The Dreyfus affair and the continuing saga of French “identite nationale.” It is imperative not to consign Dreyfus to the scrap heap of history. The time was la belle epoque and the stage was France, liberal democracy, Voltaire , Proust and its dark underside exposed in the Dreyfus case. The evil actors in this drama are still with us almost a hundred twenty years later: double agents, perfidious generals, conniving politicians, and anti-Semites posing as patriots…
Like all classics, whether in literature or on the stage or screen or in history, the Dreyfus affair has a perennial relevance to the passions and concerns of later generations, but the particular concerns to which it is relevant naturally differ at various periods. Thus the fall of the French Republic in 1940 and the whole ignominious story of the Vichy regime called attention to the Dreyfus Affair as the origin of a festering abscess that for years had been poisoning French democracy.
Today, when nearly everybody is at least a lip-service republican, and almost nobody admits to being an anti-Semite; one is merely anti-Zionist or opposed to Israeli imperialism and not self-determination; the Dreyfus Affair has lost some of the tragic topicality it acquired during the 1930’s and 1940’s as the first major eruption of the antidemocratic and anti-Semitic forces in modern society that were to culminate in Hitler’s National Socialism. On the other hand, the anti-Communist witch-hunts launched by Senator Joseph A. McCarthy during the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s- neither anti-Semitic nor overtly anti-democratic retrospectively endow the affair with a broader significance.
In both cases the delusive dread of subversion turned into what often appeared to be mass paranoia. Only the name of the invisible enmey differed: Communist Conspiracy or World Communism in America;Secret Judah in France. In both cases demagogic manipulations of the media played a key role in fostering the psychosis. In McCarthy’s America, it is true, there were no significant mob outbreaks such as the bloody street riots and pogroms that took place in France and in Algeria at the climax of the affair.
Still, Senator McCarthy demonstrated that hat might be termed the media mob- a free press that wittingly or unwittingly allows itself to become a tool of demagoguery- can be as deadly as the street variety. By his demoniac skill in manipulating the channels of communication, he succeeded, on occasion, in producing a mob mentality among millions of normally decent, sane Americans.
Developments in the world since the McCarthy seizure died down have by no means deprived the Dreyfus Affair of its fascination as a classic case history of mob manipulation and the mob mentality in a modern democracy. The manifestations of public delirium that marked its climax now seem less significant, however, than the progressive subversion of reality in the minds of the French official elite, and the degenerative processes in late nineteenth-century bourgeois society that underlay it. Both the fin-de-siecle atmosphere of a social order starting to decay at the top, and the hardening of bureaucratic error into institutionalized delusion, are evident at the very beginning of the affair. One even has to wonder if this is not endemic, or intrinsic to our template of democracy which could be described as nominal and centered on property law, with a few poses and gesture of “vigorous,” more often than not of a symbolic nature….( to be continued)…
The Dreyfus Affair … is the culmination of the antisemitism which grew out of the special conditions of the nation state. Its violent form foreshadowed future developments, so that the main actors of the Affair sometimes seemed to be staging a huge dress rehearsal for a performance that had to be put off for more than three decades.
Hannah Arendt (1951)