When it came to designing our next book, Antisemitism by Hermann Bahr (originally published in 1894), finding an appropriate image proved challenging. How best to depict this utterly ground-breaking set of interviews concerning anti-Jewish sentiment of the 1890s that encompassed much of western Europe in its scope? One alternative might have been to explore the grotesque antisemitic caricatures that appeared in a number of publications of the time, particularly in Germany and France. Parisian newspaper La Libre Parole, for instance, popularised the kind of imagery seen in the worst antisemitic propaganda to this day – big-nosed Jews grasping, pulling strings, bleeding nations dry.
But rather than perpetuating these images, wouldn’t it be better to put the focus on those who were actually peddling these tropes? French writer Édouard Drumont, for instance. Born in 1844, he was perhaps the most prominent antisemite of his time in Europe. In fact it was he who founded La Libre Parole, in 1892. This followed the ‘Antisemitic League’ which he established in 1889, and his most lasting contribution to the cause, the extensive and popular book La France Juive (Jewish France), which appeared in 1886. One of his numerous targets in that book was the French-Jewish journalist and newspaper proprietor Arthur Meyer – one of Bahr’s interviewees – who challenged him to a duel.
Drumont was instrumental in arousing public outrage during the Panama Scandal that followed the first, failed attempt to build a canal through Panama in which France lost huge amounts of money, sometimes in deals of questionable legality. Drumont believed that Jewish conspirators were behind the whole affair, recklessly accusing public figures of underhand dealings for which he received a three-month prison sentence in 1892. The story was still dragging on as Bahr conducted his interviews, and while Drumont himself wasn’t among the 38 respondents, he was frequently cited by those who were, including French journalist Francis Magnard:
Antisemitism is an invention of Mr Édouard Drumont – by which I mean, of course there has always been anti-Jewish sentiment, prejudice and hatred, but it was only ever a purely personal matter. You liked the Jews, or you did not, as you saw fit – it had nothing to do with politics. It was Drumont who first created, discovered political antisemitism, and it was only with La France Juive that it came to life. Drumont turned his individual antipathy into a general principle …
But elsewhere Magnard describes Drumont as ‘passionate, immoderate, yet gallant and honourable’, consistent with others who found admirable qualities in him even while deploring his monomaniacal hatred of Jews. They included another interviewee, French journalist Séverine, who described him as ‘brave, passionate, strong and chivalrous’.
So: back to the cover. We wanted the artwork to match our previous books, for which the imagery was largely drawn from postcards of the era (incidentally today marks 150 years since the first postcard was sent, in Bahr’s native Austria). And then we stumbled upon an extraordinary, deceptively playful postcard that depicts Drumont, which we presume to have been produced around 1890. The illustrator is Philippe Norwins, of whom little information survives, except that he worked for a number of journals around the beginning of the 20th century and seemed to specialise in caricatures of prominent French figures of the day.
The caption for his image of the French writer reads ‘Drumont anéantit ses mites’, a play on ‘Drumont, un antisémite’ which literally translates as ‘Drumont annihilates his moths’. We see the writer with an outsized pen in one hand, dripping black ink, and in the other an implement with which he sprays what we can presume is a deadly chemical agent, targeted at conspicuously big-nosed insects, one of whom has fallen dead at his feet. The victims are depicted as dehumanised, as vermin, and decades before the gas chambers this single illustration takes us from word to deed, from the polemics of hatred to the obscenity of genocide. And it is this image of shocking if accidental prescience that now adorns our translation of Antisemitism, designed by Svenja Prigge (like the cover for our recent edition of The Nights of Tino of Baghdad by Else Lasker-Schüler).
The Dreyfus Affair erupted in 1894, just as Bahr’s 1893 interviews were being published in book form. It was a scandal tailor-made for Drumont, and in fact it was his Libre Parole that broke the original story which would come to engulf French society in a bitterly rancorous dispute for years. Drumont was the most vocal and fanatical of the numerous French public figures decrying Jewish ‘treachery’ following the (false) accusations against Captain Dreyfus. Drumont was later elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of Algiers, and tried (unsuccessfully) to repeal the law that had conferred French citizenship on Jewish Algerians. Failing to be re-elected in 1902 Drumont returned to his writing, and narrowly missed out on a seat on the august Académie française.
Édouard Drumont died in 1917; among the mourners at his funeral was Arthur Meyer.
Antisemitism by Hermann Bahr, originally published in German in 1894, is appearing in English for the first time on 21 October 2019 (translated by James J. Conway), Rixdorf Editions