Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Perhaps the greatest propagator of anti-Semitism in France under the Third Republic, Edouard Drumont (1844-1917) was the founder and editor of the sensationalist newspaper La Libre Parole (“Free Speech”), which became the authoritative voice of French anti-Semitism, the Third Republic, and anti-Dreyfus France.

In 1886, six years before publishing La Libre Parole, Drumont had published an anti-Semitic book, La France Juive (“Jewish France”), whose proceeds he used to finance La Libre Parole. In this book – his magnum opus, which provided a unified synthesis of anti-Semitic history – he developed three elements of anti-Semitism: racial, opposing interaction between non-Jewish “Aryans” and Jewish “Semites”; financial, arguing that capitalism was under Jewish control; and religious, discussing the alleged Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus.

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A Voltairean who later became a devout Catholic, he was uniquely able to draw on both Church tradition and the secular Enlightenment to expound on the “Jewish plot” that allegedly dominated France.

La France Juive became one of the greatest commercial successes of the 19th century, selling over 100,000 copies in its first year, an almost unimaginable triumph at the time and evidencing Drumont’s keen understanding of the tenor of his era. Other similar works followed, such as Le Testament d’un Antisémite (1891). Drumont attracted many supporters, and he was one of the primary sources of anti-Semitic ideas that would later be embraced by Nazism.

However, his fame and the popularity of La Libre Parole, his ubiquitous anti-Semitic rag, did not take off until he exploited the Panama Canal Scandal; made it a matter of prime national interest; and, of course, blamed it on the Jews. Many people believe that it was the Dreyfus Affair that drove Drumont’s fame but, in fact, it was the bribery fiasco in Panama – considered the largest fiscal corruption scandal of the 19th century – that brought him international renown and made La Libre Parole so prominent.

The story begins with Ferdinand De Lesseps (1805-94), the French developer of the Suez Canal, which successfully joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas (1869); substantially reduced sailing distances and times between East and West; and effectively facilitated worldwide commerce to an unprecedented extent. He attempted to repeat this grand success with an effort to build a lockless Panama Canal during the 1880s, but that proved to be a monumental failure.

Ironically, the Colombian government, which owned the relevant territory designated for construction of the canal, had originally given the concession to construct a canal across the isthmus to Augustin Solomon (1838), a Frenchman whom it apparently did not know was Jewish. When this disqualifying fact came to light, Solomon was removed from the project because, as a French official explained, the “keys of the world are here, but the name of Senor Solomon does not seem to be sufficiently Christian to qualify him for the role of guardian of Saint Peter’s.”

1880 Panama Canal bond certificate signed by de Lesseps.

Because of his success with the Suez Canal, de Lesseps – who did not have Solomon’s “problem” of being Jewish – had attained deity-like status in French society. He founded Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique de Panama (“Universal Company of the Panama Oceanic Canal,” or the “Panama Company”) to construct a lockless canal across Panama and, awarded the commission, he and the Panama Company commenced work in February 1881. Ironically, nobody paid attention to the fact that the true cost of the Suez Canal had been double de Lesseps’ estimate and that he actually knew little about finance and economics.

Over the course of eight years, little progress was made on the monumental project, which was beset by massive financial problems from the outset and was plagued by engineering difficulties, a high death rate among the workers, and phenomenal health care expenses due to malaria.

Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of ordinary French citizens, typically fiscally conservative, eagerly invested in the project because public loans to it were backed by the French government; investing in the project was broadly regarded as a patriotic public service rather than as a private enterprise; and the project, led by de Lesseps, was considered a “sure thing.”

When the Panama Company went bankrupt, it caused the loss of 1.8 billion gold francs and 800,000 French citizens lost their investment. Drumont exposed rampant corruption in the Company’s operation, including the bribing of French deputies (who used the money to pad their election accounts) to approve knowingly unsound government loans and to actively suppress public information regarding the financial troubles of the Company.

