CRF Blog

Proust and Dreyfus

by Bill Hayes

In Proust and Dreyfus, Tablet magazine has published an excerpt from Gaslight by Joachim Kalka, showing the great influence of the Dreyfus affair.

The Dreyfus affair was an event with European, indeed global resonance. Chekhov and Mark Twain wrote about it. In the Swabian backwater of Hemmingen, Baroness Spitzemberg, the widow of Württemberg’s envoy to Berlin, noted in her famous diary after Dreyfus’s second conviction in 1899: “It is incredible how the question has whipped up feelings even in the lowest classes: Often the farmers come to the post office late in the evening to pick up the local papers and read the news of the trial, rather than waiting to get them in the morning.” The discussions in Germany and Austria were a complex subject unto themselves. The astonishing spectacle of Wilhelm Liebknecht, doyen of German social democracy, publishing a series of harsh anti-Dreyfusard articles in young Karl Kraus’s journal Die Fackel can be put down to a mistrust of the liberal press and the fear that the German Reich might use the affair as an excuse to take a hard line toward a discredited France.

A little book published in 1935 still gives what may be the best sense of what the Dreyfus affair was and how it felt. It is called Souvenirs Sur L’Affaire, and its author is Léon Blum. Readers may know him as the great French statesman who succeeded Jean Jaurès as one of the leading figures of French socialism, a man whose name is now associated chiefly with the Popular Front governments between 1936 and 1938. The front populaire achieved several epochal social reforms, introducing such things as paid vacations. An elderly worker once wrote to Blum to thank him for the opportunity to see the sea once in his life.

After France was defeated during World War II, Blum openly opposed right-wing collaborationists and called on the socialists to respond with resistance; when the Vichy regime tried him in February 1942, he and his co-defendants pulled off such an impressive and elegant defense that the trial was ultimately called off—strikingly echoing the acquittal of the Communist Dimitroff in the Reichstag fire trial. Blum’s life was spared because he and several other prominent figures were kept as hostages until the end of the war to be used as security in the event of negotiations with the Allies.

Born in 1872, Blum experienced the Dreyfus affair as a young lawyer and writer; the drama seems to have played a crucial role in politicizing him …. [more]

CRF has a free Bill of Rights in Action online lesson titled The Dreyfus Affair and the Press. It is part of CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.