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For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus [Paperback]

Frederick Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 8 2011

In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, a defeated and humiliated France split into cultural factions that ranged from those who embraced modernity to those who championed the restoration of throne and altar. This polarization—to which such iconic monuments as the Sacre-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower bear witness—intensified with a succession of grave events over the following decades: the crash of an investment bank founded to advance Catholic interests; the failure of the Panama Canal Company; the fraudulent charge of treason brought against a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, which resulted in a civil war between his zealous supporters and fanatical antagonists.

In this brilliant reconsideration of what fostered the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Europe, Frederick Brown chronicles the intense struggle for the soul of a nation, and shows how France’s deep fractures led to its surrender to Hitler’s armies in 1940.


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“Vivacious and fluid. . . . Visitors to the City of Light, and Parisians themselves, may never look at the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur quite the same way again. . . . Brown’s storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times. . . . For the Soul of France offers a great deal of instruction and many narrative pleasures (even for a French reader).”
The Wall Street Journal

“A wonderful book. . . . Learned. . . . Vivid. . . . Consistently instructive.”
The New Republic

“Brown has the rare ability to write reliable and well-researched history for a broad nonspecialized public. Francophiles, in particular, will love this book.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A lucid, piercing portrait. . . . These events still resonate, and Brown shows they stand as powerfully as any structure in iron or stone.”
Newsday

“Terrific. . . . A brilliant study.”
The Boston Globe

For the Soul of France is masterful history, brilliantly researched, and hard to put down.”
—Henry A. Kissinger
 
“[A] sweeping reevaluation of late-nineteenth-century France. . . . In less than 300 pages, Brown brings together a host of characters who have themselves spawned thick biographies—Napoléon III, Gustave Eiffel, Alfred Dreyfus—along with others less known today outside France.”
Harper’s
 
“More than a century on, the Dreyfus affair still holds important lessons about freedom, notably the fragility of basic liberties when national security is invoked. It is also a reminder of the deep roots of anti-Semitism, in France and beyond.”
The Economist
 
“A fine work. . . . Brisk and readable. . . . Brown is a historian who believes that things actually happened in history, and he has one interest: telling the story. . . . Truly worth reading.”
The Forward

“The search for national identity reverberates through [For the Soul of France] so compellingly that even hardened Francophobes may appreciate the passion and prejudices inflaming a country whose contradictory instincts for grandeur and provincialism seemed limitless during the 19th century.”
Newark Star-Ledger
 
“Brown, a distinguished cultural historian, gives us the story in riveting detail, moving an interesting human cavalcade across the precariously turbulent political stage that was fin de siècle France.”
History Book Club
 
“Nobody outside France writes better about French history and culture in the late 19th Century than Frederick Brown. . . . For the Soul of France is an epic piece of history on a grand scale, full of deeply disturbing resemblances to our own.”
—Michael Korda, author of With Wings Like Eagles
 
“After Napoleon III fell in 1870, the stakes were high in France: The form of government, the church’s role, the structure of the economy were all in flux. Brown lays it all out masterfully.”
The Montreal Gazette
 
“Richly illustrated. . . . An important work of cultural and intellectual history.”
Library Journal (starred review)
 
“A very good example of cultural history. It suggests that even in the heyday of bourgeois materialism, the most important, and often decisive, matter was what large groups of people preferred to think and believe. His episodes are well-selected, and their developments well-written.”
—John Lukacs, author of Budapest 1900

About the Author

Frederick Brown is the author of Flaubert, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Zola, named an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.


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4.0 out of 5 stars The Revolution isn't over March 13 2011
Format:Paperback
So readable. The book was bought to give some insight into the make-up of France and the French. I thought it would be possible to pick and choose chapters to read but no, the book is so written that it was hard to put down. The historic characters came to life and the facts easily digested. The book covers the 19th century from Revolution to Republic. The intellectual revolution between the church and republic continues but finds a common foe in the Jewry. Reading this 'history' gives an insight to today's world condition.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
57 of 67 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The evolution of a nation Jan. 28 2010
By Tresillian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
They say you should write about what you know and Frederick Brown certainly knows the French. The events he chronicles at the end of the 19th century lead us through the quest to discern what exactly constitutes the essence of France.

Here is the saga of France's sojourn from Monarchy to Republic. The French revolution may have begun in 1789 but it was fought well into the twentieth century. The author picks up the tale at the Franco Prussian War in 1870. He gives us the events that shaped France into the country we now see; but what a convoluted, tortured trip it has been. It's a miracle the Third Republic survived with attacks from left and right, economic disasters, and revolving door Premiers. As France struggled through failed governments and the demi-gods who threatened, she constantly searched for a scapegoat. The Catholic Church and the Germans took their fair share of hits but the old standby, Jewry, bears the brunt of the attack.

