If you’re like me (and I hope you aren’t), the “Trial of the Century” involved a washed-up football star, a slowly moving white Bronco, an ill-fitting glove, and charges of racism. I watched every bit of it and remember exactly where I was when the verdict was announced. But if you are French (which is a nice thing to be), then there is only one “Trial of the Century” and it involved an honorable though stuffy army captain, a torn up note of no significance, a bungling military establishment, and charges of anti-Semitism. The erstwhile American football player (and actor, don’t forget he was an actor) was guilty, pretty much everyone knew it, but no one really wanted to take the issue on. The aloof French officer was innocent, pretty much everyone knew it too, but in this instance a kind of culture war broke out.
France circa 1900 was at a fork in the historical road: on the left, the liberalism of the Revolution; on the right, the conservatism of the post-Napoleonic settlement. So which was it to be: France a nation of free-thinking citizens or France a nation of Catholic Frenchmen? The question was not definitively answered during the Dreyfus Affair, but new (and somewhat disturbing) possibilities were sketched out. The analysis of these new paths is one (among many) of the great strengths of Ruth Harris‘s new book Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century (Henry Holt, 2010) . She shows that both sides—the Dreyfusards (aka “Intellectuals”) and the Anti-Intellectuals—used the Affair to elaborate their visions for France and, in the process, worked themselves into a tizzy. They began to believe things that, well, only a lunatic could believe. French political culture entered a kind of surreal moment (a bit like American political culture during the O.J. trial if you ask me). Alas, the French didn’t quickly come back to reality after the Affair ended. They organized parties and continued to fight. And they are still fighting.
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