Hannah Arendt and Christopher Hitchens on the Significance of the Dreyfus Affair in the Rise of 20th Century Fascism.

At 16 I lay on a beach in Nice amazed and amused as a rackety old white vehicle drove past shouting national front slogans through a loud speaker. The world of 2012 was one in which the liberal centrism seemed like the hegemonic norm for our life time and the National Front sounded like the French equivalent of the ridiculed British National Party whose main role seemed to be making content for Have I Got News For You.

2012 was a different place. Barack Obama was president of the United States of America beating John McCain in 2010. In 2012 the socialist candidate Francoise Hollande had beaten Nicolas Sarkozy, and Marine LaPenn secured just 18% of the vote. The United Kingdom housed three modern and politically ambitious parties with David Cameron and Nick Clegg in office. Brexit and Donald Trump were irrelevant.

Almost a decade later it seems we have, in a fit of absent-mindedness, wasted political energy over Brexit and allowed that evil idiot Donald Trump to become president of the United States of America, then giving support and confidence to anti-democratic movements in Brazil and throughout Europe. In the face of Chinese hegemony, the fourth industrial revolution and climate change, these movements are both useless and dangerous threatening our mortality and the mortality of our planet.

The greatest threat we face in the next 12 months is the French election where the far-right offer the greatest opposition to Macron. Eric Zemmour, likely the main opposition to Macron in 2022, has made comments that are tantamount to holocaust denial. He has lied saying that the French collaborationist leader Phillipe Petain wasn’t complicit in the holocaust and that the Dreyfus affair is ‘murky’. Zemmour’s comments demonstrate that he is an existential threat towards western liberal democracy with his popularity emboldening far-right populism throughout the world. Two of my favourite teachers Hannah Arendt and Christopher Hitchens have written well on the historical significance of the Dreyfus Affair thus contextualising the political danger of Zemmour. Below I have published extracts from Hannah Arendt’s The Origin’s of Totalitarianism (1951) and Christopher Hitchens’ Letter to a Young Contrarian (2001).

Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism


The Dreyfus Affair

IT HAPPENED in France at the end of the year 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer of the French General Staff, was accused and convicted of espionage for Germany. The verdict, lifelong deportation to Devil’s Island, was unanimously adopted. The trial took place behind closed doors. Out of an allegedly voluminous dossier of the prosecution, only the so-called “bordereau” was shown. This was a letter, supposedly in Dreyfus’ and writing, addressed to the German military attache, Schwartzkoppen. In July, 1895, Colonel Picquart became head of the Information Division of the General Staff. In May, 1 896, he told the chief of the General Staff, Boisdeffre, that he had convinced himself of Dreyfus’ innocence and of the guilt of another officer, Major Walsin-Esterhazy. Six months later, Picquart was removed to a dangerous post in Tunisia. At the same time, Bernard Lazare, on behalf of Dreyfus’ brothers, published the first pamphlet of the Affair : Une erreur judiciaire; Ia verite sur /’affaire Dreyfus. In June, 1897, Picquart informed Scheurer-Kestner, Vice-President of the Senate, of the facts of the trials and of Dreyfus’ innocence. In November, 1897, Clemenceau started his fight for re-examination of the case. Four weeks later Zola joined the ranks of the Dreyfusards. /’Accuse was published by Clemenceau’s newspaper in January, 1898. At the same time, Picquart was arrested. Zola, tried for calumny of the army, was convicted by both the ordinary tribunal and the Court of Appeal. In August, 1898, Esterhazy was dishonorably discharged because of embezzlement. He at once hurried to a British journalist and told him that he-and not Dreyfus-was the author of the “bordereau,” which he had forged in Dreyfus’ handwriting on orders from Colonel Sandherr, his superior and former chief of the counterespionage division. A few days later Colonel Henry, another member of the same department, confessed forgeries of several other pieces of the secret Dreyfus dossier and committed suicide. Thereupon the Court of Appeal ordered an investigation of the Dreyfus case.

In June, 1899, the Court of Appeal annulled the original sentence against Dreyfus of 1894. The revision trial took place in Rennes in August. The sentence was made ten years’ imprisonment because of “alleviating circumstances.” A week later Dreyfus was pardoned by the President of the Republic. The World Exposition opened in Paris in April, 1900. In May, when the success of the Exposition was guaranteed, the Chamber of Deputies, with overwhelming majority, voted against any further revision of the Dreyfus case. In December of the same year all trials and lawsuits connected with the affair were liquidated through a general amnesty.

In 1903 Dreyfus asked for a new revision. His petition was neglected until 1906, when Clemenceau had become Prime Minister. In July, 1906, the Court of Appeal annulled the sentence of Rennes and acquitted Dreyfus of all charges. The Court of Appeal, however, had no authority to acquit; it should have ordered a new trial. Another revision before a military tribunal would, in all probability and despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of Dreyfus, have led to a new conviction. Dreyfus, therefore, was never acquitted in accordance with the law, and the Dreyfus case was never really settled. The reinstatement of the accused was never recognized by the French people, and the passions that were originally aroused never entire1y subsided. As late as 1908, nine years after the pardon and two years after Dreyfus was cleared, when, at Clemenceau’s instance, the body of Emile Zola was transferred to the Pantheon, Allred Dreyfus was openly attacked in the street. A Paris court acquitted his assailant and indicated that it “dissented” from the decision which had cleared Dreyfus.

Even stranger is the fact that neither the first nor the second World War has been able to bury the affair in oblivion. At the behest of the Action Francaise, the Precis de l’Affaire Dreyfus was republished in 1924 and has since been the standard reference manual of the Anti-Dreyfusards. At the premiere of L’Affaire Dreyfus (a play written by Rehfisch and Wilhelm Herzog under the pseudonym of Rene Kestner) in 1931, the atmosphere of the nineties still prevailed with quarrels in the auditorium, stink-bombs in the stalls, the shock troops of the Action Francaise standing around to strike terror into actors, audience and bystanders. Nor did the governmentLaval’s government-act in any way differently than its predecessors some thirty years before: it gladly admitted it was unable to guarantee a single undisturbed performance, thereby providing a new late triumph for the AntiDreyfusards. The play had to be suspended. When Dreyfus died in 1935, the general press was afraid to touch the issue while the leftist papers still spoke in the old terms of Dreyfus’ innocence and the right wing of Dreyfus’ guilt. Even today, though to a lesser extent, the Dreyfus Affair is still a kind of shibboleth in French politics. When Petain was condemned the influential provincial newspaper Voix du Nord (of Lille) linked the Petain case to the Dreyfus case and maintained that “the country remains divided as it was after the Dreyfus case,” because the verdict of the court could not settle a political conflict and “bring to all the French peace of mind or of heart.”

