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Monday, December 15, 2008

What we learn from the Dreyfus Affair

Recently, I came across an article about the Dreyfus Affair that occurred in late 19th century France and was pivotal in the eventual separation of France's church and state. As I read, I couldn't help noting the parallels surrounding the infamous case that resonate with what's been happening in the last decade of American politics - mainly, the abuse of power arising from clerical interference in secular and military politics, resulting in the overall good of society becoming subsumed at the behest and for the benefit of religious factions.

In brief, in 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer from a Jewish family was wrongly accused of passing French military secrets to the Germans. Despite his protestations of innocence, Dreyfus was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, a penal colony off a South American coast. Because of the overt anti-semitism of the era, Dreyfus had few defenders. But two years after Dreyfus was convicted, another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, found exculpatory evidence showing that the actual German spy was an officer named Walsin Esterhazy. Even though Picquart was a man of his time and was as anti-semitic as most of his fellow officers, he believed that Dreyfus should be released and Esterhazy should be held for his crimes. But when Picquart turned over the evidence, his superiors, sensitive about their original error, sought to cover up the truth and drummed Picquart out of the military, even going so far as to counterfeit documents to bolster their original claim that Dreyfus was the spy. Eventually, when the public discovered the truth, the French military was forced to reopen the case, during which they still found a way to exonerate Esterhazy. Right-wing factions as well as the Catholic church backed the decision, joining the anti-Dreyfus campaign. However, the mainly pro-Dreyfus public refused to be quiet about the blatant injustice. Author Emile Zola became so incensed that he wrote his famous J'Accuse denouncing the cover-up and published it in one of the daily newspapers (Zola was subsequently convicted of libel and had to flee the country for years). Because of the public outcry, the French president ultimately pardoned Dreyfus and released him, where he was reinstated in the military with full rank and privileges.

Because of the egregious abuse by the military and the self-interested interference by the church in the Dreyfus case, a coalition of republicans, radicals and socialists began working together and eventually a liberal government was voted into power in 1899. In 1904, anticlerical legislation was passed, leading to the 1905 separation of France's church and state.

The Dreyfus Affair is a perfect illustration how governmental abuse can become legitimized when church and state become entangled. As the Dreyfus Affair and the past eight years of the Bush Administration has shown, the church in any form has no place in government. The two are contradictory - the church represents a faction and the government is supposed to represent the whole. The interests of the few should never override the good of the many. Even Jesus admonished that what is Caesar belongs to Caesar. This includes the government. Unfortunately, our government of the last decade has been held in a stranglehold by extremist religious factions who have overriden the good of all of society for the benefits and interests of a few. Purposely or not, church interference in secular affairs tends to exacerbate prejudices, whether the overt anti-semitism of 19th century Franch or the racism of 21st century America.

The irony of the political parallels are notable in that they show that the backdrops may change, but human reaction will remain the same. When extremism goes against the core of governmental independence and societal good, the public will rally. In late 19th century France, the public rose up against extreme right-wingers and church demagoguery that eventually led to a liberal government being elected; last month, the American public did likewise.

Which proves the truth of French writer Alphonse Karr's proverb: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."


Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 12/15/2008 10:25:00 AM Permanent Link     | | Home


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