(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Pierre Birnbaum is a social historian who has published extensively on anti-Semitism in France. In his introduction to this well-researched historical study, he admits that much of substance has been written on the unjust conviction of Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) by a French military tribunal in 1894 on the charge of treason, on the cover-up by leading French military officers, and on writer Émile Zola’s heroic defense of Captain Dreyfus’s innocence in his famous open letter “J’accuse” (“I accuse”), published by the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore on January 13, 1898. Birnbaum points out, however, that no serious study has been completed on the anti-Semitism which was prevalent throughout France in the late 1890’s. For this book he carefully examined detailed reports submitted to various French police departments, contemporary records in national and departmental archives in France, and numerous French newspapers from this period. The advantage of this approach is that it is based on the examination of contemporary historical documents written by the very people who lived through this period of anti-Semitism in France. Birnbaum realized that an analysis of all relevant documents between 1894, the year of Dreyfus’s first conviction, and 1906, when he was reinstated in the French army, would have resulted in an excessively long book and so wisely limited this study to 1898. In that year, Zola published his letter “J’accuse,” the most violent anti-Semitic riots took place in France, and proof of Dreyfus’s innocence became obvious to people of good faith.

When this book was originally published under the title Le Moment antisémite: Un Tour de la France en 1898, it was very well received in France. Jane Marie Todd has not only produced an excellent English translation but also included useful historical notes, a chronology of important events in the lengthy Dreyfus case, and an index. These three elements are not to be found in the original French book, making this English translation more useful than the French version for readers who are not well acquainted with the history of French anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century.

Although Captain Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted in December, 1894, the general public did not begin to question his guilt until late 1897. Birnbaum explains well how an unlikely person set in motion the discovery of truth and enraged anti-Semites. Captain Georges Picquart was Christian, and he was not very sympathetic toward Jews. He firmly believed, however, in the importance of honor for French army officers. In 1896 he concluded that certain documents used in Dreyfus’s 1894 trial were forgeries. He informed his superiors of this fact, and he also proved to them that the traitor was the Christian Ferdinand Esterhazy. When Picquart realized that the French general staff planned to do nothing to correct this miscarriage of justice, he shared his proof with his lawyer Louis Leblois. Leblois informed French president Félix Faure, the war minister general Baptiste Billot, and Parisian journalists.

Picquart’s superiors handled this situation very badly from a public relations point of view. He was sent to Tunisia, and soldiers were encouraged to do something so that Captain Picquart would suffer an “accidental” death there. In December, 1897, Zola wrote his first article on the Dreyfus case. He demonstrated Dreyfus’s innocence, the responsibility of high-ranking French military officers in the attempted murder of Captain Picquart, and Esterhazy’s guilt. War Minister Billot, who had received overwhelming proof of Dreyfus’s innocence and of Esterhazy’s guilt, nevertheless affirmed that the true traitor was Dreyfus. He organized a farcical court-martial that exonerated Esterhazy in a two-day trial held January 10-11, 1898, and then ordered Picquart’s arrest.

President Faure, War Minister Billot, and influential members of the French general staff all colluded in a criminal cover-up, and they overtly appealed to popular anti-Semitism by arguing that the reversal of Dreyfus’s conviction would harm the French army. These high-ranking officials placed their personal careers above the honor...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)