The Dreyfus Affair

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters
By Louis Begley
Yale University Press £18, 272 pages

For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus
By Frederick Brown
Knopf $28.95, 336 pages

Les artistes et l’affaire Dreyfus, 1898-1908
By Bertrand Tillier
Champ Vallon €29, 374 pages

The 20th century dawned not on the first day of 1900 (or, for purists, 1901) but on a September evening in 1894, when a cleaner at the German embassy in Paris found a torn-up letter in the military attaché’s wastebasket. The cleaner was working for French intelligence, and the letter, once reassembled, was found to contain military secrets being offered by an unnamed French Army officer. After a cursory investigation, authorities arrested Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain working at General Staff headquarters.

Thus began the Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent man was unjustly convicted, amid rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and sent off to rot on a deserted island in South America. A vigorous public campaign against the howling injustice of the affair raged for more than a decade before the captain’s final vindication, which divided France into warring camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, republicans and traditionalists.

Dreyfus’s ordeal was the first big test of a modern justice system, and it defined one of the central issues of democracy: should the rule of law be applied consistently, or are there cases in which it should be bent to fit a current crisis or pressing national concern? Even today, hardly a month passes without an alleged misstep of justice somewhere in the world being labelled a “new Dreyfus Affair”.

In France, the original case still incites debate. There are people who still believe that Dreyfus was guilty, or that national preservation excused his treatment. Those who celebrate his innocence fear that the kind of state-sponsored injustice he endured has not been eradicated, and that the clubby world of French officialdom continues to act arbitrarily, secretly and sometimes illegally without penalty. For both sides, the Dreyfus case was a watershed in modern French history. The divisions it created resurface periodically – in the debates over wartime collaboration, France’s struggles in Vietnam and Algeria, anti-Semitism, official corruption, immigration and other failures of governance.

Though it unfolded more than a century ago, the captain’s ordeal has since inspired more than two dozen feature films, documentaries and television dramas, as well as hundreds of books. The latest batch includes a handful by French authors aimed at France’s seemingly insatiable Dreyfus market as well as works by non-French authors continuing to apply its lessons to their own contemporary controversies.

Best among the latter group is American lawyer and novelist Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, a slim but powerful denunciation of Bush administration missteps in the fight against terrorism. Begley likens Dreyfus to the 800 or so “enemy combatants” dispatched to the notorious US military lock-up at Guantánamo, nearly all without trial or even charges. Like the captain, Begley notes, the detainees were for the most part denied basic rights, held in harsh conditions and ultimately found to be innocent (nearly 600 have been released). Begley salutes the journalists, lawyers and judges who fought against “torture and kangaroo trials” to free them: “They have redeemed the honour of the nation,” he writes.

Dreyfus’s supporters eventually did the same, though it took longer. It was, as Begley points out, an extenuated and tangled tale, with enough forged documents, false beards, perjured witnesses, suspicious suicides, circus-like trials (two for Dreyfus, four for other players) and stunning reversals of fortune to fill a novel by Anatole France or Emile Zola – two of Dreyfus’s fiercest champions.

Dreyfus was an unlikely spy, and an even unlikelier hero. Stiff and humourless, he had a sound military record, substantial personal wealth and little interest in politics, social climbing or anything except the Army. Nonetheless, he was tried for treason shortly after his arrest, convicted (with help from a crackpot handwriting analyst) and stripped of his insignia in a degradation ceremony at which crowds shouted “Death to the Jews”. He was sent to lifetime solitary confinement on a sweltering South American rock aptly named Devil’s Island.

Meanwhile, Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu, manager of the family textile business, started a ferocious campaign to free him. Mathieu enlisted novelists, artists, scientists, journalists and politicians, including publisher and future prime minister Georges Clemenceau, whose newspaper published Zola’s pro-Dreyfus thunderbolt article “J’Accuse”. Despite heavy return fire from the Army, the Catholic hierarchy and the rightwing press, public opinion gradually came around. Pro-Dreyfus demonstrations erupted across Europe and the US, and the republican government of the day fretted over France’s image as the 1900 Paris Exposition approached. In 1899, a new trial was ordered.

By then, the Army had invested too much prestige to back down. So it manufactured new evidence, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed. Soon, however, the forgeries were uncovered. Plotters betrayed each other and even died mysteriously. The real traitor surfaced: a slippery, debt-hounded major named Ferdinand Esterhazy, who was acquitted at his own Army-rigged trial. With outrage mounting, Dreyfus was pardoned and, in 1906, fully exonerated.

The full story, recounted briskly by Begley, is given a richer context by American historian Frederick Brown in For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. To Brown, the affair was not so much a cause célèbre as an accident waiting to happen. The 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war had left France angry, humiliated and bent on revanche (revenge). The Army became the vessel of French hopes for regaining lost honour and territory, ie Alsace and Lorraine. A wave of nationalism swept the country, as well as an obsession with spies, traitors and anyone who seemed somehow un-French.

