Monday, 24 October 2011

Infamous Anniversary: French exhibits recall Dreyfus scandal at 100

This grungy Alsace textile town, minutes by car from both Germany and Switzerland, is undergoing something of a transformation. Its year-old cultural center/performance space, La Filature (the thread), is a dazzling allusion to the textile industry that first put it on the map.

Now, 100 years after one of the town's most famous Jewish sons, Capt., Alfred Dreyfus, was framed and sent to Devil's Island on trumped-up charges of espionage, La Filature is also the venue for a fascinating take on that cause célèbre.

Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, was at the center of an affair that sent shock waves throughout France and the Jewish world. He was accused of treason, court-martialed, convicted and ultimately pardoned – in a scandal that led to the famous letter from novelist Emile Zola to France’s president, captioned, “J’accuse!”
Printed, on the front pages of one of the country’s leading newspapers, the letter accused Dreyfus’ denouncers of malicious libel and anti-Semitism.

A basis in the Revolution
The Mulhouse exhibition begins by making the point that without the French Revolution, there would never have been a Dreyfus affair.
Before the revolution gave them full and complete citizenship in 1791, Jews eked out precarious livings in villages where the vicissitudes of politics kept them on the move or in hiding.
As full citizens, they could move into Mulhouse, which Alfred Dreyfus’ father did. He eventually succeeded very well in the textile business.
The Franco-Prussian war in 1871 unsettled Alsatian lives still another time, and it was a miracle that Alfred Dreyfus ended up in the French army. The Mulhouse exhibit uses city archive materials for the first time to lay out the basic facts of the Dreyfus family and its shifting fortunes in the volatile textile industry.
The local lore is supplemented by a traveling exhibit of posters and other media ephemera, such as the famous front page of L’Aurore in which Zola threw down his challenge.
It surprises some visitors here to learn that Zola’s appeal to reason and compassion didn’t appear until 1898, four years after the court-martial. The captain was already sweating out a life sentence on the notorious Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guyana.

Bizarre election poster
There is one bizarre poster in the exhibit, pushing the candidacy of A. Willette, who ran for election in 1889 in the ninth arrondissement of Paris openly as a “candidat antisemite.”
His message: “Voters: The Jews are not such big deals – except that we’re on our knees. Get up! They are a mere 50,000 who alone benefit from the bloody work and hopelessness of 30 million Frenchmen who have become trembling slaves. It is not a question of religion. The Jew is of another race and the enemy of ours. Judaism is the enemy! In running for office, I give you an opportunity to protest with me against the Jewish tyranny. Do it then. It would only be for your honor.”
What a way to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution! In fact, there was an economic crisis beleaguering the country, and the Jews once again were scapegoats.

Yet another exhibit
During this 100th-year observance of the Dreyfus case, another exhibit has been mounted in the City Hall of the 11th arrondissement in Paris. For students of French history, the subway stop is Place Blum, named for the last Popular Front president of the Third Republic, who was blamed for the capitulation to the Nazis because he was a dirty Jew.
The most interesting part of the exhibit (in addition to a splendid catalog, “Une Tragedie de la Belle Epoque: L’Affaire Dreyfus,” available from INALCO, 104 quai de Clichy, 9211; telephone is the way it outlines the rise to prominence and esteem of French Jews in general and Parisian Jews in particular, after they were released from medieval constraints following the revolution.
Those 50,000 mocked by A. Willette apparently took full advantage of their new freedom. But envy and resentment of Jewish achievement apparently fueled the fires of anti-Semitism.
The hassle continues. On the precise date of the Dreyfus centenary, Oct. 15, the French defense minister was interviewed in the left-wing daily, Liberation.
He apologized for the century-old injustice on behalf of the French military, and revealed that he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade military leaders to put up a long-completed – but never displayed – statue dedicated to Dreyfus at the military academy or at Paris headquarters.
Jewish Exponent, 12-30-1994

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