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Peter Brooks on the Dreyfus Affair
Posted on Jul 9, 2010
By Peter Brooks
Reading Harris as well as Begley, one still feels outrage and incredulity that so many could have conspired to scapegoat a man whose innocence should have appeared to them from very early in the business. The army, commanded largely by Catholic aristocrats and wannabes, had been humiliated by the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War. It fed (along with so many French) on the myth of revenge for the “stolen provinces,” Alsace and Lorraine, and regarded another conflict with Germany as nearly inevitable—and itself as the bulwark of the state. When a cleaning woman in the employ of its secret service dutifully passed on a torn memorandum found in the wastebasket of the German Embassy, and it became evident that someone in the officer corps was selling secrets to the enemy, the high command reacted with a clumsy iron fist. Why it concluded that Capt. Dreyfus was the culprit is unclear—the handwriting on the incriminated memorandum matched his only if you made the preliminary assumption that he was trying to disguise it, a kind of evidentiary vicious circle that no court would accept in normal circumstances. The usual explanation is that Dreyfus, who had penetrated the military elite in the wake of meritocratic reform of the army following the debacle of 1870, by way of a decent performance at the Ecole Polytechnique (where one learned to become an artillery officer) was a Jew, and furthermore very rich, standoffish and not one of the boys. He was disgraced—his epaulettes ripped off, his sword broken—in a conspicuously public ceremony at the Ecole Militaire, as onlookers shouted their anti-Semitic sentiments.
Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century
By Ruth Harris
Metropolitan Books, 560 pages
As indications of Dreyfus’ innocence began to accumulate, the high command reacted like many a prosecutor before and since: Rather than dropping charges and seeking the real villain (who would soon enough become apparent in the person of the dissolute Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy), it attempted to accumulate evidence against Dreyfus, including the infamous forgery by Commandant Hubert Joseph Henry (who would later commit suicide in prison—making his widow a martyred heroine of the right). Dreyfus’ two convictions at his two courts-martial were based in part on “secret evidence” that could not be revealed to defense counsel (sound familiar?). It took the campaign mounted by Mathieu and those he activated in support of the cause—including Jean Jaurès, leader of the Socialist Party, newspaper editor and future wartime prime minister Georges Clemenceau, and such thinkers and writers as Gabriel Monod, Charles Péguy, Marcel Proust and, notably, Emile Zola—to bring public exposure of such massive mendacity. If Zola was a somewhat late convert to active engagement in the cause, one should not underestimate his importance. To look once more at the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore for Jan. 13, 1898, titled in bold characters: J’Accuse . . . !—Zola’s letter to the president of the republic—brings a rush of emotion. Rarely has an “intellectual” entered the public arena to such effect. The consequence for Zola was conviction for criminal libel, flight to exile in England—then, after his death in 1902, a national funeral at which Dreyfus himself, now free, was present.
One of Harris’ main accomplishments in her rich and nuanced book is restoring a face to Alfred Dreyfus himself. He has never seemed the adequate hero for such an epic struggle. When he returned from Devil’s Island to face his second court-martial in 1899, he was a sadly diminished man, physically ailing, weak of voice. He displeased many of his supporters, who wanted moral outrage and defiance but instead got reserve, respect for the military and a seemingly tepid personality. In detailing Dreyfus’ family life—especially his close relation with his intrepid and forceful wife, Lucie—and his unwavering commitment to the army and its values, his firm if rigid sense of the honorable course of action, she makes him more understandable than most previous historians.
Yet Harris’ notion that one needs to go beyond the polemical meanings of the Affair in order to write its history accurately may have only a limited truth to it. The Dreyfus Affair remains one of those irradicable French lieux de mémoire—to use the title of Pierre Nora’s history project: a site of symbolic forces in titanic conflict, a place to look for clarification of what matters in the country’s history, and what it means. And where the Dreyfus Affair is concerned, it’s not just French history that is at stake, but that of all nations that claim justice as a part of civilization. The Affair remains a mirror in which we still need to look at ourselves.
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