During the 1896 trial of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, the novelist Émile Zola expressed puzzlement that such intense bigotry could exist among the enlightened people of France: “Anti-Semites among our young men? They do exist then, do they?” He continued: “One hundred years after the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man,’ one hundred years after that supreme act of tolerance and emancipation, we are reverting to wars of religion, to the most obnoxious and inane type of fanaticism!”
Theodor Herzl was similarly stunned to see anti-Jewish mobs in “republican, modern, civilized France, 100 years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Zola and Herzl were hopeful that the problem of anti-Semitism among the “civilized” could be eradicated if treated with heavy doses of reason. But as the Dreyfus case unfolded, Zola worried that his “dream that the coming century shall be splendid” was naive: “What a saddening, what a disquieting element for the 20th century which is about to dawn,” he wrote. Indeed, the 20th century would produce millions of anonymous Dreyfuses—many of whom met far crueler fates than the innocent captain—and few Dreyfusards.
About the Author
Michael Moynihan is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/the Daily Beast and a columnist for Tablet.