The wellsprings of Dreyfusard activism are normally ascribed to rationality, secularism, even rabid anticlericalism. The Affair is conventionally seen as a key episode in the ideological construction of 'les deux Frances', in which the Left waged war against the Right, secularism opposed Catholicism, rationality triumphed over obscurantism, and the universalism of the French Revolutionary tradition vied with an increasingly exclusive and aggressive nationalism. This vision has remained so persistently attractive because it reinforced the myths of the protagonists on both sides of the political divide. They felt they represented two different value systems and two opposing views of French identity.
From the very beginning, Dreyfusard historiography upheld this dichotomy, seeing their advocacy as rationalist and civil-libertarian, keen to distinguish themselves from what was regarded as the monstrous fabrications and religious fanaticism of the Right.1 They prided themselves on being 'intellectuals',2 [End Page 118] a term of abuse hurled at them by right-wing opponents who saw the Dreyfusards' 'abstract' loyalties to truth and justice as injurious to the 'intuitive' cult of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Only Charles Péguy, who unusually combined socialism with Catholicism, countered this prevailing myth with an emphasis on Dreyfusard 'spirituality'.3 He argued that, in the early days of the struggle, the Dreyfusards embodied a 'mystique' that encompassed the primordial Christian virtue of charity, evinced in a passionate commitment to truth and justice that went beyond the temporal power of the Church. His interpretation was unusual in that it placed this epochal 'modern' moment in political history squarely within the tradition of religious aspirations and ideals.4
By examining two sets of letters, first from hundreds of strangers (largely women) to Lucie, Alfred Dreyfus' wife, and secondly from leading Dreyfusards, this chapter will show the importance of legacies of spiritual engagement normally associated with earlier historical eras. These feelings were not anachronistic hangovers from some dying past. They were indeed 'survivals', but not in the sense of being Weberian residues battling against [End Page 119] prevailing currents of 'modernity'; rather, they were the traditions upon which correspondents built a crusading idealism in the new political climate of Republican mass politics.
The first group of more than 400 letters reveals a compassionate, religious sensibility that pervaded the Dreyfusard movement.5 The letters reflect the high-water mark of the epistolary mode in Western society, before the widespread use of the telephone, and when mass literacy made it possible for even the most humble to write to a stranger and offer moral support and spiritual advice. They prayed for Alfred and Lucie and likened them to Christ and Mary, seeking through biblical quotation and religious precepts to find meaning in the couple's joint 'martyrdom'. Their spiritual concerns and tireless ecumenicism sat uncomfortably with the leading anticlericals of the movement, who increasingly supported an intolerant vision of secular society (laïcité). For these women correspondents, religion was at the heart of Dreyfusard politics, and demonstrates how, in their case, the conventional divide between the religious and secular simply did not apply.
The second set of letters came from close associates who had staked their emotional and political identity on Captain Dreyfus's release and exoneration. Wives of leading Dreyfusards, as well as leading male activists, discussed politics and tactics with Lucie—and vented their Republican anticlericalism.6 They were dedicated to extending the cause of rationalism, but invested their advocacy with an almost quasi-religious dedication. They fused intellect and passion, as they sacrificed themselves in a manner which confirmed Péguy's vision of a pure, saintly 'mystique'.7 These letters, in the wake of Dreyfus's pardon in September 1899—when the captain was released but was still not exonerated—show the difficulty of maintaining the 'mystique' in the face of a debate over tactics that entailed personal disenchantment and latent anti-Semitism. The darker, absolutist nature of their engagement [End Page 120...