There will always be those who refuse to give up the past, praying for the return of a monarch or an emperor, insisting on France for the French. Luckily there were also those who challenged the old ways and the old religion and fought for free, secular education. Thiers, Clemenceau & Zola fought to build the Republic. The conservatives and royalists reawakened the symbol of Joan of Arc. Eiffel's tower sits in juxtaposition to Sacre Coeur. On one side the growth of technology and scientific thought. On the hill in Montmartre France's penance for the sins heaped upon her by the church.

Read this book because you'll see the frightening similarities to the first ten years of the 21st century. There are all the lies, finger-pointing, invented evidence we've seen since 2000. There's a lion's share of yellow journalism. Fear is the weapon of choice. Sadly, it's all accepted by those who were taught to think, but didn't.

This is certainly the quickest, most readable history you'll find. Be prepared to think, to reason and come to your own determination because this book is not about the Soul of France, it's merely setting you off on the search for it.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Struggle for France Feb. 13 2010
By Christian Schlect - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Quite good for the reader seeking to better understand the two main cultural driving forces of the period of 1848 to 1908 within France: Catholic church/tradition vs. liberal thought/the modern. And, of course, what is said of this turbulent period has echoes to the present day.

Frederick Brown is a good writer with an excellent grasp of the various stories he spins in this book, such as the funding scandal surrounding the Panama Canal, the building of Eiffel's tower, and, importantly, that of the ill-fated Captain Dreyfus.

"For the Soul of France" reminds one that the current "cultural wars" within the United States are somewhat tame compared to the deep chasms dividing the population of 19th century France.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bonbon of pop history May 4 2010
By margot - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A luscious bonbon of pop history. Elegantly designed, from its typography (in Sabon, since you ask: the book has a colophon, of course) to its deckle-edge pages, cover design and tasteful choice of illustrations. The signatures in my copy were glued a little too tightly and I sometimes had to tear at them a little to open the book out flat, but this just adds to its Craftsman elegance. I came across only two typos or misspellings. I like to think these were due to the overconfidence of the book editors who, presented with an electronic ms. in what looked like immaculate prose, didn't bother with copy editors and proofreaders, and just zipped it off to the print shop in Lancaster, PA.

Frederick Brown's last books were biographies were acclaimed biographies of Zola and Flaubert. His love for the era fill his narrative with a warm glow. Here he has set himself a trickier subject. This is not the story of a single author finding his voice and battling his critics, or a rhapsody about the greatness of French culture, but an investigation of a proud national civilization in midlife crisis, when a lot of ugly things were said and done.

The most useful parts of the book are the chapters about the Union Generale bank, the Panama Scandal, and the soap-bubble-like political enthusiasm for General Boulanger. These were the hot crises of the "peaceful" decade of the 1880s. I've read about them before, but always found my eyes glazing over. Momentous events and sparkling personalities, yes; but there are just too many of them. Brown handles them all with entertaining concision.

The heart of the book, unsurprisingly, is the section on the Dreyfus Affair. For most people this has always been an infernal puzzlement. Many of the basic facts are still unknown, largely because most of the principal players lied like troupers. We've all learned the baby-talk version: Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a colorless nobody, is accused of espionage; convicted and exiled to the legendary Devil's Island for four long years; but finally revealed to be the victim of a cruel conspiracy by the fire-breathing anti-Semites of the French officer corps and Catholic hierarchy.

Brown's patient unfurling of the tale makes it clear that the Affair was never really about Dreyfus himself, or his guilt or innocence. The leftist and anti-clerical "Dreyfusards" found the case a convenient club for taunting and whacking their political enemies. Almost from the start, they used the foreign press to sound the alarm that the French Army and Church had connived to railroad an innocent man because he was a Jew. Infuriated by this international propaganda war, the "anti-Dreyfusards" fell into the ambush and circled the wagons. They fell over themselves to defend the conviction even when a cursory review of the facts suggested that there were other, bigger spies than Dreyfus and there was a good chance Dreyfus himself was innocent. Secret dossiers were passed around, new notes were forged and "discovered," and the ministry of defense seemed to condone it all: this was war, after all. Even Col. Picquart, head of military intelligence, found himself transferred to Algeria when he found the forgeries and tried to prove that Dreyfus was innocent.

Brown tries hard to seem scrupulously fair. However he appears to have skipped some basic research. For example: he tells us that Dreyfus's handwriting bore no resemblance to the script on the "bordereau" (the original incriminating document that got Dreyfus sent to Devil's Island). But really the two hands look very much alike. As indeed they also resemble the handwriting of Major Esterhazy, the "real" spy. Anyone can compare samples in various places on the internet, but you won't find them reproduced here. This is a glaring omission. It was these handwriting samples that convicted Dreyfus. You really have to see how closely they resemble each other to understand how anyone believed in poor old Dreyfus's guilt in the first place.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Edith Piaf said, er, sang, "Non Je Ne Regret Rien" July 23 2010
By Thomas M. Sullivan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Someone once wrote that but for the uncounted careers and lives shattered or lost, the personal and public fortunes scattered or purloined, the military scandals and misadventures, and the viciously irreligious religious disputes, nineteenth century French political life would make a marvelous comic opera. It came too late, but one can easily imagine Gilbert & Sullivan concocting a delightful operetta of the Dreyfus Affair were it not for the fact that the duplicitous machinations of the Army General Staff, the pernicious irresponsibility of the popular press, and the noxious fulminations of execrable anti-Semites would combine to suggest a libretto more fantastical than any `Mikado' or "Pinafore.'