The public, furious that the very source of their confidence in its investment – the government’s backing of the loans – turned out to be a crucial factor in the Panama Canal Scandal, was eager for a scapegoat. Drumont came along and gave them one: the Jews. Characterizing the Canal Affair as “a Jewish conspiracy,” he wildly – and effectively – exaggerated the role of several Jews in the scandal.

Quotation signed by Ferdinand de Lesseps.

In this signed autographed quotation, de Lesseps writes in Latin, undoubtedly with respect to the successful design and building of the Suez Canal and his failed attempt to build the Panama Canal: “Open up the land to the people (1892).”

That year, French nationalists accused a large number of ministers, including Georges Clemenceau, leader of the left in the Chamber of Deputies and later twice prime minister, of taking bribes from de Lesseps, leading to a corruption investigation against the Panama Canal Company and a corruption trial against de Lesseps and his son. (Interestingly, Drumont later fought an 1898 duel against Clemenceau over the Dreyfus Affair, but all six shots missed.) Over 500 Parliament members, including six ministers, were accused of taking Company bribes in exchange for withholding Company financial information from the public.

De Lesseps, other members of his management team, and various entrepreneurs – including Gustave Eiffel, famous for his tower (completed in 1889) – were sentenced on February 9, 1893 to significant jail terms. However, these sentences were later annulled on appeal because, as the court ruled, the statute of limitations had expired, and all but one of the accused (who had foolishly confessed) went unpunished.

Pressure for the Panama Canal debacle was eventually taken off the French government due in no small part to the involvement in the scandal of two German Jews, Jacques Reinach and Cornelius Herz, who were the subjects of most of Drumont’s coverage of the scandal. Baron Reinach, one of the most prestigious and influential bankers of the 19th century, was involved in many of the largest and most important financial enterprises of the time. Herz migrated from France to America, where he became a citizen and made a fortune as an international con man selling electrical health “cures” before returning to France.

Reinach, who served as the government’s secret financial advisor and was its middleman with the Panama Company, distributed bribe money to right-wing French. Herz was responsible for paying off the leftists and anti-clerical radicals to whom Reinach had no access.

Herz commenced blackmailing Reinach, threatening to expose his treason. The precise basis for the blackmailing threat has not been definitively established, though the leading theory appears to be that Herz discovered that Reinach had sold state secrets to Italy or Britain and threatened to publicly disclose his betrayal. The threat drove Reinach to commit suicide a day before he was to appear in court, and Herz fled to England where, feigning illness so as to prevent his extradition, he remained for the rest of his life.

However, before killing himself, Reinach, in exchange for La Libre Parole agreeing to cover up his role in the Panama Affair, gave Drumont a list of Parliament members and other government officials who had taken bribes. In a brilliant tactic, Drumont decided against publishing a master list of all the criminals involved in the affair; instead, he slowly trickled out additional names of the offenders each day, thereby keeping the Panama Affair before the public, increasing long-term sales of La Libre Parole to a public eager to read about each day’s newly disclosed perpetrators, and destroying the lives of many politicians forced to wait for the hatchet to fall when their names were published.

Virtually overnight, the story transformed Drumont’s anti-Semitic daily from a small and insignificant rag sheet into the essential voice of the Third Republic, making it perhaps the most influential and popular paper in France. Drumont insisted that the scandal showed that the intermediaries between business and the government were almost exclusively Jews and that, already in control of the business world, they were plotting to take control of French politics through bribery and other crimes. As a result, anti-Semitic attacks were frequently made against Jewish participation on the stock exchanges.

Ironically, Reinach and Herz had acted only as middlemen and no Jew had profited from the Panama Canal Scandal. However, the terms “banker” and “Jew” had long been synonymous in the public mind, and Drumont’s anti-Semitic reporting only added fuel to that fire.

In her classic work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt, better known for her seminal Eichmann in Jerusalem, persuasively argues that the Dreyfus Affair was merely a second act with its origins deeply rooted in the Panama Canal Scandal, which was a key development in the evolution of French anti-Semitism and played a crucial role in the events leading to the Dreyfus Affair.

