Commentary Magazine

The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, by Jean-Denis Bredin

Cause Célèbre

The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus.
by Jean-Denis Bredin.
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. Braziller. 628 pp. $24.95.

Before Captain Alfred Dreyfus was charged with high treason in 1894, he was a thirty-four-year-old, career-conscious officer on the French army general staff. Like others from the Alsatian bourgeoisie whose families had chosen French citizenship and exile after the German annexation of their province, he was a passionate French patriot. His superior officers described him as “conscientious.” He had been diligent enough in his work to win an envied position in the army, despite having finished below the middle of his class at the Polytechnique. Married, the father of two, financially comfortable—by nearly any measure, Dreyfus was pointed toward a life of the most conventional respectability. Although he was hardly religious, Dreyfus was also a Jew. This circumstance would turn out to be more decisive in shaping his life than any choice made by him alone.

The affair which grew out of the Dreyfus case began as a curious 19th-century courtroom drama, but was eventually transformed into an epochal event that foreshadowed a great many of the tragic tendencies in the next century. The affair brought to the center stage of French politics a fateful alliance between Catholic anti-Semitism and the anti-bourgeois, anti-democratic mob—a French advance screening of the shock troops of 20th-century fascism. The mob did not prevail, but the question of Captain Dreyfus's guilt or innocence did emerge as the lodestar of political belief for an entire generation.

This was true across the political spectrum. A man like Léon Blum—who at the time of Dreyfus's arrest was just starting out as a young lawyer and literary critic—owed his entry into politics to the passions aroused by the Dreyfus case; he would lead the Socialist party for thirty years. On the other side, a figure like Charles Maurras, the royalist essayist and anti-Dreyfus agitator, would never forget the affair; fifty years after Dreyfus's arrest, the founder of the Action Française would exclaim that his own conviction on the charge of collaboration with the Nazi occupation was “the revenge of Dreyfus.”

Nearly a thousand titles have been devoted to the Dreyfus case, but it is unlikely that anyone will surpass this new synthesis by the prominent French lawyer and part-time historian Jean-Denis Bredin. The Dreyfus affair brings together a mass of tangled legal details resting at the center of one of the great political divides in French history; Bredin has mastered both the legal and the political aspects, and is outstandingly successful at presenting all the elements of the courtroom contest clearly and vividly.


The affair began when French intelligence found the now-famous bordereau, a letter containing French military secrets, in the wastebasket of the German military attaché in Paris. The handwriting bore a loose resemblance to that of Dreyfus—who happened to be the only Jewish officer attached to the general staff. Handwriting experts were rounded up to testify that Dreyfus was the document's author. Details of the investigation were leaked to mass-circulation anti-Semitic newspapers. At the subsequent trial, which was marked by irregularities, Dreyfus, to the surprise of practically no one except himself and his family, was convicted of treason and transported in chains to Devil's Island, a barren atoll in the South Atlantic, to serve a life sentence that was likely (given the conditions on the island) to be of short duration.

Two years later it was discovered that military secrets were still being passed to the German embassy, and in handwriting closely matching that of the original bordereau. Investigation showed the handwriting to be that of Major Walsin Esterhazy, an adventurer of murky royal lineage. The general staff was thus faced with a choice: admitting a judicial error or covering up the earlier miscarriage of justice by seeding the file with forgeries. Such was the prevailing sentiment about the Jew who had served on the general staff that the relevant officers chose the latter course without hesitation. Were it not for the rectitude of a single man, Colonel Georges Picquart, the Dreyfus affair would have ended right there.

But through the combined effort of Picquart, of Dreyfus's brother Mathieu, and of the young essayist Bernard Lazare, the circle of people convinced of Dreyfus's innocence began to expand with each passing month. Late in 1897 the prominent Radical politician Georges Clemenceau and then the novelist Émile Zola joined the ranks of those pressing for a new trial. The next year, the conspiracy of the general staff unraveled completely following the confession and suicide of Captain Henry, the army's principal forger. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil's Island for a retrial in military court, which, amazingly, still did not result in acquittal. He was pardoned by the Prime Minister, and retired to live with his family, greatly aged by his ordeal. It was not until 1906, when Clemenceau became Prime Minister, that a court of appeal cleared Dreyfus of all charges.

None of these procedures, however, settled the matter in the hearts of the French, and Dreyfusism remained a fighting word well into the next century. When Dreyfus was shot at and wounded in the street in 1908, his assailant was acquitted by a Paris court that claimed to “dissent” from the judgment clearing Dreyfus two years earlier; as late as the 1930's a play based on the affair could not be performed in Paris without harassment by right-wing toughs from the Action Française.


What made the case into a cause célèbre was the stridency of the voices and actions outside the court. From the very beginning a steady background chorus of anti-Semitic invective issued from Édouard Drumont's paper, La Libre Parole. Such violent and menacing language was on the upsurge in many parts of Europe; in France, Dreyfus gave it a focus. The anti-Semites combined with other foes of the Third Republic in the press, the Catholic Church, and the army. These groups had urban mobs to do their bidding. In 1897, following violent attacks against Jews in French Algeria, there were rampages against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in towns throughout France. Those alive today who remember the affair recall an atmosphere of tremendous intensity, and physical danger.

