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 Zola was prosecuted for libel in February, anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish shops and citizens spread throughout France. By this time, however, Dreyfus’s case had won enough support to earn him a second trial. Shockingly, another military tribunal in 1899 also found Dreyfus guilty, though with “extenuating circumstances” that it left unexplained. A presidential pardon that year finally freed Dreyfus, who was fully exonerated only in 1906.

The public was obsessed with the Dreyfus Affair, which divided fin-de-siècle France into opposing camps that regarded each other with contempt. Each side saw its own position as embodying uncompromising virtue and the only legitimate sense of the national interest. The drama of Dreyfus’s personal ordeal, combined with the political and religious passions it provoked, continue to draw the interest of historians. In addition to Ruth Harris’s new book on the affair, two others have appeared in the past year: Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (2009), and Frederick Brown’s For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (2010). All three of these books cover the complicated sequence of investigations and trials that frame the affair, but Harris’s account stands out for several reasons. As with her previous work on the country’s famous shrine, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (1999), she combines a masterful knowledge of the French context with a novelist’s touch in her handling of the personalities involved.

Historians have to some extent continued to view the affair in the Manichean terms employed at the time, with republicans defending truth and justice against a coalition of Catholics and conservatives blinded by religious conviction, anti-Semitism, and a sense that individual rights mattered less than the national interest. Harris does not avoid judgments about individuals and issues, but she makes a concerted effort to understand the motives and arguments of all those involved, regardless of their position. For example, easy judgments about the Dreyfusards’ commitment to reason are hard to maintain in the face of their pursuit of help from the occult sciences, which also fascinated their opponents. Conspiracy theorists who imagined a Jewish plot to control France were matched by Dreyfusard fears about malevolent Jesuits supposedly masterminding the campaign against the captain. Elites on both sides of the affair were excited about its potential for mobilizing mass support, but also uneasy about some of the alliances they made, and the possibility that popular sentiment could break free from their control. The anti-Semitism that helped drive the persecution of Dreyfus tainted many of his supporters as well, and emerged especially as the affair wound down and the family accepted a pardon instead of pursuing additional appeals. Fernand Labori, one of the lead attorneys who had defended Dreyfus at Rennes, viewed this as an act of clannish self-interest, and thus took a position on Jews similar to those of his anti-Dreyfusard opponents. Harris’s work is informed by a moral sensibility that admires the devotion to universal principle on display amongst the Dreyfusards, but sees this as at times working against a more practical humanitarian concern that focused on the health of Alfred and the well-being of his family.

This interest in the personal dimension of the affair extends well beyond the Dreyfus family to include an enormous cast of characters. Harris’s research in the private correspondence of all the major actors, and many ordinary citizens as well, has given her a unique understanding of the intense emotional commitments for and against Dreyfus that gripped so many in France during that period. On both sides there was an exhilarating sense of communion as battles were waged and won, but that sense could not be maintained as the affair dragged on, and it was followed by bitterness and recrimination.

Apart from a closing reference to the present controversy over headscarves, now banned from French public schools, Harris avoids claims about the contemporary relevance of the Dreyfus Affair. But American readers may find that her story resonates with their own experience of a political atmosphere poisoned by the abusive exploitation of race and religion. Fin-de-siècle France witnessed rabble-rousing demagogues, bruising exchanges among journalists always looking to expand their audi-ences, an unwillingness among politicians and citizens to address each other with respect and civility. Harris’s book is first of all about France during the Dreyfus Affair, but it is also a beautifully crafted case study of the dilemmas faced by modern democracies.

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.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.