Raymond Rudorff, Belle Epoque

The Dreyfus Period (2): Anti-Semitism


Anti-Semitism in France did not begin with  the Dreyfus affair. It had already  been a factor  in French  life for some  years and it became especially  prominent after  the publication in  1886 of a violent and inflammatory book,  La France Juive, by the  journalist Edouard  Drumont. The  main  theme of the  book  was that  the Jews had  been  responsible for  France's  misfortunes and failures ever since 1870 and  that they  were menacing the livelihood and fortunes of honest  Frenchmen. The  book  became  a best-seller almost overnight and led to a spate of others  in the same vein. In 1889, a French  National Anti-Semitic league had  been founded but it soon collapsed,  although not  because of any great  waning of anti-Semitism in the  country. Paris became the centre of organised  racism and several publishers  could  be relied upon  to print  anti-semitic books.  Wealthy Jews in banking,  business and society were arousing resentment among the more  conservative middle classes-especially after the scandalous revelations of the Panama  canal  affair. [A financial fiasco, in which French financial interests sought to repeat their success in building the Suez canal by spanning the Isthmus of Panama. The effort failed only after bribes to government officials kept the operation going long after it should have been terminated. Thousands of French families lost their savings.]In 1891, in the French  Parliament, the  fire­eating, ultra-right-wing  nationalist, Paul Déroulède, who  had been baying for years for a war "of  revenge" against Germany, accused  the  Jews of wanting to "de-christianise France", and  a month later another deputy demanded the expulsion  of the Rothschilds [a wealthy Jewish banking family]from   the  nation's soil. In 1892, prejudices   were stirred up still more strongly  by a newspaper La Libre Parole, which Drumont founded, and  which  became  the most prominent of several openly racist sheets.  A number of ugly scenes occurred in the capital. In 1894, a group of law students founded  the Paris Students' Anti-Semitic League which held public meetings, broke up gatherings of Jews and Socialists, noisily demonstrated and generally encouraged mob  violence  and anti-Jewish feelings. In June 1895, it paraded  through the  streets, although only  some hundred members  took  part.  In 1896 there were several  more public  meetings, an  attempt to stone  the  home  of the Rothschilds, and  to disrupt  lectures  by Jews or pro-Jews.

La  Libre  Parole  soon  became  the most  influential   paper  of its kind. In May 1892, it began to publish a series of articles under the heading The Jews  in  the  Army  in  which the  growing  number of Jewish officers was denounced as a danger to national security. Naturally, when names  were  mentioned, challenges  to  duels tended  to ensue and were regarded  as the normal outcome. Drumont himself fought a Jewish army  officer, Cremieux-Foa, and then,   in  another  duel,   the rabidly anti-semitic Marquis de Morès, a leading  patron of La  Libre  Parole,  killed  a Jewish army officer, Captain Armand  Mayer. The affair was a public scandal: in a statement to the press, the Marquis declared that he regretted the  death  of Mayer  but added,  "We are  at  the  beginning  of a civil war";  and his words  were echoed  by many  other  papers in the city, most of which denounced the killing of a French officer. There  was a sudden revulsion  against  the excesses of the  anti­ semites,  and thousands of sympathisers followed the  captain's funeral procession. But in 1893, when prominent politicians and financiers were involved in a scandal arising out  of revelations of corruption in the  dealings  of the Panama  Canal Company, the Jews were  again accused  of being responsible  for  the  spread  of corruption in high places, while wild rumours circulated  in the corridors  of Parliament, the  newspaper  offices,  clubs  and  the Stock Exchange. The Libre Parole, thanks  to its influential  connections, was one of the best-informed papers and it became one of the  most  widely  read and  feared  in Paris, with  a circulation of more than 200,000. . . .

In October 1894, the Libre Parole published a brief account of the arrest of a Jewish staff officer accused of passing secrets to the Germans and began asking questions about the case. On Novem­ ber 1, 1894, it appeared with a huge headline: "HIGH TREASON - ARREST OF THE JEWISH OFFICER A. DREYFUS". A month later, as the trial was about to take place before a military tribunal, Drumont's paper was claiming that Dreyfus -- whose guilt was taken for granted -- was probably only a tool of the Jewish financiers in France and part of a vast, nation-wide Jewish plot to betray the French people and deliver them unarmed and unprepared into the hands of the enemy -- Germany.








Anti-Semitic Label from a Bottle of Absinthe