Made by History

Want to Heal America? Look to 19th Century France

8 minute read

If the box office receipts of the recent film Civil War offer any indication, Americans are preoccupied with our national divisions, which only seem to grow by the day. But while futuristic — or dystopian — fiction stokes fear about our current situation, history provides examples of ways to heal the fracture. And the most hopeful parallel to our current moment comes not from American history, but rather from France in the late 19th century.

The Dreyfus Affair — which involved the selling of military secrets to Germany and a fierce debate over the guilt or innocence of artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus — ripped France apart in the 1890s. Yet just when it seemed the discord could produce a civil war, the deft maneuvering of the prime minister pulled the country back from disaster and forged a solution that avoided bloodshed. The story of how France came back from the brink has much to teach us about the ways in which political hatreds can be overcome for the common good — even if it also illustrates that the U.S. needs to tackle the root causes of its problems more head on than the French did.

In the fall of 1894, the French counter-espionage service uncovered a document written by a French officer, which offered to sell military secrets to Germany. Suspicion immediately fell on Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the army’s General Staff. After a cursory investigation, Dreyfus was arrested and brought before a court martial. In violation of the judicial code, prosecutors never showed his lawyers the evidence against him, and the military court quickly found Dreyfus guilty.

He was forced to endure a humiliating public degradation ceremony in the courtyard of the École militaire. As his insignia were ripped off and his sword broken, Dreyfus cried out, “I am innocent! Long live France!” But his words were drowned out by the sound of 10,000 onlookers screaming, “Death to Judas!”

Read More: How We Can Confront the Myths of January 6 and Intensifying Christian Nationalism

While Dreyfus began serving a life sentence under brutal conditions in the notorious prison on Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, his family back in Paris launched a campaign to prove his innocence. At first, they had trouble interesting anyone in the case. But as evidence of the miscarriage of justice gradually came to light — including the identity of the actual traitor, a dissolute nobleman named Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy — more people joined Dreyfus’ cause. Intellectuals began signing petitions and staging demonstrations in support of the Jewish officer.
Their big break came in January 1898, when the popular novelist Émile Zola published an article with the banner headline “J’Accuse” [I Accuse], exposing how the army had framed an innocent man. Zola’s maneuver galvanized Dreyfus’s supporters but also enflamed his opponents. No fewer than 69 towns and cities in France and colonial Algeria saw antisemitic riots following the publication of “J’Accuse.” Zola ended up being tried for libel and forced into exile from France.

Zola, Emile - Schriftsteller, Frankreich/ Offener Brief Affaere Dreyfus
Zola's letter to the president of the republic, published in 1898.ullstein bild via Getty Images

Over the next two years, French society broke in half over the Dreyfus case. Those who fought on behalf of Dreyfus believed that the affair was a test of the motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity enshrined by the French Revolution. For the anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom continued to oppose justice for Dreyfus even when his innocence became clear, the reputation of the army mattered more than abstract ideals. Many of them were also antisemites who believed that a Jew like Dreyfus had no place in France, let alone in the army, its most sacred institution.

This battle raised fundamental questions about French society. Could individual citizens claim the right to impartial justice — even when this right conflicted with military or national interest? On a deeper level, the affair asked whether religious and racial minorities belonged in the nation at all.  

After it emerged that much of the evidence shown in secret to Dreyfus’ judges had been forged, he was brought back to France for a second court martial. Journalists from around the world descended on Rennes, where the trial played out over several weeks in the late summer of 1899. Soldiers on foot and horseback patrolled the streets, hoping to maintain order. When the jury found Dreyfus guilty a second time, France seemed on the brink of civil war.

Instead, Prime Minister Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau skillfully pulled his country back from the brink. Offered the chance to form a cabinet by the newly installed President Émile Loubet, Waldeck-Rousseau at first planned to choose ministers only from among his fellow moderates, a move he knew would be approved by the National Assembly. Instead, he reversed course, and floated the idea of bringing together ministers of vastly different political orientations who were allied by two things: a belief in Dreyfus’ innocence and a desire to save the republic.

He included Alexandre Millerand, the leader of the parliamentary Socialists, who had long resisted making common cause with those who supported the bourgeois republic. He also brought in General Gaston de Galliffet, the man responsible for the massacre of the revolutionary Communards in 1871, who was one of the political figures most despised on the left. The Prime Minister’s gamble was that each man would bring over enough of his supporters to give the “government of republican defense” a chance. 

The outcry toward those willing to join the cabinet was predictable. A contingent of socialists disavowed Millerand and formed their own party. The nationalist right likewise wasted no time in denouncing what they called the “Dreyfus ministry.” 

But the government survived long enough to put an end to the affair. Waldeck-Rousseau used his power to go after the anti-Dreyfusard bastions that he saw as posing the greatest threat to the Republic, including the army and the Catholic Church. The Dreyfus case itself remained the major elephant in the room. In the short term, Waldeck-Rousseau offered Dreyfus a pardon, which Dreyfus accepted on the condition he could continue fighting to clear his name. Galliffet ordered the army not to oppose the pardon.

Read More: What Washington Can Learn From Mayors

Yet, the solution fostered by Waldeck-Rousseau was not entirely one-sided: he also passed a general amnesty in December, 1900. The pro-Dreyfus forces largely acquiesced even though it meant the military conspirators who had framed Dreyfus would escape punishment. Waldeck-Rousseau was able to forge a compromise because political leaders were willing to put aside differences for the greater good and prod the populace to do the same.

But while Waldeck-Rousseau successfully calmed French politics in the short-term, he didn’t truly eliminate the root causes of the strife. At its core, the divide in French society stemmed from conflicts between left and right over the role of minorities in society and the importance of democratic institutions. These conflicts would continue to smolder for decades. During World War II, the pro-Nazi Vichy government of National Revolution saw itself as the corrective to the triumph of the Dreyfusard coalition. In many ways, the war between left and right that came to the surface during the affair continues to divide France to the present day. During the last presidential election, the far-right candidate Éric Zemmour said that Dreyfus’ innocence was “not obvious,” a clear dog-whistle to his hardline supporters.

This mixed verdict — short-term calm, but lingering problems — shows that options do exist to solve the kind of conflict in which the U.S. is mired, or at least to dissipate tensions. Studying the dénouement of the affair, it seems that a centrist coalition can ignore the fringes and still govern effectively, if its leaders act decisively and bring those who violated laws and sought to overthrow democracy to heel, both with strict measures to curtail their threats and with the promise of amnesty. This would be much harder in the American two-party system than it was in France’s parliamentary system, but as Congress proved in recently approving aid to both Israel and Ukraine, compromise between opposing factions is not impossible.

But the affair does also warn Americans that political hatreds can prove extremely durable unless leaders address the root causes — not just the current controversy of the day. The Dreyfus Affair still riles certain segments of the French population because the tensions that it brought to the surface have never been fully resolved. That exposes the vital need to persuade the public of the value of greater inclusivity and of the enduring value of democratic institutions. Only that can truly heal American society.

Maurice Samuels is a professor of French at Yale, where he also directs the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism. His most recent book, Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair, was published by Yale University Press in 2024.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Maurice Samuels / Made by History at