While the Dreyfus Affair in its broader political aspects belongs to the twentieth century, the Dreyfus case, the various trials of the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, are quite typical of the nineteenth century, when men followed legal proceedings so keenly because each instance afforded a test of the century’s greatest achievement, the complete impartiality of the law. It is characteristic of the period that a miscarriage of justice could arouse such political passions and inspire such an endless succession of trials and retrials, not to speak of duels and fisticuffs. The doctrine of equality before the law was still so firmly implanted in the conscience of the civilized world that a single miscarriage of justice could provoke public indignation from Moscow to New York. Nor was anyone, except in France itself, so “modern” as to associate the matter with political issues. The wrong done to a single Jewish officer in France was able to draw from the rest of the world a more vehement and united reaction than all the persecutions of German Jews a generation later. Even Czarist Russia could accuse France of barbarism while in Germany members of the Kaiser’s entourage would openly express an indignation matched only by the radical press of the 1930’s.

The dramatis personae of the case might have stepped out of the pages of Balzac: on the one hand, the class-conscious generals frantically covering up for the members of their own clique and, on the other, their antagonist, Picquart, with his calm, clear-eyed and slightly ironical honesty. Beside them stand the nondescript crowd of the men in Parliament, each terrified of what his neighbor might know; the President of the Republic, notorious patron of the Paris brothels, and the examining magistrates, living solely for the sake of social contacts. Then there is Dreyfus himself, actually a parvenu, continually boasting to his colleagues of his family fortune which he spent on women; his brothers, pathetically offering their entire fortune, and then reducing the offer to 150,000 francs, for the release of their kinsman, never quite sure whether they wished to make a sacrifice or simply to suborn the General Staff; and the lawyer Demange, really convinced of his client’s innocence but basing the defense on an issue of doubt so as to save himself from attacks and injury to his personal interests. Lastly, there is the adventurer Esterhazy, he of the ancient escutcheon, so utterly bored by this bourgeois world as to seek relief equally in heroism and knavery. An erstwhile second lieutenant of the Foreign Legion, he impressed his colleagues greatly by his superior boldness and impudence. Always in trouble, he lived by serving as duelist’s second to Jewish officers and by blackmailing their wealthy coreligionists. Indeed, he would avail himself of the good offices of the chief rabbi himself in order to obtain the requisite introductions. Even in his ultimate downfall he remained true to the Balzac tradition. Not treason nor wild dreams of a great orgy in which a hundred thousand besotted Prussian Uhlans would run berserk through Paris ‘ but a paltry embezzlement of a relative’s cash sent him to his doom. And what shall we say of Zola, with his impassioned moral fervor, his somewhat empty pathos, and his melodramatic declaration, on the eve of his flight to London, that he had heard the voice of Dreyfus begging him to bring this sacrifice?

All this belongs typically to the nineteenth century and by itself would never have survived two World Wars. The old-time enthusiasm of the mob for Esterhazy, like its hatred of Zola, have long since died down to embers, but so too has that fiery passion against aristocracy and clergy wh:ch had once inflamed Jaures and which had alone secured the final release of Dreyfus. As the Cagoulard affair was to show, officers of the General Staff no longer had to fear the wrath of the people when they hatched their plots for a coup d’etat. Since the separation of Church and State, France, though certainly no longer clerical-minded, had lost a great deal of her anticlerical feeling, just as the Catholic Church had itself lost much of its political aspiration. Petain’s attempt to convert the republic into a Catholic state was blocked by the utter indifference of the people and by the lower clergy’s hostility to clerico-fascism.

The Dreyfus Affair in its political implications could survive because two of its elements grew in importance during the twentieth century. The first is hatred of the Jews; the second, suspicion of the republic itself, of Parliament, and the state machine. The larger section of the public could still go on thinking the latter, rightly or wrongly, under the influence of the Jews and the power of the banks. Down to our times the term Anti-Dreyfusard can still serve as a recognized name for all that is antirepublican, antidemocratic, and antisemitic. A few years ago it still comprised everything, from the monarchism of the Action Francaise to the National Bolshevism of Doriot and the social Fascism of Deal. It was not, however, to these Fascist groups, numerically unimportant as they were, that the Third Republic owed its collapse. On the contrary, the plain, if paradoxical, truth is that their influence was never so slight as at the moment when the collapse actually took place.

What made France fall was the fact that she had no more true Dreyfusards, no one who believed that democracy and freedom, equality and justice could any longer be defended or realized under the republic.’ At long last the republic fell like overripe fruit into the lap of that old Anti-Dreyfusard clique which had always formed the kernel of her army, and this at a time when she had few enemies but almost no friends. How little the Petain clique was a product of German Fascism was shown clearly by its slavish adherence to the old formulas of forty years before.

While Germany shrewdly truncated her and ruined her entire economy through the demarcation line, France’s leaders in Vichy tinkered with the old Barres formula of “autonomous provinces,” thereby crippling her all the more. They introduced anti-Jewish legislation more promptly than any Quisling, boasting all the while that they had no need to import antisemitism from Germany and that their law governing the Jews differed in essential points from that of the Reich. They sought to mobilize the Catholic clergy against the Jews, only to give proof that the priests have not only lost their political influence but are not actually antisemites. On the contrary, it was the very bishops and synods which the Vichy regime wanted to turn once more into political powers who voiced the most emphastic protest against the persecution of the Jews.

Not the Dreyfus case with its trials but the Dreyfus Affair in its entirety offers a foregleam of the twentieth century. As Bernanos pointed out in “The Dreyfus affair already belongs to that tragic era which certainly was not ended by the last war. The affair reveals the same inhuman character, preserving amid the welter of unbridled passions and the flames of hate an inconceivably cold and callous heart.” Certainly it was not in France that the true sequel to the affair was to be found, but the reason why France fell an easy prey to Nazi aggression is not far to seek. Hitler’s propaganda spoke a language long familiar and never quite forgotten. That the “Caesarism” of the Action Francaise and the nihilistic nationalism of Barres and Maurras never succeeded in their original form is due to a variety of causes, all of them negative. They lacked social vision and were unable to translate into popular terms those mental phantasmagoria which their contempt for the intellect had engendered.

