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Last Reviewed on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

The Dreyfus Affair, a politically cataclysmic scandal during the French Third Republic, fundamentally split French society along liberal and anti-Semitic lines from 1894 to 1906. The event was named after Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French Army, who was accused of leaking French intelligence to the German embassy in Paris and subsequently imprisoned for treason. Throughout the course of the investigation, information came to light fundamentally linking a different major in the Army to the crime, and an overwhelming amount of evidence appeared that seemingly exonerated Dreyfus of any wrongdoing.

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However, because Dreyfus was Jewish, the French military court, seemingly operating both out of a desire to avoid embarrassment for their initial mistake as well as from anti-Semitic sentiments, refused to allow this evidence to be brought to a retrial, maintaining Dreyfus’s imprisonment. The subsequent debate ignited passionate arguments within French society and caused a massive schism between those in support of Dreyfus and those who believed he was guilty.

Pierre Birnbaum’s monograph The Anti-Semitic Moment traces the origins and spread of French anti-Semitism and Judeophobia throughout the course of the Dreyfus Affair. By taking ground-level perspective, Birnbaum investigates how Dreyfus’s predicament and the corresponding political debate unleashed the previously repressed anti-Semitic feelings of many French residents. During the course of the investigation, Jewish residents and sympathizers were subjected to ongoing harassment and violence, Jewish businesses were targeted by anti-Semitic mobs for looting, and Jewish Synagogues suffered vandalism. This took place both in Paris as well as in many of France’s outlying provincial towns. As Birnbaum explains in his Introduction,

Hatred of the Jews drew from every possible source: the traditional anti-Judaism of the Catholic world; the renewed enunciation of usury, now transformed into a rejection of Semitic capitalism; the visceral fear of conspiracy and treason; a reactivated fear of the “Prussians”; and fantasies of racial degeneration. France was well placed for a game of fabrication and finger-pointing: in the cities and in sleepy towns, an anti-Semitic revolt erupted.

Birnbaum’s narrative is somewhat inchoate, inspired as it is from a variety of both national and provincial sources. However, this is partially the argument that he is trying to get across. Anti-Semitism became a universal feature of French life, and Birnbaum highlights how this movement left no facet of French society untouched. From the spread of anti-Semitic newspapers in Paris and central France to the appearance of anti-Jewish demonstrations and rhetoric in far-away towns like Brest (in Brittany), the Dreyfus Affair had roiled the patriotism of even the most indifferent of French citizens.

Ultimately, Birnbaum argues that the historical consciousness of this event eventually dissipated, particularly as a way to mitigate the reality of France’s Vichy collaborationist regime during WWII. After 1945, basically every French citizen wanted to deny having ever had anything to do with Hitler’s Final Solution and the rampant war against the European Jewish population, and thus memories of French anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus period had to be repressed. The Anti-Semitic Moment is therefore a remarkably supple book in how it accurately portrays the normalization of prejudice during a time of political crisis, and how these memories could be forgotten in times when common thought and war-guilt demand it.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711

Pierre Birnbaum is a social historian who has published extensively on anti-Semitism in France. In his introduction to this well-researched historical study, he admits that much of substance has been written on the unjust conviction of Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) by a French military tribunal in 1894 on the charge of treason, on the cover-up by leading French military officers, and on writer Émile Zola’s heroic defense of Captain Dreyfus’s innocence in his famous open letter “J’accuse” (“I accuse”), published by the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore on January 13, 1898. Birnbaum points out, however, that no serious study has been completed on the anti-Semitism which was prevalent throughout France in the late 1890’s. For this book he carefully examined detailed reports submitted to various French police departments, contemporary records in national and departmental archives in France, and numerous French newspapers from this period. The advantage of this approach is that it is based on the examination of contemporary historical documents written by the very people who lived through this period of anti-Semitism in France. Birnbaum realized that an analysis of all relevant documents between 1894, the year of Dreyfus’s first conviction, and 1906, when he was reinstated in the French army, would have resulted in an excessively long book and so wisely limited this study to 1898. In that year, Zola published his letter “J’accuse,” the most violent anti-Semitic riots took place in France, and proof of Dreyfus’s innocence became obvious to people of good faith.

