Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

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Louis Begley, Yale University Press 2009, £18

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a general staff officer in the French army, was convicted of espionage in 1894. The evidence was flimsy, to say the least. Stripped of his position, Dreyfus was imprisoned on a disease-ridden island in the Caribbean.

Dreyfus was a Jew - one of a handful in an officer class dominated by reactionary royalists. Documents backing the evidence proved to be forgeries, yet all attempts to reopen the trial were quashed.

Then France's leading writer Emile Zola caused a sensation. An open letter published early in 1898 accused the High Command of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. But it was not the army that was put in the dock. Convicted of criminal libel, Zola was forced to flee to England.

Even so, the furore forced a second court-martial in late 1899, Dreyfus having been released from his island prison. But this second trial repeated the old verdict - adding, absurdly, that Dreyfus was "guilty in extenuating circumstances".

Dreyfus was persuaded to withdraw his appeal in exchange for a "pardon" from the president for a crime he had not committed. Only in 1906 was the second verdict formally annulled and Dreyfus reinstated in the army. A year later he retired. He died in 1935, at the age of 75.

Louis Begley's book follows all the complex twists and turns of what happened, along with sketches of many of the people involved, without losing the main thread. Why it matters for him is because of the parallels with those other victims of prejudice, the inmates of Guantanamo. When respect for due legal process is abandoned, travesties of justice are inevitable.

Begley doesn't look much beyond the profound antisemitism of official French society to the wider historical and social context.

By 1894 the Third Republic had existed for 24 years. It was far from stable. Born of military defeat by Prussia, its first act had been the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Prussia's annexation of Alsace-Lorraine nurtured national resentment. Jews were hated as unpatriotic outsiders who made France weaker.

While parliament was at first dominated by royalists, republicans became the majority by the late 1870s. But they refused to have anything to do with class politics, except to protect the interests of small property owners and the peasantry.

Governments were short-lived. Financial scandals involving leading parliamentarians undermined their legitimacy. Reactionary forces were periodically involved in plots to bring them down. By the 1890s the left had revived for the first time since the crushing of the Paris Commune.

The Dreyfus Affair opened up the rifts about the direction of French society that the Third Republic had papered over. It dragged on - despite Dreyfus's manifest innocence - because of fears that the regime's very existence was at stake. There was no appetite for a showdown with the institution that ultimately guaranteed the social order.

These rifts would reopen in the course of the 20th century - most notably with the election in 1936 of the Popular Front government led by Jewish Dreyfus supporter, Léon Blum. The extinction of the Third Republic in 1940, and its replacement by the collaborationist and antisemitic Vichy regime, was, in a sense, belated revenge.

Some socialists, seeing the Dreyfus Affair as a quarrel purely within the ranks of their ruling class enemies, refused to take sides. Others, notably the great socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, did not. His parliamentary campaign did much to bring victory to Dreyfus. He realised that quarrels within the ruling class are opportunities for our side.

So the Dreyfus Affair does matter - though for wider reasons than Begley gives.