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Holy Hysteria

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 only the outskirts of France. The provinces looked to other subjects than Dreyfus, and the mentality of their populations was different from that of the young people who crowded into the rue Montmartre at night in order to cheer [Édouard] Drumont, and then went farther along the street in order to hiss L’Aurore.

This generally held view has been readjusted since the 1980s, when the Paris archives began to tell a wider story. Now Pierre Birnbaum, a professor of political sociology at the University of Paris, has taken to the road, examining provincial newspaper files, municipal archives, and police and prefectorial reports. His findings justify his title: from January until October 1898 a convulsion of anti-Semitism ran through France; no major population center was spared, whether there were Jews living in it or not. There were demonstrations and riots, attacks on synagogues and shops; “patriots” encouraged hotelkeepers to evict Jews from their rooms. Leading anti-Semites like Drumont, author of the poisonous tract La France juive and founder-editor of La Libre Parole, and Jules Guérin, head of La Ligue Antisémitique, toured the land inciting hatred. Catholic priests poisoned the moral water: in Rouen, lists of local Jews were distributed on the steps of churches. Newspapers, with some honorable exceptions, showed base prejudice and considerable powers of invention. The election results were certainly affected by this ten-month “moment,” and produced a parliamentary group sitting officially as anti-Semites. The possibility of a coup by those with less self-doubt than Boulanger was frequently present; so too was the possibility—openly referred to—of a Jewish version of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Yet no one was killed. This is the first big surprise of the story. It was, in Birnbaum’s phrase, “a pogrom without casualties”—the main reason why it has been overlooked, or temporarily mislaid, by historians. Mobs tramped the streets crying “Death to the Jews!” The arms manufacturer Goyot produced, especially for Guérin and his supporters, the “anti-Jewish cane” with an oak staff and a lead or steel head, “very heavy…a terrible weapon,” in the words of one police report. The forces of order, badly overstretched and sometimes indifferent, were often late on the scene. Every few pages of Birnbaum’s book you keep expecting a body in the river, a corpse dangling from a lamppost, slaughter in an impasse. Perhaps this apprehension comes from importing too much later knowledge into a historical situation. And doubtless it was terrifying enough at the time for those who had considered themselves French citizens with full rights to find themselves publicly treated as vermin from across the Rhine, to be caught in the familiar double bind of minority groups, whereby difference is held a crime, but as-similation is just as suspicious. Look at Dreyfus, the argument went, who joined the military establishment only in order to betray.

The second surprise is the timing of the “moment.” True, it was generally a period of “holy hysteria,” in Rolland’s phrase. But ask yourself the question “Which of the following events might most probably stir nationwide anti-Jewish riots?” and give yourself these choices (pick two from six):

(a) the arrest, trial, and transportation of a Jewish spy who obstinately denied his guilt;

(b) the arrest and trial of another staff officer, not Jewish, on similar charges, and his subsequent acquittal;

(c) a newspaper article by a famous writer protesting a miscarriage of justice;

(d) the annulment of the military court’s verdict in (a) by the highest-level court in the land;

(e) a retrial by the military court of the Jewish spy, who is once again found guilty, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment;

(f) a second overruling of the military court, this time by the president of the Republic, who pardons and frees the twice-convicted Jewish prisoner.

You might think that (a) and (f) were the most potent, in terms of provoking a riot. In fact, the immediate causes of the “moment” were (b) and (c). And there is a similar surprise about the way in which the “moment” peters out in October 1898. Less than a year later, with a noisy anti-Semitic group established in parliament, President Émile Loubet asserts ultimate republican authority over the military—and also over a large section of public opinion. Dreyfus is finally freed after a case which has divided France (and also separated her from friends throughout the world). What happens? Nothing. Birnbaum briefly notes that in Dieppe the police were put on alert, but that “thanks to their preventive measures, the planned anti-Semitic demonstrations were cancelled.”

Birnbaum’s account of these key months is scrupulous, necessary, and largely incontrovertible; it is also, in his phrase, “unbridled microhistory,” which indicates both its virtues and its limitations. Much of the book gives you a vivid sense of standing at an open window while an ugly demonstration passes by. You glimpse, briefly, a face, a raised fist, a placard denoting affiliation; you hear repeated shouts of “Out with Zola, Down with the Jews, Long Live the Army!” Every so often the Protestants or, more commonly, the Freemasons are included in the list of the cursed; every so often “Down with the Jews” modulates into “Death to the Jews.” The demonstration leads to broken windows, shadowy figures being attacked with Goyot canes, paving slabs thrown at Jewish businesses and the offices of liberal newspapers. Another town, another demo, the same slogans, the same vile emotions. The anti-Semitic set texts—the odious rallying cry, the vitriolic wall poster, the slimy editorial—do not vary much from city to city. There is a (slightly guilty) sense of readerly relief when something different happens at a rally—when “a hail of potatoes” descends on an Action française gathering in Bourges; or when anti-Semitic propaganda takes on a crazed particularity, as in the claim that “among the telephone customers in Paris, one third are Jews”; or when a socialist candidate in Marseilles, despite having proclaimed his anti-Semitism, is asked by a dubious crowd to prove that he is not a Jew and responds by asking all women to leave the hall, then dropping his trousers “without letting a moment go to waste,” as a police observer reported.

