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"For the Soul of France" by Frederick Brown

FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, by Frederick Brown. Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pp., $28.95.

The Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur shape the skyline of Paris - and France's turbulent history.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the nation was scarred by defeat in war, jarred by economic upheaval, riven by ideology. It was fertile ground for extreme nationalism.

The two monuments rose as symbols of cultural division in an era that would be embodied by the case against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain unjustly convicted of treason.

Historian Frederick Brown, author of brilliant biographies of writers Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola, provides a lucid, piercing portrait of this unsettling time in "For the Soul of France."

His description of the savage "culture wars" that cleaved the country is detailed, enlightening and succinct. And it leads you to conclude that the Dreyfus affair was almost inevitable.

Brown, professor emeritus of French literature at Stony Brook University, pointedly connects events, giving life to a period that would spur Zola to analyze "the endless duel between science and the longing for supernatural intervention."

Losing the Franco-Prussian War compelled France to give up Alsace and Lorraine. Napoleon III abdicated. The provisional government was dominated by the right. The Paris Commune, which questioned the government's legitimacy, was savagely suppressed. Civil war erupted. Extremism reigned.

The "reverence for ancestral Frenchness," Brown writes, fueled a devotion to the past, "a refuge from the dangerous mobility of people and things. It was stillness, order, containment."

In old Paris, that reverence had always been immortalized in stone. Sacre-Coeur would be the new example. The Roman-Byzantine basilica high atop Montmartre would be viewed by its supporters as an act of atonement for a country that had strayed, sinned and needed to return to conservative Catholicism and royalism.

"At stake was the re-Christianization" of a "godforsaken country," Brown writes.

On what had been a military drill ground, the Eiffel Tower was rising simultaneously, a riveting image of the unfolding industrial age, an ironwork of 1,000 feet. It was also harshly criticized as the expression of a secular future: "a monument to the god of scientific progress."

While these buildings underscored the classic collision, two key economic events would further feed nativist frenzy. The collapse of the Union Générale, a bank aimed at "pooling the resources of Catholics and challenging the power wielded by 'opponents of their faith,' " and the failure of the scandal-ridden Panama Canal Company. Jews were routinely blamed and reviled.

One of the anti-Semitic Paris newspapers would eventually headline a story about espionage charges against "a Jewish officer" named "A. Dreyfus." With fabricated evidence, the 34-year old Dreyfus was condemned and sent to Devil's Island.

The Dreyfus tragedy and Zola's "J'accuse" - the open letter that "excited as much wrath as adulation" - as well as the subsequent trials and their aftermath are the coda of "For the Soul of France."

These events still resonate, and Brown shows they stand as powerfully as any structure in iron or stone.

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