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Alfred Dreyfus Revisited - Part 2

Doug Garland
Doug Garland
4 min read
Alfred Dreyfus Revisited - Part 2
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The moral virtue of the king is like the wind, and that of the people is like grass: whichever way the wind blows, the grass bends. - Confucius

I wrote a well-received blog about the Dreyfus affair earlier this year (Anti-Semitism (& Government) as Cutter(s) in the Tall Poppy Syndrome -The Albert Dreyfus Affair). This post is intended to illustrate the French government's egregious behavior of cutting people down, thereby aiding in the identification of similar behaviors in other governments. I failed to mention a prominent person's egregious behavior - Édouard Drumont who wrote an influential anti-Semitic article (1886).

I also neglected an equally important TPS component in the cutting down process - the virtuous behavior of Tall Poppies Dreyfus and Émile Zola who wrote “J’accuse!” Both demonstrated courage and fortitude, qualities often identified in other TPs (see Navalny, Skripal, Prigzhin: Courage and the Tall Poppy Syndrome and Jack Ma, Fortitude, & The Tall Poppy Syndrome).

To my good fortune, The Wall Street Journal fortuitously rectified my omissions. On Feb. 23, 2024, they published Ronald C. Rosbottom's book review of Maurice Samuels' Alfred Dreyfus. Normally I would embed the article and carry on. Because this blog is also an audio, the article requires reprinting here for the listeners' sake.

‘Alfred Dreyfus’ Review: A Nation on Trial

Exiled to Devil’s Island in 1894, Dreyfus retained his confidence in French justice and refused to denounce his country.
On an autumn morning in 1894, a young French army captain walked briskly along the Seine to a meeting at the ministry of war that had been called only a couple of days before. Eager to know the reasons for such a gathering, he thought about his ambition to become a permanent member of the General Staff, where he was now an officer intern and where his expertise in military planning and engineering was respected. This captain’s name was Alfred Dreyfus, and he was a Jew.
On his arrival at General Staff headquarters, Dreyfus was stunned to be summarily accused of spying for the Germans. He was questioned for hours and arrested. The only evidence against him was a combination of forgeries and hearsay. Despite his protestations of innocence, his beloved French army would eventually find him guilty of treason and imprison him on Devil’s Island, the French penal colony off the northeast coast of South America.
For almost a century leading up to the Dreyfus Affair, the French army had shown great respect for Jewish officers. Nearly 10% of the army’s generals during Dreyfus’s time were Jewish. To most French Jews, their nation seemed exceptionally tolerant. But as Maurice Samuels makes clear in “Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair,” tolerance can prove temporary when prejudice and politics merge.
In 1886, a screed by the essayist Édouard Drumont titled “La France Juive” unleashed a wave of antisemitism in France. Drumont argued that Jews were foreigners, not French. He declared that nothing could make a Jew French, no matter how hard one tried to “educate” him. “The Jew alone,” Drumont wrote, “profited from the French Revolution.” Drumont went on to launch his own newspaper and two years before Dreyfus’s arrest published an article arguing that the Jews “will soon be the definitive masters of France the day when they command the army.” Such was the milieu in which Dreyfus was charged and tried.
Dreyfus’s Jewishness was never mentioned in his official military trials, but the ensuing publicity became starkly divided over his ethnicity. Many publishers, authors, journalists and Catholic clergy were eager to condemn Dreyfus and often resorted to the flimsiest of evidence to do so. Meanwhile, the popular press was emboldened to openly attack such small-mindedness and prejudice. On Jan. 13, 1898, the novelist Émile Zola published “J’accuse!” in L’Aurore, a widely read newspaper. The open letter, addressed to the president of France, targeted the moral corruption of the French political and military establishment, accusing members of the army and officials of the state, many by name. For his letter, still an exemplar of how to confront state injustices directly, Zola would be tried for libel and flee to England.
One of the ironies of the Dreyfus story is that it occurred in France, which, in 1790-91, became the first nation to offer full citizenship and civil rights to Jews. For many Jews, France became a synonym for a safe place for their brethren. Rabbis would sometimes begin their sermons with a blessing for the providence of France. In Russia and Poland, where most Jews lived, the Dreyfus Affair summoned a fascination and sympathy for this Everyman who had been caught up by a surge of antisemitism—something that Jews outside of France lived with every day. In many parts of Europe at the time, any charge against Jews could lead to pogroms, or false accusations of treason similar to Dreyfus’s “crime,” or worse.
Mr. Samuels, a professor of French at Yale, relies on the recent release of thousands of documents and objects by the Dreyfus family to tell his story. He explains why “antisemitism” became the preferred term for the prejudice against Jews. That prejudice had very old roots, we are told, but the term itself suddenly became current in the mid-19th century, created by those who wanted to give a quasi scientific name to an ancient hatred. “Semitism” was used by Europeans, or at least those in Western Europe, who saw the Jew as a foreigner and not as a bona fide European.
The first court-martial was perhaps unintelligent: the second is inescapably criminal. Émile Zola

Rectified. Now the virtuous behavior of Dreyfus and the egregious behavior of the French government are equally illustrated. Tall Poppies often need the courage to stand tall and the fortitude to fight the good fight against those who will invariably attempt to cut them down. It is de rigueur for all governments to cut down the opposition, some more than others. None, it seems, can help themselves.  

alfred dreyfustall poppy syndrometall poppycourageanti-Semitismfortitude

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Douglas Garland, M.D. practiced orthopedic surgery for 37 years in Southern California. Doug was also a Clinical Professor of Orthopedics at the University of Southern California.

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