DREYFUS by Ruth Harris


Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century
Email this review


A patient reexamination of the Dreyfus Affair, revealing the “unusually intense process of emotional mobilization” involved on both sides.

Oxford University fellow and tutor Harris (Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, 1999, etc.) views the Affair as the stakeout of two sides, the so-called intellectuals (claiming rationality and republicanism) and anti-intellectuals (nationalism and clericalism). Both groups’ convictions were not so clear-cut, and motivations were often muddied. Accused of high treason in 1894 for penning a bordereau offering military secrets to the Germans, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a rising young French officer of Jewish origins, was publicly denounced and sent to prison on Devil’s Island for nearly five years. Meanwhile, Col. Georges Picquart came forward with revelations about the real spy, Walsin Esterhazy, but was silenced by the military. As the case became public, gradually lines were drawn in outrage. One side exposed the lack of proof, pervading anti-Semitism and clear miscarriage of justice, while the other side maintained an unshakable confidence in the French military and relief that “such a crime was not committed by a real Frenchman.” Dreyfus’s younger brother, Mathieu, proved indefatigable in garnering support, convincing journalist Bernard Lazare to take up the cause—“They needed a Jewish traitor fit to replace the classic Judas,” Lazare wrote—while novelist Emile Zola, “attracted to the Affair above all because it was a good story,” didn’t publish his incendiary article “J’accuse…!” until January 1898. Arguments exploded from both camps, involving the inflexible force of the military, the uneasy situation of the Jewish community and the salonnieres who helped disseminate ideas in the backrooms. Above all, Harris capably depicts the brittle figure of Dreyfus himself, honorable but broken.

A contextually comprehensive study of the battle for France’s soul and the figures radically politicized by the debate.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7471-0
Page count: 560pp
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2010


FictionAN OFFICER AND A SPY by Robert Harris
by Robert Harris
NonfictionTHE DREYFUS AFFAIR by Piers Paul Read
by Piers Paul Read
by Michael Rosen