Forest Hills Connection is proud to sponsor Professor Elfin’s book talk, and we hope you’ll join us. We expect a fascinating discussion of France’s most famous trial and of its relevance today. Although Elfin’s book covers events that occurred in France more than a century ago, its descriptions of xenophobia, nationalism and media manipulation sound all too familiar.
Want to learn more? Here’s a summary and review of the book, written by another neighbor:
by Paul D. Pearlstein
In addition to Politics and Prose, Forest Hills is blessed with remarkable talent. Our neighbor, Margery Elfin, is a retired professor emerita from Hood College where she chaired the Department of History and Political Science. Her latest book involves a recap of the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France and an interpretation of the lasting bigotry, xenophobia and anti-Semitism that lingers to this day.
Though the author is an academic, she has presented a short but very readable history book. The reader is oriented with a chronology of events at the beginning, nine short but powerful chapters and ending with endnotes and works cited. Thankfully this is not a full dissertation nor adulterated historical fiction.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a member of a prominent, wealthy Jewish family. He was raised in Alsace and his patriotism was enhanced after the humiliating French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. He attended the elite military school in Paris, École Polytechnique, and was commissioned and served as one of the very few Jews in the officer corps. It was a time when anti-Semitism was a strong force in the country and the prejudicial flame was fanned and preached by the Catholic church.
The tale begins with a dishonest fellow officer, Lt. Esterhazy, who was selling military secrets to the German embassy to support his gambling habit. When the treason was discovered, Lt. Esterhazy schemed to set up Captain Dreyfus. Reviewing the false accusations, the entire officer corps, top to bottom, piled on with forged documents, false testimony, and even a crooked handwriting “expert,” while depriving Dreyfus the ability to defend himself. Dreyfus was quickly found guilty. He publicly endured a military degradation ceremony in the center of the parade ground of the École Militaire in Paris and was sentenced to Devil’s Island for life.
With the later appointment of a new chief of military intelligence, the case was reopened. By now the cover-up by the military was leaking out and the press began to examine the story. The true culprit, Esterhazy, was finally court-martialed but acquitted. A public outrage followed against both the military and against the Jews. The respected author, Emile Zola, joined the fray writing his famous letter, J’Accuse, originally published in L’Aurore. The letter aroused the public and produced action. The author praises the local and world press for their ability and willingness to tell the story and force action by a reluctant Army and government.
Dreyfus was returned from Devil’s Island, in wretched physical and mental condition, after five years of solitary confinement. A second trial was conducted and he was found guilty once again. The L’Affaire Dreyfus became front page, international news, at the time when Paris was scheduled to begin its famous world fair, Exposition Universelle. The 1899 fair was to present to the world a newly revitalized France, symbolized by the new Eiffel tower at the entrance of the fair. In an attempt to contain the bad international public relations from L’Affaire Dreyfus and to protect its world fair, Dreyfus was pardoned by President Émile Loubet and released from prison a few days after the trial. Ultimately Dreyfus had his military commission restored, served honorably, retired and then asked to come back during World War I and served as a lieutenant colonel.
So much for the sordid travail of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. The author’s real emphasis is to describe and analyze the anti-Semitism that permeated the French military, France and the whole of Europe up to the present time. While anti-Semitism dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, the context and vitriol was channeled by the church. As the Catholic church gained prominence, regularly preaching and condemning Jews as Christ killers, their policy was executed by many of their orders. Soon the blood lust became state sponsored.
The history of attacks against Jews in Europe is long: Jews were expelled from Mainz in 1021; in 1096 there was a massacre of Jews in the Rhineland by the Crusaders; the Jews were expelled for over 360 years from England in 1290; the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; 4,000 “conversos” were killed, many by defenestration, in Lisbon in 1506; in 1569 the Jews were expelled from the Papal States by Pope Pius V; in 1818 the state-sponsored Pogroms began in Russia; by 1945, 6 million Jews were killed by the Germans in the Holocaust; and the story goes on until this day.
France was no exception but the anti-Semitism of the time of Dreyfus was further amplified by events. The French military needed a scapegoat after being humiliated by their defeat in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. The Army was closely allied with the Catholic church and its association with the Augustin Fathers of the Assumption. This group spewed its attacks on Jews through its publication, La Croix. The extremely weak French governing body, the Third Republic, was on the record as anti-clerical but such was mostly lip service due to its ineffectiveness. Mix in European Imperialism, the economic distress in France (collapse of their stock market and the Panama Canal scandal) and the rise of socialism at the same time and we can more easily understand the attack against Dreyfus the Jew.
Dr. Elfin expands her subject to review the French history of prejudice and anti-Semitism during the WWII Vichy era. The author writes that “Many critics feel they [the French] did the least of any country to protect their Jewish population.” Even worse, they were complicit by identifying their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis and using their own police to round up French Jews for transport to the death camps. By 1942, more than 42,000 French Jewish families were sent to Auschwitz. The lack of leadership by Marshal Pétain during the occupation was most unfortunate. Pétain even allowed the roundup of Jews in his “non-Nazi controlled” unoccupied “Free Zone” (zone libre) in the southern area of France.
Dr. Elfin closes with a discussion of modern day anti-Semitism in France, Europe and throughout the world. She highlights Klaus Barbie (The Butcher of Lyon), the far-right Le Pens, Chilean dictator Pinochet, Maurice Papon and others. She calls France out as the most xenophobic of countries and observes their expressed national pride that “there are no hyphenated Frenchmen.” Apparently the lesson of L’Affaire Dreyfus and the evils of prejudice and anti-Semitism are still alive and well in France and throughout the world. As her takeaway, the author quotes several times the adage and lesson: