To put the Dreyfus Affair into historical perspective in his extraordinary article in the New Yorker of September 28, Adam Gopnik describes the Paris of 1894 as a city of two towers, one finished and one rising. The finished tower was the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris Exhibition of 1889, a unique technological achievement and symbol of modernity. It marked the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. And the second tower, at the other side of the city, on top of Montmartre, was the Bell Tower of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur, which had been slowly rising in the 1870s, built “in a gargantuan Romanesque manner then seen as the true mystical style of Franco-Catholicism. It was dedicated explicitly to the expiation of the sins of 1870 and the redemption of France by a restored Catholic Church.”
1870 was the year of the defeat of the French army by the Prussian army, assisted by the army of other German states, the end of the Second Empire, and the foundation of the Third Republic on September 4.
The two aspects of France symbolized by the towers anticipated the gulf between General de Gaulle and Marshall Pétain seventy years later, after another French defeat.
The roots of Pétain’s regime can be found in the legislative elections on February 8, 1871, the monarchists, not the republicans, received a majority in the Assembly. These elections were held after France had surrendered and after many thousands of unarmed revolutionary workers, the communards, had been massacred by the republican army during the three-month-long siege of Paris.
As the result of the election, the majority wished to offer the throne to the aging, childless Legitimist Comte de Chambord, the grandson of King Charles X, with the more liberal Orléanist Comte de Paris, the grandson of the Citizen-King Louis Philippe as his heir. The Bonapartists were marginalized. However, the majority candidate, the Comte de Chambord, was not prepared to rule over a state that had the Tricouleur as its national symbol and was therefore associated with the French Revolution. So nothing came of it. The monarchists had to wait for the Comte de Chambord to die so that the Comte de Paris could take over. But he did not die until 1883, by which time the taste for monarchy had faded.
It is useful to remember that 1883 was only eleven years before the decade-long Dreyfus Affair began to unfold.
Adam Gopnik quotes the father of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who had been born Jewish in Lithuania, who said, “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”