I’m sure all of you are familiar with the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. Asked to describe the animal all three gave widely disparate explanations, informed by the limited sensory exposure they possessed. The first man only felt the trunk and described the pachyderm as twisty and serpent-like; the second man at one of the legs described a rather static and stout animal. The third man feeling the tail felt the elephant to be a small, swift and rat-like creature.
How often have we, whether by omission or commission, made the same error? If by chance you attended Hebrew School (that’s after “real” school 2x a week,) you likely learned about the Dreyfus Affair and its role in the establishment of the Zionist movement. The narrative went something like this; in 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus – a French Jewish officer was accused of treason, court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to a long prison term on Devil’s Island. During the course of the Affair barefaced Anti-Semitism became the norm in France complete with public demonstrations and shouts of “Death to the Jews”. An assimilated secular Austrian Jew – Theodore Herzl, was covering the Dreyfus trial as the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper the Neue Freie Presse.
In the account we learned, Herzl came to the realization that 100 years of emancipation and Jewish assimilation were pointless. In 1897 Herzl initiated the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and presided over the birth of modern political Zionism and the end of the Dreyfus Affair in the Hebrew School curriculum.
On the one hand, it exposed us (at elementary school age I should note) to an event we otherwise might never have learned about. On the other hand, like the blind men and the elephant we didn’t even scratch the surface of an episode that along with the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) traumatized and defined modern France until World War I. For France, the Dreyfus Affair was more involved, gut-wrenching and soul-searching than almost any comparable experience we’ve had in the US. The Sacco & Vanzetti trial may be the closest we’ve come.
Even having read several works on Dreyfus over the years, the affect of l’affaire Dreyfus wasn’t made clear until I started reading about the political and social changes in Europe (affected and resisted by the inter-related monarchies,) and the emergence of the US as a world power. Two particular works drew me in:
- King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War by Catrine Clay
- The Proud Tower; a Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman.
Tuchman in particular does a wonderful job pointing out all the changes emerging at the turn of the century that will ultimately result in the emergence of Germany as a unified, industrial powerhouse, and the eclipse of the European states economic and social influence by the United States. Both Tuchman and Clay point out how poorly prepared the traditional European monarchies (and their related class structures) were for the new century and the social forces emerging with it (Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, the labor movement, etc.)
So where does Captain Dreyfus fit in? Dreyfus was framed by a fellow French officer – Ferdinand Esterhazy. While Esterhazy’s role was brought to light after Dreyfus’s initial conviction and sentencing, the French establishment wouldn’t acknowledge that “they” -the establishment had erred. The army and its supporters could not bring themselves to admit that the system had failed. In 1896 when enough evidence had been assembled to cast doubt on the Dreyfus conviction and pointed towards Esterhazy’s role, a reconvened court-martial acquitted Esterhazy and upheld the original conviction – based entirely on evidence deliberately withheld by the army. It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was exonerated and all charges dropped.
The Dreyfus affair was significant because it set France against itself; a painful situation for a country smarting from its defeat 25 years earlier by the Germans, the abolition of the Bonapartist empire, and the resulting loss of honor and territory (Alsace & Lorraine.) In the French psyche of the time, the army was France and France was the army; it couldn’t be fallible. Those who were against any questioning of the case or the government’s role saw the army as representing those principles which made France great – academe, honor, justice, liberty, fraternite. Those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards) believed in those same principals too, and believed the army’s position contradicted what made France great. The Dreyfus Affair consumed French life (and was carefully followed overseas too, including the USA) as no other issue would until 1914. The French judicial system was assumed to be impartial and fair; how could France accuse and convict a man in so unfair a manner? The Anti-Semitism that so influenced Herzl, was an aside – a shocking one – but nevertheless an aside. The issue wasn’t jingoistic patriotism or territorial, it was philosophical – “What is France?”