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The Old Story, Engrossingly Retold



Rob Hardy


It began in a wastepaper basket, and wound up changing European history. The prosecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for espionage and treason, and his subsequent vindication, and 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 twentieth century. Certainly the anti-Semitism that was the hallmark of the case has not gone away. An even better reason to revisit the case is now on the bookshelves. The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two (Bloomsbury Press) is by Piers Paul Read. Read is most famous for his story of the Andes plane crash survivors, Alive, but in addition to other nonfiction works, he has produced many novels, and in this book he uses the novelist's eye for detail and for a drama full of unforgettable characters. 




Before going into Dreyfus's story itself, Read gives a long prologue about social and religious forces in France going back to the Revolution. The Catholic Church was uneasy in 1791 when the new government abandoned all discriminatory laws against Jews. Then in 1871 there was the siege of Paris by Prussian forces, and a resultant armistice by which France lost territory and prestige. French Catholics felt themselves persecuted by a secular republic, and particularly by the Jews they thought were endemic within it. Some Jews had, indeed, done well within the French army, but met resentment, which was set into action when the Dreyfus affair began. A French army officer Ferdinand Esterhazy was selling secrets to the German military attaché Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen. In 1894, Schwartzkoppen received a note from Esterhazy, tore it up, and left the pieces in the wastepaper basket. The cleaning lady was in the service of French military intelligence, which eventually pieced the note together and realized someone was selling their secrets. 




Dreyfus was an easy target. 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. He was devoted to his duties, to his wife, and to his children, but he was dull and unsociable. He had little sense of humor and a dry metallic voice. Even in the middle of his persecutions, while protesting his innocence, he remained stolidly committed to the army he loved. He was not the firebrand that some people who took his side would have liked; one Paris socialite who invited him to a soirée said, "What a pity we can't choose someone else for our innocent." He was an outsider, independently wealthy with family in Alsace, which had been annexed by the Germans. It might be that the plot against him was a response to him personally rather than to his supposed religion. 




Anti-Semitism, however, played an early role. The only evidence against him was the handwriting on the note from the wastebasket, analyzed first by an amateur and then by people who were supposed to be experts. Once the army had fingered Dreyfus, they simply ignored evidence that would clear him or manufactured documents that would incriminate him. The handwriting, for instance, on the note was determined to be different from that of Dreyfus. The explanation was that Dreyfus had deliberately concealed his real handwriting when he wrote it. This hall-of-mirrors acceptance that exculpating evidence was actually incriminating resulted in his being found guilty in 1894. He was disgraced in a famous ceremony in which his uniform was shredded and his sword broken. The army could not arrange for him to be guillotined, but must have thought that deprivation and disease would do the work when he was sentenced to lifetime exile on Devil's Island, where he was kept in isolation and inhumane squalor. He was there for almost five years. 




While he was away, his family, especially his brother Mathieu and his wife Lucie, were busy attempting to get his release. The unfairness of the trial became apparent to those who could see it objectively, but the chiefs of the army continued to maintain that Dreyfus had been rightly accused and found guilty. A Colonel Henry, who had helped supply evidence against him, continued to produce forged documents to show that the army was right all along. He was motivated by a love of the army and the belief that the campaigns to support Dreyfus were going to undermine the army chiefs and the security of France, a belief that many of his countrymen shared. The generally right-wing and generally Catholic army continued to be discredited as more documents were revealed as forgeries. Colonel Henry was eventually arrested, and cut his throat in prison. The Catholic right thought him a martyr to their cause, and an appeal for the support of his widow and children was a great success.  




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 twentieth-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." Read's balanced account hasn't uncovered any new slant on the case, but retells it as an engrossing narrative. 




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