Part 1: Scheurer-Kestner's Feast
At the end of 1894, a Jewish captain named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason and was sent to Devil's Island to live in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. It was not until 1906, more than ten years later, that he was finally fully rehabilitated for a crime he never committed. In the interim, the Dreyfus Affair convulsed France, as supporters of Dreyfus fought against those who sought to keep him in prison despite mounting evidence of his innocence and even the confession of the real traitor.
The Dreyfus Affair was one of the turning points of modern French political history, and has been commemorated by the Republican elite as a triumph of benevolent and rational secularism that inoculated France from the temptations of interwar fascism. Such an interpretation pits Left against Right, secularism against Catholicism, rationalism against obscurantism and the universalism of the French Revolutionary tradition against an exclusive and aggressive nationalism. Like the myth of 'resistance' used to salvage national pride after defeat and collaboration during World War II, the fable of Dreyfusard triumph provides a comforting view of a 'true' France battling successfully against fanaticism.
The lectures overturn this complacent vision by rejecting the conventional wisdom of the Dreyfusards as intellectuals who unambiguously supported the cause of rationalism. Rather, the lectures show how their political commitment was inspired not only by humanitarian idealism, but also by venomous hatreds, fantasies of brutalization, and conspiratorial fears. Using thousands of pages of documents never before cited, the lectures explore the emotional world of leading Dreyfusards and show how their political advocacy grew out of their passionate friendships, love affairs and sibling relations. All three lectures focus on the role of history-of classical antiquity, the Bible, the Renaissance, and the enlightenment-in providing heroic models and examples of conflict, which, they believed, supplied important lessons for waging war against their anti-Dreyfusard opponents. Although the Dreyfusards were often leading anticlericals, Ruth Harris will show how their 'mystique' often came to share the missionizing zeal and even authoritarianism of their religious and right-wing enemies.
Ruth Harris is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, New College, and Lecturer in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford.
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