In 1894, what began as the unjustified vilification of Jewish artillery captain, Alfred Dreyfus, soon morphed in to ‘a kaleidoscopic social drama that shattered long standing friendships and splintered the whole of the Third French Republic in to warring factions.’ It was a scandal that polarised France and whilst it may have had its epicentre there, the Dreyfus Affair rapidly gained international attention such was the scale of the surrounding media frenzy. In fact, ‘the role of the press…in the fomentation of the affair is widely recognised.’ As each newspaper and magazine rushed to declare their stance, France thus became a nation between two opposing camps: the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards.
In the aftermath of Emile Zola’s astonishing article, ‘J’accuse…!’, in which he not only avowed his support of Dreyfus but also launched a scathing attack on the French government, anti-Semitic demonstrations had begun to proliferate. In the wake of these riots and as a direct response to Zola’s article, cartoonist Emanuel Poire, under the pseudonym Caran d’Ache, released the inaugural edition of his satirical magazine, ‘Psst…!’. From the first publication, it became plainly obvious to which side d’Ache was partisan. Solely made up of editorial cartoons caricaturing society from an anti-Semitic, pro-Army viewpoint, and the title a direct allusion to Zola, the magazine established itself as ‘an intentionally incendiary offensive weapon in the anti-Dreyfusard arsenal.’
It was in the magazine’s opening edition that first appeared the cartoon, ‘La dernière quille.’ As an illustrator, Caran d’Ache ‘spent most of his time…defending the honour of the army, extolling the virtues of tradition, and denigrating those who would attack either.’ In his defence of Dreyfus, Zola had positioned himself firmly in d’Ache’s firing line. However, as it is only Zola’s name that appears rather than any drawing, his disparagement goes much deeper than an embellishment of his physical features. It instead purports the idea that Zola has betrayed France. Amidst the fallen pins that Zola is destined to join, we see the names of architect Gustave Eiffel, businessman Emile Arton and doctor Cornelius Herz. These three men all share a common connection, as each of them was heavily implicated in the Panama Affair, now regarded as the largest monetary corruption scandal of the 19th Century. So strong was the reaction against these three men, that Georges Clemenceau was discredited and temporarily lost his parliamentary seat, simply due to his association with Herz. With this piece of contextual information in mind, d’Ache’s decision to bracket Zola with three men who had been proven to be traitorous to France is certainly an important one.
On examination of the pins, we see that significantly, the last pin standing and thus, the final bastion of French society in the eyes of d’Ache, is that of the army. This is as we know d’Ache greatly valued the army, having himself served for five years. For d’Ache to leave it as the final pin is also perhaps a show of solidarity to the army and a depiction of its enduring strength, as it has been the hardest pin to knock over. Furthermore, by personifying the pin with a face and army uniform, there is another layer to the cartoon. Despite its clearly inflammatory intentions, d’Ache is almost compelling his fellow Frenchmen to take a stand against those that are attempting to bowl them over. There is a certain defiance in the way that the pin is standing, staring the bowler in the face. Whilst d’Ache’s cartoon may present France as a currently weakened nation, where the pins of business, finance, industry and justice have been felled by a foreign intrusion, there is an undeterred resolve.
Even before Dreyfus’ conviction, there was a strong current of anti-Semitism that ran through France. This swelling of anti-Semitic feeling was due in large part to Edouard Drumont, who initiated the Antisemitic League of France in 1889 and was ceator of newspaper, ‘La Libre Parole’, who worked under the motto, “La France aux Français.” Upon learning of Dreyfus’ supposed treason, it was Drumont who started a virulent campaign against him and was himself the most strident of his accusers. His newspaper regularly included editorial cartoons demeaning Jews. At the time, it was custom to caricature them ‘as the vulgar and exploitative…banker/businessman.’ This included both the ‘huge nose’ and ‘thick protruding lips’ that we see on d’Ache’s cartoon, making it abundantly obvious who the man represents. The man on his left is trickier to discern as his features have not been so grotesquely distorted. It is, however, a Prussian soldier. As the Jews were often seen as foreign invaders, for d’Ache it made sense to ally them with other foreign powers. After all, many outside France were fervent Dreyfusards and with this coupling, d’Ache was able to tar all defenders of Dreyfus with the same brush. The idea was that they were all complicit in a plot hatched against France and its army by the Jews and foreign powers. It became something of a trope for the subsequent eighty-four editions, isolating France in a demonstration of hostile nationalism, very much in keeping with the time.
Finally, despite Zola’s presence in the cartoon, it is still the Jewish man, representative of every French Jew, who is the destructive force in the cartoon. Zola’s ideas are merely a vehicle in which the Jews can achieve their end goal. This is reinforced by the caption, which reads, ‘Allons, cher baron, encore celle-là…et la partie est à nous.’ Caran d’Ache is rallying against a feared takeover of these foreign invaders. It is perceptibly his own anti-Semitic views that give him reason to portray the Jews as the demolishers of French society, who believe that a takeover will soon be theirs. Of course, it does not mean that Zola is not implicit in the destruction. He, after all, is shown as being on the same side of the Jewish and Prussian men. However, the overriding negative force in this destabilisation of French society is, in d’Ache’s eyes, the influx of Jewish people.
‘La dernière quille’ is a one of a multitude of visual polemics that characterised the Dreyfus affair. Indeed, it was the political illustrations in the press that ‘provided an iconography to symbolize the central issues of the affair for both supporters and opponents.’ Caran d’Ache has highlighted the social divide that was eminent in France during the affair. By using Zola, the cartoon was also kept very topical as just two days after its release, Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel. As such, the work of d’Ache provides a very fitting snapshot as to the situation of France at the beginning of 1898.
- Begley, Louis. “‘If They Haven’t Been Ordered to Convict Him, He Will Be Acquitted This Evening.’” Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. Yale University Press, New Haven; London, 2009, pp. 1–46.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Panama Scandal.” https://www.britannica.com/event/Panama-Scandal
- Everton, Elizabeth. “Revising Dreyfus.” Koninkjilke Brill Netherlands Press. pp. 217-268
- Hyman, Paula. “The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical.” University of Chicago Press. The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 88-109.
- Kimball, Roger. “The Dreyfus Affair Revisited.” Salmagundi, no. 80, 1988, pp. 198–203.
- Vessels, Joel. “Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic.” University Press of Mississippi. 2010.
 Roger Kimball, Review: The Dreyfus Affair Revisted, 198
 Paula Hyman, The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical, 91
 Elizabeth Everton, Line and Shadow: Envisioning Anti-Dreufusism in Psst…!, 218
 Joel Vessels, Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic, 32
 Hyman, 91
 Ibid, 91
 Hyman, 91