations it covered.
La terre et les morts was a phrase, heavy with historic consequences, coined by one of the most influential figures of the Dreyfus Affair, Maurice Barrès. Though the refined product of France’s elite schools, Barrès became the herald of both nationalism and irrationalism. For Barrès, there was no single and universal truth, but only relative truths — not unlike our “alternative truths” — rooted in the unconscious and organic character of a people. With an intellectual’s rapture, Barrès dismissed his intellect, exclaiming, “The individual! His intelligence, his ability to grasp the laws of the universe! We must reject all of that. We are not the masters of the thoughts born in us.” Barrès declared that popular passions trumped rational thought, decried urbanites as déracinés, or fatally uprooted from the world that had shaped their ancestors, and decided that the Jew, the eternal wanderer, was innately incapable of being French. “That Dreyfus was guilty, Barrès affirmed, “I could infer from his race.”
Little more than a century later, as we gaze upon the America wrought by Donald Trump, what can we infer from the Dreyfus Affair? From our military’s determination to remain apolitical to our society’s persistent allergy to antisemitism, our current predicament shares little with fin-de-siècle France. But under these particular differences, the experiences of France then and America now share at least one important similarity. At the end of his letter, Zola announced that “truth is on the march.” Yet the tumultuous post-affair history of France occasional — from the rise and fall of authoritarian regimes and extreme right-wing movements — reveals that truth might well be on the march, but it often stumbles. This is a truth we should remember as we move into our post-Trump era.
Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His new book, “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas,” will be published in February by University of Chicago Press.