When this book was originally published under the title Le Moment antisémite: Un Tour de la France en 1898, it was very well received in France. Jane Marie Todd has not only produced an excellent English translation but also included useful historical notes, a chronology of important events in the lengthy Dreyfus case, and an index. These three elements are not to be found in the original French book, making this English translation more useful than the French version for readers who are not well acquainted with the history of French anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century.

Although Captain Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted in December, 1894, the general public did not begin to question his guilt until late 1897. Birnbaum explains well how an unlikely person set in motion the discovery of truth and enraged anti-Semites. Captain Georges Picquart was Christian, and he was not very sympathetic toward Jews. He firmly believed, however, in the importance of honor for French army officers. In 1896 he concluded that certain documents used in Dreyfus’s 1894 trial were forgeries. He informed his superiors of this fact, and he also proved to them that the traitor was the Christian Ferdinand Esterhazy. When Picquart realized that the French general staff planned to do nothing to correct this miscarriage of justice, he shared his proof with his lawyer Louis Leblois. Leblois informed French president Félix Faure, the war minister general Baptiste Billot, and Parisian journalists.

Picquart’s superiors handled this situation very badly from a public relations point of view. He was sent to Tunisia, and soldiers were encouraged to do something so that Captain Picquart would suffer an “accidental” death there. In December, 1897, Zola wrote his first article on the Dreyfus case. He demonstrated Dreyfus’s innocence, the responsibility of high-ranking French military officers in the attempted murder of Captain Picquart, and Esterhazy’s guilt. War Minister Billot, who had received overwhelming proof of Dreyfus’s innocence and of Esterhazy’s guilt, nevertheless affirmed that the true traitor was Dreyfus. He organized a farcical court-martial that exonerated Esterhazy in a two-day trial held January 10-11, 1898, and then ordered Picquart’s arrest.

President Faure, War Minister Billot, and influential members of the French general staff all colluded in a criminal cover-up, and they overtly appealed to popular anti-Semitism by arguing that the reversal of Dreyfus’s conviction would harm the French army. These high-ranking officials placed their personal careers above the honor of the French Republic and army, and their direct appeal to the public’s anti-Semitism constituted a rejection of the very basis of the French Republic’s core values, expressed by its motto Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

With the clear approval of the French government, Édouard Drumont, who founded an anti-Semitic league and edited the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole; a failed poet named Paul Déroulède; and the agitator Jules Guérin presented in newspaper articles and in huge meetings the preposterous argument that French people who respected the army necessarily had to hate Jews and people such as Zola and Picquart who supported Dreyfus. Like many other anti-Semites, they blamed all social problems on Jewish merchants and financiers and suggested that workers would be richer and happier if the Jews were driven from France. They encouraged people to boycott stores and other businesses owned by Jews and to intimidate Jewish merchants by breaking the windows in their shops. Synagogues were also attacked, and Jews who resisted violations of their civil rights were threatened with physical violence. Rioters were encouraged to scream the French equivalents of “Long live the army,” “Death to the Jews!,” and “Death to Zola!” The rallying cry of the anti-Semites became “France for the French.” By this expression, they meant that the rights of French citizenship should be enjoyed only by non-Jewish French men and women.

The Ministry of Justice indicted Zola on the trumped-up charge of libel. The prosecutor claimed that Zola had libeled the French army officers whose guilt he had proven in his famous “J’accuse” letter. Numerous officers perjured themselves by testifying in court that documents that they knew were falsified were authentic. Anti-Semitic crowds rioted outside Paris’s Palace of Justice in an attempt to intimidate the judges. Although Zola was found guilty, his conviction was overturned by the Cour de Cassation (France’s highest appeals court). Repeated acts of perjury at his second trial in July, 1898, resulted in the same guilty verdict. Zola went into exile in England so that he could continue defending Captain Dreyfus and denouncing the threats to basic French freedoms that were caused by governmental corruption at the highest levels of the French government and army and by the violence and intimidation of the anti-Semitic mobs.

