The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898
by Pierre Birnbaum, translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd
Hill and Wang, 388 pp., $35.00
In Hjalmar Söderberg’s spare and brilliant novel Doctor Glas (1905), the doctor-diarist of the title dines with his friend Markel, a radical journalist. It is a warm summer’s day in Stockholm in the late 1890s, and they have telephoned ahead to Hasselbacken, an elegant restaurant in the Djurgard, to reserve a table on the veranda, near the rail. Dressed in their finest, the two men sip aquavit while ordering potage à la chasseur, fillet of plaice, quails, and fruit. They plan their drinking: Chablis, Mumm extra dry, and Manzanilla. All is fashionable, peaceful, and local until this moment:
The noise around us grew, competing with the orchestra, which was intoning the Boulanger March. Markel’s face darkened. He is an impassioned Dreyfusard and in this musi-cal number he fancied he perceived an anti-Dreyfus demonstration, put on by a clique of lieutenants.
A century on, this needs more than a little annotation. But for musical offense to be taken by a fictional journalist in the outskirts of Stockholm is a sudden reminder of the potency and spread of the Dreyfus Affair. We customarily think of historical events as having a vertical, chronological echo—down as far as us if they are lucky; we need more frequent alerting to their horizontal, geographical extension, to the fact that events didn’t happen only where they happened. Sometimes the far-flungness of political solidarity surprises us: the support of Lancashire cotton workers in 1862 for the blockade of the Southern states; or the enthusiasm for the Risorgimento among the industrial working class of North-East England.
Occasionally, a frivolous, passing detail underlines the penetration and resonance of a cause. To take another example from the Dreyfus Case: one of the few heroes of the affair was Colonel Picquart, head of the French army’s statistical section (as its espionage and counterespionage department was known). It was Picquart who discovered preliminary evidence that Dreyfus was not a spy (or, in the worst-case scenario, was not the only one), and for a long time his career was broken by this doubting of his superiors’ conclusions. Romain Rolland, in his Vie de Beethoven (1903), refers to Picquart as “the flame of Justice.” More prosaically, an English tobacco manufacturer started advertising his wares under a portrait of the virtuous Frenchman, assuring smokers that here was a tobacco “For the Good Man.” Whether Picquart endorsed this slogan, or got sent some free snout, is not known.
The Dreyfus Affair stretched essentially from December 1894 (court-martial and condemnation) to September 1899 (presidential pardon), and was traditionally held to have taken place in Paris—with a diversion to Rennes—in the worlds of high politics, the army, and campaigning journalism. In May 1898, four months after Zola’s “J’accuse” was published in L’Aurore, there were parliamentary elections throughout France. Douglas Johnson, in his wise and cogent France and the Dreyfus Affair (1966), concluded that these elections
seemed to demonstrate a truth which many have insisted upon, that Paris is …