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Book Review: Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris

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Late in September of 1894 a cleaning woman working in the German embassy in Paris discovered the discarded fragments of a memorandum which contained French military secrets in the waste basket of the German military attaché. The cleaning woman, who also happened to be a French spy working for military intelligence, turned the pieces of the memo over to the authorities, who analyzed the fragments and determined that there was a traitor on the French army general staff.

On October 15, a promising young Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was arrested for the crime. He was court martialed and convicted on evidence that many considered trumped up and flimsy. In January of 1895, he was publically degraded, his epaulettes torn from his uniform, his sword broken in two. He was then paraded around the courtyard of the military school to the jeers of a screaming mob. In the end he was sent off to imprisonment on the notorious Devil’s Island. Thus began the cause célèbre that was to rock France for the next decade and more – the Dreyfus affair.

Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century, Ruth Harris’ comprehensive study of what for a long time was simply known as the “Affair,” combines a historical survey of events with an analysis of the factional disputes between the Dreyfusards, those who for one reason or another supported Dreyfus’ against his accusers, and the anti-Dreyfusards, those who supported the army and the right wing government.

Where past studies have tended to see the central issue in terms of anti-Semitism, Harris, while recognizing that anti-Semitism indeed played a significant part in the reaction to the case, makes the point that it was not the only issue. The motivations of people on both sides of the Affair were often complex. Anti-Dreyfusards included nationalists who felt it was necessary to support the honor of the military even if they were in the wrong, conservatives who felt the need to defend the perks of the aristocracy, and Catholics who were unhappy with the secularization of the state. The Dreyfusards on the other hand were often republicans who had little use for either the military or the conservative government and believed in meritocracy rather than aristocracy. Some supported Dreyfus less for individual justice than for the principles involved. Some were simply concerned with the plight of the man. Certainly there were anti-Semites at work, but anti-Semitism alone does not explain the complexities of the situation.

Harris introduces a large cast of characters on both sides of the Affair. There are the family members, his wife Lucie and brother Mathieu who were stalwart in his defense. There are the well known figures like the novelist Emil Zola whose pamphlet J’Accuse may well be the most famous document associated with the Dreyfus case, and Clemenceau who was later to lead the country. There are the schemers like Commandant Henry who forged evidence and eventually committed suicide and the men of honor like Colonel Picquart who went to prison for defending Dreyfus. There were the contemporary journalists and propagandists like Bernard Lazare and Edouard Drumont, not to mention the lawyers, politicians, intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, generals and salonnieres. Despite the large number, Harris manages to portray individuals in depth and with precision. In most cases she carefully draws her insights from their own letters and published writings. Altogether, her portraits of Dreyfus supporters, antagonists, and even those who tried to ignore the issue, create a panoramic picture of French society at the turn of the century and the impact the Affair had on that society.

In Dreyfus, Harris manages to tell a remarkable story with scholarly care. It is one of those rare academic works that is both readable and well documented. Notes and bibliography are impressively voluminous. Moreover the volume includes a wealth of illustrations, photographs, and cartoons.

 

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