We are here concerned essentially with the political bearings of the Dreyfus Affair and not with the legal aspects of the case. Sharply outlined in it are a number of traits characteristic of the twentieth century. Faint and barely distinguishable during the early decades of the century, they have at last emerged into full daylight and stand revealed as belonging to the main trends of modern times. After thirty years of a mild, purely social form of anti-Jewish discrimination, it had become a little difficult to remember that the cry, “Death to the Jews,” had echoed through the length and breadth of a modern state once before when its domestic policy was crystallized in the issue of antisemitism. For thirty years the old legends of world conspiracy had been no more than the conventional stand-by of the tabloid press and the dime novel and the world did not easily remember that not long ago, but at a time when the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were still unknown, a whole nation had been racking its brains trying to determine whether “secret Rome” or “secret Judah” held the reins of world politics.

Similarly, the vehement and nihilistic philosophy of spiritual self-hatred suffered something of an eclipse when a world at temporary peace with itself yielded no crop of outstanding criminals to justify the exaltation of brutality and unscrupulousness. The Jules Guerins had to wait nearly forty years before the atmosphere was ripe again for quasi-military storm troops. The declasses, produced through nineteenth-century economy, had to grow numerically until they were strong minorities of the nations, before that coup d’etat, which had remained but a grotesque plot  in France, could achieve reality in Germany almost without effort. The prelude to Nazism was played over the entire European stage. The Dreyfus case, therefore, is more than a bizarre, imperfectly solved “crime,” an affair of staff officers disguised by false beards and dark glasses, peddling their stupid forgeries by night in the streets of Paris. Its hero is not Dreyfus but Clemenceau and it begins not with the arrest of a Jewish staff officer but with the Panama scandal.

IV: The People and the Mob

IF IT IS the common error of our time to imagine that propaganda can achieve all things and that a man can be talked into anything provided the talking is sufficiently loud and cunning, in that period it was commonly believed that the “voice of the people was the voice of God,” and that the task of a leader was, as Clemence au so scornfully expressed it, to follow that voice shrewdly. Both views go back to the same fundamental error of regarding the mob as identical with rather than as a caricature of the people

The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society. While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob always will shout for the “strong man,” the “great leader.” For the mob hates society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented. Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob. One of the more intelligent leaders of the Anti-Dreyfusards, Deroulede, clamored for a “Republic through plebiscite.”

High society and politicians of the Third Republic had produced the French mob in a series of scandals and public frauds. They now felt a tender sentiment of parental familiarity with their offspring, a feeling mixed with admiration and fear. The least society could do for its offspring was to protect it verbally. While the mob actually stormed Jewish shops and assailed Jews in the streets, the language of high society made real, passionate violence look like harmless child’s play. The most important of the contemporary documents in this respect is the “Henry Memorial” and the various solutions it proposed to the Jewish question: Jews were to be torn to pieces like Marsyas in the Greek myth; Reinach ought to be boiled alive ; Jews should be stewed in oil or pierced to death with needles; they should be “circumcised up to the neck.” One group of officers expressed great impatience to try out a new type of gun on the 100,000 Jews in the country. Among the subscribers were more than 1 ,000 officers, including four generals in active service, and the minister of war, Mercier. The relatively large number of intellectuals and even of Jews in the list is surprising. The upper classes knew that the mob was flesh of their flesh and blood of their blood. Even a Jewish historian of the time, although he had seen with his own eyes that Jews are no longer safe when the mob rules the street, spoke with secret admiration of the “great collective movement.” This only shows how deeply most Jews were rooted in a society which was attempting to eliminate them.

If Bernanos, with reference to the Dreyfus Affair, describes antisemitism as a major political concept, he is undoubtedly right with respect to the mob. It had been tried out previously in Berlin and Vienna, by Ahlwardt and Stoecker, by Schoenerer and Lueger, but nowhere was its efficacy more clearly proved than in France. There can be no doubt that in the eyes of the mob the Jews came to serve as an object lesson for all the things they detested. If they hated society they could point to the way in which the Jews were tolerated within it; and if they hated the government they could point to the way in which the Jews had been protected by or were identifiable with the state. While it is a mistake to assume that the mob preys only on Jews, the Jews must be accorded first place among its favorite victims.

Excluded as it is from society and political representation, the mob turns of necessity to extra parliamentary action. Moreover, it is inclined to seek the real forces of political life in those movements and influences which are hidden from view and work behind the scenes. There can be no doubt that during the nineteenth century Jewry fell into this category, as did Freemasonry (especially in Latin countries) and the Jesuits.” It is, of course, utterly untrue that any of these groups really constituted a secret society bent on dominating the world by means of a gigantic conspiracy. Nevertheless, it is true that their influence, however overt it may have been, was exerted beyond the formal realm of politics, operating on a large scale in lobbies, lodges, and the confessional. Ever since the French Revolution these three groups have shared the doubtful honor of being, in the eyes of the European mob, the pivotal point of world politics. During the Dreyfus crisis each was able to exploit this popular notion by hurling at the other charges of conspiring to world domination. The slogan, “secret Judah,” is due, no doubt, to the inventiveness of certain Jesuits, who chose to see in the first Zionist Congress (1897) the core of a Jewish world conspiracy. Similarly, the concept of “secret Rome” is due to the anticlerical Freemasons and perhaps to the indiscriminate slanders of some Jews as well.

The fickleness of the mob is proverbial, as the opponents of Dreyfus were to learn to their sorrow when, in 1899, the wind changed and the small group of true republicans, headed by Clemenceau, suddenly realized, with mixed feelings, that a section of the mob had rallied to their side. In some eyes the two parties to the great controversy now seemed like “two rival gangs of charlatans squabbling for recognition by the rabble” while actually the voice of the Jacobin Clemenceau had succeeded in bringing back one part of the French people to their greatest tradition. Thus the great scholar, Emile Duclaux, could write : “In this drama played before a whole people and so worked up by the press that the whole nation ultimately took part in it, we see the chorus and anti-chorus of the ancient tragedy railing at each other. The scene is France and the theater is the world.”

Led by the Jesuits and aided by the mob the army at last stepped into the fray confident of victory. Counterattack from the civil power had been effectively forestalled. The antisemitic press had stopped men’s mouths by publishing Reinach’s lists of the deputies involved in the Panama scandal. Everything suggested an effortless triumph. The society and the politicians of the Third Republic, it’s scandals and affairs, had created a new class of dec/asses; they could not be expected to fight against their own product; on the contrary, they were to adopt the language and outlook of the mob. Through the army the Jesuits would gain the upper hand over the corrupt civil power and the way would thus be paved for a bloodless coup d’etat.

