After the affair was over: Alfred Dreyfus (left) was a lieutenant colonel in the French army during the First World War. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History, by Piers Paul Read (Bloomsbury). Reviewed by David A. Bell.
It's not exactly a story worthy of John le Carré. On the afternoon of 20 July 1894, a French army officer named Ferdinand Esterhazy walked into the German embassy in Paris and offered to sell secrets to the military attaché, Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen. A month later, Schwartzkoppen received a note from Esterhazy referring to classified material, tore it up, and left the pieces in his wastepaper basket for his French cleaning lady, whom he considered an idiot.
She promptly delivered them to French military intelligence. They then sat, unexamined, for a month, because the responsible official, Hubert-Joseph Henry, had left on an extended hunting trip. And when the French finally pieced the note together and realised they had a traitor on their hands, they arrested the wrong man, despite the handwriting evidence that clearly pointed in Esterhazy's direction.
Yet this comedy of errors gave rise to a massive scandal that wrecked lives, unleashed a torrent of prejudice, and for a time seemed to be pushing France towards the brink of civil war. It was no coincidence that the wrongly arrested officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was a Jew. Anti-Semitism contributed mightily to his conviction in a farcically mishandled court martial.
It helped to convince the high command, their political backers and a substantial portion of French public opinion to defend the conviction, even as evidence mounted that Dreyfus – by now serving a life sentence on Devil's Island – was innocent. A massive public campaign condemning the injustice culminated in Émile Zola's brilliant 1898 polemic J'accuse!
Soon afterwards, Henry was correctly accused of fabricating key evidence in the case and slit his throat with a razor. But even then a second court martial confirmed the sentence against Dreyfus. A full vindication did not come until 1906.
The story of the affair has been told hundreds of times, and the last six years have seen a particular profusion of Dreyfusiana, including Vincent Duclert's 1,259-page biography of Dreyfus, as well as taut, readable surveys by the lawyer and novelist Louis Begley and the literary biographer Frederick Brown.
It also includes a provocative study by Ruth Harris, one of the best living historians of this period. In The Man on Devil's Island, Harris brought Dreyfusard intellectuals down from their pedestals, arguing that their victory, while undoubtedly heroic, helped to commit the French republic to a rigid and even intolerant secularism whose damaging consequences are felt to this day.
In this company, Piers Paul Read's The Dreyfus Affair feels somewhat poorly timed and redundant, and all the more so since it is based on a very thin job of research. The first two parts of the book, taking the story up through Dreyfus's condemnation and imprisonment, rely almost entirely on published histories, and cite fewer than 10 original sources at first hand.
Read's lack of expertise in French history comes through in the first pages of the book, in which he confuses the old regime's first and second estates, and the French revolution's cult of reason and cult of the supreme being.
What Read does bring to bear is a keen and practised sense of how to sketch characters, and to tell their stories. He does a particularly good job with Dreyfus himself, whom he portrays as stiff, humourless and inhibited, but also possessing inner reserves of strength that allowed him to survive his atrocious ordeal. The pages on Devil's Island are brilliantly vivid, showing the toll taken by the unrelenting heat and damp, permanent shackles, stinging insects and rodents.
Dreyfus took refuge in books – Shakespeare, Montaigne, works of history – only to find them attacked as well: ‘Vermin got into them, gnawed them, and laid their eggs in them.’ Read has obvious admiration for the young Lucie Dreyfus, who stood by her husband even after learning of his serial adulteries.
And, like nearly all historians of the affair, he makes a hero of the high-ranking officer who came to Dreyfus's defence at great risk to himself, Colonel Georges Picquart. ‘What does it matter to you if that Jew stays on Devil's Island?’
Read quotes the deputy chief of the General Staff asking Picquart, after evidence of Esterhazy's guilt had come to light. ‘If you keep quiet, no one will know.’ Picquart allegedly responded: ‘What you're saying is vile. I don't know what I will do, but of one thing I am certain – I will not take this secret to the grave.’
But Read has greater ambitions than simple storytelling. As a devout Catholic, he is troubled that so many of Dreyfus's tormentors came from the Catholic Right. He wants to understand how its members thought.
He therefore begins with 50 pages on the religious battles of the previous century, evoking the sense of persecution that French Catholics felt at the hands of the secular republic – and of the Jews whom they associated with it. He goes on to discuss the growing influence of Jews (even, remarkably, in the army), their role in prominent scandals, and the resentment they encountered...
Read the full review in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/16/dreyfus-affair-piers-paul-read-review
More about Piers Paul Read on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Paul_Read
John Preston’s review in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/9072502/The-Dreyfus-Affair-by-Piers-Paul-Read-review.html
Kenneth O Morgan’s review in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-dreyfus-affair-by-piers-paul-read-6298398.html
‘France still fractured by the Dreyfus Affair’, The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/9045659/France-is-still-fractured-by-the-Dreyfus-Affair.html
What was it all about? Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair; http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Dreyfus.html
More on reviewer David A. Bell: http://www.princeton.edu/history/people/display_person.xml?netid=dabell; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bell_(historian)