Liberty, equality, and fraternity? For everyone but Jews—as much of France strenuously believed a century ago, according to this provocative study of anti-Semitism.
Birnbaum (Political Philosophy/the Sorbonne) is not a historian as such; as he writes at the outset, “this tour of anti-Semitic France turns its back on meticulous research methods, on the desire to explain, to choose the sample with great care, with the goal of providing proof, quantifying, demonstrating how the variables were constructed, and reaching definitive conclusions.” He adds, sounding a bit like Inspector Clouseau, “I shall build my account on everything and on nothing.” Fortunately, there’s plenty of that everything in Birnbaum’s pages, as he turns over archive after archive to reconstruct how ordinary French people behaved during the shameful, 12-year Dreyfus Affair and the subsequent persecution of Dreyfus’s renowned defender, the novelist Émile Zola. In the main, the French people, he writes, responded badly, taking the occasion of the charge that French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus had spied for the Germans to initiate anti-Semitic demonstrations—and, in some cases, anti-Semitic violence—throughout the nation. Vigorous protests swept through Paris early in 1898, he writes, with cries of “Out with Zola! Death to the Jews! Death to the Yids! Long live the army!” These protests spread quickly to every corner of the country, so that even in rural villages, newspapers were printing scurrilous warnings of this ilk: “Beware, all Jews of Feverney and Jussey, if you do not want to be scalded alive like the animals whose flesh you refuse to eat.” In time, writes Birnbaum, this vicious outpouring ebbed—thanks in at least some measure to the behavior of the national police, who, while no friend of the Jews, took its responsibility to uphold the law seriously. Anti-Semitic sentiment remained, however, to find new and deadly expression with the arrival of fascism three decades later.
Timely, given the recent swell of xenophobia in France, and a useful supplement to standard histories of the episode, such as Jean-Denis Bredin’s The Affair.