So long as there was only the Dreyfus family trying with bizarre methods to rescue their kinsman from Devil’s Island, and so long as there were only Jews concerned about their standing in the antisemitic salons and the still more antisemitic army, everything certainly pointed that way. Obviously there was no reason to expect an attack on the army or on society from that quarter. Was not the sole desire of the Jews to continue to be accepted in society and suffered in the armed forces? No one in military or civilian circles needed to suffer a sleepless night on their account. It was disconcerting, therefore, when it transpired that in the intelligence office of the General Staff there sat a high officer, who, though possessed of a good Catholic background, excellent military prospects, and the “proper” degree of antipathy toward the Jews, had yet not adopted the principle that the end justifies the means. Such a man, utterly divorced from social clannishness or professional ambition, was Picquart, and of this simple, quiet, politically disinterested spirit the General Staff was soon to have its fill. Picquart was no hero and certainly no martyr. He was simply that common type of citizen with an average interest in public affairs who in the hour of danger (though not a minute earlier) stands up to defend his country in the same unquestioning way as he discharges his daily duties. Nevertheless, the cause only grew serious when, after several delays and hesitations, Clemenceau at last became convinced that Dreyfus was innocent and the republic in danger. At the beginning of the struggle only a handful of well-known writers and scholars rallied to the cause, Zola, Anatole France, E. Duclaux, Gabriel Monod, the historian, and Lucien Herr, librarian of the Ecole Normale. To these must be added the small and then insignificant circle of young intellectuals who were later to make h istory in the Cahiers de Ia quinzaine. That, however, was the full roster of Clemenceau’s allies. There was no political group, not a single politician of repute, ready to stand at his side. The greatness of Clemenceau’s approach lies in the fact that it was not directed against a particular miscarriage of justice, but was based upon such “abstract” ideas as justice, liberty, and civic virtue. It was based, in short, on those very concepts which had formed the staple of old-time Jacobin patriotism and against which much mud and abuse had already been hurled. As time wore on and Clemenceau continued, unmoved by threats and disappointments, to enunciate the same truths and to embody them in demands, the more “concrete” nationalists lost ground. Followers of men like Barres, who had accused the supporters of Dreyfus of losing themselves in a “welter of metaphysics,” came to realize that the abstractions of the “Tiger” were actually nearer to political realities than the limited intelligence of ruined businessmen or the barren traditionalism of fatalistic intellectuals. Where the concrete approach of the realistic nationalists eventually led them is illustrated by the priceless story of how Charles Maurras had “the honor and pleasure,” after the defeat of France, of falling in during his flight to the south with a female astrologer who interpreted to him the political meaning of recent events and advised him to collaborate with the Nazis.

Although antisemitism had undoubtedly gained ground during the three years following the arrest of Dreyfus, before the opening of Clemenceau’s campaign, and although the anti-Jewish press had attained a circulation comparable to that of the chief papers, the streets had remained quiet. It was only when Clemenceau began his articles in L’Aurore, when Zola published his J’Accuse, and when the Rennes tribunal set off the dismal succession of trials and retrials that the mob stirred into action. Every stroke of the Dreyfusards (who were known to be a small minority) was followed by a more or less violent disturbance on the streets. The organization of the mob by the General Staff was remarkable. The trail leads straight from the army to the Libre Parole which, directly or indirectly, through its articles or the personal intervention of its editors, mobilized students, monarchists, adventurers, and plain gangsters and pushed them into the streets. If Zola uttered a word, at once his windows were stoned. If Scheurer-Kestner wrote to the colonial minister, he was at once beaten up on the streets while the papers made scurrilous attacks on his private life. And all accounts agree that if Zola, when once charged, had been acquitted he would never have left the courtroom alive.

The cry, “Death to the Jews,” swept the country. Lyon, Rennes, Nantes, Tours, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrant, and Marsellle–everywhere, in fact-antisemitic riots broke cut and were invariably traceable to the same source. Popular indignation broke out everywhere on the same day and at precisely the same hour. Under the leadership of Guerin the mob took on a military complexion. Antisemitic shock troops appeared on the streets and made certain that every pro-Dreyfus meeting should end in bloodshed. The complicity of the police was everywhere patent.

The most modern figure on the side of the Anti-Dreyfusards was probably Jules Guerin. Ruined in business, he had begun his political career as a police stool pigeon, and acquired that flair for discipline and organization which invariably marks the underworld. This he was later able to divert into political channels, becoming the founder and head of the Ligue Antisemite. In him high society found its first criminal hero. In its adulation of Guerin bourgeois society showed clearly that in its code of morals and ethics it had broken for good with its own standards. Behind the Ligue stood two members of the aristocracy, the Duke of Orleans and the Marquis de Mores. The latter had lost his fortune in America and became famous for organizing the butchers of Paris into a manslaughtering brigade.

Most eloquent of these modern tendencies was the farcical siege of the so-called Fort Chabrol. It was here, in this first of “Brown Houses,” that the cream of the Ligue Antisemite foregathered when the police decided at last to arrest their leader. The installations were the acme of technical perfection. “The windows were protected by iron shutters. There was a system of electric bells and telephones from cellar to roof. Five yards or so behind the massive entrance, itself always kept locked and bolted, there was a tall grill of cast iron. On the right, between the grill and the main entrance was a small door, likewise iron-plated, behind which sentries, handpicked from the butcher legions, mounted guard day and night.” Max Regis, instigator of the Algerian pogroms, is another who strikes a modern note. It was this youthful Regis who once called upon a cheering Paris rabble to “water the tree of freedom with the blood of the Jews.” Regis represented that section of the movement which hoped to achieve power by legal and parliamentary methods. In accordance with this program he had himself elected mayor of Algiers and utilized his office to unleash the pogroms in which several Jews were killed, Jewish women criminally assaulted and Jewish-owned stores looted. It was to him also that the polished and cultured Edouard Drumont, that most famous French antisemite, owed his seat in Parliament.

What was new in all this was not the activity of the mob; for that there were abundant precedents. What was new and surprising at the time–though all too familiar to us-was the organization of the mob and the hero-worship enjoyed by its leaders. The mob became the direct agent of that “concrete” nationalism espoused by Barres, Maurras, and Daudet, who together formed what was undoubtedly a kind of elite of the younger intellectuals. These men, who despised the people and who had themselves but recently emerged from a ruinous and decadent cult of estheticism, saw in the mob a living expression of virile and primitive “strength.” It was they and their theories which first identified the mob with the people and converted its leaders into national heroes. It was their philosophy of pessimism and their delight in doom that was the first sign of the imminent collapse of the European intelligentsia.

