The Election of 1898
Part VII: Antisemitism Saves—And Then Topples—The Right
(This is part VII of the series on the Dreyfus affair. Please check out the archive to catch up on previous installments.)
The year 1898 delivered the Dreyfusards a number of grave setbacks: Zola was convicted, Esterhazy was acquitted, and Picquart was jailed based on false evidence manufactured by the Army brass. The parliamentary election of 1898 seemed hardly to hold any more hope. Prominent Dreyfusards lost their seats, including the socialist Jean Jaurès, who had passionately risen in the chamber to indict the entire corrupt establishment and defend Dreyfus, fusing the new ideology of socialism with republicanism and old Jacobin probity. Joseph Reinach, another of Dreyfus’s most prominent defenders, lost the seat he had held since 1889. The Affair itself was played down in most electoral races, with candidates afraid to alienate voters by taking a clear stand one way the other. Victories were going to the anti-Dreyfusards: Paul Déroulède, the founder of the nationalist Ligue des Patriotes captured a seat; in Algiers, Édouard Drumont, publisher of La Libre Parole, was elected on a specifically antisemitic platform along with 21 other antisemitic deputies.
Even when antisemitism was not the central program for politicians in the way it was for Drumont and his clique, it was becoming a useful tool across the political spectrum. Just as the depression of the 1880s put enormous pressure on the shopkeepers of Paris, rural areas faced economic distress and dislocation. Farmers began to leave rural areas for economic opportunity in the cities and colonies. Cheap imports of grain and meat from the Americas ruined many large landowners who had profited during the Second Empire.
Organized political groups on the left with programmatic and ideological responses to economic and social distress began to make headway against the dominance of local elites, who had controlled parliamentary seats through patronage and outright fraud. Socialists proposed an alliance of peasant and industrial labor against capital and landowners; Radical republicans provided the vision of a democratic republic of small, independent owners, united in self-governance and unfettered by Church and aristocracy. But these new political forces faced challenges as well: the Socialists’ proposal of collectivization disconcerted small-holders, while the Radical republican alliance with the centrist republican government of Méline in 1893 produced agricultural tariffs that only benefitted large estates; other nations responded with retaliatory measures that further harmed the small vintner and artisan’s exports.1
With the left divided, conservatives held on, but the old iconography of Monarchism and Bonapartism were losing their grip on the peasantry. Local elites tried to restrict the flow information: some landowners made sure that La Croix, produced by the order of the Fathers of the Assumption, was the only newspaper that their sharecroppers would receive.2 The Jesuits usually have been portrayed as the great Catholic villain of the Affair, even to the point that their influence was inflated into a kind of counter-conspiracy theory by some Dreyfusards to rival canards about the “Jewish syndicate,” but it was really the Assumptionists who were responsible for the mass distribution of antisemitic propaganda, often in the form of cartoons and caricatures.3 A popular market for antisemitic images grew that children’s novelties and children’s toys, where one could “hang” an effigy of Dreyfus.
Monarchists and Bonapartists, as well the new Nationalists with their plebiscitary and authoritarian schemes, all the opponents of the parliamentary Republican regime, found in antisemitic conspiracy theories a new way to focus the dissatisfaction of their constituents without bringing attention to the powerful combination of interests they actually represented. “Dreyfus, the Jewish traitor, appeared almost miraculously in 1898 to save the cause of anti-parliamentarian conservatives,” writes the historian Nancy Fitch.4 Charles Maurras, whose Action Française group would grow out of the Affair into the predominant force on the French far right, would agree, later writing, “Everything seems impossibly difficult without the providential appearance of antisemitism. It enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified. If one was not an antisemite through patriotism, one would be through a simple sense of opportunity.”5
It was not just the right that found antisemitism to be expedient: some Radical candidates attempted to use the association of Jews with high finance and general “foreignness” in their campaigns. Socialists, who had not always been above using antisemitic rhetoric in the past and portrayed the Affair as a conflict within the bourgeoisie, tended to present antisemitism as a mystification used by the propertied classes to divide the working class. Armed with this explanation, Socialists were often better able to hold onto their seats than the Radicals who pandered to antisemitic opinion. 6
Despite the rise of the new radical right, the 1898 appeared to return stability: the majority of the seats went to Méline’s centrist coalition. But the lurch rightward had shaken up the republican coalition: the anticlerical Radicals now feared the appearance of a radical political Catholicism and perceived a threat to the Republic itself in this new outpouring of reactionary energy. The violence of antisemitic street demonstrations convinced many republicans that the right was a greater threat to the republic than the Socialists, who for their part were reconciling with republican institutions in order to form a political bulwark against the forces of reaction. The Radical republicans ruled out any coalition with the Nationalists and Méline’s government collapsed. President Felix Faure called on the Radical Henri Brisson to form a government and he managed to cobble together his ministries from the left.
The formation of a government of the republican left did not at first mean an unambiguous victory for the Dreyfusard cause. Brisson was against a revision of the Dreyfus trial, and as we’ve seen, antisemitism was not alien to the Radical persuasion. In fact, Brisson’s government received votes of support from Nationalists and antisemites because they believed him to be a firm supporter of the army and opponent of the Dreyfusards. They were particularly enthusiastic over his choice of Secretary of War, Godefroy Cavaignac, who was convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt and wanted to use his position to conclusively prove the issue and end the Affair. Only Esterhazy seemed to realize among the conspirators in the Army that the installment of this “imbecilic Robespierre” would spell disaster: to “prove” the case he would have to review the secret evidence, which, of course, had been forged by Esterhazy and Commandant Henry.7 And so what appeared to be the low-point for the Dreyfusard cause was to be the beginning of its ultimate triumph.
Nancy Fitch, “Mass Culture, Mass Parliamentary Politics, and Modern Anti-Semitism: The Dreyfus Affair in Rural France.” The American Historical Review, vol. 97, no. 1, 1992, pp. 67-68
Ibid, pg. 62
Ruth Harris, Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century, pg. 283
Fitch, pg. 82
Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, pg. 85
Fitch, pg. 91
Jean-Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, pg. 306