416 pages, Bloomsbury Press, ISBN-13: 978-1608194322
It began in a wastepaper basket and ended up changing the course of European history. The prosecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for espionage and treason – and his subsequent vindication – plus the severe divisions the affair caused France have been the subject of countless histories and retellings. It is good to be reminded of the affair, because in some ways it is still current: the wife of Dominic Strauss-Kahn, for instance, recently compared her husband to Alfred Dreyfus as a victim of injustice, and people made these sorts of often stupid comparisons all through the 20th Century. Certainly, the anti-Semitism that was the hallmark of the case has not gone away.
The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two by Piers Paul Read brings the novelist’s eye for detail and for a drama full of unforgettable characters. When a note from a French army officer to a German military attaché was rescued from the trash in 1894, Dreyfus was an easy target as author of the note. Read gives a full and not fully complimentary portrait of the soldier at the heart of the affair: sure, he was a Jew, but he did not believe in the precepts of Judaism and had a secular devotion to the liberty, equality, and fraternity of France; he was hard to get to know and had little sense of humor (it might be that the plot against him was a response to him personally rather than to his supposed religion); he only evidence against him was the handwriting on the note from the wastebasket, but the handwriting wasn't his, and the explanation came that he had forged the note in someone else’s hand; he was disgraced in a famous ceremony in which his uniform was shredded and his sword broken, and sent to lifetime exile on Devil's Island, where he was kept in isolation and inhumane squalor.
He was there for almost five years. His family worked to get his release, while the generally reactionary and generally Catholic army continued to be discredited as more documents were revealed as forgeries. The famous 1898 essay J’accuse…! by the novelist Emile Zola was to make a significant change in the momentum of the case, naming officers who had been involved in the conspiracy. The generally leftist Dreyfusards hailed it as brilliant and heroic, and the generally right-wing anti-Dreyfusards thought it an outrage. Anti-Semitic riots were sparked throughout France, but Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island. He was given a second court martial at Rennes which absurdly found him guilty again, but cited extenuating circumstances and set him free. The conviction, however, disgusted the rest of the world. France was getting ready for its Universal Exposition in 1900, and had to face the very real prospect that there would be an international boycott. The president of France offered Dreyfus a pardon, and he accepted, infuriating many of his most vehement supporters. He never got an acquittal by fellow officers in a court martial, as he had wanted, but after being pardoned he was legally declared innocent, reinstated in his beloved army, and awarded the Légion d’honneur.
For France, the victory of the Dreyfusards meant that ever afterward special regard would be given to political views of the “intellectuals” – those like Zola, Proust, Anatole France, Monet, and Poincare. Radical politicians were able afterwards to expel religious orders from France and to close Catholic schools. The injustices thus done as the pendulum swung to the other side tend to be overlooked, while historians will forever make the links that so many anti-Dreyfusards wound up in the anti-Semitic Vichy regime of Nazi collaborators. Read, however, does not spend much time on the 20th Century repercussions of the affair, instead concentrating on what Zola himself said of it while it was roiling: “What a poignant drama, and what superb characters.” For its engaging and intelligent presentation, I would easily recommend The Dreyfus Affair to anyone unfamiliar with the event but interested in learning the details. Others who are familiar with it may find too little that’s new to justify another book on the subject. Those looking for an understanding of anti-Semitism, or looking to draw parallels between the time of Dreyfus and our own unreasoning period will probably find a mixed bag.