Even Clemenceau was not immune from the temptation to identify the mob with the people. What made him especially prone to this error was the consistently ambiguous attitude of the Labor party toward the question of “abstract” justice. No party, including the socialists, was ready to make an issue of justice per se, “to stand, come what may, for justice, the sole unbreakable bond of union between civilized men.” The socialists stood for the interests of the workers, the opportunists for those of the liberal bourgeoisie, the coalitionists for those of the Catholic higher classes, and the radicals for those of the anticlerical petty bourgeoisie. The socialists had the great advantage of speaking in the name of a homogeneous and united class. Unlike the bourgeois parties they did not represent a society which had split into innumerable cliques and cabals. Nevertheless, they were concerned primarily and essentially with the interests of their class. They were not troubled by any higher obligation toward human solidarity and had no conception of what communal life really meant. Typical of their attitude was the observation of Jules Guesde, the counterpart of Jaures in the French party, that “law and honor are mere words.”

The nihilism which characterized the nationalfsts was no monopoly of the Anti-Dreyfusards. On the contrary, a large proportion of the socialists and many of those who championed Dreyfus, like Guesde, spoke the same language. If the Catholic La Croix remarked that “it is no longer a question whether Dreyfus is innocent or guilty but only of who will win, the friends of the army or its foes,” the corresponding sentiment might well have been voiced, mutatis mutandis, by the partisans of Dreyfus. Not only the mob but a considerable section of the French people declared itself, at best, quite uninterested in whether one group of the population was or was not to be excluded from the law.

As soon as the mob began its campaign of terror against the partisans of Dreyfus, it found the path open before it. As Clemenceau attests, the workers of Paris cared little for the whole affair. If the various elements of the bourgeoisie squabbled among themselves, that, they thought, scarcely affected their own interests. “With the open consent of the people,” wrote Clemenceau, “they have proclaimed before the world the failure of their ‘democracy.’ Through them a sovereign people shows itself thrust from its throne of justice, shorn of its infallible majesty. For there is no denying that this evil has befallen us with the full complicity of the people itself. . . The people is not God. Anyone could have foreseen that this new divinity would some day topple to his fall. A collective tyrant, spread over the length and breadth of the land, is no more acceptable than a single tyrant ensconced upon his throne.”

At last Clemenceau convinced Jaures that an infringement of the rights of one man was an infringement of the rights of all. But in this he was successful only because the wrongdoers happened to be the inveterate enemies of the people ever since the Revolution, namely, the aristocracy and the clergy. It was against the rich and the clergy, not for the republic, not for justice and freedom that the workers finally took to the streets. True, both the speeches of Jaures and the articles of Clemenceau are redolent of the old revolutionary passion for human rights. True, also, that this passion was strong enough to rally the people to the struggle, but first they had to be convinced that not only justice and the honor of the republic were at stake but also their own class “interests.” As it was, a large number of socialists, both inside and outside the country, still regarded it as a mistake to meddle (as they put it) in the internecine quarrels of the bourgeoisie or to bother about saving the republic.

The first to wean the workers, at least partially, from this mood of indifference was that great lover of the people, Emile Zola. In his famous indictment of the republic he was also, however, the first to deflect from the presentation of precise political facts and to yield to the passions of the mob by raising the bogy of “secret Rome.” This was a note which Clemenceau adopted only reluctantly, though Jaures did with enthusiasm. The real achievement of Zola, which is hard to detect from his pamphlets, consists in the resolute and dauntless courage with which this man, whose life and works had exalted the people to a point “bordering on idolatry,” stood up to challenge, combat, and finally conquer the masses, in whom, like Clemenceau, he could all the time scarcely distinguish the mob from the people. “Men have been found to resist the most powerful monarchs and to refuse to bow down before them, but few indeed have been found to resist the crowd, to stand up alone before misguided masses, to face their implacable frenzy without weapons and with folded arms to dare a no when a yes is demanded. Such a man was Zola!”

Scarcely had j’Accuse appeared when the Paris socialists held their first meeting and passed a resolution calling for a revision of the Dreyfus case. But only five days later some thirty-two socialist officials promptly came out with a declaration that the fate of Dreyfus, “the class enemy,” was no concern of theirs. Behind this declaration stood large elements of the party in Paris. Although a split in its ranks continued throughout the Affair, the party numbered enough Dreyfusards to prevent the Ligue Antisemite from thenceforth controlling the streets. A socialist meeting even branded antisemitism “a new form of reaction.” Yet a few months later when the parliamentary elections took place, Jaures was not returned, and shortly afterwards, when Cavaignac, the minister of war, treated the Chamber to a speech attacking Dreyfus and commending the army as indispensable, the delegates resolved, with only two dissenting votes, to placard the walls of Paris with the text of that address. Similarly, when the great Paris strike broke out in October of the same year, Munster, the German ambassador, was able reliably and confidentially to inform Berlin that “as far as the broad masses are concerned, this is in no sense a political issue. The workers are simply out for higher wages and these they arc bound to get in the end. As for the Dreyfus case, they have never bothered their heads about it.”

Who then, in broad terms, were the supporters of Dreyfus? Who were the 300,000 Frenchmen who so eagerly devoured Zola’s J’Accuse and who followed religiously the editorials of Clemenceau? Who were the men who finally succeeded in splitting every class, even every family, in France into opposing factions over the Dreyfus issue? The answer is that they formed no party or homogeneous group. Admittedly they were recruited more from the lower than from the upper classes, as they comprised, characteristically enough, more physicians than lawyers or civil servants. By and large, however, they were a mixture of diverse clements: men as far apart as Zola and Peguy or Jaurcs and Picquart, men who on the morrow would part company and go their several ways. “They come from political parties and religious communities who have nothing in common, who are even in conflict with each other… Those men do not know each other. They have fought and on occasion will fight again. Do not deceive yourselves; those are the ‘elite’ of the French democracy.”

Had Clemenccau possessed enough self-confidence at that time to consider only those who heeded him the true people of France, he would not have fallen prey to that fatal pride which marked the rest of his career. Out of his experiences in the Dreyfus Affair grew his despair of the people, his contempt for men, finally his belief that he and he alone would be able to save the republic. He could never stoop to play the claque to the antics of the mob. Therefore, once he began to identify the mob with the people, he did indeed cut the ground from under his feet, and forced himself into that grim aloofness which thereafter distinguished him.

