The Century of Rubbish
Part II, France on the Eve of the Affair
“This is a remarkable century, which opened with the Revolution and ended with the Affaire! Perhaps it will be called the century of rubbish.” —Roger Martin du Gard
The century of industry must necessarily have been the century of industrial-scale waste. The first mass production of newspapers, pamphlets and magazines, produced with it a deluge of litter. The bourgeois pursuit of business and the bureaucrat’s pursuit administration made the era the age of papers: receipts, forms, lists, slips, chits, bills; either to be carefully filed and archived or discarded on the floors of offices. A sense of detritus and decay is palpable in the century’s literature. For every description of a dazzling ballroom or salon in Balzac, there is its dingy counterpart: a mildewy room filled with cheaply made knick-knacks; and for every grand courtyard or boulevard, there is a trash-strewn alley in some dangerous slum. The bourgeois Arnoux in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education fails as fine art dealer and becomes the mass producer of junky ceramics, bathroom tiles for the rising middle class. In the course of the century, Romanticism went from being the source of high ideals to the stuff of trashy novelettes and clichés, the word itself coming from the repetitious sound of the printing press.
Du Gard’s remark makes a fitting epigraph for a scandal that began in the garbage. In September of 1894, the cleaning lady, Mme Bastian, at the German embassy in Paris passed the contents of the military attaché’s wastepaper basket to the French secret service, as she had done many times before. One of the pieces she passed was a hastily torn up note, the soon-to-be famous “bordereau”, the “slip,” that suggested there was a spy in the French General Staff passing vital information about French artillery developments to the Germans. This “bordereau” was to be the sole basis (if one doesn’t count forgeries) for the arrest and conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer of the General Staff. But before looking at the complicated and confusing details of the case itself, I want to take a look at the state French society at the time, which will begin to reveal how and why suspicion fell so quickly and decisively on Dreyfus, and also sheds light on why his case went from an espionage trial to a national cataclysm that nearly brought down the Third Republic.
The Third Republic was the product of a defeat, —or the refusal to countenance defeat. It began, after Napoleon III’s disastrous defeat and capture at Sedan brought about the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, as a provisional government of national defense tasked with continuing resistance against the German invader. But its first military victory was to be over its own people in the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune. Its first elected majority was monarchist, making even the state’s continuance as a republic doubtful. But liberals and republicans, in a moderate coalition known (without pejorative intent) as the Opportunists, eventually rallied popular support and took the reins of power. One of this republican majority’s first actions was to institute fully secular public education in the country for the first time, making the Catholic Church the sworn enemy of the new Republic.
The one force that seemed that seemed universal enough to unite the country was the longing for revenge, Revanche, against Germany and the reconquest of Alsace-Lorraine, which the Prussians had lopped off from the east of France. This sentiment, an obsession really, gave rise to an ultranationalism that could confound the conventional separation between left and right. Some of the most ferocious partisans of Revanche were republican heirs of the Jacobin tradition of “wars of liberation.” The sacred honor of the army, after the Church the most conservative and traditionalist institution in society, filled with the religiously-educated sons of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie, also demanded revenge. Feelings of national pride mingled with a sense of profound humiliation; the army’s respectability in society only grew in magnitude after the defeat.
The first eruption of this new nationalist passion did not unite the Republic, but nearly destroyed it. In 1889, the charismatic General Boulanger, veteran of France’s imperial campaigns in Africa and Indochina nicknamed General Revanche, rallied to his side the forces of the reactionary right and even some sections of the revolutionary left. He rapidly gained momentum and appeared to be on the verge of a coup that would replace parliamentary rule with a military dictatorship. But in an odd moment of dawdling or distraction, Boulanger failed to strike his final blow against parliament just as the public, the police, and part of the army appeared to be coming over to his side. He went home to his mistress instead. The delay allowed the government time to reorganize. When Boulanger learned he was going to be charged by the Senate, he fled to Belgium with his mistress; she would die of tuberculosis in Brussels. Shortly thereafter, Boulanger, reduced to a spectral figure, shot himself, leaving behind a letter saying he could not live without her. On this operatic note, the threat to the Republic was ended.
Despite its tragic-comic denouement straight out of the world of Romantic cliché, the Boulanger episode revealed a new politics emerging in this modern democracy, a type of reactionary populism with an appeal to sections of the right and left. This new politics would seize upon the profound sense of dislocation and unease in an industrializing society that was uprooting the rural population and depositing them in cities, the increasing prominence of immigrants and minorities in the Republic, the frustration with a parliamentary system that seemed ineffectual and increasingly corrupt, and a growing sense of disillusionment with liberal and humanitarian values. This idea, still a vague ideology of dissatisfaction and resentment, owed its crystallization as much to the mob in the street as to the glittering salons of high society, or more precisely, to the point where the salon and the gutter press met. In the next post, I will look at one of these salons, and how out of the thirst for revanche, it helped broker a military alliance between Europe’s premier democratic republic and its most reactionary autocracy. The byproduct of this alliance was to be a new concept in French politics, albeit one redolent of old hatreds: antisemitism.
Sources used in this post:
The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, Jean-Denis Bredin
The Collapse of the Third Republic, William L. Shirer
For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, Frederick Brown
“The “Franco-Russian Marseillaise”: International Exchange and the Making of Antiliberal Politics in Fin de Siècle France*,” Faith C. Hillis in The Journal of Modern History