Study Guide

Dreyfus

by Michael Burns

Dreyfus Essay - Critical Essays

Dreyfus

At the center of DREYFUS: A FAMILY AFFAIR is the scandal which rocked France in the 1890’s when Alfred Dreyfus, a wealthy intellectual Jewish army officer, was found guilty of treason and incarcerated on Devil’s Island despite clear evidence of his innocence.

Michael Burns has thrown fresh light on this much-discussed affair by looking back to Captain Dreyfus’ great-grandfather, a rural butcher deprived, because of his race, of basic human rights, and to the influence of the French revolution, with its decreed emancipation of the Jews, on subsequent generations of the family.

He has thus been able to trace the historical and social roots not only of the unyielding faith in French justice which sustained Dreyfus throughout his ordeal but also of the high-level anti-Semitic conspiracy which sought to destroy him.

Through his gripping combination of sober analysis and vivid characterization, Burns brings to life the many eminent figures who campaigned for Dreyfus’ rehabilitation. He emphasizes, however, the key roles played by members of the family, especially by Alfred’s brother Mathieu, whose dogged diplomacy brought together the very disparate—and sometimes feuding—individuals and groupings known collectively as the “Dreyfusards.”

The Dreyfus family history ends with the suffering imposed on it during World War II by Nazis and their French collaborators. Several of the younger family members fought back with the Resistance or the Free French; some lost their lives in appalling circumstances.

Underpinning the entire account is the contradiction between the noble legacy of the French Revolution—“liberty, equality, fraternity”—and the brutish pervasiveness of traditional anti-Semitism, fanned by opportunist politicians and journalists, from which the Dreyfus family, through the six generations depicted, and by implication the entire Jewish population of France, have never been free.