Bredin recounts all this, but ties it into the history of the affair with considerable, perhaps excessive, caution. He does not believe, for instance, that Dreyfus was framed from the outset. His interpretation of the original arrest roughly matches the reaction of upper-class French Jews of the period: the whole thing (in the acerbic paraphrase of Hannah Arendt) was an unfortunate judicial error, the victim of which just happened to be Jewish. But Bredin also leaves no doubt that the climate of anti-Semitism was responsible for Dreyfus's being held as a guilty man long after evidence to the contrary was freely available.

Dreyfus himself never seemed to be aware of this ugly side of France, and certainly never managed to find words to respond to it. Still, Bredin's portrait of his unlikely hero is more sympathetic than that of many contemporaries. The accused captain's repetitious avowals of devotion to France and its army—delivered in his unfortunate wooden voice—made him the despair of his supporters during his trials and after; some of these would eventually find the former prisoner unworthy of the fine words they had expended on his behalf. Bredin's view is more nuanced and complete; he presents Dreyfus's ordinary loyalties against the painfully vivid backdrop of the suffering to which he was subjected. What emerges is a man of uncommon fealty, with a sort of pure and mute patriotism all the more extraordinary because it was the last sentiment that anyone desired from him.


In one of his most provocative chapters Bredin argues that one of the Dreyfus affair's most significant legacies was the unprecedented and nearly complete political engagement it produced among French intellectuals, who defined the issues in the broadest possible terms and so set an agenda of long-lasting ideological division. The first great salvo was Émile Zola's article “J'accuse,” which was published in a special edition of Clemenceau's daily newspaper. Zola lashed out at the army for railroading Dreyfus and stirring up base hatreds to cover up its own crime. This polemic by the renowned novelist forced the whole French literary community to take a stand: what followed, besides fresh outbreaks of street violence against Jews, was a battle of petitions, manifestoes, articles in the popular press, and lobbying of politicians.

The Dreyfusards took the lead in all this. The anti-Dreyfusards, inspired at first to mockery, adopted the then-obscure word “intellectual” to deride those who had putatively as little insight into an espionage case as a police colonel would have into the origins of romanticism. But the term was soon clasped as a badge of honor by the young men who spent the last years of the 1890's writing and organizing for Dreyfus. The cause drew in already famous figures like Émile Durkheim and Anatole France and young men like Elie Halévy, Julien Benda, Charles Péguy, Léon Blum, and countless others—a large part of the roster of those who would later make their names as intellectuals in politics.

The writers who opposed Dreyfus also organized—though their sense of righteousness grew deficient as the specific case against Dreyfus came to look thinner and thinner. Intellectual anti-Dreyfusism rested on some principles more substantial than anti-Semitism; there was disgust as well at the spectacle of the French army exposed and denigrated. Even if Dreyfus were innocent the Dreyfusards were guilty, exclaimed Maurice Barrès: it was, he said, profoundly dangerous to treat the French nation, and the symbols which provoked allegiance to it, as simply a retrograde prejudice to be destroyed in the name of progress.

But the French nation managed to survive Dreyfus's exoneration, and indeed was all the stronger for it. By the end of the affair the royalist and clericalist opponents of the Third Republic were weakened, even discredited. Dreyfusism infused the centrist parties that supported the Republic with a new sense of purpose.

Of even greater significance was the transformation the affair produced in French socialism. There had been a tradition of anti-Semitism in the French workers' movement, which found Jews a convenient symbol of bourgeois capitalism. Jean Jaurès, the movement's principal leader, early on dismissed the Dreyfus controversy as concerning only competing factions of the ruling class. When Jaurès, with his extraordinary eloquence, rallied to the Dreyfusard side, he was in effect acknowledging that French socialism had a stake in making right an injustice committed against a single individual of bourgeois origin. This was a giant step in the movement's uneven march toward the reformist mainstream of French politics, and left an attractive, long-lasting mark on the political style of Jaurès's party.


It is very much to Bredin's credit that he treads carefully around the subject of the “two Frances” which, it has often been said, were brought into sharp focus by the Dreyfus affair. The case is ready ammunition for a theme long commonplace in France: that there is a marked, eternal divide between the parties of progress and reaction, liberty and hierarchy, between laicism and the Church, the individual and the state, the Left and the Right. This notion of a divide dates back to the French Revolution; like many shibboleths, it is based on more than a grain of truth. But history since the Dreyfus affair has blurred the dividing line beyond easy recognition.

The emergence, in 1917, of a new phenomenon on the world scene—in which a single political party claimed to embody the state, the law, and the forward march of history—was the death knell of the coalition braided together by the Dreyfusards. André Malraux once observed of France's Left-leaning intellectuals of the 1930's that although they may have thought they were perpetuating the spirit of the Dreyfusards, they were in fact merely dangling on the strings of the Comintern. The terrifying phenomenon thrown up by Dreyfus's foes—the anti-democratic urban mob—still exists in many places. But where the mob has teeth, as for example in contemporary Nicaragua, it is organized by the party-state, and the Catholic Church is one of its main targets. The upheaval of political cartography makes it hard, today, to recognize the true heirs of the Dreyfusards.

Last year the French government commissioned a statue of Dreyfus. The French army managed to raise objections to the proposed site, the courtyard of the École Militaire where Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulets after sentencing. But the man who described himself as “only an artillery officer” will soon stand commemorated on the grounds of the Polytechnique, his alma mater. Dreyfus's Job-like faith in France and French justice makes him a striking figure in ways never quite imagined by the Dreyfusards. Bredin's book is a very fine rendering of his story.

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