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Peter Brooks on the Dreyfus Affair

Posted on Jul 9, 2010

By Peter Brooks

Reading once again the extraordinary story of Jewish artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted in a French army court-martial of espionage on the flimsiest of evidence and exonerated 12 years later after an intense campaign by his supporters—and equally intense reaction from the army and its defenders—I was reminded that you don’t know whether the Dreyfus Affair is the story of inhumanity, indifference, prejudice, mendacity and stupidity at their zenith—or rather the story of selfless resistance to tyranny and injustice, “truth on the march,” as Emile Zola’s version would have it, resulting in an exceptional vindication of the rights of man. 

It is both, of course, as well as to unrepentant elements of the French right an episode in the decline and fall of the patrie. When Charles Maurras, the defender of blood and soil, the leader of L’Action Française—the most influential and long-lived rightest organization to come out of the Affaire—was convicted of crimes of complicity with the Nazi occupier in 1945, he exclaimed: “It‘s Dreyfus’ revenge!” The Vichy regime established in the wake of the fall of France in 1940 was in fact in many ways the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards: a repudiation of the republic in favor of authoritarian discipline and the values of “travail, famille, patrie.” Even now, the allegiances in contest in the Affair remain alive and potent, as in current debates on the definition of French nationality and the assimilation of foreigners who prefer the burqa to the bikini, for instance. The battle around this midgrade officer remains a touchstone of French history, the line of demarcation between those who want to see la république as the incarnation of inalienable and universal human rights, and those who find a higher calling in the sanctity of the state.


book cover


Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century


By Ruth Harris


Metropolitan Books, 560 pages


Buy the book

“Dreyfus,” by Oxford historian Ruth Harris, marks the second book within a year on the notorious case, following on Louis Begley’s “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters”—clear signs that it has not lost its radioactivity. Begley in fact constructs his book on a parallel between the glaring wrong that sent Dreyfus to five years of unspeakable solitary confinement on Devil’s Island (in French Guyana) and the Bush administration’s gulag at Guantánamo Bay, an outrage to declared American values of justice and democracy that the Obama administration, despite apparent good intentions, seems unable to liquidate. Begley’s account of the Dreyfus story is as crisp and lucid as any I know: It shows the hand of a master of prose narrative. Ruth Harris, while not directly engaging Begley’s version, wants to go beyond the symbolic oppositions of the Affair: left versus right, intellectuals (a concept that in its modern sense dates from the Affair) versus anti-intellectuals, anti-Catholic versus anti-Semite, believers in justice versus believers in the state, etc. Her subtitle, “Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century,” suggests her desire to look beyond the public profile of the story to the private lives and motives of its actors.

Harris has gone deep into the archives, including the correspondence of Lucie Hadamard Dreyfus, Alfred’s wife, and Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother and the indefatigable and effective partisan of the Dreyfusard cause, and others in the camp such as Bernard Lazare, Joseph and Solomon Reinach, and Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. She paints well the complex lives created by Dreyfus’ condemnation and the effort to enlist journalists, jurists, politicians in the campaign to reopen the case—which would lead to a second court-martial in 1899 and a second verdict of guilty (but now with attenuating circumstances), and then the difficult decision (splitting Dreyfusards among themselves) to seek a presidential pardon rather than a third trial. Not until 1906 would a civilian court of appeal declare Dreyfus innocent.

Harris offers a richly textured account of the dramatis personae—not only in the Dreyfusard camp, but anti-Dreyfusards as well. She provides nuanced chapters on the French Jewish community that would be so important, and so severely tried, in the Affair and on the “Alsatian connection”: the crucial role of a number of cultivated French, like the Dreyfus family, from the “lost province” (taken from France, along with Lorraine, by Prussia after the war of 1870), familiar with German language and culture but committed to the French Republic and its secular ideal. She is illuminating also on the mythologies of the right, its obsession with purity and its hallucinations of Jewish defilement, its cult of martyrs, its enduring anti-republican romance with violence and strongman politics. Those who had never fully accepted the republic established in 1871 were legion, and prone to investing their energies in abortive coups like that of Paul Déroulède, leader of the Ligue des Patriotes, in 1899, and in a mystique of soil and blood kept alive by l’Action française and a number of other proto-fascist groups. That there was a Jew, Léon Blum (whose politics took root in the Affair), as prime minister at the time of the fall of France in 1940 merely confirmed for this right what the struggle was all about.

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By norman birnbaum, July 16, 2010 at 1:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Even our nation of invaders and immigrants has its cult of national purity and national allegiance—strenuously espoused, often, by those who might have reason to doubt their acceptability on other grounds.
One does not have to be a devout votary of church and nation in late nineteenth century France to
develop the pathologies of the anti-Dreyfusards…..

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By ofersince72, July 14, 2010 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

“All the story of Dreyfus proves is that armies are
  run by shits”

  I like that Diamond !!!

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By diamond, July 12, 2010 at 1:57 am Link to this comment

You didn’t mention the psychiatrist who is supposed to have attacked Fort Hood single handed and killed and wounded around 40 people. He is being framed by fellow officers and the intelligence services. Just like Dreyfus. Now paralysed from the waist down, Major Hasan he will be put on trial while no one’s looking and found guilty, but if he is actually guilty I will eat my Doc Martins. All the story of Dreyfus proves is that armies are run by shits. But I already knew that.

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By dihey, July 10, 2010 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

Recently I discovered something remarkable about the German branch of the Dreyfus family. They lived in the small Southern German town of Bad Buchau south of Ulm. There still is a Jewish cemetery in Bad Buchau which is one of the very few that was not molested/destroyed during the Hitler regime. The town itself protected the cemetery possibly because the parents of Albert Einstein are also buried there together with others from the Einstein clan.

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By Mark Goretsky, July 9, 2010 at 8:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Alfred Dreyfus Affair has parallels in the US history: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sacco and Vanzetti were killed, lots of others were neutralized physically and psychologically by the rampant McCarthyism. Once the forces of decent were eliminated, the government and large portion of the public became indifferent and mendacious. Amazingly, unlike French, we, Americans, care little about re-examining our life.

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