If the problem with artistic minimalism is that its results are often just small, the problem with microhistory is a reluctance, a structural inability, to change focus. The pertinacious cataloging of every anti-Semitic cry and lifted stick means that it is not until page 264 that we first hear a Jewish voice. Very rarely are we given figures for Jewish populations in the cities under siege. We are told of boycotts organized against Jewish businesses (nougat merchants were especially vulnerable as “considered likely to be Jewish”), of admonitory flyposting, even of photographic surveillance of premises in Nantes; but how much notice was taken and how much trade was lost? We learn of Jewish businessmen threatening to close up and put their workers on the street, but not of whether any actually did so. We are given some popular anti-Semitic “statistics”: that Jews made up one three-hundredth of the population yet owned one third of the nation’s wealth; that “three-quarters of French soil is in the hands of the Jews.” It would hardly be playing the anti-Semites’ game at this stage to indicate the extent of the inaccuracy. And was it the case, just out of interest, that Parisian Jews were enthusiastic supporters of the telephone, the “supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed,” as Proust put it?

Microhistory also tends to imply virtue and veracity: the smaller the facts dealt with, the more uninflected they are likely to be. Thus Birnbaum records a demonstration by “four hundred students” in Bordeaux. They set off from the place Magenta crying “Out with Zola! Out with the Jews!” The police break them up, but they regroup and chant slogans outside houses and offices. Gendarmerie and the army are on standby at the barracks. Eventually, the police move in again and a fight starts:

There were many wounded, and Officer Prévôt was seriously injured by a cane. Among those arrested were Jean Agard, twenty-five, a postal employee; Jean-Marie Mourra, twenty, a mechanic; Arthur Nicouleau, nineteen, a business employee; Hippolyte Fébrenon, twenty, a tapestry maker; and Ernest Milleroux, eighteen, a baker.

Such a plain list is surely as democratically informative as you can get; yet in fact, a further optical lens is required here. If the demonstration consisted of “four hundred students,” why does the list of those arrested contain not a student among them? How many people were arrested in the first place? What proportion of them were students? Did the police deliberately aim to arrest non-students? Was it perhaps the policy of certain newspapers to name worker-agitators while granting incognito status to students, who were presumably from better families? Or has this triage been effected by Birnbaum himself?

Microhistory doesn’t need to go macro to deal also in character, biography, context. Anti-Semitism seeks to reduce a French citizen of Jewish origin living freely under the law to “a kike”; conversely, the anti-Semite is more than his or her anti-Semitism. It’s possible to be a mild anti-Semite, or an unthinking anti-Semite; but it’s hard to be a sporadic anti-Semite, or a chance anti-Semite. The paranoia, self-excuse, and scapegoating require a wider fantasy. This is well evidenced when Birnbaum, just for once, and to great effect, introduces a biographical portrait into his microhistory. Its subject is Jean Baffier, sculptor and poet from the Berry, anti-Semite, delegate of the Ligue de la Patrie Française, and later “republican nationalist French worker candidate” in the 1902 elections. He was a nostalgist, sentimentalist, localist; a Celt, a Gaul, a peasant.

Soil, blood, and race were what counted; and just as the ancient Gauls of Baffier’s region had stood out against Roman invasion and Roman law, so the “Society of Berry Lads,” which he founded, would stand out against “international freemasons and stateless Jews.” Baffier intended his sculpture—he specialized in rough-hewn stone Gallic giants—as an act of patriotism. He also made rustic table settings, and at the Paris Salon of 1898 exhibited an enormous fireplace designed according to “the precepts of the Aryan religion and the noble tradition of the Celts”—a counter to the rootless cosmopolitanism of art nouveau.

Baffier started a journal called Le Réveil de la Gaule to celebrate

our beautiful country, our forests, our cities, our thatched cottages, our dolmens, our wine, the bones of the warriors from ancient times that you discover when plowing the soil.

