The Dreyfus Affair Piers Paul Read

Bloomsbury, pp.408, 25

‘It’s the revenge of Dreyfus,’ came the cry from the dock. The speaker was the veteran right-wing ideologue, Charles Maurras, found guilty of treason in 1945 for his support of the collaborationist Vichy regime. It wasn’t of course that, and yet there is a sense in which Maurras spoke the truth.

The Dreyfus case had divided France half a century before Maurras was put on trial in Lyon. The division between what Piers Paul Read, in this masterly and eminently balanced account of the Affair, calls ‘the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire’ had never been closed. The end of the Third Republic and its replacement by Vichy’s ‘Etat Français’ in 1940 represented the victory of the anti-Dreyfusards. The anti-clerical Republic with its roots in the great Revolution of 1789 gave way to a regime that was Catholic, monarchical, militarist and nationalist, hostile to Jews, Freemasons, Protestants, socialists, communists and anti-clericals..

The Affair itself, complicated and often confusing in its course, was simple in essence. A French agent, working as a cleaner in the German embassy in Paris, retrieved a paper — the famous ‘bordereau’ — from a wastepaper basket and handed it to her controller. Clearly a French officer was passing information. Suspicion fell almost at once on Captain Dreyfus. There was no good evidence — virtually no evidence at all — against him. But he was an outsider: a rich Alsatian Jew, who still had family in Alsace, annexed by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

Anti-Semitic feeling was strong in late-19th-century France — Jews and French Protestants controlled most of the banks. Yet, as Read points out, there were other Jewish officers in the Army, and by no means all Dreyfus’s accusers were anti-Semitic. (Paradoxically, the officer, Colonel Picquart, who would be Dreyfus’s chief defender in the Army, and who would ruin his own career by exposing the injustice done to him, was himself anti-Semitic.)

Dreyfus was unpopular with his colleagues, certainly, but as much because he was taciturn and gave the impression of thinking himself superior, as because he was Jewish. If he had been of a different temperament he might never have fallen under suspicion. Later, when he became the celebrated victim, he disappointed many of his supporters by his self-control and continuing respect for the Army.

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Despite the absence of evidence he was court-martialled, dishonoured and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Family and friends worked to clear him. Documents still kept disappearing and finding their way to the Germany embassy. Clearly there was another spy. He was Major Charles Walsin-Esterhazy, a heavily indebted man-about-town.

The Army chiefs, however, continued to maintain that Dreyfus was guilty. They feared that to admit the miscarriage of justice would bring discredit on the Army. One of those who had supplied ‘evidence’ against Dreyfus, Colonel Henry, obligingly produced more forged documents to prove his guilt.

It was in vain. The momentum was now with the Dreyfusards, especially after the novelist Emile Zola wrote his famous public letter, J’accuse, charging the President of the Republic with being complicit in the injustice done to Dreyfus; it was published in a newspaper owned by the Radical (and anti-clerical) politician Georges Clemenceau. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island. A second court-martial absurdly again found him guilty but with extenuating circumstances, and set him free.

The President offered him a pardon, which he accepted, to the dismay and even fury of his most vehement supporters. Later he was restored to the Army. Major Esterhazy fled to England where he worked as a journalist, writing under the name of Fitzgerald; he died in Hertfordshire in 1923.

Colonel Henry was arrested and cut his throat. The Catholic Right came to regard him as a martyr. An appeal for funds to support his widow and children was very successful. Henry, who had risen from the ranks, is one of the most interesting characters in the Affair. He believed the Dreyfusard campaign was intended to discredit the High Command and that it was necessary for the Army and the security of France that Dreyfus be guilty. His view was widely shared. Augustin Cordier, editor of a monarchist newspaper in Bordeaux, believed that the very existence of the Army, and therefore of France, was at stake : ‘If Dreyfus was acquitted,’ he wrote, ‘there would be nothing left but to wear mourning for our country.’ No wonder passions ran so high on either side.

The anti-clerical Republic took its revenge. Profiting from the Affair, Radical politicians felt sufficiently secure to expel religious orders from France and close Catholic schools. One victim of this purge was Henri de Gaulle, father of a more famous son. It is one of the oddities of French history that in 1940 Charles de Gaulle, reared in a devoutly Catholic family that subscribed to Maurras’ newspaper L’Action Française, should have found himself in London and not in Vichy where so many from his background flourished.

Piers Paul Read’s narrative is compelling. He disentangles the complicated web of the Affair, and is just to both sides. Dreyfus was a victim of a terrible injustice, but not all of the anti-Dreyfusards were fools or villains, and not all of those who defended him and saw the wrong done to him righted were men of honour. I can’t think the story could be better, or more fairly, told.

A footnote (which I think I owe to the historian Sir Denis Brogan): in old age, Dreyfus was playing a game of cards when a recent murder case became the subject of discussion. Someone remarked that there seemed to be no evidence against the accused. ‘Oh well, no smoke without fire, you know’, said Dreyfus.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Dreyfus, France, French history, History, Non-fiction