Despite my fondness for one or two chanteuses, I have never been particularly intrigued by post-Revolutionary French domestic history (excepting Napoleon and his tumultuous era) because I have found trying to follow the ebb's and flow's of the various regimes, up to and including to the present day, not really worth the effort. The royals may have been despotic by definition but at least they possessed a facially consistent claim to legitimacy and internal symmetry as evidenced by the fact that a very considerable part of the population never fell out of love with the idea of them, if not their earthly embodiments. But one has to admit that the French are a beguiling bunch, even as they defy comprehension, and so I took a chance on this book because of its stated premise. After all, there is nothing in French history more difficult to get a handle on than how it unfolded in the nineteenth century. And, with Ms. Piaf, I have no regrets.

Author Brown does an absolutely superb job of portraying the social and religious atmospheres of the time and the ever-roiling tensions between `secular republicans' and the generally religious-oriented monarchists. As noted by other reviewers, his succinct descriptions of the era's two principal public scandals, the Union Generale and the Panama Canal fiasco, are models of historical story-telling, as is his account of the Dreyfus Affair which was the logical, arguably inevitable, culmination of the period's events and serves as the coda of this excellent work. Eiffel, de Lesseps, Boulanger, Clemenceau, MacMahon, Zola, the reformers and those badly in need of reform, are all present and adroitly accounted for as Brown recounts his tale. And I must admit I found the enterprise both illuminating and a complete pleasure to read.

The author is a word composer of exceptional skill. He writes like a fine athlete strides: forceful yet restrained, purposeful yet elegant, altogether obviously knowing where he's going and how he's going to get there. And he wields his manifestly impressive vocabulary as a scalpel rather than a sword. Have your dictionary at your elbow and delight in exploring words you either never acquired or have forgotten.

In sum, a terrific read that, and I'm reluctant to say this, might just encourage me to pay more attention to the history of those arcane Frenchmen rather than only their songs.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Faith vs. Reason -- as contested in late 19th-Century France March 13 2010
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Frederick Brown begins this book with a quote from the papers of Émile Zola, in which he instructed himself to "study and dramatize the endless duel between science and the longing for supernatural intervention." Just as that struggle marked the fiction of Zola, it was the theme of French history in the last third of the 19th-Century, dominating all aspects of the country's social, political, and cultural life. In FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE, Frederick Brown chronicles this continuous conflict between reason (natural science and historical criticism) and faith (especially that demanded by the Roman Catholic Church and that invested in primitive nationalism, whether inspired by the monarchy or by Jeanne d'Arc).

Along the way, the reader encounters various historical figures of note, among them Pope Pius IX, Léon Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Eugéne Bontoux, Georges Boulanger, Gustave Eiffel, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and - of course - Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola. Among the significant events or episodes of French history covered in the book are the Paris Commune, the rise and fall of the Union Générale, the Panama Canal scandal, and the Dreyfus Affair. I personally was not as familiar with these matters as I wanted to be, and FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge in a non-pedantic fashion.

In reading the book, I was repeatedly and particularly struck by two things: One, the parallels between right-wing, religiously-imbued French demagoguery and tomfoolery (of which Georges Boulanger and the Boulangists may be the prime example) and contemporary American political phenomena, such as the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. Second, I was struck by the pervasiveness and virulence of anti-Semitism in France of the late 1800s, aggressively encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. (Of the Dreyfus Affair, a Vatican organ commented: "the Jewish race, the deicide people, wandering throughout the world, brings with it everywhere the pestiferous breath of treason, [so in the Dreyfus case] it is hardly surprising if we again find the Jew in the front ranks, or if we find that the betrayal of one's country has been Jewishly conspired and Jewishly executed.")

Brown writes well, though at times the book borders on being over-written, too showy and too baroque. Here's an example, in which Brown summarizes the opposition to the Eiffel tower: "For aesthetes, Eiffel's tower was the grotesque child of the industrial age, desecrating a museological city. For Catholics, it was the sport of revolutionary Nimrods expounding their secularism in Notre-Dame's parish with phallic arrogance. And for nationalist zealots, * * * the wrought-iron tower incommensurate with everything else in Paris was a tyrannical mutant, a foreigner lording it over the French past and future, a cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of `Israel.'"

FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE is an instructive work of social, cultural, and political history. For those already knowledgeable about France of the late 1800s and the Dreyfus Affair, it probably will not add very much. For me, however, it was well worth my time, though not quite a five-star book.
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