Unpredictable Alliances

Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century
Ruth Harris
Metropolitan Books, $35, 560 pp.

In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a rising star on the French General Staff, was accused of spying for Germany. The evidence pointing to Dreyfus was flimsy and his accusers could come up with no reasonable motive, but Dreyfus was a Jewish outsider in an army dominated by Catholics, and in a country where virulent anti-Semitism was a powerful political force. He was convicted by a military tribunal and sent to Devil’s Island, where he spent more than four years suffering from the brutal heat, solitary confinement, and, for a time, manacles that chained him to his bed at night. Dreyfus was fortunate to have a wealthy and loving family; following his conviction his brother Mathieu and his wife Lucie devoted themselves to his cause. They slowly rallied support among journalists, politicians, and intellectuals. They also found unexpected help in the army, where Colonel Georges Picquart, realizing that Dreyfus was innocent, struggled against his superiors to have the case reopened.

The Dreyfus Affair exploded when another military tribunal found the Commandant Walsin Esterhazy innocent in January 1898. Esterhazy was the real spy in the affair, but the court refused to accept clear evidence of his guilt, which would have meant admitting a miscarriage of justice and overturning Dreyfus’s conviction. Émile Zola’s “J’accuse,” an open letter to the president of the Third Republic that named army officers responsible for the cover-up, provoked riots in Paris and Algeria. When...

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About the Author

Thomas Kselman teaches European history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Death and the Afterlife in Modern France (Princeton), and is currently writing a book on the history of religious liberty in nineteenth-century France.