The Affair

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

On October 15, 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure captain of infantry in the French Army, was arrested for high treason, specifically for providing military information to Germany. The effects of this seemingly unimportant action were to convulse France for the next twelve years and are still to be found in various guises in the France of the late twentieth century. The Dreyfus Affair, as it came to be called, was and is probably the most famous (or notorious) cause célèbre in the history of Western civilization.

The Affair has produced thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles. This latest recounting of and commentary on The Affair by Jean-Denis Bredin, originally published in France in 1983 as L’Affaire and ably translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, will certainly not be the last book on the subject, but it is one of the best. Because of its wealth of detail, its treatment of background, and its balanced and judicious view of all the issues, it is the one basic book that should be read by anyone interested in The Affair, its origins, and its effects. The author, a highly respected lawyer and professor of law at the University of Paris, is also a modern historian and a frequent contributor to French periodicals. He has brought to this comprehensive study all the best qualities of the legal mind and temperament; it could only be wished that all the lawyers involved in The Affair had displayed the same qualities.

After his arrest in October, 1893, Dreyfus was tried by court martial and, on the basis of forged evidence, suppressed documents, perjured testimony, against a background of press-fueled anti-Semitism, was found guilty and sentenced to military degradation and perpetual deportation. In January, 1895, Dreyfus was degraded before the army and sent to Devil’s Island, where he arrived in March to spend the next four years and three months. As Bredin makes clear in several memorable chapters, counterpointed against the continuing events in Paris, Devil’s Island was Hell. Dreyfus was subjected to special supervision, severe restraints, and petty, demeaning regulations. Clearly, he was expected to die there, as most transportees did, but he stubbornly refused to acquiesce.

At home, meanwhile, his wife, Lucie, his brother Mathieu, and Colonel Georges Picquart sought every avenue of appeal and searched for new evidence. Picquart discovered that the real spy was almost certainly a Major Marie Charles Esterhazy of the French Army. As the result of a public letter by Lucie Dreyfus, the press again began to choose sides and ask questions. The result was a redoubled effort by the military to cover up (more forgeries) and to blacken the reputation of Picquart. Esterhazy was brought before a court martial in January, 1898, and acquitted. Two days after the acquittal, The Affair was forever transformed from a search for justice for one man into a social, religious, and political upheaval and debate about the very nature of the French state and French life. The turning point was the publication of “J’accuse” by the famous novelist Émile Zola. In his pamphlet, Zola made it perfectly clear that the struggle was now to be that of the traditional republican virtues, especially truth and justice, against the religious passion, the military spirit, and the devotion to hierarchies characteristic of what may be termed the French Establishment. Dreyfus had become a symbol; henceforth, one’s political and social values would be measured by where one stood on the Dreyfus Affair. Among the Dreyfusards tended to be found Socialists, intellectuals, republicans and those with a passion for individual liberty. Ranged against them tended to be monarchists, the military, many Catholics, and those with a passion for order, tradition, and obedience. Many enrolled on one side or the other to further their own personal agendas. For many, Dreyfus was guilty because he was a Jew. For many, the army could do no wrong simply because it was the army.

The Dreyfusard cause suffered two setbacks in early 1898 when Zola was found guilty of slander of the Minister of War and Colonel Picquart was dismissed from the service because of his activities on behalf of Dreyfus. Though the anti-Dreyfusards kept winning battles, the war was going against them. As the result of various trials and legal proceedings, more and more evidence appeared in public, and the anti-Dreyfusards found themselves fighting more rearguard actions.

At the end of August, 1898, Commandant Hubert...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The Atlantic. CCLVII, February, 1986, p. 83.

Choice. XXIII, May, 1986, p. 1442.

Commentary. LXXXI, May, 1986, p. 68.

Library Journal. CXI, January, 1986, p. 82.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, February 27, 1986, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, January 26, 1986, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXII, March 17, 1986, p. 110.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, December 6, 1985, p. 67.

Time. CXXVII, March 24, 1986, p. 86.

Washington Post Book World. XVI, January 26, 1986, p. 1.