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For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  126 ratings  ·  27 reviews
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 ov ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published February 8th 2011 by Anchor (first published 2010)
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Karen Armstrong is a silly person who writes books about religion. She also appears to be a kindly soul, in a tea-and-crumpets sort of way, but she’s still, I repeat, a silly person. In a recent Salon interview, she bemoaned the atheistic impertinencies of Bill Maher and Sam Harris, comparing the two men to Nazis for their criticism of Islam. ‘It fills me with despair,’ she said. ‘This is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps.’

Now, you don’t have to be a fan of either Maher or Har
What surprised me about Frederick Brown's For the Soul of France was its relevance to the culture wars at the beginning of the 21st century in the United States. Both fin-de-siècle France and post-9/11 America shared a static view of their respective nations. In France's case, it was Judaism that was seen as the interloper, as symbolized in the Dreyfus affair. In the United States, large segments of the population look back to an Anglo-Saxon golden age in which Evangelical religion and conservat ...more
John David
If you thought that the Dreyfus Affair was the fons et origo of anti-Semitism in France, or that the Kulturkampf was just a phenomenon relegated to Bismarck’s imperial Germany, this book may just very well be the place to begin a solid education in late nineteenth-century French cultural history. Brown assumes a minimal knowledge of the politics of the time (First Empire, Second Republic, Third Empire, et cetera), but provides a useful chronology at the beginning of the book and adds just enough ...more
Lauren Albert
Anti-clericalism vs. clericalism? Separation of church and state? Monarchism or republicanism? Modernity or tradition? Anti-semitism or tolerant cosmopolitanism? These were the culture wars in the age of Dreyfus. While it was all fascinating to me, what I liked best were Brown's discussions of the controversies over the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Dreyfus affair. I wasn't aware of the former and I was only superficially knowledgable about the latter. The fury and irrationality that ...more
To me, the worst episode in French history is the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus, Jewish only by birth, Captain in the French Army, was accused of being a traitor and, after a court martial based entirely on false and fabricated "evidence," was sentenced to 4 years on Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana. Eventually, enough noise was made (and the real culprit discovered) that Dreyfus was given a second court martial. The verdict, in spite of the new evidence AND the uncovering of the t ...more
Every country has its internal clashes, and For the Soul of France by Frederick Brown illuminates the cultural divisions of the French Third Republic, 1870 - 1940. This erudite and fascinating work explores the internal struggles of Fin-de-Siecle France between the French military and Catholic Church on one side and Scientific community and Republican idealists on the other, culminating with the notorious Dreyfus affair. Religious and secular divisions, of course, are not unique to France, as we ...more
Mary Ronan Drew
The Dreyfus Affair. I have always thought I knew what it was about. Someone was stealing secrets from the French military and handing them over to the Germans. A note incriminating its author was found in a wastebasket by a cleaning woman and the French military got busy finding someone to blame it on.

Not finding the traitor. Finding a man who could be presented to the public as a traitor. Who better to fill that role in 1890s France than a Jew. And so, with no evidence against him the French mi
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Louise Leetch
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 Franc
The subtitle of the book is "Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus" and the book describes some of the virulent anti-semitism in France revealed by a couple of financial scandals and the Dreyfus affair. It also discusses anti-Republicanism and the attitude of the Catholic Church in the late 19th Century in France.

