You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Pogroms of Words

For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus

By Frederick Brown

(Knopf, 304 pp., $28.95)

The phrase “culture wars” has a peculiarly contemporary and American sound. Its very hyperbole captures something about our over-excited political culture. It summons up images of Sarah Palin denouncing liberal elites to the Tea Party convention, or of hippies facing off against riot police. It triggers associations with a series of “hot button” American issues: gay marriage, abortion, gun control, prayer in schools.

Yet “culture wars” are in fact endemic to Western modernity. They may be defined as conflicts that divide a country less along regional, confessional, racial, economic, or even ideological lines than according to more inchoate but easily grasped disagreements over basic values, assumptions, and beliefs. The long-standing Russian disputes between Westernizers and Slavophiles qualify as a culture war. Germany came close to inventing the phrase with its Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”) of the late nineteenth century, although that particular battle had a distinctly confessional and anti-Catholic accent. And it certainly fits modern France. It was in 1820 that the historian Augustin Thierry memorably observed that “we believe we are one nation, but we are actually two nations on the same soil, two nations at war in their memories and irreconcilable in their hopes for the future.”

Of course, those who bemoan culture wars are usually waging them at the same time, and Thierry himself offers a good illustration. He may have been commenting on the harsh divisions that persisted even after the Revolutionary and Napoleonic traumas, but he was also helping to deepen them, through a particularly corrosive variety of historical mythmaking. A secular liberal, he meant “two nations” in the most literal possible sense, for he cast his conservative aristocratic enemies as literal aliens—invading “Franks” who had remained racially distinct from and socially opposed to the country’s native Gauls since late antiquity. His solution to the problem of France’s culture wars was simple: victory over the intruders.

By the late nineteenth century, few French people still believed that they could trace their problems directly back to the fifthcentury. But the country’s culture wars were still very much in progress, and Frederick Brown is quite right to use the phrase in the subtitle of his wonderful book. In fact, France’s great modern culture wars arguably stretched over an even longer period, taking shape before the French Revolution and lasting into the mid-twentieth century.

Of course, the genealogy of the contending parties is anything but clear. Resisters and Vichyites were not the same thing as Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, who in turn differed from mid-nineteenth-century republicans and legitimists, Restoration-era liberals and “ultras,” revolutionary Jacobins and counter-revolutionaries, and the philosophes and anti-philosophes of the Enlightenment. Yet there were still strong continuities, which the participants themselves recognized. At any moment, France had millions of inhabitants who saw their country as the natural home of reason, of Enlightenment, of science, and of cosmopolitan openness to the world. And it had millions of others who insisted it was properly a land of Catholic faith and mission, of monarchical tradition, and of a closed, organic social structure. Between the two sides, there was rarely much common ground.

As Brown shows, the late nineteenth century saw two major-and related—shifts in the country’s long cultural quarrel. The first was the consolidation of the secular Republic. Between 1789 and 1871, France had lurched erratically back and forth between monarchy, republic, and Bonapartist empire, experiencing three revolutions, five coups d’état, and two regime-changing military debacles in the process, as well as countless smaller insurrections. The constitution changed so often that, according to a long-standing joke, the French National Library kept its copies in the “periodicals” section.

In 1870-1871, Napoleon III’s Second Empire collapsed after its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and even as the victors proclaimed the new German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, politicians in Paris founded the Third Republic. It got off to an extremely rocky start: in the spring of 1871, Parisian radicals rebelled against it and created the alternative government of the Commune, which the Republic bloodily suppressed. For several years thereafter, a conservative legislature seemed on the verge of restoring the monarchy yet again, only to have the project founder on the intransigence of the pretender to the throne, the feeblest of the Bourbons, who refused to reign under the Revolution’s tricolor flag. Republicans also averted the threat of yet another coup, by the charismatic general Georges Boulanger, and by the 1890s the regime finally seemed to rest on solid ground. Its supporters meanwhile proceeded with an ambitious program to remove the Catholic Church from public life, establishing a system of free, state-run primary education and then, in 1905, formally separating church and state.

