Commentary Magazine

Anti-Semitism in Modern France, by Robert F. Byrnes

The Road to the Dreyfus Affair
Anti-Semitism in Modern France.
By Robert F. Byrnes.
Rutgers University Press. 348 pp. $5.00.


Anti-Semitism is a deplorably neglected area of modern history, and every contribution that does more than simply add another title to the formidable library of apologetics, anti-Semitica, or superficial sociology is welcome. The general contempt in which the topic of anti-Semitism has been held by the historical sciences has led not only to stereotyped interpretations without basis in fact, but also—and this is more serious—to an ignorance of the events themselves. A great deal of spadework is still necessary and monographs, therefore, are especially welcome. They have the additional advantage of not demanding too much of the historian—only reasonably good professional training, sufficient for a reliable account of what happened in a given country during a limited period. The present volume sheds light on some episodes in French history that might otherwise have been forgotten or left unrecorded; it belongs in the category of badly needed research work.

French anti-Semitism, as distinguished from the Central European (German and Austrian) varieties, was deeply rooted in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Until the Dreyfus Affair, anti-Semitism in France had a decidedly left-wing and radical flavor, and anti-Jewish attitudes, ranging from contempt to hatred of the Jew (though not necessarily of Jewish individuals), were a matter of course in all revolutionary lower-middle-class and workers’ movements. One consequence of this was that anti-Semitism never had to fight in France, as it did in Germany, for recognition in the salons and among the more reputable elements of the intelligentsia. As an opinion (though not as a fanatical ideology that would place the Jews at the center of world events) it had far too illustrious an ancestry—from Voltaire and Rousseau to Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Proudhon—to be simply discarded as the hobby of crackpots and charlatans.

This tradition of “enlightened” anti-Semitism has never altogether died in France, despite the severe blow it suffered in the Dreyfus Affair, when the cry “Death to the Jews” proved to be a political rallying point for all the enemies of the Third Republic. It was not the half-hearted monarchism of the anti-Dreyfusards, but precisely their anti-Semitism, with its old revolutionary and radical connotations, that attracted to them such men as Valéry, Cézanne, Degas, Rodin, Renoir, or made it possible for the young Briand to write for Drumont’s Libre Parole. If the Dreyfus Affair became a turning point in the history of French anti-Semitism, it was because of the official Catholic support then given to anti Semitic slogans, which from that time on were used against the Third Republic and the tradition of the French Revolution. Yet even the new clerical anti-Semitism in the beginning showed clear traces of the older tradition: certain leftist Catholic factions, who were inclined to accept the Republic and to advocate decisive social changes, accepted anti-Semitic arguments all the more eagerly for that. This is one, though certainly not the most important, reason why Catholic opinion reacted with such uniformity during the Dreyfus crisis.

By that same token, clerical support of anti-Semitism, which formed passing episodes in the history of anti-Semitism in other countries, spelled its doom as a politically organized movement in France. It was their anti-clericalism which made large parts of the French people join the Dreyfusards under Clemenceau’s leadership and which eventually persuaded the French socialists to discard anti Jewish attitudes altogether. Clerical anti-Semitism has never been strong enough to develop into a major factor of modern politics. Like all Christian brands of anti-Semitism, it could not achieve the degree of radical fanaticism necessary for modern mass movements.



The chief and the most valuable part of Mr. Byrnes’s study deals with French anti-Semitism during the eight years between the publication of Drumont’s La France Juive in 1886 and the arrest of Captain Dreyfus in 1894. The preceding chapters, which try to portray the general European and French setting as well as the general anti-Semitic background, are not too helpful for the understanding of this short period. There Mr. Byrnes tries without much success to transcend the limitations of a mere monograph; his somehow overgrown, frequently vague, and always unoriginal introduction to an otherwise sober and reliable statement of facts could conceivably lead the serious reader to set the book aside before he discovered its genuinely valuable portions.

Mr. Byrnes is at his best when he attempts no more than to gather facts industriously and report them clearly. The discussion of inner-Catholic factions in the 80’s, the brief account of Freemasonry in French politics, and the detailed biographies of Morès, Taxil, and a great number of less well-known anti-Semites are noteworthy in this respect. Of equal interest are the carefully outlined histories of the more important anti-Semitic newspapers. However, the somewhat barren quality of Mr. Byrnes’s general notions of European history occasionally disturbs this narrative, too. A whole section devoted to the “Revolution in French Publishing” has little bearing on the subject—except that anti-Semitic writings share with other books the need to be printed. More irritating than such irrelevancies is Mr. Byrnes’s tendency to “embellish” his narrative with certain loose and inconsistent evaluations which have become the hallmark of apologetic writing—a category of literature to which this otherwise honest and unbiased study does not belong at all. Marx, for example, is called in one place the “most important philosopher of the nineteenth century” only to be accused a little further on of having a confused mind. Rousseau and Proudhon share the same fate—they are “confused thinkers.”

I am afraid the confusion is Mr. Byrnes’s, and the reason for it is entirely honorable. Because of the inherent limitations of his approach, he has to record, but cannot explain, why so many great men,” including quite a few great Jews, showed this deplorable tendency not to like the Jews; he became confused as he went along precisely because he tried honestly to report what he had found. The difficulty of the historian touching upon any aspect of the Jewish fate in recent European history is always the same: a phenomenon like the “anti-Semitism” of “great men” cannot be understood without a history of anti-Semitism which does not exist; and this history can hardly be written without an account of the Jewish part in general European history during the last three centuries, which does not exist either.

Mr. Byrnes’s valuable book remains a book for specialists, the jacket blurb notwithstanding. A history of anti-Semitism for the general reader will be written only after many monographs on the level of the best sections in this book have been produced. The bibliographical references overload the text without always clearly documenting it; they may well lead, however, to the exhaustive bibliography which is promised us, together with two more volumes that will carry the subject up to the time of the Vichy government.



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