Authors: Piers Paul Read
Many books have been written about the miscarriage of justice in France in 1894 which led to the Dreyfus Affair. A complete bibliography of the Affair published in 1970 listed 551 titles
and many more have been published since then. Few have contained startling revelations. Already by 1960 the French historian Marcel Thomas recognised that ‘it would be vain to hope to solve in an entirely new way a “mystery” which, in fact, has no longer been a mystery for quite a time’.
One reason for the continuing interest in the Affair is the intriguing nature of the story itself. A year before he himself became a protagonist by writing ‘J’accuse’, the French novelist Émile Zola saw its potential. ‘What a poignant drama,’ he wrote in
, ‘and what superb characters.’
Moreover the events took place at a period in French history – the
– which saw an extraordinary flourishing of arts and sciences, flamboyant
fin de siècle
architecture and a sexual permissiveness that brought Edward, Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde to Paris to escape the chilly moral climate of Victorian England.
However, as the Dreyfusard poet Charles Péguy realised at the time, the Affair was more than a dramatic story in a colourful setting. The tumult that divided France was of major and long-lasting significance in three interconnected histories – that of France, that of Israel and ‘above all’ that of Christianity.
When Péguy talked of Christianity he had in mind the Roman Catholic Church, and by Israel he meant not the state of that name, yet to be established, but the Jews. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew and it was the anti-Semitic passions that erupted during the Dreyfus Affair that provoked outrage at the time and, after the Second World War, led some to regard it as ‘a kind of dress-rehearsal’
for the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Modern historians of the Affair dispute this linkage. ‘The history of the Right during the affair’, wrote Ruth Harris in her
The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France
(2010), ‘has too often been distorted by attempts to press the
fin de siècle
into an inter-war mould, to find a dark teleology that does not really exist.’
However, the enormity of the Holocaust has affected some historians’ perceptions. ‘After the Nazi genocide,’ wrote Stephen Wilson, ‘the endemic prejudice of non-Jews against Jews has assumed a monstrously inhuman dimension that has unbalanced the study of the Affair.’
Vincent Duclert, in his
Alfred Dreyfus: L’honneur d’un patriote
wrote of ‘a hyper-sensitivity’ found in reputable Jewish historians which ‘distorts their analysis’.
As the title of Duclert’s book suggests, he sees Alfred Dreyfus as a hero of the secular French Republic and of the values of the Enlightenment, rather than of the Jewish people or the Jewish religion. That is undoubtedly how Dreyfus saw himself. However, if Dreyfus had not been Jewish it seems unlikely that his case would have become a
of such magnitude. The French historian Alain Pagès asked how the sufferings of Dreyfus could cause worldwide indignation at a time when France was committing crimes in Africa or in Indo-China that were ‘without a doubt a thousand times more odious . . . without arousing much reaction from French political opinion’.
Nor was Alfred Dreyfus the only innocent man to be deported to the prison colonies of French Guiana: the case of Guillaume Seznec, pardoned by General de Gaulle in 1946 after twenty-four years imprisoned
in French Guiana and posthumously rehabilitated by the Cour de Cassation only in 2005,
is as obscure as that of Dreyfus is well known.
In France the Dreyfus Affair remained contentious well into the twentieth century. Alfred Dreyfus’s son Pierre wrote that his father would ‘be recognised by future generations as one of the truest heroes in the history of our beloved France’;
yet even today, writes Vincent Duclert, ‘Dreyfus is not to be found in the Panthéon of the national memory . . . and the French authorities remain hesitant when faced with the commemoration of the event.’
The historian Marie-Christine Leps describes how, in 1985, an offer made by the Socialist President Mitterrand of a statue of Alfred Dreyfus to be erected in the École Militaire was refused by the French military ‘because it was perceived as a reminder of division and humiliation’. In 1994 the Director of the Historical Section of the Army was dismissed by the Minister of Defence for stating that Dreyfus’s innocence was merely ‘a thesis generally admitted by historians’. It was not until 1995 that the French Army officially declared through the then Director of its Historical Section that Dreyfus was innocent.
On the centenary of the publication of ‘J’accuse’
in 1998, the then President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac, wrote to the descendants of both Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola to mark the occasion. In 2006, a stamp was issued depicting Alfred Dreyfus, and the Socialist Minister of Culture Jack Lang proposed that the body of Dreyfus, like that of Zola, should be reinterred in the Panthéon. Dreyfus’s grandson, Jean-Louis Lévy, said he thought his grandfather would rather remain in the Montparnasse cemetery. ‘His grave is extremely modest and I think he was a man who would not like to have been Panthéonised.’
The ‘Panthéonisation’ of Alfred Dreyfus has been left to historians. ‘If Dreyfus and his friends become historians and write text-books,’ wrote Maurice Barrès, the anti-Dreyfusard author and journalist, ‘we shall be villains in the eyes of posterity.’
Albert S. Lindemann, in
The Jew Accused
, talks of ‘the confident tone of moral superiority assumed by most Dreyfusards and accepted by later generations as wholly justified’.
The subtitle of Vincent Duclert’s recent work,
L’honneur d’un patriote
– the honour of a patriot – conveys the author’s view of Dreyfus in this volume of more than a thousand pages. Ruth Harris, in her recent book on the Dreyfus Affair, acknowledged that the subject has been overwhelmingly dominated by the Dreyfusard historians. She expresses an anxiety that her attempt to be fair to both sides ‘might be seen as undermining a vision of French history that has galvanized French men and women to oppose oppression’;
yet one reviewer judged that she herself never entirely abjures ‘her own preference for the Dreyfusard cause’.
Can anything be said for the anti-Dreyfusards? Because so many of them were Catholics, both tribal and devout, Catholic historians have been wary of writing about the Affair, and before starting this book I asked myself whether it was prudent for me, as a Catholic, to remind the world of their role. However, Péguy was right to see the Affair as a defining moment in the history of the Catholic Church. The Affair is intelligible only if it is seen in the context of the ideological struggle between the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire. Moreover, as Albert S. Lindemann wrote in
The Jew Accused
, if ‘anti-Semitism is to be comprehended, it must be through an analysis of the Gentile mind, a dissection of the pathologies of western Christian thought that have over the ages powerfully conditioned non-Jews to hate Jews’. Like Lindemann, I believe that ‘a calm, balanced and unflinching effort to understand anti-Semitism and anti-Semites is in the long run the best defence against the views they propagate’.
The Dreyfus Affair tells a story that needs no fictional embellishment and the account which follows is based either on the memoirs of those involved or on facts established by reputable historians. Unless otherwise indicated in the Notes and Bibliography, translations from the French are my own. I have been free in rendering dialogue to make it easy on the modern ear. I have used the term ‘Prime Minister’ rather than‘President of the Council of Ministers’ for the same reason. ‘Commandant’ and ‘Major’ are used interchangeably. To make the story manageable, and yet render its complexities comprehensible for a general reader, I have started this account with the event that saw the birth of modern Europe – the French Revolution of 1789.
1: The Estates General
In 1788, King Louis XVI of France, faced with bankruptcy, was obliged to summon the Estates General to authorise new taxes. Last convened under King Louis XIII in 1614, this vehicle for democratic representation had fallen into desuetude. The Bourbons believed in their God-given right to rule as absolute monarchs, and even now Louis XVI was reluctant to concede to his people a say in how they were governed. The nobility and clergy, too, saw a potential threat to their privileges, in particular their exemption from existing taxes such as the
. However, the government’s financial predicament, and growing disorder throughout the country, left the King with no alternative and the Estates General was commanded to convene at Versailles in May 1789.