For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. By Frederick Brown. Knopf; 336 pages; $28.95. Buy from Amazon.com
The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France. By Ruth Harris. Allen Lane; 524 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
HE LED an unremarkable, bourgeois life in fin-de-siècle Paris, riding his horses in the Bois de Boulogne, and sending his family to the Normandy coast to take the sea air. He was a conscientious, if not particularly likeable, army officer, and a graduate of Polytechnique, the highly competitive French engineering school. His father was a successful industrialist from Alsace (which had fallen to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71), supplying him with an unusually handsome income for a man of his rank. He also happened to be Jewish.
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was secretly arrested, wrongfully convicted by a court martial of high treason, sentenced to life imprisonment, stripped of his military rank and shipped off in chains to solitary confinement in the sweltering heat of Devil’s Island, a French territory off the coast of South America. The only evidence presented at his trial was a torn-up note containing confidential military information, which had been found in a wastepaper basket at the German embassy by a cleaning lady working as a French spy. It was written in a hand that was said, implausibly, to resemble the captain’s.
How could the French army have conspired to bring down an innocent man in the name of national security? To this day, and despite the scores of books on the subject, the affair that rocked and divided France fascinates historians. Three new works re-examine what happened for contemporary readers.
In a dense study, Frederick Brown of the State University of New York, sees the affair as the product of culture wars. The French army was humiliated by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, then shaken by the Paris Commune uprising. Nationalist feeling, spiced with paranoia about traitors and spies, took hold at a time when the top brass was forced to improve military performance through reform. Meritocratic recruitment drew in outsiders like Dreyfus. But this also made him the object of suspicion by the old Catholic families, who traditionally manned France’s officer class.
Mr Brown is particularly good on the battle of ideas, symbolised by the construction of two of the capital’s landmarks. In 1875 the first stone was laid for the Sacré Coeur basilica in Montmartre, designed as a statement of religious renewal, national atonement and devotion to Rome. Across the river, the following decade, Gustave Eiffel began work on his monumental iron tower as an emblem of industry and science. The clerical elite was scandalised: it towered over the churches, did not speak to God, and reflected “imbecility, bad taste and foolish arrogance”. As one anti-Semitic writer declared at the time, “Only a Jew could have submitted such a project.”
Political instability and insecurity fuelled social paranoia and anti-Jewish sentiment. Conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers were the talk of Paris salons. “La France Juive”, by Edouard Drumont, an anti-Semitic tract published in 1886, became a bestseller. The respectable Catholic press, notably La Croix, joined in. In one diocesan newsletter in the Cévennes, readers were told about “the Jew”, who, it declared, was: “Servile, slithering, artful, filthy and vile when he is the weaker one; he becomes arrogant when he has the upper hand, as he does now.”
Against this background, the clubby French military elite hunted for a traitor. A perfunctory internal investigation swiftly fingered Dreyfus, the only Jewish trainee officer on the General Staff. He stood out, in the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Sandherr, head of intelligence, as reported to a young diplomat, for “his indiscreet curiosity, his constant snooping, his air of mystery, and finally his false and conceited character, in which one recognises all the pride and all the ignominy of his race.” The military hierarchy closed ranks: its singular aim to defend its honour, and incriminate Dreyfus, triumphed over the facts.
In the end, justice prevailed. Yet it took five years before the Dreyfusards secured a second military trial, at which the captain was again found guilty, this time after the top brass forged evidence against him. Dreyfus’s name was not officially cleared until 1906. He was readmitted to the French army, served in the first world war and died in 1935. In another scholarly study, Ruth Harris, an Oxford University historian, shows how the battle to establish his innocence was never, as myth would have it, a neat tale pitting the forces of truth and justice against paranoid military authority and national honour. This, she writes, was “good rhetoric but poor history”.
Anti-clerical republicans—most famously, Emile Zola and his front-page letter to President Félix Faure entitled “J’Accuse”—took on the Catholic elite, with its hold over the military hierarchy. But the Dreyfus affair often cut across political and religious lines. Léon Blum, Georges Clemenceau, Jean Jaurès and other Dreyfusards intellectuels, a term originally coined to insult them, were aghast at left-leaning friends who refused to join the campaign. Through a close reading of a mass of private documents, Ms Harris subtly draws the complex, and contradictory, human behaviour behind the public affair.
Louis Begley, an American novelist and retired lawyer, and a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland, has produced the shortest of the three books. It is also the paciest read. As a primer on the affair, this is a first-rate narrative and a heartfelt plea to modern democracies to stick to their values and defend basic liberties, however threatened they feel.
The author draws an intriguing parallel between the Dreyfus affair and the Guantánamo detainees under President George Bush, held on suspicion of terrorist links, grossly mistreated and denied basic rights. Yet he stretches his point. Dreyfus was innocent, like some of those held at Guantánamo. Crucially, however, he was the “enemy” within: picked from the ranks of the officer class, by the military’s own elite, and in a country—unlike America—that was not at war.
More than a century on, the Dreyfus affair still holds important lessons about freedom, notably the fragility of basic liberties when national security is invoked. It is also a reminder of the deep roots of anti-Semitism, in France and beyond. Even after Dreyfus’s death, the family felt the consequences. As Mr Begley notes, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, changed her name and fled Vichy France for the free zone in the south. Her granddaughter, Madeleine, who fought in the French Resistance, was sent to Auschwitz