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Georges Clemenceau, the Dreyfus Affair, and the fight against Anti-Semitism

Captain Alfred Dreyfus (colorized).

On December 22, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent, was court-martialed, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life in prison at the notorious Devil’s Island prison for allegedly sharing military secrets with the German Embassy in Paris. Two years later, an investigation into the already closed case began to uncover evidence that Dreyfus had been falsely accused. “The Dreyfus Affair,” as it came to be known as, would become a universal symbol of injustice and pervasive European anti-Semitism in the late 19th century. While an ocean away from our shores, a former Greenwich Village resident and future Prime Minister of France played a key role in this notorious episode, using the printed word to rigorously defend the innocent Dreyfus and rally against anti-Semitism.

Georges Clemenceau, ca. 1860s.

In 1865, Georges Eugène Benjamin Clemenceau (September 28th,1841 – November 24th, 1929) would leave France after studying medicine, and following in his family’s footsteps, sail to New York, arriving just after the defeat of the Confederate Army and President Lincoln’s assassination. At first, he lived off an allowance from his father, but when he discovered that his father wished him to return to France, he decided to stay and make his own way. Clemenceau first found lodgings in a house in Greenwich Village at 212 West 12th Street (demolished and now the site of the NYC AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle), owned at the time by the librarian of the French community.

The NYC AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle, the former site of 212 West 12th Street.

During his stay, he became a contributor to the French paper Le Temps, and would remain there until 1869. Clemenceau frequented the Union League as well as Tammany Hall, and was a close friend of Horace Greeley, the editor-in-chief of the New York Tribune. He went to Washington quite often as well, where he met the future President, General Ulysses S. Grant.

After taking a position as a French instructor at a school for women, Clemenceau fell in love with one of his pupils, Mary Plummer, and asked her to marry him. Being an atheist, he insisted that the wedding include no religious ceremony. The family refused, and he returned to France. However, Plummer soon summoned Clemenceau back, and he sailed for New York, where they married without a religious ceremony. He brought his bride to France in August of 1870, just as the Franco-Prussian war was breaking out. The fall of the Second French Empire inspired him to seek political office, and he soon rose from Mayor, to the municipal council, to the Chamber of Deputies (akin to Congress in the United States).

During his 17 year tenure, Clemenceau started his own newspaper La Justice, and would acquire others, like L’Aurore, in order to spearhead the voice of Parisian Radicalism. In 1893, after running for reelection, he was finally defeated, and he spent the next decade using his newspapers to continue to rally against political indiscretion and the suppression of the French Senate, an opinion which he would later recant when he was elected to represent the Var district of Draguignan in 1902.

A political cartoon depicted Emile Zola and his scathing open letter to the President of France.

It was at this time that Clemenceau became a vocal defender of Alfred Dreyfus, writing almost 700 articles in his defense and in defense of European Jews (though, at first, he did suspect that Dreyfus was indeed guilty). The Affair would grip France and the world for over a decade, an incredible feat of perseverance, which also saw Emile Zola, a French novelist, playwright, and journalist, take to the Captain’s defense as an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitic nationalist campaigns. On January 13th, 1898, Zola’s fiery open letter to the French President accusing the government of anti-Semitism and of unlawfully jailing Dreyfus, titled J’Accuse…! (“I Accuse…!”), was published on the front page of Clemenceau’s L’Aurore.

J’Accuse! The original open letter by Emile Zola printed in L’Aurore.

Despite Dreyfus finally receiving his freedom in 1899, Clemenceau, after his election to the French Senate, would continue to use L’Aurore to pressure the government to reopen the outstanding loose threads in the case after a second trial. Pardon and amnesty had failed to correct the root of the issue, leaving Dreyfus free but those who framed him unpunished or awaiting trial.

In 1906, Clemenceau would serve as the Prime Minister of France, where his legacy included several controversial opinions and campaigns that included a reformation of the police department, repressive policies towards workers, and an objection to women’s suffrage. Nevertheless, after his resignation in 1909, he was again appointed Prime Minister during World War I and took office during the darkest days of the War. After an offensive push by the Allies in 1918 turned the tide of war (eventually ending the war on November 11, 1918) he quickly became a symbol of victory and his popularity grew exponentially. Despite his earlier repressive policies, Clemenceau would later institute the eight-hour workday and became an advocate for workers’ rights.

“The Big Four” made all the major decisions at the Paris Peace Conference (from left to right, David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.)

After France instituted new electoral changes in 1920, Clemenceau retired, having already survived an assassination attempt and no longer seeking the thrill of politics, but the thrill of journalism and writing once again. He would spend several years writing his memoirs, eventually passing away in 1929. Though his time in Greenwich Village was brief, he often described his time at 212 West 12th Street and his employment at Le Temps, as the happiest three years of his life. Clemenceau was honored here at his old address with a commemorative plaque, located on the old Loew’s Sheridan Theater, which replaced the building where he lived. However, when the theater was demolished to make room for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the plaque was lost.  

Be sure to explore our Civil Rights and Social Justice map, which highlights over 200 locations in our neighborhoods where activists like Georges Clemenceau lived, where Billie Holiday first sang the anti-lynching anthem ‘Strange Fruit,’ where birth control began, and the spots key to the abolitionist journeys of both Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, among many others.

Georges Clemenceau, ca. 1929

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