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Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

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Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

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Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

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Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.

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Think Piece

Eating for Others: The Nineteenth-Century Vegetarian Movement in Germany

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

“Vegetarianism is not only a question of the stomach but also one of society.” This may sound familiar to readers, as articles such as “Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say” grace our newsfeeds and remind us of the environmental consequences of meat consumption. In fact, this quote comes not from a recent Guardian article but from Hermann Krecke, an advocate of a vegetarian lifestyle and member of the Eden Cooperative Fruit Settlement outside of Berlin around the turn of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century vegetarianism represented the first popular wave of the movement, with an especially substantial following in Germany. Adherents share some key attributes with what we would recognize as vegetarianism today, but the two also differ in significant ways. While today vegetarianism is regarded as a dietary preference, historically it was associated with a certain worldview. I hesitate to trace a direct line of continuity between contemporary vegetarians and their nineteenth-century antecedents: the group has always been a heterogeneous one, perhaps best defined by a commonly held conviction that reform of society begins with the individual. These differences aside, it does appear that the larger social implications of dietary choices have circled back into contemporary consciousness.

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931
Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931
Instead of an ethical imperative concerned with climate change, or even animal welfare, vegetarianism as practiced in nineteenth-century Germany took up the problem of social relations among humans. While an aversion towards the slaughter of animals was frequently cited as one justification for renouncing meat and adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, it was actually secondary to a group that saw itself as an association of modern practitioners of ascetism and remained skeptical of the increasingly visible manifestations of large industry and capitalism. These troubling developments catalyzed a turn inwards among members, who aimed to reform themselves without waiting for social norms or laws to change. At the Eden Settlement, founded in 1893 and perhaps the most well-known among the communities, the three doctrinal pillars, depicted in the form of three hardy trees on their crest, signified a sort of holy trinity of reform goals: reform of self, reform of land (Bodenreform), and reform of the economy. With that approach, German vegetarians hoped to alleviate some of the problems related to poverty.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century with the decline of the old corporate social structure, it became fashionable for middle-class individuals (primarily men) to organize in forms of associational life through the structure of the Verein. As Thomas Nipperdey has noted, the number of associations in Germany exploded between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. It was during this time that the first vegetarian association formed. While the earliest associations crystallized around general interests (for example, an interest in reading or patriotism), over time the trend skewed towards a greater degree of specialization. Amid the proliferation of associations for singing, education, and social reform, the Verein für naturgemäße Lebensweise (roughly “the association for a natural lifestyle”) was founded in the 1860s by a cohort of committed vegetarians. The association popularized a “natural lifestyle” which involved abstention from meat. In 1892, it was renamed as the Deutschen Vegetarier Bund, thus putting the avoidance of the meat at the center of their identity as a group.

Yet what was originally called a “vegetarian lifestyle” was not self-evidently a meat-free diet. Eva Barlösius has convincingly argued that membership in the Verein (and later, the Bund) was not about a specific diet, nor was it narrowly about abstention from eating meat. Instead of representing a core tenet of common belief, a meat-free diet was merely one strategy for communicating difference between members and non-members (Barlösius, 11). Members advocated abstention from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat; a “natural lifestyle” entailed a good deal more than a plant-based diet. Writings from early practitioners, including Gustav Struve and Theodor Hahn, focused on a life of introspection and simple, coarse clothing, as well as natural cures in addition to a plant-based diet. As Barlösius notes, avoiding meat was one practice that both distinguished and united members of a group who often had differing agendas.

Gustav Struve
Gustav Struve
On the other hand, such a strict focus on social distinction and the social structure of the association as Barlösius presents obscures the ideological and scientific bases of the movement. The development of nutritional science increasingly thrust meat into national debates about health and the “social problem.” In the first place, food safety came to the fore on the international stage. Uwe Spiekermann has highlighted the role of pork as a contentious issue in relations between the US and Germany from 1870-1900, as food inspection became professionalized in the wake of trichinosis outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. This was an oft-cited reason given by vegetarians, such as leading figure Struve in his 1869 publication Pflanzenkost, die Grundlage einer neuen Weltanschauung. While disease outbreaks presented one risk inherent in a meat-laden diet, another took the form of more pronounced economic disadvantage. The growth in meat consumption and production was regarded by some as a source of continuing pauperization and undernourishment. According to one calculation, annual per capita meat production in 1855 was 19.6 kg. By 1895 this figure had practically doubled; by 1914 it had reached 45 kg. Several prominent experts (Max Weber among them) regarded the shift in dietary preferences and resulting undernourishment, or nutritional “gap” as they called it, to be the origin of alcoholism and the abuse of spirits among the working class. All in all, the growing presence of meat at the table was one noticeable sign of the changing times.

Continued speculation about the influence of diet on the character of man flourished among the vegetarians. In echoes of the materialist debates of midcentury, when Feuerbach published his now famous dictum “Der Mensch ist was er isst” (Man is what he eats) in a review of Jacob Moleschott’s work, vegetarians argued that meat consumption predisposed humans to a fiery temperament, not least because the act of killing was part and parcel of meat production. While the vulgar materialism of Moleschott (which held that thought and emotion had a material basis that could be found quite literally in food) had been rejected by orthodox scientists, variations of it lived on. The association of meat with an excess of energy, both violent and sexual, appears frequently in contemporary journals. Some, such as Struve, cited the improved temperament of vegetarians and drew the conclusion that war would become impossible among nations of plant-eaters. It became increasingly difficult to socialize in such spheres without sharing the opinion that meat was a moral and social ill in modern Germany.

Today, since awareness of the carbon emissions of livestock rearing has become mainstream, we have a new, climactic justification for vegetarianism. This line of reasoning holds that we in the west who are fortunate to have such a wide selection in our diets should choose wisely. According to the climate vegetarians, choosing wisely is not only a matter of personal health, but also involves a calculus for the welfare of the planet and for others in less advantaged regions, especially the global South, where climate change has and will strike with particular vengeance. The climactic justification for a vegetarian diet in some ways resembles that of the turn–of-the-century vegetarians in Germany, who saw their choices in nourishment not only as an individual dietary choice, but an ethical commitment to mankind.