The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair
Piers Paul Read
Bloomsbury, 416pp, £20

“What a poignant drama," wrote the French novelist Émile Zola about the spectacle of the Dreyfus affair as it unfolded in front of him. In 1898, he wrote an open letter entitled "J'accuse" to alert the public to what Piers Paul Read describes as an infamous miscarriage of justice. Read quotes Zola in defence of his decision to publish another book on the affair, hard on the heels of the excellent account by Ruth Harris, which appeared in 2010. His intention is to tell the story as it stands and he does so vividly and intelligently but he does not add very much to what is already known.

The tale is perhaps as close as history gets to fiction, which may well explain why a novelist of Read's stature has taken it on. The case was
a product of its time: a Jewish officer in an army full of Catholic diehards; growing fears and tensions between Third Republic France and imperial Germany; endless stand-offs between a modernising, radical France and the disappointed France of Church, army and gentry, whose world fell apart in 1870 with the end of the Second Empire.

When an incriminating document - the bordereau, or memorandum - was found in a wastepaper bin at the German embassy in Paris, the army hunted around for a likely culprit on the general staff. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was not much liked and his handwriting seemed similar (though clearly, to those involved, not the same) to that on the bordereau. When accused, he made little effort to defend himself and in the subsequent court martial, his behaviour alienated those who might have given him a hearing - one witness reported that "his voice was atonal, lazy, his face white".

As is now well known, there was no case to answer. But the army needed a scapegoat. Drey­fus won no sympathisers and the sentence was life in a penal colony. Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana was reopened just for Dreyfus; here it was hoped he would conveniently die and the brief tension between France and Germany would be allowed to simmer down.

What is striking, as Read makes clear, is the failure of the French Jewish community to do much to help Dreyfus. It was worried that a strident defence would invite a wave of Jewish persecution in a country where Édouard Drumont's anti-Semitic tract La France Juive had sold a million copies. The army, too, had no real interest in whether Dreyfus was innocent or guilty as long as the spy scandal was solved at a tricky time in international relations. It was uninterested when new evidence appeared showing that a shallow, impoverished officer, Count Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, was the author of the memo. New documents were forged that appeared to confirm Dreyfus's guilt and Esterhazy was told to lie low. Miscarriages of justice almost always suit somebody; otherwise, they would not happen.

The interesting question raised by Read's account is how the few who came to realise that there had been such a miscarriage were able to circumvent all the efforts to stifle inquiry. This had something to do with the conservative and withdrawn prisoner on Devil's Island but, in the final analysis, a good deal more to do with tensions in French society.

The Dreyfus affair became a symbol that grew rapidly out of all proportion with the original case. The progressive left and centre used it as a stick to beat the army and the Church; the clerical and nationalist right used it as a way to discredit secularists and liberals and to sustain French anti-Semitism. The affair exposed deep fissures in the French nation that reflected the profound differences between the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary traditions.

Responsible senior officers did eventually find the forged evidence. The forger killed himself, Esterhazy fled to England and Dreyfus was recalled after five years to face a second court martial. The court was packed with anti-Dreyfusards and Dreyfus himself made such a poor impression (hardly surprising after five years in the tropics on poor food - his survival alone was miraculous) that he was found guilty again. By this time, Dreyfus had become an international cause célèbre. A wave of international and domestic protest led the government to organise a pardon. In 1906, after a third investigation, he was finally exonerated entirely, readmitted to the army and allowed to live in peace once again after a dozen years of dishonour.

Read is keen not to see the affair as a pre­cursor to the savage racism of the later 20th century or to find in it the seeds of collaboration with the Holocaust. But he does not explain this further. The book cries out at the end for some link to be made between the France of Dreyfus and the France of Philippe Pétain, who was old enough to be an officer through the Dreyfus period and took his revenge, when he had the chance, on socialists, liberals and Jews.

The answer does not need to be crudely teleological but the history of the 40 years that separate the two will show important continuities that are more disturbing, perhaps, than Read would allow.

Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter. His latest book is "The Third Reich: a Chronicle" (Quercus, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?