The opponents of the Republic never accepted its legitimacy, but increasingly—and this is the second shift that Brown recounts—they found another target for their outrage. In 1886, a third-rate journalist named Édouard Drumont published La France juive, or Jewish France, which became one of the greatest best-sellers in French history, going through 140 editions in just two years and making the fortune of the Flammarion publishing house. France had of course known anti-Semitism before, but in the 1880s it began to take on an astonishing new virulence, and became ever more central to French life.

Drumont and his followers spun out bizarre and tortuous conspiracy theories, eventually involving a secret Jewish syndicate they dubbed the Sanhedrin, and a secret rabbinic association called the Kahal, supposedly bent on world domination. (The idea helped to inspire the Russian secret police’s Elders of Zion.) When a prominent bank, closely linked to conservatives and the church, went bankrupt in 1882, the anti-Semites blamed Jewish financiers. When an early French-financed attempt to dig a canal in Panama collapsed amid scandal a few years later, with some Jewish figures playing a role, it was a “Jewish disaster.” Drumont founded a newspaper, La libre parole, to advance his views, and everywhere it found evidence of further Jewish plots. When a flood drove Drumont out of his Paris apartment in 1910, he blamed it on deforestation financed by cousins of the Rothschilds.

His message spread throughout the country, relayed in large part by Catholic clergy. “We are being pillaged, dishonored, exploited, and emptied by the Jew,” Brown quotes, almost at random, from a diocesan newsletter. “Servile, slithering, artful, filthy, and vile when he is the weaker one, he becomes arrogant when he has the upper hand, as he does now. The Jew is our master.... When one of these vultures swoops down on the finances of a people, he pilfers, ransoms, tears, flays, strangles.” In this mephitic climate, it is hardly surprising that when the French intelligence services came across evidence of a high-placed German mole in the French army in 1894, suspicion immediately fell on a Jewish officer.

Army officials quickly conducted a kangaroo court-martial of Alfred Dreyfus, failing to disclose exculpatory evidence. Dreyfus received a life sentence, to be served on Devil’s Island, where such sentences were usually short. And then, what had started as a simple, albeit egregious miscarriage of justice turned into the Affair. As the extent of official misconduct became clear, in large part thanks to the heroic efforts of Dreyfus’s family, desperate officers brazenly forged further evidence against him. They even went so far as to protect the real mole, Ferdinand Esterhazy, when his guilt became apparent, to preserve the honor of the army. The question of Alfred Dreyfus dominated headlines and public discussion, divided families, and seemed once again to threaten the Republic’s survival. It took many years, a tortuous series of trials, and an unprecedented campaign for public opinion—exemplified by the Dreyfusard Émile Zola’s J’accuse, his famous open letter to the president of the Republic—before Dreyfus finally won exoneration in 1906.

But the real significance of the Dreyfus Affair derives from the torrent of sheer smoking venom that flowed from the mouths and the pens of the anti-Dreyfusards. A few years ago the French sociologist and historian Pierre Birnbaum skillfully demonstrated its full, horrifying extent in a book called The Anti-Semitic Moment. In virtually every corner of the country, Jews were vilified and threatened, and mobs paraded in the street calling for their deaths. An Anti-Semitic League founded by Drumont flourished, with hundreds of branches throughout France. Outside observers reacted with horror, including the Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl, who drew the lesson that Jews could live normal lives only in a homeland of their own, and went on to found the Zionist movement.

For French Jews themselves, the Dreyfus Affair had a more ambiguous conclusion. After all, Dreyfus was finally vindicated. Justice, and the Republic, prevailed in the end. And despite the outpouring of anti-Semitism, the Affair led to surprisingly little bloodshed. In metropolitan France, not a single Jew lost his life, although two were killed in French Algeria. Fittingly enough for this most verbal of countries, the Dreyfus Affair was a pogrom of words. Still, the place of the Jews in France hardly seemed secure. As historians have often remarked, at the turn of the twentieth century, the European country that seemed most likely to perpetrate a holocaust was not Germany or Austria, but France.

