Lindemann Albert S. - The Jew Accused

Author : Lindemann Albert S.
Title : The Jew Accused Three Anti-Semitic Affairs (Dreyfus, Beilis, Frank) 1894-1915
Year : 1991

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Introduction. I set out to write this book for a number of reasons, but primary among them was the growing fascination and plain excitement I felt as I became familiar with the extraordinary trials of three Jews, Alfred Dreyfus, Mendel Beilis, and Leo Frank. The sensational charges against these three men, the passions of their accusers and defenders, the hundreds of thousands of people swept up in the "affairs" that developed from the trials add up to an irresistible and an instructive story. It is one that far transcends the personal tragedies - however cruel and outrageous - of the three men and their families, and it is one that has never been told in a comparative perspective, as part of a larger whole in the generation before World War I. There has recently been much discussion, and lamentation, concerning how the writing of history has been, in the words of one historian, "institutionalized. "I lt is a revival of an older and recurring discussion in the historical profession. Roughly translated, the charge is that the discipline ofhistory has been taken over by overspecialized academie historians and in the process has become fragmented within itself and sadly remote from the concerns and consciousness of society at large, of ordinary educated readers. Critics charge that professional history is too often arcane, pedantic, and, alas, simply unreadable. Against such charges professional historians, when they pay any attention to the complaints, reply that history written by dilettantes suffers, with rare exceptions, from crippling defects: conceptual superficiality, factual unreliability, and an inclination to cheap sensationalism. There is much more content and complexity to these debates than it is appropriate to explore here, but it has long been my concern and hope, as a professional historian, to break out of the stereotypes they suggest, even while recognizing an element of truth in them. The story of the Three Affairs offers a marvelous opportunity to do so. Many educated readers will have heard something about the Dreyfus Affair (1898-1900); few pages of modern history offer as much co lor and fascination. Revolving around the story of a Jewish officer in the French Army unjustly accused of espionage, it has the qualities of a mystery novel, one that Agatha Christie could not top. Indeed, many of the leading characters of the Affair are so unbelievable that few novelists would have the audacity to create them. The dizzying twists and turns of events, the plots and counterplots, the elaborate puzzles stagger the imagination - and, as anyone who has read an account of the Dreyfus Affair will no doubt add, sorely tax the memory. Many of the mysteries associated with the Affair remain unanswered to this day. A recent scholarly study of it remained on the best-seller list in France for several years. The less widely known Beilis (1911-13) and Frank (1913-15) affairs offer even more colorful - and lurid - reading. They involve, respectively, charges of ritual murder by Jews for Christian blood and charges of murder as a result of Jewish sexual perversity, the latter culminating in a lynch mob storming the walls of a state prison to hang the unfortunate Jew whose throat had already been eut several weeks before by a fellow prisoner. These affairs, too, riveted the attention of contemporaries and commanded front-page attention both inside and outside the countries involved. The Beilis and Frank affairs also offer us shockingly unexpected revelations, bizarre characters, and almost comically complex twists and turns. Indeed, in ali of the affairs an initial and most demanding task, as I see it, is to offer an overview of their labyrinthine complexities. Still, I have not slighted the essential facts, for only through them can sorne sense of the exquisite ironies and subtleties of the cases be achieved. What is most significant and, finally, most interesting about the affairs is not really the sensational details but larger issues. Among them are the nature and power of modern anti-Semitism, the sometimes tragic conflict between the freedom of the press and the protection of individual rights, the genesis of modern mass poli tics, the reaction of individuals to extreme situations, and the inevitable ambiguities of campaigns for truth and justice when political advantage is to be gained from them. I am most of ali concerned to explore the elusive qualities of modern anti-Semitism and to suggest sorne revisions of both popular and scholarly beliefs about it. In that latter regard, these pages try to show how a comparative approach to the Three Affairs offers perspectives and insights that are hidden to those who have considered each affair individually, how, even