November 19, 2019

A French Twist

La Libre Parole an illustrations from “The Accused, the Dreyfus Trilogy” 1996

A French Twist

‘The Accused’ addresses the Dreyfus Affair,

and the anti-Semitism of 1890s France,

from various, odd angles

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Few, other than historians of the period, will recognize July 12 as a date of any significance in the annals of European anti-Semitism.

On July 12, 1906, France’s Supreme Court annulled the “guilty” verdict against Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew who was framed by the French army staff and convicted, in 1894, of betraying national secrets to the Germans.

On July 12, 1935, Dreyfus died, having lived long enough to see the beginning of a new, and much deadlier, wave of anti-Semitism sweep from Hitler’s Berlin across Europe.

The emotional link between the anti-Jewish fervor that gripped France at the turn of the century and its supreme manifestation in the Germany of the 1930s was expressed by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Writing in her “The Origin of Totalitarianism,” Arendt wrote that “the main actors of the Dreyfus Affair sometimes seemed to be staging a huge dress rehearsal for a performance put off for more than three decades,” that is, until 1933.

Arendt’s observation is cited in an odd and fascinating book, “The Accused: The Dreyfus Trilogy” (Inter Nationes, $34.95). It is a beautifully and expensively produced volume, addressing the Dreyfus Affair from various angles.

Foremost, the book gives us the words and illustrations of three works created and performed in Germany during the 1994 Dreyfus Centenary: the musical satire “Rage and Outrage” (shown initially as a TV production in Germany, France and England), a two-act opera, and the dance drama “Dreyfus — J’Accuse.”

To re-create not just the historical facts but the milieu of the era, the three works are based on the period’s popular songs, dances, writings and the exhortations of contending orators.

At the opposite pole to the great writer and humanist Émile Zola stood Edouard Drumont, “the Pope of Anti-Semitism,” whose vicious fulminations would have pleased a Goebbels and whose “La Libre Parole,” with its obscene caricatures, was a worthy forerunner of “Der Stuermer.”

But nothing quite echoes the later sounds of Munich and Nuremberg as the street songs of Paris and Toulouse 30 years earlier.

Where the Brownshirts marched along, bellowing, “When Jew blood spurts from the knife, everything will be better than before,” French mobs sang the “The Yids’ Polka,” with the words:

Here in the streets of Paris

Only Yids are to be found,

At each and every turn

Only Yids are seen around.

Such a race of vermin

With their pathetic grins,

Should either be thrown out

Or else be done right in.

And if anyone should miss the point, there was “La Marseillaise Antijuive” — The Anti-Jewish Marseillaise, with its refrain:

To arms, anti-Semites!

Form your battalions!

March on, march on

May our fields be drenched with their &’009;

tainted blood!

To close the cycle of viciousness, in 1943, only eight years after the death of Dreyfus, his granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was deported from Drancy to Auschwitz, where she perished.

“The Accused,” profusely illustrated with the drawings, photos, cartoons and song sheets of the period, is published under the imprimatur of Inter Nationes, a semi-governmental German agency that deals primarily with cultural and media relations between Germany and other countries.

The publisher’s nationality raises a suspicion that the book may implicitly try to justify the Germany of the Hitler era by pointing to the anti-Semitic example and excesses of neighboring France between 1894 and 1906.

George R. Whyte, author of the book and creator of the Dreyfus trilogy works, does not directly confront this point. However, he unsparingly indicts the xenophobia and anti-Semitism he sees rising again in Germany.

The book, and the trilogy on which it is based, is intended as a warning, Whyte writes, that has progressed from “Beware, it can happen again” to “Beware, it is happening again.”

The author’s jacket blurb, by the way, is tantalizingly vague about Whyte’s background. He is described as a “musician, director and producer…of Hungarian extraction, and the loss of many members of his family in the Holocaust has left a deep mark on him. His interests have increasingly focused on the role of the arts in the battle against social injustices, especially racism.”

A final observation on 1890s France and 1930s Germany: In France, there arose men of the mettle of Emile Zola, who risked life and liberty; officers such as Marie-Georges Picquart; and politicians such as Jean Jaures and Georges Clemenceau, who risked their careers to fight for justice and secure the vindication of Dreyfus.

In Germany, there were no such men, or if there were, their voices, finding no echo among the people, were quickly extinguished.