Like Drumont, he was fiercely anti-modern, evoking an imaginary France of the past where racial harmony—and therefore every other kind of harmony—reigned. Then along came the Jews and the Freemasons, clever, parasitical outsiders who disdained to till the soil. Drumont’s potted history of the country in La France juive—one of the most pernicious books ever published—goes as follows: the Year Dot to 1394, chaos and internecine strife; 1394, expulsion of the Jews; 1394 to 1789, time of milk and honey; from 1789 onward—the Revolution, the Rights of Man, the emancipation of the Jews (“Was Napoleon a Jew?” asks Drumont), the Crémieux decree enfranchising Algerian Jews—downhill all the way. What characterized France between 1394 and 1789, after “the elimination of the venom,” was prosperity, greatness, intellectual, and social distinction, and, above all, honor. The period “was not exempt from vices,” Drumont concedes; yet—and here is a phrase to treasure—“they were such vices as do not abase.” It was a land in which everyone was, “if not rich, at least happy” (so happy that they started killing one another in 1789). Thus the anti-Jewish argument was not just, Expel this group and we can go back to being happy and French together, but the more insidious, Once before this group was expelled, whereupon the land flowed with milk and honey; expel them again, and the milk and honey will return.

Birnbaum’s treatment of Baffier shows how this book could have been much more than just a necessary record of a forgotten “moment.” Nor is it merely the anti-Semites who could have been usefully characterized. What about Abbé Pichot, one of those rare Dreyfusard priests, who was forced to resign from his seminary in the Creuse; or Schrameck, the Jewish chief of police in Marseilles, described—without further elucidation—as “Drumont’s sworn enemy”? What does, however, emerge strongly from Birnbaum’s tour of the provinces is how impressively the institutions of the Republic stood up to an assault which alternately threatened massacre and coup. Reports from police and prefects generally show an admirable clarity and rectitude. Despite some examples of police idleness, and even collusion with the rioters, on the whole the forces of order behaved with competence and stamina. Behind the police and the gendarmerie, the military stood ready; and there was both irony and, doubtless, disbelief, as demonstrators chanting “Long Live the Army!” found themselves being unsympathetically dispersed by the very soldiers they were lauding.

But such contradictory moments were typical of the Dreyfus Case. A century on, with the facts and motives as clear as they are likely to get where so much lying and forgery were involved, the affair still seems filled with paradox, illogic, and black holes. Clemenceau famously remarked that Dreyfus was the only person who understood nothing of the Dreyfus Case; you could go further and say that the Dreyfus Case itself didn’t understand much about the Dreyfus Case. It was an event far more important for what others thought of it than for what it was in itself. If you were looking for a case of high corruption liable to provoke anti-Semitic feeling, the Panama scandal of 1892–1893 (in which three Jewish financiers bribed several Cabinet ministers, 150 deputies, and virtually every major newspaper) ought to have been far more significant.

As for what, essentially, was supposed to have happened—the supply of classified information to a potential enemy—the facts were petty and nowhere near up to the magnitude of the scandal surrounding them. In terms of spying, Douglas Johnson concluded, “There was nothing in it.” The central figure left much to be desired as well. Charles Péguy said the Dreyfus Case confirmed the rule that the victim usually isn’t up to the mystique of his own affair. “We were prepared to die for Dreyfus,” he commented, “but Dreyfus wasn’t.” Decades later, an approach was made to the now aged victim to see if he would consider making a last-minute appeal to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti; Dreyfus reacted, it was reported, with “angry indifference.”

The “anti-Semitic moment” of 1898 was a sudden vast eructation of the body politic, arriving unexpectedly, and dying away suddenly. It was a distant lightning flash. The thunder came in 1940–1944. Fewer years now separate Dreyfus from Vichy than Vichy from ourselves. Not that this should give the present grounds for complacency. In April and May 2002 there were still five million French people happy to vote for Le Pen. They did so not just once, as—arguably—a protest, but a second time as well, knowingly endorsing a presidential candidate who talked in open code about France for the French, who railed at international finance, who ritually invoked Joan of Arc (expunger of foreigners), who came with a long list of Treasons against the French People, and who said, with a thuggish wink to his supporters, that if Tony Blair liked immigrants so much, he would send over trainloads of them. And on the streets of Paris, in May 2002, there were still to be seen discreet stickers for Action française.

  1. *

    Boulanger was a flamboyant general, reforming war minister, and advocate of revenge against Prussia, who, with Bonapartist and royalist support, became a dominating figure in French politics in the late 1880s. His moment arrived in 1889, when he was in a position to launch a coup d’état against the Republic; at the last minute, seemingly on the advice of his exquisitely named mistress, Mme. de Bonnemains, he drew back. A warrant for his arrest provoked his flight, then exile in London and Jersey; on September 30, 1891, he blew his brains out on his mistress’s tomb in Brussels. He left behind the remnants of a movement, Boulangism, and, evidently, the march referred to by Söderberg, which may or may not be the same as the song with which his supporters used to greet him: “C’est Boulanger qu’il nous faut.” The Dreyfus case began some three years later.

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