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« Fitzgerald: A Life Chronology | Main | The Rise of the Anarchists »

Anti-Semitism Around World War I

It’s hard to express how casual—no, how refined—anti-Semitism was before and after World War I. Although racialist thinking was to become decidedly pernicious, red in tooth and claw, by the early 1930s, and eventually lead to the slaughter of millions of Jews during World War II, there was a disturbing insouciance about the hatred of the European Jews in the years from 1895 to 1925. A British merchant, touring the Continent in the late 1890s and invited to the château of the Duc de Luynes at Dampierre for the weekend, was led to remark that French society was bound by inexorable bonds: “They hate Jews, Americans, the present, the past two centuries, the future, and the fine arts.”

Across Europe, non-converted Jews were not received in fine houses, in high society, or ever at court. There was, of course, the occasional “court Jew,” a learned man who was said to see deeply into philosophy and economics, mostly because he was thought to stand outside it all. (The concept of the "court Jew" enjoys a long tradition in Europe, dating back to the Middle Ages, when the Popes and certain monarchs kept a few Jews alive in their palaces because Jesus was thought to return first for the Jews—so if you killed them all, you killed off the Second Coming.) Indeed, Kaiser Wilhelm II kept several court Jews in Berlin, many of whom became his good friends—if friends they could really be.

Albert Ballin, about 1910Once such was Albert Ballin, born in Hamburg in 1857 to Danish parents of modest circumstances. He rose to become the father of the modern cruise industry. On January 2 1891, his in-debt-to-the-crow's-nest ship, the retrofitted SS Auguste Victoria, set sail for a six-week pleasure cruise of the Mediterranean. Despite sneers from many, including the press, the outing proved a tremendous financial success. Thereafter, Ballin became a frequent economic advisor to the Kaiser, so much so that Wilhelm had him officially installed in court, although kept in a separate part of the building. Using his new position, Ballin tried many times to broker a trade pact between Germany and Great Britain, such that both countries would call a truce to their naval build-ups while still competing to build the finest pleasure vessels. Never successful at the treaty, Ballin saw many of his ships go down during the war and committed suicide on November 9, 1918, two days before the armistice.

Although Jews seemed to gain prominence with their new “legal” status in the 1870s across Europe, the Jewish population of western Europe and Great Britain measured only about one percent of the population by the turn of the century. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism was increasingly fashionable, the subject of drawing-room banter and bridge-table asides. You have already encountered sneers in novels we've read, little asides that don’t ever seem to find a counterbalance.

Gustav Mahler in 1910In eastern Europe, of course, the Jewish population was larger. About ten percent of the Viennese were Jewish. They played a prominent part in the city's cultural life. After all, Gustav Mahler was Jewish—although almost never taken into fashionable society, forever skirting its edge. Karl Luger, the fiercely anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna before World War I, frequently declared “I myself decide who is a Jew.” By that, he meant who gets what before the law. And by that, he meant that Mahler would forever be an outsider, merely an entertainer, certainly no more.

Of course, the most ravaging instance of anti-Semitism before World War I was the Dreyfuss Affair. It single-handedly stopped all of France in its tracks for over a decade. In November, 1894, after some rather brutal elections and increased political turmoil in France, a rather lackluster, absurdly stiff French army captain and non-practicing but not-converted Jew, Alfred Dreyfuss, was convicted of treason for selling national secrets to the Germans. The government relied on the prevalent, overt hatred of the Jews to bind the populace into a common front against the Germans. Dreyfuss was sent to Devils Island for life. He was considered such a malicious person that the penal colony was cleared of all other inhabitants except for the guards. He was locked into utter, complete isolation.

Alfred Dreyfuss in 1894But not forgotten back home. Intellectuals and artists smelled a rat. Document surfaced to show that the case was utterly fabricated. Two years later, more evidence surfaced, this time to show that Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a French major, was the real traitor.

The army reacted with ridiculous bravado. The church hustled to its side. To criticize the army was to threaten revolution. A subsequent trial was held, Esterhazy was easily acquitted, and Dreyfuss was convicted of even more crimes.

Forged documents themselves came to light, Zola wrote his firebrand anti-government tract J’accuse, and political foment set in. In Monet’s possibly only political act, he signed a petition for Dreyfuss’ retrial, causing a rupture with his best friend, the arch-conservative and rabid anti-Semite Degas.

A French anti-Semitic cartoon, picturing DreyfussAnti-Semitic newspapers flourished. France was almost torn in two. When a third trial was ordered, Dreyfuss was brought back to Rennes, the venue. The crowds expected a monster. Women hid their faces. They had been told not to look him directly in his eyes lest he use his demon powers on them.

Instead, everyone gasped at the hollow shell of a man who came into the courtroom, a man worn to nothing, death-camp thin, almost voiceless. He could barely sit through the trial—at which he was once again found guilty and sentenced to ten years on Devils Island.

Riots erupted throughout Europe. To show you how times have changed, most of the presses across the Arabic Middle East condemned the anti-Jewish fervor in France. To keep the peace, Dreyfuss was finally pardoned and set free. He served in the French army for the rest of his life, including extensive duties during World War I.

An anti-Semitic cartoon from about 1900, showing Zola as a pig, sitting on his works and painting a map of France with "caca interntional"Yes, his trials led to the passage of laws separating church and state in France. Yes, his story led Theodor Herzl, covering the trial for a Hungarian newspaper, to found the World Zionist Organization and begin agitating for a Jewish state. But the Dreyfuss Affair at its heart shone a light on drawing-room anti-Semitism, the disgustingly common ways that people in general hated Jews, used them as the backdrop for their own fears, recorded on their persons the sins of European society, its excesses and its neglects. If Europe was choking on its own affluence, the gap between rich and poor becoming wider, the Jews must be richer yet. If poverty was becoming so systemic throughout Europe that millions were in danger every winter, the Jews must be poor and filthy. As they sing in the pitch-perfect South Park musical: "We must blame them and cause a fuss before somebody thinks of blaming us."

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