The disunity of the French people was apparent in each family. Characteristically enough, it found political expression only in the ranks of the Labor party. All others, as well as all parliamentary groups, were solidly against Dreyfus at the beginning of the campaign for a retrial. All this means, however, is that the bourgeois parties no longer represented the true feelings of the electorate, for the same disunity that was so patent among the socialists obtained among almost all sections of the populace. Everywhere a minority existed which took up Clemenceau’s plea for justice, and this heterogeneous minority made up the Dreyfusards. Their fight against the army and the corrupt complicity of the republic which backed it was the dominating factor in French internal politics from the end of 1897 until the opening of the Exposition in 1900. It also exerted an appreciable influence on the nation’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, this entire struggle, which was to result eventually in at least a partial triumph, took place exclusively outside of Parliament. In that so-called representative assembly, comprising as it did a full 600 delegates drawn from every shade and color both of labor and of the bourgeoisie, there were in 1898 but two supporters of Dreyfus and one of them, Jaures, was not re-elected.

The disturbing thing about the Dreyfus Affair is that it was not only the mob which had to work along extra-parliamentary lines. The entire minority, fighting as it was for Parliament, democracy, and the republic, was likewise constrained to wage its battle outside the Chamber. The only difference between the two elements was that while the one used the streets, the other resorted to the press and the courts. In other words, the whole of France’s political life during the Dreyfus crisis was carried on outside Parliament. Nor do the several parliamentary votes in favor of the army and against a retrial in any way invalidate this conclusion. It is significant to remember that when parliamentary feeling began to turn, shortly before the opening of the Paris Exposition, Minister of War Gallifet was able to declare truthfully that this in no wise represented the mood of the country. On the other hand the vote: against a retrial must not be construed as an endorsement of the coup d’etat policy which the Jesuits and certain radical antisemites were trying to introduce with the help of the army. It was due, rather, to plain resistance against any change in the status quo. As a matter of fact, an equally overwhelming majority of the Chamber would have rejected a military clerical dictatorship.

Those members of Parliament who had learned to regard politics as the professional representation of vested interests were naturally anxious to preserve that state of affairs upon which their “calling” and their profits depended. The Dreyfus case revealed, moreover, that the people likewise wanted their representatives to look after their own special interests rather than to function as statesmen. It was distinctly unwise to mention the case in election propaganda. Had this been due solely to antisemitism the situation of the Dreyfusards would certainly have been hopeless. In point of fact, during the elections they already enjoyed considerable support among the working class. Nevertheless even those who sided with Dreyfus did not care to see this political question dragged into the elections. It was, indeed, because he insisted on making it the pivot of his campaign that J aures lost his seat.

If Clemenceau and the Dreyfusards succeeded in winning over large sections of all classes to the demand of a retrial, the Catholics reacted as a bloc; among them there was no divergence of opinion. What the Jesuits did in steering the aristocracy and the General Staff, was done for the middle and lower classes by the Assumptionists, whose organ, La Croix, enjoyed the largest circulation of all Catholic journals in France. Both centered their agitation against the republic around the Jews. Both represented themselves as defenders of the army and the commonweal against the machinations of “international Jewry.” More striking, however, than the attitude of the Catholics in France was the fact that the Catholic press throughout the world was solidly against Dreyfus. “All these journalists marched and are still marching at the word of command of their superiors.” As the case progressed, it became increasingly clear that the agitation against the Jews in France followed an international line. Thus the Civiltii Cattolica declared that Jews must be excluded from the nation everywhere, in France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Catholic politicians were among the first to realize that latter-day power politics must be based on the interplay of colonial ambitions. They were therefore the first to link antisemitism to imperialism, declaring that the Jews were agents of England and thereby identifying antagonism toward them with Anglophobia. The Dreyfus case, in which Jews were the central figures, thus afforded them a welcome opportunity to play their game. If England had taken Egypt from the French the Jews were to blame, while the movement for an Anglo-American alliance was due, of course, to “Rothschild imperialism.”  That the Catholic game was not confined to France became abundantly clear once the curtain was rung down on that particular scene. At the close of 1899, when Dreyfus had been pardoned and when French public opinion had turned round through fear of a projected boycott of the Exposition, only an interview with Pope Leo XIII was needed to stop the spread of antisemitism throughout the world. Even in the United States, where championship of Dreyfus was particularly enthusiastic among the non-Catholics, it was possible to detect in the Catholic press after 1897 a marked resurgence of antisemitic feeling which, however, subsided overnight following the interview with Leo XIII. The “grand strategy” of using antisemitism as an instrument of Catholicism had proved abortive.

V: The Jews and the Dreyfusards

THE CASE of the unfortunate Captain Dreyfus had shown the world that in every Jewish nobleman and multimillionaire there still remained something of the old-time pariah, who has no country, for whom human rights do not exist, and whom society would gladly exclude from its privileges. No one, however, found it more difficult to grasp this fact than the emancipated Jews themselves. “It isn’t enough for them,” wrote Bernard Lazare, “to reject any solidarity with their foreign-born brethren; they have also to go charging them with all the evils which their own cowardice engenders. They are not content with being more jingoist than the native Frenchmen; like all emancipated Jews everywhere, they have also of their own volition broken all ties of solidarity. Indeed, they go so far that for the three dozen or so men in France who are ready to defend one of their martyred brethren you can find some thousands ready to stand guard over Devil’s Island, alongside the most rabid patriots of the country.” Precisely because they had played so small a part in the political development of the lands in which they lived, they had come, during the course of the century, to make a fetish of legal equality. To them it was the unquestionable basis of eternal security. When the Dreyfus Affair broke out to warn them that their security was menaced, they were deep in the process of a disintegrating assimilation, through which their Jack of political wisdom was intensified rather than otherwise. They were rapidly assimilating themselves to those elements of society in which all political passions arc smothered beneath the dead weight of social snobbery, big business, and hitherto unknown opportunities for profit. They hoped to get rid of the antipathy which this tendency had called forth by diverting it against their poor and as yet unassimilated immigrant brethren. Using the same tactics as Gentile society had employed against them they took pains to dissociate themselves from the so-called Ostjuden. Political antisemitism, as it had manifested itself in the pogroms of Russia and Rumania, they dismissed airily as a survival from the Middle Ages, scarcely a reality of modern politics. They could never understand that more was at stake in the Dreyfus Affair than mere social status, if only because more than mere social antisemitism had been brought to bear.

