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The Scandal that Tore France in Two

by Piers Paul Read

Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60819-432-2
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Novelist/historian Read (The Death of a Pope, 2009, etc.) revisits the notorious case that revealed the ugly extent of anti-Semitism in France.

The conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason on December 22, 1894 was only the beginning of a 12-year ordeal that divided France and remains one of history’s most famous instances of official misconduct and injustice. It ended with the Jewish officer’s complete exoneration, but only after he had suffered nearly five years’ imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Members of the armed forces forged documents and gave false testimony to ensure that his guilt was not questioned, while members of the government looked the other way in the interests of not damaging the public’s faith in the army. Read’s account, based mostly on secondary sources, adds one new element to this oft-told tale: an effort to explain the motives of the anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom (like the author) were Catholic, as something beyond knee-jerk anti-Semitism. “The Affair is intelligible only if it seen in the context of the ideological struggle between the France of St. Louis and the France of Voltaire,” writes the author. True enough, but his attempt to provide that context by detailing the persecution of Catholic priests during the French Revolution and the ongoing anticlericalism of secularists in the Third Republic at times seems uncomfortably close to justifying the misdeeds that condemned an innocent man. It’s a matter of tone rather than factual inaccuracy. We hear repeatedly about Dreyfus’ aloof manner and the poor impression he made at his several trials, while Read writes of the generals who refused to pursue compelling evidence against the real traitor, “to them the choice was between injustice and disorder.” An obvious miscarriage of justice is certainly more understandable when one realizes that the anti-Dreyfusards believed that clearing him would shake the foundations of the state. It does nothing to soften the repulsive impression made by mobs shrieking “Dirty Jew!” as Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted.

A brisk, readable retelling with a slightly odd emphasis.