A Chevron Ross Book Review The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfuss

By January 14, 2022No Comments

When I ran across this book in a used bookstore, I suddenly realized that although I’d heard of the Dreyfus affair, I had no idea what it was. So I decided to fill that gap in my education. I’m glad I did. Bredin’s account, published in France in 1983 and in the United States in 1986, is a shocking example of the depths to which people can sink in order to rationalize injustice.

Alfred Dreyfus was the son of a respected middle-class Jewish family from the Alsace region. Though he grew up in an anti-Semitic environment, he rose to the rank of French army captain before being arrested and accused of treason in 1894. The only evidence against him was a letter implying that he was a spy for the Germans. Despite conflicting conclusions by handwriting analysts, Dreyfus was convicted by a military court, publicly stripped of rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, where he languished for more than three years.

The eagerness with which the French embraced Dreyfus’s guilt simply because he was a Jew is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. The ideals of the French Revolution evaporated as Dreyfus was jailed and intimidated for almost a month before learning what he was charged with. His trial took place in closed session. Colonel Georges Picquart, upon discovering evidence in Dreyfus’s favor, was reassigned to other duties and eventually jailed himself. When novelist Emile Zola circulated a pamphlet critical of the military establishment and the Dreyfus judges, he was charged with slander and convicted. For the most part, those who conspired to implicate Dreyfus went on with their careers.

Thanks to the efforts of Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu and a group of sympathizers, an investigation revealed that the incriminating letter was actually the work of Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, an amoral officer perpetually in trouble with creditors. Nevertheless, military officials conspired to cover up the injustice, going so far as to warn Esterhazy, the actual traitor, that he risked being arrested.

Gradually, the case against Dreyfus began to crumble, especially when a French officer discovered that a second document incriminating him was a forgery, and the man responsible confessed and committed suicide.

Even these revelations were not enough to dampen the anti-Jewish fervor that arose in 1899 when Dreyfus was brought home for a retrial of his case. The atmosphere of prejudice and a bungled defense resulted in a second conviction. Ultimately, the prime minister pushed through a pardon for Dreyfus and a general amnesty for the conspirators, in order to put the controversy to rest and salvage the honor of France. But a pardon is not an acquittal. Dreyfus pressed to have his own honor restored. It was not until 1906 that the High Court of Appeal overturned his conviction. As Bredin summarizes it, “It had taken France twelve years to vindicate an innocent man.”

Bredin’s meticulous narrative requires patience. So many military officers, government officials, clerics, journalists and others were instrumental players in the affair that I found myself flipping back and forth to remember who was whom. His excellent documentation of French social and political conditions in Dreyfus’s time is both illuminating and complex. My conclusion is that a work of such great scholarship deserves more than one reading. I know I’ll return to this book one day for a clearer understanding of events.

Sadly, echoes of the Dreyfus case resound today with the resurgence of racial prejudice and white supremacy around the world. Bredin’s valuable documentation reminds us that the spirit of evil never rests, that the only solid foundation of a just society is one of love and tolerance of each other, regardless of our differences.

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