French Profiles in Courage

This 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I reminds us of the human errors and the nationalist sentiments that were responsible for that great tragedy. It is also an opportunity to remember the contribution to humane values and the fate of two Frenchmen who died a few weeks apart in 1914, individuals who exemplified courage in their devotion to truth and justice and in challenging the virus of anti-Semitism.

Jean Jaurès and Charles Péguy were totally different human beings who knew each other for a time but who are significant figures in the pantheon of French personalities for their moral authority and courage in defying military officials and the mood of public opinion by asserting the innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. This Jewish captain had been arrested in October 1894 on charges of high treason and convicted in January 1895 by secret court martial. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America.

Jean Jaurès, professor of philosophy, scholar and writer on history, and politician, was elected to parliament as a moderate republican in 1885, becoming a socialist a few years later. He was not simply a socialist intellectual, but a militant and an eloquent orator who became a leading figure in the French socialist movement. He became the leader of the party in 1902.

At the time the left was divided into at least seven factions, some of which were Marxist, and which differed on political and parliamentary tactics as well as on policies. Many of those factions in the French left, especially the leaders Edouard Vaillant and Jules Guesde, did not want to be involved in the Dreyfus Affair. Most of the leftist factions regarded the Affair as an internal problem within the bourgeois class of which Dreyfus was a part.

They never joined the small number of believers in the innocence of Dreyfus, but adopted a stance of neutrality in a matter that they considered did not concern the proletariat. They were not concerned with the hatred and bigotry expressed in the anti-Semitism rampant in France at that time. For them socialism must be concerned with class struggle. It was Jean Jaurès who, after some hesitation on the issue, saw this refusal of socialists to speak up for an innocent man as insufficient. Defense of the wronged man who was suffering and of fundamental principles were both important and the two were interrelated.

What was at stake were the principles of the French Revolution and the fundamental rights of man, as expounded in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of August 1789. Dreyfus was a victim of injustice, of unjust and false condemnation. Even though Dreyfus was a member of the bourgeois class, he deserved to be treated with humanity and dignity. Jaurès cleverly associated the case with socialist objectives. The fight to save Dreyfus was not only a service to humanity; it was also directly serving the interests of the working class to protest against illegal behavior by the military generals.

Jaurès was particularly influenced by Emile Zola’s great article, “J’Accuse,” published in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898, that directly accused the French military leaders of obstruction of justice and of anti-Semitism. As a result, Zola was tried and convicted for criminal libel in February 1898. Jaurès changed his position and spoke in the Chamber of Deputies on January 24, 1898 of the universal responsibility for justice.  He became the model of humanistic socialism. Without contradicting principles or giving up the class struggle, it was right for Dreyfus to be defended. Dreyfus was not just an officer or bourgeois, but a member of humanity. Jaurès held this position through the second trial of Dreyfus in 1899 at Rennes and until the decision of the Cour de cassation on July 12, 1906, and even after.

In 1910 Jaurès took the lead in defending a working-class coal miner, Jules Durand, accused of complicity in and condemned to death for the murder of a labor leader. As in the Dreyfus Affair, a false dossier had been used to convict Durand. Jaurès proclaimed it was the memory of the Dreyfus Affair that saved Durand. The case was the Dreyfus Affair of the working class.

Jaurès was an anti-militarist pacifist and believer in a rapprochement of France and Germany. His efforts in the summer of 1914 to prevent war between the two countries led to his assassination on July 31, 1914 by a 29-year old nationalist, who was not tried until after the war and was then acquitted in 1919. The defense in the trial attacked Jaurès’s views, accusing him of lack of patriotism and of support for the military. In a sense Jaurès, at age 54, was the first victim of World War I.

A few weeks later Charles Péguy was killed. Jaurès was an internationalist anti-militarist trying to prevent war. Péguy was a nationalist and patriotic, a lieutenant in the reserves, who joined the army on August 14, 1914, at the outbreak of the war, and was killed by a bullet in his head on the first day of the first battle of the Marne on September 5, 1914. Péguy and Jaurès differed on the issue of a French military response to Germany, but they were friends for a time, and they both agreed on the defense of Dreyfus and the cause of justice.

Péguy, poet, essayist, editor of an important literary journal, a socialist but also an anti-clerical who became a non-practicing Catholic, was an unusual individual who is not easily characterized. He cannot be considered a great writer with his frequent repetitions, some confusing language, and strong personal polemics, but he was influential for his contemporaries and some modern writers as a result of his earnestness, honesty, and startling insights.

Péguy was the most prominent Catholic to support Dreyfus. He was a philo-Semitic who saw and believed in Jews and Christians living together. For him, the two categories of people that were important were Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, the just people and the unjust. Péguy was a fighter for the just cause. His words written in 1905 are appropriate to the contemporary politically correct leftists eager to boycott Israel. He wrote in Notre Patrie, “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.”

Péguy saw the Dreyfus affair not simply as a question of injustice towards an innocent Jew but also as an attack on the true values of society. It was not only an insult to justice and right but also a crime that ruptured the entire social compact  and dishonored an entire people. The Dreyfusards were defending the honor of the French people, its citizens and forefathers. The Affair stained the honor of the entire French people. He refuted the claim of the anti-Dreyfusards, most prominently Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès, who spoke the “language of reasons of state, of contemptible political interest,” that they were champions of patriotism, tradition, and religion.

It is here in unusual fashion that Péguy, with his concept of “mystique” differed from Jaurès and other Dreyfusards, and indeed with a normal understanding of political behavior. For him, support for Dreyfus was a religion, a religious upsurge, a religious crisis. That mystique involved passion and self-sacrifice. Dreyfusards were heroes. He wrote that the Dreyfus Affair could only be explained by a need for heroism that periodically seized France and an entire generation. It involved a need for sacrifice up to and including martyrdom, perhaps a need for sanctity.

For Péguy, the Affair meant a movement, both profoundly revolutionary and traditionally Christian. Dreyfusards had a passion for the eternal salvation of the French people; anti-Dreyfusards were men of temporal salvation. France must reject the injustice so that it will not be seen as being in a state of mortal sin.

Politics, however, was not mystical, with its concentration on self-interest, money, and personal ambition. Péguy was therefore concerned about the behavior of the Dreyfusards after the Jewish soldier had been reinstated in 2006. He denounced the political compromises that Jaurès and others made in their parliamentary activity, especially the relationship of Jaurès with Emile Combes, the strong anti-Catholic. In what is probably his most well-known aphorism, Péguy declared in 1909, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”

Whatever the differences in approach between the spiritual Péguy and the rationalist Jaurès, they were both for a brief time the conscience of humanity. They deserve to be remembered for two reasons: their fight against injustice and anti-Semitism, and their exhibition of courage. At this moment of supine lack of response by the U.S. and Europe to the threat of global terrorism, the words of Péguy are welcoming: “Surrender is essentially an operation by means of which we set out explaining instead of acting.”

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.