The latter was a specific reference to France’s Jews. True, they made up less than 0.5 per cent of the population and were better assimilated under the republic than in other European régimes. Yet, as Brown notes – and Marcel Proust described in his magisterial novels – the Jews’ very upward mobility irked the French upper classes, who came to associate that minority with such dreaded modern excrescences as the revolution, the republic, technology and capitalism, which had upended the old, church-dominated social order.

Brown relates how, prior to the affair, Jewish financiers had been unfairly implicated in a series of scandals that impoverished thousands of French investors, most of them Catholics. Even the Army’s attempts at reform after the Prussian debacle, by opening the officer ranks to talented outsiders such as Dreyfus, stirred resentment among the aristocratic mediocrities who dominated the service.

The revanchiste dream to strengthen France inspired a vogue for gymnastics and athleticism, as well as a kind of male identity crisis that stigmatised anything effete. The Dreyfus Affair was saturated with anxiety about manliness and sexual orientation. The captain and some of his defenders were accused of homosexuality. A real affair between the letter-tossing German attaché and his Italian counterpart (whom investigators at first mistook for Dreyfus) helped reinforce the homophobia.

Nearly everybody had an opinion about Dreyfus, even the pioneers of that seemingly apolitical artistic movement, impressionism. As French historian Bertrand Tillier recounts in his entertaining new book Les artistes et l’affaire Dreyfus, 1898-1908, Dreyfusards such as Pissarro, Monet and Luce found themselves at pallet-knife’s point with anti-Dreyfusards including Degas, Renoir and Cézanne, while a few colleagues, notably Rodin, struggled to stay neutral. Tillier’s vivid accounts of the artists’ quarrels show how deeply the nation was divided by the Dreyfus case.

The church, however, was anything but equivocal. In sermons and its own rightist newspapers, the hierarchy insisted that France could regain greatness only by re-embracing its Catholic roots. That meant returning to the verities of sacrament and piety and resisting secularism, science and other symbols of the modern age. Visible among those, reports Brown, was Gustav Eiffel’s thrusting tower, which, to the chagrin of many Catholics, rose to challenge the new Sacré-Coeur basilica for domination of the Paris skyline. Eiffel was incorrectly described in the rightwing press as Jewish.

Passions like that did not vanish overnight, and Dreyfus’s 1906 exoneration was a short-lived triumph. French reactionaries, more outraged than demoralised, quickly regrouped. Zola escaped assassination attempts, lost a libel suit over “J’Accuse” and died in mysterious circumstances in 1902. Dreyfus was wounded at a Zola memorial service by a rightwing journalist, who was promptly acquitted. Anti-Dreyfusard nationalists cajoled the country into that long-anticipated rematch with Germany in 1914. Though France emerged devastated, the rightists rebounded yet again, waving the banners of fascism and a new, more vicious anti-Semitism.

Tragedy came next: Vichy, Drancy and the dispatch of more than 75,000 French citizens and refugees to Nazi death camps. The dark forces that the Dreyfusards thought they had vanquished returned to sweep Europe.

Dreyfus’s ordeal did produce a few lasting changes, however. Anger over the church’s role helped inspire the early-1900s laws that made France an irrevocably secular state. The newspaper campaign to free Dreyfus became a model for 20th-century media crusading. And, by enlisting writers, artists and thinkers, the Dreyfusard project helped make intellectuals – a term coined by Clemenceau – a permanent force in global public life.

Among those first intellectuals, Begley notes, was an Austrian writer named Theodore Herzl, who covered Dreyfus’s trials for a Vienna newspaper. “It has been established that justice could be refused to a Jew for the sole reason that he was a Jew,” Herzl observed. If this could happen in a country as enlightened as France, he concluded, assimilation was no longer an option. Herzl became a founder of modern Zionism and, as a result, of the Jewish state.

As for Dreyfus himself, he rarely expressed bitterness over his mistreatment and seemed embarrassed at the fuss. His health ruined by Devil’s Island, he nonetheless served with distinction in the artillery during the first world war, emerging a lieutenant-colonel and an officer of the Légion d’Honneur. He died in 1935.

The atavistic impulse that spawned the Dreyfus affair, Begley warns, is as malignly robust as ever. Like Emile Zola, Begley deplores the current wisdom that a nation can protect itself from subversion by subverting decency, due process and the liberties on which it was founded. He frets about a future that lacks Dreyfusards. “Will there be,” he asks, “men and women ready to defend human rights, and the dignity of every human life, against abuse wrapped in claims of expediency and reasons of state?”

Therein lies the Dreyfus Affair’s true lesson. Too often these days, panicked governments are undermining citizens’ rights and freedoms in the name of battling crime or terrorism. But reading these accounts of France in a similarly anxious age reminds us that a nation once twisted itself in knots over the fate of an obscure Jewish captain – and ultimately chose justice. Thus Dreyfus, the unlikely hero, and France, the faltering beacon, have shown what is possible when people remain true to their values.

Donald Morrison’s ‘The Death of French Culture’ will be published in June by Polity Press

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