Birnbaum examines manifestations of anti-Semitism not just in Paris but also in cities and regions throughout France. In an effort to maintain calm, French police accumulated a great deal of information on agitators and real threats to public order. Birnbaum carefully examines these extant reports in various municipal and regional police archives. He shows that French police officers carried out their duties in obedience to orders from their local police captains, superintendents, and prefects and prevented an attempted overthrow of the French government by Guérin and members of the anti-Semitic league in October, 1898. Birnbaum mentions the heroism of a Parisian police superintendent named Leproust, who personally arrested Guérin; Guérin had beaten him with a cane. Despite his wounds, Leproust ordered his men to arrest all demonstrators who screamed “Death to the Jews!”

Although Guérin was convicted, a Parisian judge did not send him to prison and fined him only one hundred francs, a ridiculously lenient punishment for assaulting a police officer. Although the judicial system did not support valiant police officers such as Leproust and the loyal officers who served under his command, Birnbaum discovered that the Paris police prefect Charles Blanc had awarded Superintendent Leproust a gold medal first class for his heroism under extremely difficult conditions.

Birnbaum does not claim there were no anti-Semitic French police officers in 1898, but he argues persuasively that they consistently performed their duty in maintaining civil order in France by arresting criminals, agitators, and rioters. Even though many French judges gave lenient sentences to convicted anti-Semitic rioters, the French police continued to arrest not just those who committed acts of physical violence but also those who screamed racist remarks or otherwise intimidated Jews. A close examination of police reports from many different regions led Birnbaum to the conclusion that the French Republic might have been destroyed had it not been for the courage of police officers who maintained their personal honor by upholding the law and by treating all people with the respect they deserved in a democracy.

In comparison with these loyal police officers, French politicians from this period do not seem morally admirable. Birnbaum demonstrates that most French politicians in 1898, with the notable exceptions of people such as Georges Clemenceau and Jean Jaurès, were overtly anti-Semitic. Birnbaum explains that it seemed to make no difference whether candidates in the May, 1898, national elections were Socialists, liberals, conservatives, or Royalists: In many French electoral districts, voters had to choose between extremely anti-Semitic candidates and moderately anti-Semitic candidates. Although many viciously anti-Semitic candidates were defeated in the elections, the new National Assembly was not sympathetic to Jews.

This book is an important study. Birnbaum shows convincingly that anti-Semitism was much more prevalent in France during the years of the Dreyfus case than many historians had realized. It is well known that the French general staff deliberately selected Alfred Dreyfus for conviction because he was Jewish. Had it not been for the virulent anti-Semitism in France during the late nineteenth century, this egregious miscarriage of justice could never have taken place. Birnbaum argues persuasively that the real heroes in the Dreyfus case were police officers who willingly risked their lives in order to save people whom they did not know. They alone strove to maintain order, and they resisted the anti-Semitic rioters.

A comparison of this dedication to the courage shown on September 11, 2001, by security forces in New York City is perhaps relevant. French police officers in 1898 were so well-trained and loyal to their superiors that they knew how to react when they faced rioters who were endangering public order. People would have died had it not been for the heroism of French policemen such as Superintendent Leproust. Similarly, many more people would have died in the World Trade Center attacks had it not been for the courage of well-trained firefighters and police officers who did their duty.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 5 (November 1, 2002): 470.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 15 (August 1, 2002): 1086.

Library Journal 127, no. 14 (September 1, 2002): 190.

National Review 55, no. 2 (February 10, 2003): 48-49.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 6 (April 10, 2003): 32-34.

Publishers Weekly 249, no. 42 (October 21, 2002): 61-62.

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