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FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE by Frederick Brown

FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE

Culture Wars In the Age of Dreyfus

By Frederick Brown

Pub Date: Jan. 29th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-26631-6
Publisher: Knopf

A scholar of French literature and culture traces the troubling history of Catholic intolerance, xenophobia and anti-Semitism during the last decades of 19th-century France.

With the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71, Napoleon III’s abdication and the subsequent civil agitation during the Paris Commune, reactionaries in France were pushing hard for ascendancy. Brown (Flaubert, 2006, etc.) looks closely at the time period in terms of the moral, intellectual and cultural fabric of the nation. France did not separate church from state, as underscored by the Catholic Church’s round condemnation of “depraved fictions of innovators” such as the publication of Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus in 1863, which depicted Jesus as a Romantic hero. By the early 1870s, the Church was in revival, eager to “to forgive France her crimes,” and embarked on a shrine to “national salvation” in 1873: Montmartre’s Basilica of Sacré-Cœur. Brown traces the careers of significant leaders on both sides, including provisional president Louis-Adolphe Thiers, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, who served as president of the Third Republic under a program of “moral order”; Republican chief Léon Gambetta; and General Boulanger, the nostalgic embodiment of “France bold and triumphant.” While France presented a face of modern innovation to the world in the form of successive Exposition Universelles and the Eiffel Tower, undercurrents of ugly anti-Semitism were being fed as the far right scrambled for scapegoats after the crash of the Union Générale in 1882, the Panama scandals in the following years and, of course, the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Brown subtly foreshadows the path toward the Vichy regime, but adds little to the scholarship about this explosive period in French history.

A well-composed survey, but more summary than original interpretation.