The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History
Piers Paul Read
Bloomsbury 408pp £25

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France has long been the quintessential land of the political scandal. Since at least the 17th century its rulers have been repeatedly up to their necks in dirty and sometimes downright murderous deeds. The grubby record includes the Panama scandal; the murder of the editor of France’s leading newspaper, Le Figaro, by the wife of the minister of finance, Joseph Caillaux, on the eve of the First World War; and the Stavisky scandal of 1934, which brought down a government. But the mère et père of all Gallic scandals and the subject of this absorbing book is the Dreyfus Affair.

The bare outlines of l’Affaire are well known. In 1894, when France was seething for revenge following her humiliating defeat in the Franco- Prussian war, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer from the ‘lost provinces’ of Alsace-Lorraine, was accused of passing military secrets to the German embassy in Paris. The only evidence against him was a slight resemblance between his handwriting and that on the bordereau, a torn up list of not very interesting items promised by a supposed traitor inside the French army that had been filched from the embassy’s wastepaper basket by a charlady employed by the French counter-intelligence agency. Despite the lack of evidence Dreyfus fitted the bill for a perfect scapegoat. He was aloof, pushily ambitious, unpopular with his peers, spoke good German and visited the German-occupied lost provinces to see his family. Above all, perhaps, at a time when antisemitism was rife, he was Jewish. The fact that he was also intensely patriotic and fanatically devoted to France and the army counted for nothing with the superior officers who condemned him.

Dreyfus was swiftly convicted of high treason by court martial, publicly degraded before a baying mob and bundled off to Devil’s Island, the notorious penal colony off South America where he languished for four years. Meanwhile his wealthy brother, Mathieu, campaigned tirelessly to re-open the case and to uncover the real traitor. After innumerable setbacks and not a few bribes paid to influential players he succeeded in identifying another officer, the dissolute Major Charles Esterhazy, as the true author of the bordereau. As ever, though, it was not the original offence but the cover-up that counted. A conspiracy of politicians, right-wing journalists, many of the Catholic clergy and the leading army generals had connived not only in convicting the innocent Dreyfus, but in condemning France’s entire Jewish community, along with its Freemasons, Protestants and leftwingers, as potential traitors. Only after repeated re-trials and setbacks was the full extent of the plot exposed, involving lies, forgeries, the intersuicide of the forger, duels, passionate quarrels, riots, Emile Zola’s immortal letter J’Accuse! and the death of its recipient, France’s President Faure, in flagrante delicto in the Elysée Palace. The affair apparently was laid to rest with Dreyfus’ rehabilitation; except, as Piers Paul Read graphically shows, it never really was.

It is scarcely surprising that Read, primarily a novelist, was attracted to this juiciest of scandals. Even after reading at least a dozen studies of the affair I still found myself gripped by Read’s narrative as it negotiates the extraordinary twists and turns of the unfolding story. Above all, the Dreyfus affair was a great human tragedy. Many were broken on its ever spinning wheel, but in the end right triumphed. Or did it?

Read is a declared apologist for traditional Roman Catholicism. Imbued as the Church in France was with bitter antisemitism, the rehabilitation of Dreyfus opened the way for the left-wing governments that followed the scandal to mount attacks on the twin pillars of traditionalist France: the army and the Church, purging the military of Catholic officers, closing down Church schools, sacking Catholic nurses and expelling religious orders from the country. Read does his best for his co-religionists and damns anti-clerical extremists for persecuting his Church. He is also unafraid to highlight factors that go some way towards explaining the animus against the Jews in general and Dreyfus in particular. Jewish financiers were mixed up in dodgy dealings; their family contacts, in an age of raging nationalism, did extend across national borders; the hugely rich Dreyfus family did spend more than a million francs in pursuing its cause: if Dreyfus had been a poor man, he would have been left to rot on Devil’s Island.

Leaving aside Read’s religious bias, his book is a thrilling re-telling of this complex affair. Sensitive to the ironies and echoes of history, Read reminds us that a granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus died in Auschwitz, his widow Lucie was hidden from the Nazis by Carmelite nuns, while the son of his chief persecutor, Du Paty de Clam, ran the Vichy agency that deported thousands of French Jews to their deaths.

Nigel Jones is the author of Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson, 2011)

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