Dreyfus and the Birth of Intellectual Protest
The art of protest: Emile Zola by Edouard Manet, c. 1868
On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola published his celebrated open letter to the President of France, J'Accuse, in which he accused senior officers in the French army of thwarting a revision of the case against Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of selling secrets to the enemy four years before and then serving a life sentence on Devil's Island. Furthermore, wrote Zola, these officers in the Army High Command had conspired to protect the true traitor, Charles Walsin-Esterhazy.
Where Zola led, other eminent writers, scholars, artists and academics were quick to follow. On January 14, the day after the publication of J'Accuse, a petition calling for a revision was published in L'Aurore under the headline "Manifesto of the Intellectuals" — the first mobilisation in modern times of scholars, writers and artists as a force shaping public opinion. It had been drawn up by Zola himself with Emile Duclaux, head of the Institut Pasteur. Duclaux and Lucien Herr, the librarian at the Ecole normale supérieure, circulated the petition among the scientists and scholars at their institutions. The net was extended by younger writers such as Marcel Proust who went around Paris collecting signatures. "I was the first Dreyfusard," Proust would later claim, "for it was I who went to ask Anatole France for his signature."
The term "intellectual", already used by the novelist Guy de Maupassant and by the nationalist man of letters Maurice Barrès, was ridiculed by the anti-Dreyfusards. Barrès referred to the signatories of the manifesto as the "demi-intellectuals", and the literary critic Ferdinand Brunetière questioned the very idea that authors and academics should possess some superior wisdom when it came to the law. "The intervention of a novelist," he wrote, "even a famous one, in a matter of military justice seems to me as out of place as the intervention, in a question concerning the origins of Romanticism, of a colonel in the police force." He castigated scientists too for their arrogant assumption that their insights into the working of the material world somehow placed them on the moral high ground.
To Brunetière, the Dreyfusard intellectuals' impugning of the integrity of the French High Command was symptomatic of the wider takeover of France by arrivistes — "Freemasons, Protestants and Jews". Barrès was even more specific in associating the Dreyfusards with those "foreign" elements in French society — the sons of immigrants like Zola, rootless cosmopolitans, Germanised philosophers, and of course the academics at the Ecole normale where "many students and the most respected masters were Jewish".
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