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Identity Wars: lessons from the Dreyfus Affair and Brexit Britain

Can divided societies heal? Lessons from the Dreyfus Affair, which split France in two.
The episode "tore society apart, divided families, and split the country into two enemy camps, which then attacked each other …”
 
A description by some future historian looking back at Britain after Brexit? No - it is how the late French President Jacques Chirac described the so-called “Dreyfus Affair”, which shook France from top to bottom a century ago.
 
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was convicted on false charges of passing military secrets to the Germans. He spent several years in prison on Devil's Island, and was only released and exonerated after a long campaign led by eminent figures such Emile Zola.
 
Although the circumstances of the Dreyfus affair are very different to those surrounding Brexit, there are certain parallels – for example, the way that people came to identify themselves as either Dreyfusards or anti-Dreyfusards.
 
The Dreyfus affair and its aftermath convulsed France for decades, with French society split down the middle about whether Dreyfus was guilty or innocent.
 
How important are societal divides like these?  Should they be allowed to run their natural course - or should steps be taken to encourage “healing”, as Boris Johnson recently urged?
 
In this edition of Analysis, Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe, looks back at the Dreyfus affair, and asks what lessons we can learn - and whether they can help us better understand what is happening in Britain as the country faces up to the reality of Brexit, and the coronavirus crisis.
 
Contributors:
Alastair Campbell, former Downing Street press secretary to Tony Blair
Ruth Harris, Professor of Modern European History, University of Oxford
Margaret MacMillan, emeritus Professor of International History, University of Oxford
Philippe Oriol, historian and author of “The False Friend of Captain Dreyfus”
Paula Surridge, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at Bristol University
Nick Timothy, former joint chief of staff at 10 Downing Street
Anthony Wells, Head of Research, YouGov

Translation of extract from “J’Accuse…!” by Emile Zola, by Shelley Temchin and Jean-Max Guieu, Georgetown University.

Presenter: Professor Anand Menon
Producer: Neil Koenig
Editor: Jasper Corbett