Cross-post: From Republic to Reaction

25 February 2021


(This is a cross-post from John Ganz’s Substack, UNPOPULAR FRONT, and is Part III of his series on the crises of the Third Republic. You can subscribe to his substack here.)


The Franco-Russian Alliance and the Rise of Antisemitism


In 1894, the same year that would witness Dreyfus’s trial, France ratified a military alliance with Russia. The strategic rationale of this pact was perfectly clear: Russia is on the other side of France’s main enemy, Germany, so France and Russia would effectively surround the Kaiser’s Reich. But from the perspective of ideology and culture it was an odd coupling: France was a liberal, democratic republic and the birthplace of the revolutionary tradition, while Russia was still an autocracy, with the Tsar’s rule not even bound by rudimentary constitutional principles. The Tsar also regarded himself as the chief of global reaction and opposed everything that seemed to carry on the spirit of the French revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville, who was Foreign Minister in the ill-fated Second Republic, remarks in his Recollections on Nicholas I’s conception of himself as Emperor of reactionary Europe:


He alone of all the powerful governments represented the old society and ancient traditional principle of authority in Europe. He was not only the representative but considered himself the champion of it. His political theories, religious beliefs, ambition and conscience equally urged him to play his part. He had therefore turned the cause of authority in the world into a sort of second empire even vaster than the first, encouraging by his letters and rewarding by his decoration all those who, in whatsoever corner of Europe, won victories over anarchy, or even liberty, as if they were his subjects and had helped to assure his own power.


“The cause of authority,” now championed by Nicholas’ grandson Alexander III and his great grandson Nicholas II, found, in the latter part of the century, a pied-à-terre in the heart of republican Paris: the salon of Juliet Adam. Adam was the liberated and cultivated daughter of a provincial doctor; in her twenties she wrote a feminist critique of the socialist Proudhon, she wrote encomiums to the liberal heroes of 1848, and was the author of “novel that celebrated the erotic exploits of a self-professed ‘pagan woman’ (païenne) who flouted religious and social conventions.”* Adam married a rising republican financier and journalist, who became prefect of the Paris police. The couple’s salon became a favored meeting place of Paris’s political and literary elite: Georges Sand, Gustave Flaubert, and Anatole France rubbed shoulders there with the republican politician Léon Gambetta. The future prime minister’s political strategies were hashed out in the Adam’s living room.


After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war the cause of la Revanche became a preoccupation even more dear to Adam heart than republicanism. From the earliest days of the Third Republic, she put her considerable influence and resources behind an all-out campaign to affect a Franco-Russian alliance. The effort comprised both behind-the-scenes lobbying and a publicity blitz to improve Russia’s image in France. To further this end, Adam welcomed into her a salon a number of Russian emigres with a Pan-Slavic political orientation, meaning they envisioned the Tsar one day ruling over all the Slavic peoples of Europe. As it happened, many of these rather shady figures had connections with the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. These relationships were of particular interest to Adam’s husband, the prefect of police, who was looking for collaborators against the radical emigres he felt troubled security in Paris.


Partly under the influence of Adam’s new Russian visitors and partly under own momentum of Adam’s own disappointment with the Republic, the politics of the salon lurched rightward. Adam began to question whether a parliamentary republic was too decadent and soft to effectively counter the German threat and sought new political solutions. Adam’s inner circle created a cult of personality around General Boulanger, whom I discussed last time, and she used her talents as a publicist to promote him in the press. There was also another novel political idea circulating in Adam’s avant-garde: antisemitism.


In the 1880s, there was still relatively little organized antisemitism in France. To be sure, Jews faced significant deal of personal prejudice, often fueled by religious sentiment, but the ideology that centered the Jews as the primary actor in world affairs was not yet a mainstream presence in French politics. The Russians in Adam’s circle frequently made Jews, who lived under a regime of legal discrimination in Russia, the target of their anti-liberal, anti-socialist, and anti-capitalist philippics, blaming “Jewish usurers” for the depredations and corruption of modernity. These Russian ideologues made contact in Adam’s salon with the burgeoning elite of France’s antisemitic press, men like Édouard Drumont, the editor of La Libre Parole, which would go on to play a large role in the Dreyfus Affair.


