Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. When France tried the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus for treason, the media spotlight put the entire nation on trial. And in the century since, change has remained difficult for France.
Margery Elfin’s latest book, A Nation on Trial: France and the Legacy of the Dreyfus Affair, examines the background, the intense media scrutiny both at home and abroad, the continued abuses of French Jews during the Vichy era of the 1930s and 40s, and the nation’s unfinished business.
“Events in France made this historical study very relevant to contemporary political issues,” Elfin tells us, “and we [Elfin and Lee Armfield Cannon, who assisted her in publishing the book] were certain it would be a contribution to understanding the present cultural upheaval.”longtime Forest Hills resident Elfin, who taught at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and chaired its Department of History and Political Science. The Cost of Being Female analyzed discrimination against women in economic, social and family life. Elfin also co-edited and co-wrote our neighborhood history book, Forest Hills.
Elfin’s Nation on Trial book talk will be held at the home of Jane and Daniel Solomon, 2935 Albemarle Street, NW, on Sunday, October 30th from 3 to 4:30 p.m. (Please RSVP here.) The book will be available for purchase for $16. You may also order the book online at Politics and Prose or via Amazon.com.
This event is sponsored by the Forest Hills Connection. A $20 donation is suggested.
Margery Elfin took the time to answer our questions about Nation on Trial:
FHC: How did you come to write about the Dreyfus Affair?
Elfin: I have to go back to my high school days as a student in a small Connecticut city. I studied French for the first time, and France became my icon for sophistication. It was the age of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. And although I still don’t understand existentialism, I was dazzled.
I loved the idea of speaking a foreign language and learning about another culture. I was a French Literature major at Wellesley. In the summer of my sophomore year I went to Europe for the first time on a converted troop ship. After eight long days on the gray Atlantic, we landed at Le Havre. I took my first shaky steps on land there before boarding a train to Paris. Since then I have traveled extensively in France.
Many of my friends who oppose France on the grounds of anti-Semitism, their failed militarism and their reluctance to give full credence to other cultures, can’t understand why I persist. And I can’t really explain it either. In fact it puzzles me that despite the horrific treatment Alfred Dreyfus received, he remained loyal to France and begged to serve in World War One. I guess, in a way, I can relate to that loyalty.
Also, having been fortunate enough to marry a journalist, part of the appeal of the Dreyfus case was the role the media played in shaping public opinion and the importance of Emile Zola, a well-known writer, in making the case for Dreyfus in the press.
This book is unique in examining the media’s role.
Nothing I saw considered press coverage except for a lot of vicious cartoons. I do quote some editorials and of course, Zola used the press as a vehicle for rousing public opinion.
I was especially struck by the fact that one man’s opinion shaped so much of the shift in public discourse. Why do you think Emile Zola was able to do this?
He was a celebrity in France for his exposés of the troubles of the working class, much as Dickens was in England a generation before. Of course, literacy was not high in the industrializing society, but it was growing and Zola’s writings were accessible and opinionated. Without the electronic distractions of this century, newspapers and books served the reading public. Zola, as a reformist symbol, attracted support from workers and many intellectuals of the time period. Don’t forget the early proponents of socialism were French e.g. Fourier.
When I recently looked through the quotations I had chosen to head each chapter (in preparation for the coming book talk,) I surprised myself when I realized the majority came from Zola. The age of muckrakers in journalism was also developing in the United States.
The Alfred Dreyfus I learned about in my long-ago history classes was cast more as the hero of the story, certainly not the shy and aloof man you write about. Did Zola and other Dreyfusards knowingly mythologize him in their effort to critique French society?
The hero image was created in the press and popular mind by people hungry for a hero. Instead there emerged a self-contained, quiet, family-oriented man who lacked the popular touch almost to the point of rudeness. He was supposed to be a hero, but he couldn’t play that role.
What are some of the parallels you see today?
Today’s parallels are many, e.g. Europe and the problem of assimilating outsiders, the burden of proving oneself French even if your family, though originally from North Africa, has lived in France for a few generations, the anti-Semitism in France and other European countries which is not necessarily connected to Islam, the absence of pluralism in French society in general.
Indeed, “Who is French?” is a question they’re still struggling with today. And it seems that it’s something we, as Americans, are now struggling with. Who is American? Who do we wish to allow to become Americans? We have a lot to learn from this history as well.
On the question of “who is French?”, I believe the French are learning that culture evolves as demographics change. Although the Front National represents a challenge to change and a veneration of tradition, it remains a minority, albeit a vocal one. As I said, the French must accept an eroding class system and discover benefits in modifying their definition of Frenchness.
What do you want readers to understand about the Dreyfus Affair?
I would like readers to see that the book places Dreyfus (a reluctant hero) in the context of his time which includes the crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, the economic breakdown in the last decades of the century symbolized in the Panama Canal financial scandal (implicating Jewish banking interests) and the polarization of a supposedly secular society with the Catholic Church allying with the military. As I taught this case among others in a senior seminar, I found the emphasis was usually a legalistic one placing the French legal system under scrutiny.
What I hope young readers (if there are any besides my grandchildren) will see one needs a knowledge of history before making judgments. Protests of the moment often lack this understanding.