What Brown does not do, however, is place any of this in a larger context. How prevalent was anti-semitism and anti-Republicanism? In the Dreyfus chapter, which is the centerpiece of the b
This is a history of ideas and of culture in France between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the end of the nineteenth century. It encompasses events ranging from the influence of the Catholic church on politics to the building of the Eiffel Tower and the unsuccessful attempt of De Lesseps to build the Panama Canal. One theme is scandals and there is a Banking scandal that rivals any in history, but the culmination of the book and the moment that defines France more than any other ...more
Overall this describes the general trend towards secularism during the 3rd republic quite well. The differing philosophies during the start of the 3rd republic still have resonations in present-day France. One criticism is that the Dreyfus Affair should have been divided into 2 (or even 3) chapters. A summary/conclusion at the end would have been helpful as well. Was very much worth the time spent reading.
I'm tempted to rate this one 5 stars, but it wasn't quite amazing due to the many references to other history and culture of the time that I didn't get. Also, with long sections about uninteresting people (i.e. politicians) and the stupid things they did, it was a bit of a hard slog at times. In the end though, this book is exactly about the stupid things that people did, so it does a great job at explaining that. There are still parallels today as the culture wars continue in the US - progressi ...more
Stylistically, Brown is no David McCullough, but for this history consumer, the density was but a speed bump in what was ultimately an enjoyable read. France often gets overlooked as a player in the geopolitics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which I now realize is because they couldn't get their house together in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. This book chronicles the culture wars that followed that defeat, which was between the conservative, Catholic, royalist right and the pr ...more
Sheli Ellsworth
The genius of Fredrick Brown’s For the Soul of France may be lost on the average reader. While the religious, political and social upheaval following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was turbulent, Brown’s account of it is reflected in his equally turbulent prose.
Whether you applaud Brown’s account of the rise of secularism in Catholic France or deplore his literary formulation may depend on your experience with contemporary erudite composition. For some the emperor has no clothes—for others
Highly readable description of deliberate manipulation of public opinion to create and sustain ideological polarization and eliminate cultural images of liberal religiosity. Explains why the religious right in this country (USA) works so hard to discount other definitions of faith. Shows also how a Roman Catholic hierarchy in social decline works cynically to avail itself of bigotry in lieu of genuine conversion. Cannot be too highly recommended for today's middle-of-the-road and liberal religio ...more

Interesting and detailed account of the intellectual, religious, and social strife that tore about French society after the Franco-Prussian society. Particularly appalling to read is the extent and breadth of French anti-semitism. Organizations existed whose very names proudly included the term "Anti-Semite".
After reading this account, one understands that the roots of the French inability to effectively deal with Hitler were deep-seated and had been forming over a period of 60 years.
Brown is a good story teller and he relates a number of them in this book, including that of Dreyfus and Boulanger. His general theme seems to be that french reactionaries struggling with the advent of modernity found scapegoats in Jews. Unfortunately he gets so caught up in telling yarns that he doesn't argue very clearly for his point. This is good popular history, but its lack of rigor makes me appreciate some of the academic historians that i sometimes find tedious.
Rob MacCavett
Having worked for two French companies, I maintain a special curiosity about this country and its sophisticated yet aloof people. In this case, a cultural look at the late nineteenth century when decades of political turmoil and the defeat at the hands of Germany in 1870 get somehow balled-up in the infamous Dreyfus Affair. As Karl Marx once said, “There is much to be learned from the French.”
interesting look at the clash of secular and religious. a lot of it reminded me of today's america.
Melanie Reed
wonderful book! I have been wondering for years what is this 'Dreyfus Affair' that I see references to in lots of places - turns out to be rather a long story because undestanding it requires some understanding of what was happening in France for several decades previous.
Yves Fey
Excellent, fascinating, and detailed account of the ongoing war between the Right and Left in turn-of-the-century France. The Dreyfus Affair is the centerpiece, but it is surrounded by other events. Rather scarily apt for today's political conflicts.
Wilson Hines
I am absolutely looking forward to this book, seeing what influence the Dreyfuss affair had with the "stab-in-the-back" mentality of Weimar Germany.
Margaret Sankey
In which everything in France was divided into pro and anti-Dreyfusard factions, and some of them still are.
May 04, 2011 Jessie is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
The writing is so good I forget it's non-fiction.
Feb 01, 2010 Janice marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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42again marked it as to-read
May 27, 2015
Kaia Lund
Kaia Lund marked it as to-read
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FREDERICK BROWN is the author of several award-winning books, including For the Soul of France; Flaubert, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and Zola, one of The New York Times 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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