These then are the reasons why so few wholehearted supporters of Dreyfus were to be found in the ranks of French Jewry. The Jews, including the very family of the accused, shrank from starting a political fight. On just these grounds, Labori, counsel for Zola, was refused the defense before the Rennes tribunal, while Dreyfus’ second lawyer, Demange, was constrained to base his plea on the issue of doubt. It was hoped thereby to smother under a deluge of compliments any possible attack from the army or its officers. The idea was that the royal road to an acquittal was to pretend that the whole thing boiled down to the possibility of a judicial error, the victim of which just happened by chance to be a Jew. The result was a second verdict and Dreyfus, refusing to face the true issue, was induced to renounce a retrial and instead to petition for clemency, that is, to plead guilty.”” The Jews failed to see that what was involved was an organized fight against them on a political front. They therefore resisted the co-operation of men who were prepared to meet the challenge on this basis. How blind their attitude was is shown clearly by the case of Clemenceau. Clemenceau’s struggle for justice as the foundation of the stare certainly embraced the restoration of equal rights to the Jews. In an age, however, of class struggle on the one hand and rampant jingoism on the other, it would have remained a political abstraction had it not been conceived, at the same time, in actual terms of the oppressed fighting their oppressors. Clemenceau was one of the few true friends modern Jewry has known just because he recognized and proclaimed before the world that Jews were one of the oppressed peoples of Europe. The antisemite tends to see in the Jewish parvenu an upstart pariah; consequently in every huckster he fears a Rothschild and in every shnorrer a parvenu. But Clemenceau, in his consuming passion for justice, still saw the Rothschilds as members of a downtrodden people. His anguish over the national misfortune of France opened his eyes and his heart even to those “unfortunates, who pose as leaders of their people and promptly leave them in the lurch,” to those cowed and subdued elements who, in their ignorance, weakness and fear, have been so much bedazzled by admiration of the stronger as to exclude them from partnership in any active struggle and who are able to “rush to the aid of the winner” only when the battle has been won.”

VI: The Pardon and Its Significance

THAT THE Dreyfus drama was a comedy became apparent only in its final act. The deus ex machina who united the disrupted country, turned Parliament in favor of a retrial and eventually reconciled the disparate elements of the people from the extreme right to the socialists, was nothing other than the Paris Exposition of 1900. What Clemenceau’s daily editorials, Zola’s pathos, Jaures’ speeches, and the popular hatred of clergy and aristocracy had failed to achieve, namely, a change of parliamentary feeling in favor of Dreyfus, was at last accomplished by the fear of a boycott. The same Parliament that a year before had unanimously rejected a retrial, now by a twothirds majority passed a vote of censure on an anti-Dreyfus government. In July, 1 899, the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet came to power. President Loubct pardoned Dreyfus and liquidated the entire affair. The Exposition was able to open under the brightest of commercial skies and general fraternization ensued: even socialists became eligible for government posts; Millerand, the first socialist minister in Europe, received the portfolio of commerce. Parliament became the champion of Dreyfus! That was the upshot. For Clemenceau, of course, it was a defeat. To the bitter end he denounced the ambiguous pardon and the even more ambiguous amnesty. “All it has done,” wrote Zola, “is to lump together in a single stinking pardon men of honor and hoodlums. All have been thrown into one pot.” Clemenceau remained, as at the beginning, utterly alone. The socialists, above all, Jaures, welcomed both pardon and amnesty. Did it not insure them a place in the government and a more extensive representation of their special interests? A few months later, in May, 1900, when the success of the Exposition was assured, the real truth at last emerged. All these appeasement tactics were to be at the expense of the Dreyfusards. The motion for a further retrial was defeated 425 to 60, and not even Clemenceau’s own government in 1906 could change the situation; it did not dare to entrust the retrial to a normal court of law. The ( illegal) acquittal through the Court of Appeals was a compromise. But defeat for Clemenceau did not mean victory for the Church and the army. The separation of Church and State and the ban on parochial education brought to an end the political influence of Catholicism in France. Similarly, the subjection of the intelligence service to the ministry of war, i.e., to the civil authority, robbed the army of its blackmailing influence on cabinet and Chamber and deprived it of any justification for conducting police inquiries on its own account. In 1909 Drumont stood for the Academy. Once his antisemitism had been lauded by the Catholics and acclaimed by the people. Now, however, the “greatest historian since Fustel” (Lemaitre) was obliged to yield to Marcel Prevost, author of the somewhat pornographic Demi-Vierges, and the new “immortal” received the congratulations of the Jesuit Father Du Lac.9″ Even the Society of Jesus had composed its quarrel with the Third Republic. The close of the Dreyfus case marked the end of clerical antisemitism. The compromise adopted by the Third Republic cleared the defendant without granting him a regular trial, while it restricted the activities of Catholic organizations . Whereas Bernard Lazare had asked equal rights for both sides, the state had allowed one exception for the Jews and another which threatened the freedom of conscience of Catholics. The parties which were really in conflict were both placed outside the law, with the result that the Jewish question on the one hand and political Catholicism on the other were banished thenceforth from the arena of practical politics. Thus closes the only episode in which the subterranean forces of the nineteenth century enter the full light of recorded history. The only visible result was that it gave birth to the Zionist movement-the only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.

Christopher Hitchens – Letters To A Young Contrarian


I nearly hit upon the word “dissenter” just now, which might do as a definition if it were not for certain religious and sectarian connotations. The same problem arises with “freethinker.” But the latter term is probably the superior one, since it makes an essential point about thinking for oneself. The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks. The term “intellectual” was originally coined by those in France who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. They thought that they were defending an organic, harmonious and ordered society against nihilism, and they deployed this contemptuous word against those they regarded as the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound. The word hasn’t completely lost this association even now, though it is less frequently used as an insult. (And, like “Tory,” “impressionist” and “suffragette,” all of them originated as terms of abuse or scorn, it has been annexed by some of its targets and worn with pride.) One feels something of the same sense of embarrassment in claiming to be an “intellectual” as one does in purporting to be a dissident, but the figure of Emile Zola offers encouragement, and his singular campaign for justice is one of the imperishable examples of what may be accomplished by an individual.