Frederick Brown devotes the longest chapter of his learned book to the Dreyfus Affair, and rightly so, for it was by far the greatest battle in these culture wars. Brown does not enter into debate with other historians, or offer opinions on the largest historical issues posed by the affair—for instance, whether this new anti-Semitic moment differed in fundamental ways from earlier waves of European Jewhatred. He is content to tell the story, cogently and clearly. His narrative, though, certainly suggests a connection between anti-Semitism and the consolidation of the Republic. It notes that contemporaries themselves saw Jews as symbols of the Republican order, and anti-Semitism as a stalking horse for its opponents (in the words of the anarchist Louise Michel, as “a pretext by means of which monarchist Catholics might put the Republic in mortal danger”). But he lets readers draw their own conclusions.

He follows much the same strategy in the rest of the book. He does not try to give an exhaustive history of French cultural conflict in the late nineteenth century. Instead, he offers readers a somewhat meandering but consistently instructive series of episodes and sketches, starting with the controversies around Ernest Renan’s attempt to write a “historical” life of Jesus, in the 1860s, which scandalized observant Catholics. He gives short, vivid chapters on the financial scandals, some fine sketches of individual personalities, and a remarkable chapter on the way a tragic fire in a pavilion built for charitable fund-raising temporarily brought a truce in the culture wars, only for animosities to burst out again quickly amongst the mourners. He concludes with the stark contrast between a gala “banquet of science” held in 1895, and another banquet five years later in honor of the conservative writer Maurice Barrès. The latter included a speech by a conservative journalist who praised “virtuous violence,” and insisted that “beating a sick man bloody is better than leaving him to rot.” France was still very much two nations in one, and the risk of the culture wars turning real seemed as high as ever.

There are a few strange omissions. Brown might have devoted some space to the outlandish shrine of Lourdes, with its massive pilgrimages and alleged miracle cures, which took on huge significance for Catholics under the Third Republic. In her splendid book Lourdes, Ruth Harris left no doubt about the central role the shrine played in the period’s culture wars, while also highlighting the extraordinary scenes that took place there: for instance, priests deliberately drinking water from pools filled with desperate pilgrims’ pus, blood, and scabs in order to show the power of faith over science. She noted that Henri Lasserre’s Notre-Dame de Lourdes, with a million copies in print, outsold even Drumont’s La France juive. Brown also pays surprisingly little attention to France’s acquisition of a vast overseas empire during this period. Conflicts between Catholic missionaries abroad and the Republic’s famous “civilizing mission” ensured that the French culture wars spilled over to large areas of Africa and other parts of the world as well (although at times there was also surprising cooperation). Brown does observe, though, that the Paris World Fair of 1878 grotesquely included “several hundred ‘indigenous people’” who “spent six months in a human zoo called the Negro Village.”

As befits the author of celebrated lives of Flaubert and Zola, Brown is at his best in biographical mode. He does particularly well with the industrious, methodical engineer Gustave Eiffel, creator of the eponymous tower. As the book reminds us, initially the Eiffel Tower received as much criticism as applause, and not only from the surprisingly numerous artists who denounced it as “an odious column of bolted metal.” The project originally came about as part of an exhibition marking the centenary of the French Revolution, and celebrating the triumph of reason and science. And as its frame rose high above the city, it all too obviously challenged the other great Parisian construction project of the period: the lugubrious Basilica of the Sacred Heart, or Sacré-Coeur, which was beginning to loom over the city from the heights of Montmartre. (It was not finished until 1914.) The Catholic Church originally conceived of Sacré-Coeur as a reminder of and “expiation” for the city’s sins during the Commune, when the city’s archbishop was taken hostage and then shot.

