The Dreyfus Case — a study in scapegoating

One particular image of Captain Alfred Dreyfus has stayed with me since childhood. Dreyfus is standing stiffly to attention while the officer presiding over his ceremonial humiliation tears the insignia of rank from his uniform and breaks his sword in two before he is transported to Devil’s Island.

The Dreyfus case, which ran from 1894 through several false resolutions to a final vindication of the man a century later, began with an accusation of treason based on dubious and flimsy evidence. The prejudice of Dreyfus’s initial court-martial and the lies, falsifications and cover-ups which surrounded it leaked into French society, triggering a split that bordered on civil war. Dreyfus became the quintessential scapegoat, an innocent party seized upon, not for who he was but for what he represented.

Having spent a good part of my professional life working with troubled families, I came to see how easy it was for vulnerable individuals to be labeled as ‘the problem’ and excluded from the family. The original goat in the bible was ritually laden with the sins of the community and driven into the desert to perish. Some wily goats, however, found their way back, so Plan B was adopted, which was to push the wretched animal off a cliff.

The comfortable feeling of closure occasioned by the act of blaming one person, or an entire group, for communal problems (for example epidemics, natural disasters or economic misfortune) seldom lasts. Sooner or later the scapegoat returns, sometimes accompanied by its big brothers and sisters, and a tragic cycle of revenge and retribution is set in motion.

The history of the Jews can be seen through the prism of the scapegoat story. Alfred Dreyfus, a loyal French officer and a Jew, was seen as the symbol of an evil people, a people with treachery flowing through its veins. The immediate context for his court-martial lay in France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Paranoia was rampant and it took only a spark to light the powder keg of antisemitism.

In every scapegoat situation, the victim is powerless. Those who foment the attack have the power to see the process through to its heinous conclusion, which is why any move to arrest the process calls for a strong voice to speak the truth and challenge the assumptions of the perpetrators. In the case of the dysfunctional family, it falls to the therapist to speak for the scapegoat while at the same time supporting the family. When scapegoating plays itself out in the wider society the same principle applies, but when the scapegoating is fuelled by centuries-old prejudices, the power of the perpetrators has to be countered by an equal and opposite power that speaks the truth.

In the Dreyfus case, one voice was heard above all others, that of Emile Zola. In his famous indictment of French military justice, ‘J’accuse!, Zola instigated the turning of the tide but in so doing run the gauntlet of persecution himself. Despite his ordeal, Dreyfus remained stubbornly loyal to France and continued to serve in the army through the First World War. He was awarded the Legion d’ honneur. and died peacefully at home in 1935, attended by his brother and wife, who had fought unceasingly to clear his name.

The waters of antisemitism continued to swirl around the Dreyfus case until well into the twentieth century. It was only in 1995 that a French general, speaking on behalf of the army, officially declared Dreyfus to be innocent, something which the army had never done since the trial of 1894. In the cold light of the twenty-first century, I see Dreyfus as a representative, not only of the Jewish scapegoat but of scapegoats everywhere. The phenomenon is as pervasive and as pernicious as it ever was, and it behooves us to speak out wherever we encounter it.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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