Monday, June 12, 2017

Proust and Dreyfus: excerpt from the newly translated 'Gaslight', by Joachim Kalka

To this day it seems an impossible endeavor: to find a convincing explanation for the hatred, intransigent and immune to reason and scruple, with which the right persecuted Dreyfus even after his innocence became evident.
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, alongside his encounter with Jean Jaurès, which itself was closely bound up with the affair. One of the most fascinating features of his account is the description of the first weeks and months after the affair truly got underway, when it was unclear how the most prominent journalists and “intellectuals” would position themselves: Who would take Dreyfus’ side, who would refuse their support, who would dither? The profound disappointments and pleasant surprises of these weeks made Blum conclude that in a genuine crisis people’s reactions can never be predicted from their previous behavior. His account of the Dreyfus affair has the charm of a youthful memory, preserved still fresh in energetic, naïve immediacy, yet joined with the sad, dignified reflections of a man who has turned to skepticism. Though rigorous in their pursuit of truth, his Souvenirs are highly intimate, a fragment of an unwritten autobiography. He evokes the figures of his youth, his initiation into politics. The result is profoundly moving.

In the year 1935, with Europe’s greatest catastrophe looming, a politician and homme de lettres meditates on the great event of his youth, which for a time thrust all other questions into the background, even eclipsing everyday life for the committed champions of Dreyfus’ innocence. Blum was prompted to set pen to paper by the death of Dreyfus that same year; long since rehabilitated, he had been readmitted to the army with full honors and served in World War I as a lieutenant colonel, commanding an artillery unit. But above and beyond the specific occasion, Blum was inspired by a profound disquiet. He immersed himself in his memories to delight in the freshness of his own youth and commemorate vanished comrades in arms. But the true, hidden endeavor implicit in this labor of memory was one that he clearly felt unable to master.

To this day it seems an impossible endeavor: to find a convincing explanation for the hatred, intransigent and immune to reason and scruple, with which the right persecuted Dreyfus even after his innocence became evident. Blum powerfully depicts the Dreyfusards’ incredulous astonishment, their stupefaction when, quite early on, they seemed to have reached their goal, convinced that now that the truth was on the table, the nation would allow its “lost son” a triumphant return from exile—and instead found themselves faced with a wall of cold resistance. 

Reflecting on the anti-Dreyfusards’ boundless aggression, Blum gingerly asked: “What drove them? What guided them? Even today, 35 years later, as I reflect on this past with mature, cool rationality, it seems to me that I still lack certain elements for a solution to this question.” In 1935, this question was posed in the long shadow of the catastrophe whose distant overture the Dreyfus affair would prove to have been - with its dark menace, it posed once again the shabby, monstrous, manifest, and unfathomable riddle of nationalist furor and anti-Semitism. One shivers to read the first mention of the Dreyfus affair in the diaries of Harry Graf Kessler. The entry from Jan. 28, 1898, records remarks made by the art historian Julius Meier-Graefe, including the following: that the Dreyfus affair was “a little practical lesson in political science expressly for the Jews.”.. read more:

More on the Dreyfus affair