The French Dreyfus Affair and Trump’s Big Lie

We are witnessing an extraordinarily disturbing juxtaposition in U.S. politics right now.

In Washington, the January 6 Committee, primarily using testimony from Republicans and former Trump administration officials, is once again shredding Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, meanwhile revealing the extent and damage of Trump’s desperate, likely criminal attempt to hold onto power.

At the same time, “election-denier” candidates are advancing in GOP primaries in many states, and the Republican Party of Texas just embraced election denial and called Joe Biden “acting president.”

This means that while the nonexistent factual basis for the Big Lie shrinks even further, the movement embracing that lie grows. This very disturbing reality needs not just to be protested, but to be analyzed. What kind of country — what kind of politics — what kind of person are we dealing with for this to be where we are?

“This means that while the nonexistent factual basis for the Big Lie shrinks even further, the movement embracing that lie grows.”

Late 19-century France

I am writing a book called Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies. It will be out next year with Eerdmans. In working on that book, I am digging around in various countries and various eras, all of which had in common authoritarian, anti-democratic and reactionary movements that garnered strong Christian support. It is almost comforting — almost, I say — to see that the forces distorting the politics of the good old USA in this period have been seen before in other lands. We are not uniquely crazy. We have company. (Feel better?)

The single best historical comparison I currently can locate to the embrace of Trump’s Big Lie, all evidence to the contrary, is the Dreyfus Affair in France. Permit me to take you back to late 19th and early 20th century France. Brush up on your French, and off we go.

Alfred Dreyfus

The Dreyfus affair (l’affaire Dreyfus) began in 1894 when a 35-year-old French Army captain named Alfred Dreyfus, an officer of Jewish descent, was wrongly convicted of treason for purportedly passing French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and exile. After his conviction and the public humiliation of being physically stripped of his military rank, he was sent to Devil’s Island.

Two years later, a counter-espionage investigation revealed that Dreyfus had been framed. The real culprit was a non-Jewish major named Esterhazy. But then came the coverup. High officials in the French Army hid the evidence so that Esterhazy was acquitted; indeed, the Army charged Dreyfus with more crimes.

“The French Army was now all in on the Big Lie of Dreyfus’ guilt, because the Army’s reputation was believed to be at stake.”

These supposed crimes were fabrications based on obviously forged documents. The French Army was now all in on the Big Lie of Dreyfus’ guilt, because the Army’s reputation was believed to be at stake. Plus, in a time of surging antisemitism on the French Right, Dreyfus was a most convenient scapegoat.

In other words, political, cultural and institutional factors were now far more important than the facts related to who actually betrayed French military secrets to the Germans.

A coverup

Emile Zola (Musée de Bretagne, Collection Arts graphiques)

At this point, Émile Zola, perhaps the most famous writer in France at the time, wrote an open letter to the French President titled J’Accuse…! Published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, this massively important and courageous letter accused the French Army of framing an innocent man based on antisemitism, named the specific individuals responsible for the crime and coverup, and demanded that the Dreyfus case by reopened.

Zola was convicted of libel for this letter and fled to England to avoid going to jail. He returned the next year when the government changed. (Four years later, he died mysteriously in his apartment of carbon monoxide poisoning. In 1953, a roofer confessed on his deathbed that he had blocked up Zola’s fireplace in order to kill him.)

Zola’s letter helped force another trial for Dreyfus, this time in 1899. In the new trial, justice again was not done. Dreyfus was again convicted and given a 10-year sentence this time. Seven years later, however, he was fully exonerated and returned to the French Army as a major. After so many severe public humiliations and trials, Dreyfus resumed his military career, serving honorably during World War I and retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He died in 1935.

Two sides emerge

But this does not mean everyone in France accepted that Dreyfus was innocent. It just meant that finally, one side won, while the other did not accept the verdict.

During the height of the Dreyfus case, the entire political class and much of the country had divided between two groups, which came to be called Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards.

