Subscribe
Book Review

Peter Brooks on the Dreyfus Affair

Peter Brooks
Reviewer
Peter Brooks is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar at Princeton, and Sterling Professor Emeritus from Yale University. He is the author of the books "Enigmas of Identity" (2011), "Henry James Goes to…
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.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.

 

book cover

 

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

 

By Ruth Harris

  

Metropolitan Books, 560 pages

 

Buy the book

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.

Peter Brooks teaches at Princeton University and is the author of numerous books, including “Henry James Goes to Paris” and the forthcoming novel “The Emperor’s Body,” to be published by W.W. Norton in February 2011.

Now you can personalize your Truthdig experience. To bookmark your favorite articles, please create a user profile.

Personalize your Truthdig experience. Choose authors to follow, bookmark your favorite articles and more.
Your Truthdig, your way. Access your favorite authors, articles and more.
or
or

A password will be e-mailed to you.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles and comments are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.