Zola did not in fact require much intellectual capacity to mount his defense of one wronged man. He applied, first, the forensic and journalistic skills that he was used to employing for the social background of his novels. These put him in the possession of the unarguable facts. But the mere facts were not sufficient, because the anti-Dreyfusards did not base their real case on the actual guilt or innocence of the defendant. They openly maintained that, for reasons of state, it was better not to reopen the case. Such a reopening would only serve to dissipate public confidence in order and in institutions. Why take this risk at all? And why on earth take it on behalf of a Jew? The partisans of Dreyfus therefore had to face the accusation not that they were mistaken as to the facts, but that they were treacherous, unpatriotic and irreligious; accusations which tended to keep some prudent people out of the fray.

There is a saying from Roman antiquity: Fiat justitia—ruat caelum. “Do justice, and let the skies fall.” In every epoch, there have been those to argue that “greater” goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over the demands of justice. It is supposed to be an axiom of “Western” civilisation that the individual, or the truth, may not be sacrificed to hypothetical benefits such as “order.” But in point of fact, such immolations have been very common. To the extent that the ideal is at least paid lip service, this result is the outcome of individual struggles against the collective instinct for a quiet life. Emile Zola could be the pattern for any serious and humanistic radical, because he not only asserted the inalienable rights of the individual, but generalised his assault to encompass the vile role played by clericalism, by racial hatred, by militarism and by the fetishisation of “the nation” and the state. His caustic and brilliant epistolary campaign of 1897 and 1898 may be read as a curtain-raiser for most of the great contests that roiled the coming twentieth century.

People forget that, before he addressed his most celebrated letter, J’Accuse, to the president of the Republic, Zola had also issued open letters to the youth of France, and to France itself. He did not confine himself to excoriating the corrupted elite,  but held up a mirror in which public opinion could see its own ugliness reflected. To the young people he wrote, after recalling the braver days when the Latin Quarter had been ablaze with sympathy for Poland and Greece, of his disgust with the students who had demonstrated against the Dreyfusards:

Anti-Semites among our young men? They do exist then, do they? This idiotic poison has really already overthrown their intellects and corrupted their souls? What a saddening, what a disquieting element for the twentieth century which is about to dawn. A hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a hundred years after the supreme act of tolerance and emancipation, we go back to religious warfare, to the most odious and the most stupid of fanaticisms!

Describing the sick moral atmosphere, Zola used a striking image:

A shameful terror reigns, the bravest turn cowards, and no one dares say what he thinks for fear of being denounced as a traitor and a bribe-taker. The few newspapers which at first stood out for justice are now crawling in the dust before their readers . . .

He returned to this theme in his letter to the French nation, asking his fellow citizens to consider:

Are you aware that the danger lies precisely in this somber obstinacy of public opinion? A hundred newspapers repeat daily that public opinion does not wish the innocence of Dreyfus, that his guilt is necessary to the safety of the country. And do you know to what point you yourself will be guilty, should those in authority take advantage of such a sophism to stifle the truth?

Never one to be abstract in his analysis of society, Zola exposed the almost sadomasochistic relationship that existed between insecure mobs and their adulation of “strong men” and the military:

Examine your conscience. Was it in truth your Army which you wished to defend when none were attacking it? Was it not rather the sword that you felt the sudden need of extolling?

At bottom, yours is not yet the real republican blood; the sight of a plumed helmet still makes your heart beat quicker, no king can come amongst us but you fall in love with him. . . . It is not of your Army that you are thinking, but of the General who happens to have caught your fancy.

Finest of all in my opinion was Zola’s direct and measured indictment of the complicity of the Church:

And do you know where else you walk, France? You go to the Church of Rome, you return to that past of intolerance and theocracy against which the greatest of your children fought. . . . Today, the tactics of the anti-Semites are very simple. Catholicism, seeking in vain to influence the people, founded workmen’s clubs and multiplied pilgrimages; it failed to win them back or lead them again to the foot of the altar. The question seemed definitely settled, the churches remained empty, the people had lost their faith. And behold, circumstances have occurred which make it possible to infect them with an anti-Semitic fury, and having been poisoned with this virus of fanaticism, they are launched upon the streets to shout “Down with the Jews! Death to the Jews!”. . . When the people of France have been changed into fanatics and torturers, when their generosity and love of the rights of man, conquered with so much difficulty, have been rooted up out of their hearts, then no doubt God will do the rest.

This was saeva indignatio of a quality not seen since Swift himself. So that by the time Zola addressed himself, on the front page of L’Aurore, to President Felix Faure he was only completing the details of his bill of indictment, and accusing a syndicate of reactionaries of committing a double crime—that of framing an innocent man and acquitting a guilty one. (It’s always as well to remember, when considering “miscarriages” of justice, as the authorities so neutrally and quaintly like to call them, that the framing of the innocent axiomatically involves the exculpation of the guilty. This is abortion, not miscarriage.)

Read Zola with care and you will be less astonished by the follies and crimes—from Verdun to Vichy—that later overtook France, and indeed overtook an entire Europe of show trials and camps and martial parades and infallible leaders. You will also understand better why it is that the papacy, which now seems to try again almost every day, can never manage an honest or clear statement on its history with Jews, Protestants and unbelievers. And all of this can be derived from one determined and principled individual exercising his right to say no, and insisting (as Zola successfully did) on his day, not “in court” as we again too neutrally say, but in the dock.

Another observation from antiquity has it that, while courage is not in itself one of the primary virtues, it is the quality that makes the exercise of the virtues possible. Again, this removes it from the strict province of the “intellectual.” Galileo may have made a discovery that overthrew the complacent cosmology of the Church fathers, but when threatened with the instruments of torture he also made a swift recantation. The sun and the planets were, of course, unaffected by this disavowal, and the latter continued to revolve around the former whatever the Vatican said. (Galileo himself, as he finished his recantation, may or may not have murmured, “epur si muove”—“It still does move.”)

But he furnishes us with an example of objective-free inquiry, rather than of heretical courage. Others had to be courageous on his behalf, as Zola had to be brave on behalf of Dreyfus. (Incidentally, it now seems more and more certain that Zola was murdered in his bed, rather than accidentally stifled by a faulty fire and a blocked chimney; further proof that great men are most frequently not honored in their own time or country.)

It may be that you, my dear X, recognise something of yourself in these instances; a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence. If so, let us continue to correspond so that I may draw from your experience even as you flatter me by asking to draw upon mine. For the moment, do bear in mind that the cynics have a point, of a sort, when they speak of the “professional nay-sayer.” To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.

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