J’accuse! The Link Between the Dreyfus Affair and Today

Imagine a trial rocking a nation: accusations of collusion with a hated enemy, wealthy and influential elites taking sides, an entire country riveted by headlines. The trial would fundamentally alter the country; both changing how citizens viewed each other, the military and other national institutions.

No, this is not related to the current investigation into President Trump’s alleged ties. While the Dreyfus Affair, as it would become known, happened more than a century ago, there are more than a few passing similarities between the events of today and those from the 1890’s.

In 1894, a young army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of selling military plans to France’s mortal enemy, Germany. In a highly publicized trial, Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, France’s military prison island in the Caribbean. Soon after Dreyfus’ family began appealing the decision. The case split the country; conservative pro-army factions clashed openly with intellectual pro-republican leaders. In January 1898, Émile Zola published J’accuse…!, a rallying cry of support exonerating Dreyfus. Eventually cleared of his treason conviction, Dreyfus was instead sentenced to a 10 years hard labor, although that too was commuted. It wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was officially cleared of his conviction.

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Flags, France, and Freedom Fries – the changing flavor of American patriotism

One of the many key moments that led me to love the United States and its people happened in 1986. I was at a gathering of international students in Palo Alto, most of them with a European background just like me. The mood was very much anti-American, not the least because Reagan had just tried to kill Gaddafi by bombing Tripoli. He had missed the target but managed to create a lot of angst that WW III was about to break out. Everybody in the room was lamenting the ignorance of the Americans and political naïveté of their leaders in the harshest terms. I felt bad for the only American student in the group who got an ear full of unabashed Eurocentrism. After all, he was representing the host country and we didn’t really behave like guests, or, for that matter, like visitors from countries that had benefited from US protection as long as anybody in the room could remember. After everybody had unloaded, he just said, “You are probably right, the US is a big country, a lot of Americans don’t travel and don’t really know what’s going on outside the country, and sometimes we mess up.” He was the only one in the room who talked calmly, without drama and with a healthy shot of self-confidence. Back then, most Americans I talked to shared my fellow student’s relaxed and self-reflective form of patriotism. Possibly, because the lessons of the Vietnam War were still on everybody’s mind and the Cold War had not been won yet.

Continue reading “Flags, France, and Freedom Fries – the changing flavor of American patriotism”