France Knows How This EndsRoundup
tags: far right, French history, antisemitism, Dreyfus Affair
A Jewish military officer wrongfully convicted of treason. A years-long psychodrama that permanently polarized an entire society—communities, friends, even families. A politics of anger and emotion designed to insult the very notion of truth. A divide that only grew with time. A reconciliation that never was. A frenzied right wing that turned to violence when it failed at the ballot box.
This was the Dreyfus affair, the signature scandal of fin de siècle France, aspects of which Americans might recognize as we arrive at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency: After decades of cascading political crises, debilitating financial scandals, and rising anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair saw the emergence of political surreality, an alternate universe of hateful irrationality and militarized lies that captured the minds of nearly half the population.
That period in France, known as the Third Republic, never resulted in any reconciliation. It turned out to be impossible to compromise with those who not only rejected the truth but also found the truth offensive, a kind of existential threat. The social divide simply grew wider and wider, to the point where bridging the gap became a futile proposition. Even the national mobilization in World War I was not enough to create a durable unity; the wounds of the past proved impossible to heal. In fact, “unity” turned out to be the wrong goal to pursue. What mattered was defending the republic’s values, a defense never made forcefully enough.
As a historian of modern France, I’ve followed with great interest the innumerable comparisons drawn between Trumpism and Nazism that began even before Trump took office: the endless debate over whether Trump can be called a “fascist” (I would say yes), whether American society today resembles Weimar Germany before it fell to the Nazis (I would say no), and whether we can really say that the Republican Party is just a confederation of “collaborators” (of course we can).
All historical analogies are flawed, and they might not mean much at all. Even if they underscore the gravity of the moment, they often obscure its causes and might, in fact, prevent us from seeing them. Trump might be leaving office, but his followers are here to stay, as their numbers and conviction make clear. In seeking to understand Trump, and Trumpism, we have preferred to tell ourselves stories about violent rupture and hostile takeovers—of Hitler’s rise, of Nazism’s threat, of the perils of collaboration—but not so much about the valorization of falsehood and a republic that ignores, and even embraces, its own terminal impotence. That is the story of France’s Third Republic and its defining psychodrama.
The Third Republic was born in a moment of trauma, in the aftermath of France’s total humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War. It was a return to the venerated ideals of the French Revolution after 18 years of imperial Bonapartism, and nobody, not even its first president, expected the new republic to last as long as it did—70 years, longer than any other system of government in modern French history, including the current regime, which began in 1958. This era, unlike Weimar Germany, which lasted only from 1918 to 1933, was a continuous system of government that spanned several generations of political actors. It’s possible to trace recurrent themes in that time, some of which resemble those in contemporary America.
What is most important to remember about the Third Republic is that, as long-lasting as it might have been, it was a parliamentary system constantly stalled in political gridlock. Its credibility was regularly called into question by a number of major financial scandals, and the French Parliament overthrew individual governments for often-trivial reasons, petty score settling, or insider politicking. Between July 1909, the bitter end of Georges Clemenceau’s first premiership, and August 1914, the start of World War I, there were 11 different governments. Prominent ministers—some of whom became celebrities in a game of musical chairs—often put off dealing with the pressing issues of the day, either because they would likely not have had sufficient time in office to do anything concrete or because they were unwilling to assume the political liability. The goal was to stay in power by whatever means.
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