Curiously enough, one of these Russian antisemites, Elié de Cyon, born Ili’a Tsion, was himself of Jewish origin. He had converted to Orthodox Christianity in order to enter the Russian professoriate. Cyon fled Russia after his rather crackpot spiritualist theories about physiology were rejected by the scientific community and he became one Adam’s closest confidants and collaborators. While he used his connections in French high society to secure a large loan from the Rothschild house for the most reactionary and antisemitic regime in Europe, he also penned conspiracy theories claiming the Rothschilds were promoting Jewish world domination. This is just one example of the contradictions, if not utter hypocrisy and systematic lying, that the reactionary politics of Adam’s salon engendered. While the nationalist writers in her circle roared in print about “France for the French” and deplored immigration, they spent their evenings hobnobbing with a rather questionable group of emigres. In a social arrangement that mirrored the baroque twists and turns of the salonnières theories and fabrications, radical republicans mixed with reactionary monarchists, scientists and doctors with mystics and charlatans, high littérateurs with yellow journalists, Jews with antisemites, and xenophobes with foreign adventurers. The boundaries of these identities were liable to become blurred and the one could often transform into the other.


The cultivated French salon of the 18th century had been the birthplace of the Enlightenment, now in the 19th century it became home to a bizarre culture of subterfuge and deceit. Adam’s circle often made use of forgeries to advance its political goals; one observer called it a “cult of the false document.” Along with its ideological synthesis of populist themes and autocratic aspiration, Adam’s salon created a practical synthesis of political techniques, combining the propaganda and disinformation methods of the Tsarist secret police with a Western democrat’s persuasion of public opinion through the free press. It’s not hard to see how this peculiar political synthesis foreshadows some of the catastrophes of the next century.


The contradictions of the Adam salon’s politics and social position were made manifest with the Panama Affair, the great financial scandal that gripped the Third Republic in 1892. Ferdinand de Lesseps, mastermind of the Suez Canal, wanted to build a similar canal in Panama to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. While making very little progress, de Lesseps managed, with the backing of parliament, to raise a huge amount of capital in France. In fact, de Lesseps enterprise was totally bankrupt, and to secure additional infusions of cash he had resorted to bribing the press and a good deal of parliament to guarantee their continued support. It seems that de Lesseps was living in the twilight realm between unrealistic dreams and outright fraud that should sound familiar to anybody who has witnessed the scandals involving 21st century American entrepreneurs. In any case, his endeavor resulted in the financial ruination of half a million middle-class Frenchmen.


While none of the originators or recipients of the bribes had been Jewish, a number of German immigrant Jews were involved as middlemen in distributing the money. Édouard Drumont’s antisemitic paper La Libre Parole played a key role in uncovering the scandal and published a list of the bribed deputies in parliament, catapulting the journal to national prominence. Inconveniently, among the recipients of the kickbacks were none other than Juliet Adam and Elié de Cyon, who had funneled the cash into their pro-Russian activities. While the Republic never regained the prestige it had after the exposure of this deep corruption, the Adam circle also lost much of its influence in the next decade. But their long-cherished goal of Franco-Russian rapprochement would be accomplished. And the new political consciousness it helped to nourish would arrive as well. As the historian Faith Hillis writes,


With the beginning of the Dreyfus affair, the distinctive brand of politics that had coalesced in the Adam salon a decade earlier—a worldview of antiliberal and antisemitic ideology and equally devoted to authoritarian fantasies and the idea of mass politics—entered the mainstream of French political life. In 1895, Drumont’s La Libre Parole celebrated Adam as a visionary, describing how her activism had given rise to the “antisemitic world” that had begun to reclaim “France for the French”…


(For this piece I’m particularly indebted to the scholarship of historian Faith Hillis, whose paper “The ‘Franco-Russian Marseillaise’ International Exchange and the Making of Antiliberal Politics in Fin de Siècle France” in The Journal of Modern History can be read here.)


Picture credit: Adolphe Léon Willette via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.


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