The Dreyfus years

The Dreyfus Affair, by Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 408 pages

In a country such as France, where style and flourish have always counted high in the scheme of things, Alfred Dreyfus was stubbornly, almost heroically uncharismatic. The Alsatian-born, Jewish son of a well-to-do textile manufacturer, Dreyfus’ dream was to gain entry to the French Army’s General Staff. But as Piers Paul Read points out, “the army was one thing, the General Staff another” for a French Jew at the tail end of the 19th century.

Read, a devout Catholic, whose books include a notable study of the Templars, brings an original perspective to The Dreyfus Affair. Even though there have been countless books on what Read calls “the most infamous miscarriage of justice in French history”, most have been written by Dreyfusard historians whose partisanship was fanned by indignation.

The affair, which rumbled on from 1894 to 1906, began when a cleaning lady working for French intelligence retrieved a torn up memorandum from a wastebasket in the German embassy in Paris. Its contents determined that someone with a knowledge of French artillery was passing on low-level covert military information to the Germans.

Dreyfus, who had a reputation as a loner with an indiscreet sense of curiosity, soon came under suspicion. A sample of his handwriting was obtained and compared to the memorandum. Though not the same, some slight similarities were enough to have him arrested.

He spent the next 12 years attempting to clear his name, during which he was subjected to two humiliating courts-martial and over four years of solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. The Dreyfus case became a cause célèbre, made infamous by Emile Zola’s tract “J’accuse”.

Most of the anti-Dreyfusards were Catholics, which made Read think twice about writing the book: “I asked myself whether it was prudent for me, as a Catholic, to remind the world of [Catholicism’s] role [in the Dreyfus Affair].” The result is a studious, somewhat bloodless history of how Dreyfus came to be falsely accused of selling French military secrets to the Germans.

Read maintains that Dreyfus was the perfect fall guy for a military establishment determined to remain the last Catholic-dominated institution in the land. The context Read develops is that of an ideological struggle between French Catholics on the one hand and Jews, Protestants and Freemasons on the other.

“It’s beyond question that Catholics had good reason to feel pushed aside by a new political class, within which there were many Jews,” writes Read. “Only by keeping these things in the front of our minds can we understand what sometimes seems the mindlessly reactionary politics of Catholics in 19th-century France.”

Though he does not gloss over the anti-Semitic prejudices held by many of the French military’s top brass, Read also suggests that Dreyfus’ uningratiating character contributed to his own downfall, even though he was famously pardoned in 1906. Variously described by Read as “pushy”, “tried too hard” and “too clever by half”, Dreyfus’ character was in stark contrast to his brother Mathieu – “elegant, aristocratic, debonaire” – who devoted several years of his life to clearing his sibling’s name.

But under closer scrutiny Read’s supposition appears unlikely. A previous history of the affair by Albert S Lindemann notes that prior to Dreyfus only one other Jew had ever acceded to the General Staff, despite a burgeoning number of Jewish officers. Far more likely, and as Dreyfus came to believe himself, it was his Jewishness that precluded any promotion and led to him being falsely convicted for treason.

There is not a charm offensive in the world that would have changed the mind of an anti-Semite such as Colonel Ferdinand du Paty de Clam. For this patrician French intelligence officer, accused by Zola of being one of the main architects behind Dreyfus’ conviction, it was simply unwise to put those “who are not Frenchmen in France” in sensitive military positions.

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