In general, the Dreyfusards represented the progressive forces in France — liberal, pro-democracy, pro-emancipation/equality for Jews, and anticlerical, that is anti-Catholic Church and clergy domination of France.

Dreyfus in his room on Devil’s Island, 1898

The anti-Dreyfusards were more conservative, reactionary, royalist or autocratic, antisemitic, and pro-Catholic/clericalist. On this side, the Dreyfus case became a major opportunity to roll out every manner of antisemitic propaganda, with Dreyfus symbolized as the Jewish Judas betraying Christian France.

“The Dreyfus case became a major opportunity to roll out every manner of antisemitic propaganda, with Dreyfus symbolized as the Jewish Judas betraying Christian France.”

Indeed, Dreyfus became a negative symbol of all Jews in France, who at the time were struggling for full inclusion while the right-wing was attacking them as aliens, strangers and traitors. During the debate over the Dreyfus affair, antisemitic riots erupted in more than 20 French cities and towns.

The Dreyfus case — even long after it was over — became a major organizing opportunity for the rising forces of the pro-fascist right wing in France. It reflected and exacerbated divisions in the country that were traceable at least to the French Revolution. It is not wrong to see the lingering causes, and effects, of the Dreyfus case in the antisemitism of the collaborationist Vichy Regime during World War II, and in their cooperation with the Nazis in sending tens of thousands of Jews to the death camps during the Holocaust.

Parallels to America today

Here are five parallels I see to our Big Lie/election denial situation today:

  • Facts are real and discoverable. Repeated examination of the case showed that Esterhazy rather than Dreyfus was guilty. Facts are real, and repeated examination of events in the relevant states shows fraud did not cost Trump the 2020 presidential election.
  • Powerful forces sometimes have strongly self-interested reasons for lying about facts. This was true both in the Dreyfus case and in Trump’s case. In France, it was mainly the French Army that was culpable of advancing the lies at first, but then the self-interested broadened out to a whole constellation of right-wing forces. In our case, it was mainly Trump at first, aided by a “clown show” of lawyers and such, but by now it has broadened out to a substantial radicalized chunk of the Republican Party.
  • When a Big Lie graduates to become a major cultural or political cause, the facts matter less and less and the symbols matter more and more. In France, Captain Alfred Dreyfus became a symbol. What he did or did not do came to matter far less than what he represented. In the U.S. right now, the idea that the 2020 election was stolen has graduated to become a symbol of the nefarious, wicked Democrats/liberals who will supposedly do anything to win, so that they can go on corrupting our country and preying on our children.
  • Momentous symbol-events like the Dreyfus Affair and the election Big Lie radicalize politics. In both the case of France around 1900 and the United States in 2020, corrosive divisions already were long apparent and helped contribute to the momentous symbol-events we are discussing. But once the new event happens, the forces of division and radicalization deepen. The other side is seen more and more as not just wrong but wicked. Politics becomes even more winner-takes-all. And the threats of political violence that often simmer just below the surface of public life become more ominous and real.
  • Don’t miss the role of politically ultra-conservative Christians in both cases. In France, it was the reactionary, mainly Catholic right wing, yearning for the good old days. In the United States, it is parts of the reactionary, mainly fundamentalist-evangelical but also Catholic right wing, yearning to Make America Great Again.

The fact that our politics has reached a point where we have our own Dreyfus Affair says some very disturbing things about where we are as a country, and where our Christians are. These are very dangerous times, and that is no exaggeration.

This article first appeared on Baptist News Global.

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1 thought on “The French Dreyfus Affair and Trump’s Big Lie”

  1. Melanie Vadzemmieks

    Thank you for sharing this. I learned some things I didn’t know before. And, more importantly, you’re one more Christian who is brave enough to speak out against the Big Lie. We need people of your stature to be a voice of reason and hopefully, open deaf ears.

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