Brown has a particularly brilliant sketch of Georges Boulanger, the charismatic and vainglorious general who came close to seizing power at the end of the 1880s. Boulanger initially posed not as a combatant in France’s culture wars but as an “apolitical” solution to them, and in this regard he resembled a succession of generals who tried to play similar roles throughout modern French history, Bonaparte and De Gaulle most successfully. French republicans and monarchists alike have historically distrusted populist appeals to the crowds, preferring to put their faith in impersonal institutions. But Boulanger, like Bonaparte, defied these conventions, highlighting his own heroic life story (including feats of derring-do in Algeria and Indochina, and a serious wound incurred during the Italian War of Independence), and making carefully planned appearances astride a splendid black charger. As Brown nicely remarks, he knew how to create “the illusion of depth.”

The figure of the charismatic general in politics actually came closer to the nineteenth-century American political model than to the French—and not coincidentally, as Brown notes, Boulanger formed many of his political ideas during a visit to the UnitedStates in 1881. “When left alone,” Brown writes, “he concluded that Jacksonian democracy worked better than French republicanism.” By the end of the decade, however, Boulanger had lost faith in democracy of any sort, and slipped closer to the far right. His story ended farcically, as his opponents charged him with attempting to subvert the Republic and embezzling money from the War Ministry, and his political movement quickly collapsed. In 1891, stricken by grief at the death of his mistress, he traveled to her graveside in Brussels, leaned back against her tombstone, and blew his brains out.

Boulanger could not bring the culture wars to an end. Neither could Dreyfus’s vindication in 1906. And despite a so-called “holy union” in 1914-1918, neither could World War I, which Brown briefly discusses at the very end of his book. In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s the conflicts turned viciously and destructively ideological, with the rise of the French Communist Party, the formation of various fascist and reactionary groups, and a right-wing attempt to overthrow the Republic in 1934. The culture wars ended only when the Catholic monarchist right made its pact with the devil under Vichy, not only accepting Nazi rule but also taking advantage of it to make a final reckoning with its enemies, notably the Jews. Vichy authorities arrested and deported some 76,000 Jews, nearly all of whom died in the extermination camps. The liberation in 1944 left these culture warriors largely discredited, and despite occasional stirrings since then, the battles of the age of Dreyfus are well and truly over.

Since 1944, in fact, France has known a remarkable degree of cultural consensus. This does not always appear obvious from the American media’s coverage of the country, which mostly seems to feature riots, protests, and strikes. But vocal opposition to government reforms, such as the recent attempts to shake up higher education, or to loosen labor laws, amounts in large part to a traditional form of French political theater, and does not point to any fundamental division over values, assumptions, or beliefs. Catholicism, a principal player in the older culture wars, has a shockingly small place in French public life today. In one recent poll, only slightly more than half the population described themselves as even nominally Catholic. Gay rights and abortion evoke very little passion, as compared to the United States. Neither does the large role taken by government throughout society, including in areas such as health care.

To be sure, the problems related to immigrant populations, and particularly the challenge posed by radical Islam, have generated tremendous anxieties. But with the exception of a relatively small minority, most French people agree in general terms about the need to “integrate” these populations. If the Muslim population continues its present rate of expansion (a doubtful proposition), and if radical Islam flourishes within it, then a new and virulent set of culture wars could well break out in the future, as Christopher Caldwell has warned. But for the moment, thankfully, this future is anything but assured.

So France is no longer the “two nations on the same soil” that Augustin Thierry described almost two centuries ago. Thierry’s essay itself now appears somewhat ironic, for it was mostly not about France at all, but about the United States. Thanks to the American Revolution, Thierry argued, “America has expelled from its shores the nation that claimed to rule over it,” and therefore achieved the sort of ethnic unity and freedom that the divided French could only dream of. But the two countries’ more recent history has demonstrated all too clearly that culture wars are not merely the remnants of ancient ethnic animosity. They can bubble up from within a seemingly homogeneous, consensual body politic, and split it dangerously apart. It is happening all too obviously in the United States today, and as a result Thierry’s lament about “two nations on the same soil” is now our own. We must hope that the divisions begin to heal before our culture wars turn as vicious and ugly as the ones that Frederick Brown has described. Or has that already happened?   

David A. Bell, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Princeton.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.