Later, when the French army purposely leaked the news of Dreyfus’ arrest to Drumont, he pounced on the opportunity to prove his central theory of Jewish perfidy: that the Jews, who were responsible for France’s 19th century military losses and for the Panama Canal Scandal, were now engaging in further high treason within the French military.

He used his newspaper, which regularly reached over 500,000 readers, to portray Dreyfus as the symbol of Jewish treachery and disloyalty and, on November 2, 1894, he ran a front-page story about the arrest of Dreyfus whom, he alleged, had confessed passing state secrets to the Germans. The day following Dreyfus’ first conviction, the headline in La Libre Parole proclaimed “Out of France, Jews! France for the French!”

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Incredibly, Herzl – who came to the Zionist idea while witnessing Dreyfus’ degradation – greatly admired Drumont, lobbied him to review his seminal work, The Jewish State (1896), in La Libre Parole, and was thrilled by Drumont’s January 15, 1897 article on it. This seeming incongruity may be understood by considering the underlying character of Herzl’s Jewish nationalist Zionism, which stood in stark opposition to the assimilationism of most European Jews.

Herzl, who shared with French anti-Semites a mutual disdain for the French Revolution, which had granted political equality to the Jews, believed that the Jews were not merely a religious group but, rather, a nation waiting to be reborn whose destiny could only be fulfilled in a sovereign Jewish state.

Thus, Herzl believed that the “anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends and the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” His deputy, Max Nordau, observed that Zionism “is not a question of religion, but exclusively of race, and there is no one with whom I am in greater agreement on this position than M. Drumont.”

The postcard exhibited here, an extreme rarity, contains a message in French dated June 5, 1909, written and signed by Drumont. The front of the card contains a portrait of the infamous anti-Dreyfusard in the middle of a page of La Libre Parole with the headline: “The Traitor (i.e., Dreyfus) is Condemned.” A manifestly egocentric and delusional Drumont writes:

I have been organized/prepared for struggle. I have a joyful personality, a certain artistic talent, and I am an independent and amused observer of people, which makes me find entertainment in all things in life and in the development and contradictions of all human beings. I have struggled, but I have also had the most brilliant successes. Therefore, I really do not have to complain about my life’s destiny.

Drumont’s downfall began when he made the Rothschilds and their banking family a frequent target of his anti-Semitic diatribes. He was sued by the vice president of the Chamber of Deputies for libelously alleging that the latter had taken a bribe from Edouard Alphonse de Rothschild to enact particular legislation favored by Rothschild (the trial was covered by a journalist named Theodore Herzl).

Unable to provide any evidence to support his allegations, Drumont was incarcerated for three months, fined, and ordered to publish a retraction. Thereafter, his fortunes declined, and he died in penury.

In a fascinating and despicable May 22, 1897 correspondence exhibited here, Drumont writes from Paris, trying to justify his anti-Semitism by characterizing it in patriotic terms:

Letter from Edouard Drumont.

What would you like me to write in the album? One date: May 22, 1897…when this album will be studied in a few years, public opinion will undoubtedly change as the result of the work of my colleagues and myself. They will know then, too late I am afraid, that we acted out of affection for our country. We tried to protect our forefathers’ faith, in the land of our forefathers, the purity of the racial line of our forefathers against the Semites [i.e., the Jews] – the invaders and greedy money-chasing people who sought only to harm an innocent and too confident nation that accepted as brothers its merciless enemies.

In 1870, Adolphe Cremieux, then Justice Minister following the collapse of the Second Empire, passed a law conferring French citizenship upon Algerian Jews. Drumont was elected deputy from Algiers in May 1898, in which capacity he tried, but failed, to repeal Cremieux’s law. Drumont failed to obtain a seat in the Academie Francaise (1909) and, at the time of his death in February 1917, he had been largely forgotten.

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