though these are appropriately termed "anti-Semitic affairs," the role of anti-Semitism in them was more ambiguous and less decisive than generally believed, and how Jews, although unfairly accused and victimized in these years, were by no means merely passive victims; they fought back against their tormentors and exercised power in ways that are little appreciated. A final con cern that connects to each of the above is to examine the interplay of fantasy and reality in modern anti-Semitism: on the one hand, "fantastic" visions, deriving from inherited prejudice and religious imagery of Jewish power and malevolence; on the other, "real" conflict between Jews and non-Jews, related to ordinary competition (economie, social, political). This effort at historical reinterpretation is less the result of a systematic reconsideration of the relevant primary documents of each case - that would have been a gigantic task - than of a study of the proliferating monographs, articles, and secondary works that touch upon the affairs and the background to them. I have, of course, reexamined many of the primary documents that were of central importance in these affairs, but what is most needed at present is to synthesize the insights of specialists in a range of fields and to make th ose insights available to a wider audience. The Dreyfus Affair was the affair. lt set the tone for the reaction of contemporaries to the Beilis and Frank affairs, and the treatment of the Dreyfus Affair by many historians has also much influenced how historians, far fewer in number, have interpreted the subsequent two affairs. But in the reactions of contemporaries and of historians to the two later affairs the powerful model of the Dreyfus Affair has involved sorne important problems, ones that will be more completely scrutinized in subsequent chapters but that may be usefully summarized at this point. The Dreyfus Affair was seen by many contemporary believers in Dreyfus's innocence (the Dreyfusards, as they came to be known) as a titanic struggle between the forces of Justice and Injustice, between Truth and Mendacity, between Tolerance and Prejudice, between Progress and Reaction. The term intellectual in France dates from the time of the Affair. lt was first used derisively against the Dreyfusards, but they then adopted it, prou dl y presenting themselves as the voice of reas on and intellect over tribalistic instinct. For many contemporaries the Affair took on the qualities of a medieval morality play, with Good and Evil arrayed starkly against one another, and so also has it been presented by many works of modern history. 4 However, the more one plunges into its mysteries and paradoxes, the more the issue of Good and Evil becomes confused. The morality play turns out to be subtler in its themes than is at first apparent. lt emerges as doser to a modern stage drama, full of ambiguities, uncertainties, and moral dilemmas. We find that the "heroes," even the best of them, are fl.awed by ignoble instincts and dubious motives. And the "villains" are in sorne very important cases redeemed by heroic or otherwise estimable traits. Even sorne of the worst of them were not qui te the conniving fiends that a number of accounts would lead us to believe. Mostly we find human beings that are a perplexing mix of sometimes repellent and sometimes admirable qualities, drawn into a vortex of passionate ideological and national allegiances, personal ambitions, lamentable blunders, and plain honest mistakes. So it was, to varying degrees, in ail three affairs. A central theme of the Dreyfus Affair as it will be presented in these pages has little to do with the familiar verities of how good people must struggle against evil ones. lt is, rather, that preconceived belief, ideological intoxication, can tragically cloud the mind, weaken the reason, and pervert the moral sense of good people as well as of evil ones. Even otherwise honest and decent people are prone to believe what they want to believe, what they somehow need to believe, and not what a dispassionate examination (however elusive a conception that is) of evidence indicates, above ali if such an examination might lead to awkward conclusions. Belief that is impelled or contorted by desire and psychological need is far more typical than belief that leads to awkward conclusions. lt is that latter stance, of embracing the awkward truth no matter what the consequences, that must be considered heroic - and rare. If we are to find heroes, in the most rigorous sense of the word, we must look for those whose persona! interests were actually damaged by coming to the rescue of Dreyfus (or Beilis or Frank), not those who perceived personal or political opportunity in taking up the cause of public martyrs. Such heroes are to be found in ali the anti-Semitic affairs discussed in this volume but often in sorne unexpected quarters. ...

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