Politics, Emotion,
and the Scandal of the Century
by Ruth Harris
Metropolitan, 560 pp., $35


I  was brought up on une certaine idée de l’affaire Dreyfus. A loyal captain of the French armed forces had been crudely framed, at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, on an espionage accusation which was known by many of his superiors to be false (and indeed, known by several of them to be layable to the charge of another officer). The loyal captain was Jewish, which meant that much of the French establishment both assumed his guilt and, even when this position became forensically impossible, refused to admit his innocence. There ensued a battle royal in which French society was riven between the Roman Catholic Church, the high command, and the political right, and an alliance of socialists and secularists—partially embodied in the unbending figures of Emile Zola and Jean Jaurès—who held out not “merely” for the right of the individual but for a wider social justice.

Nor was this drama (journalistically evoked by Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower and made imperishable as a permanent thread in the intricate warp and woof of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu) merely about itself. It crystalized the numerous anxieties of the fin de siècle and presaged the coming of the First World War. It curtain-raised the long battle between Republican France and the forces of reaction, who eventually preferred even the stain of Vichy to the values of 1789. As Charles Maurras, founder and teacher of the Catholic fascist movement Action Française, was being sentenced as a collaborator after 1945, he was heard to murmur: “Enfin, c’est la revanche de Dreyfus.” 

Nor did this exhaust the historical weight and resonance of l’affaire. Watching the Parisian mob yelling for Jewish blood outside the courtroom, an Austrian Jewish newspaper correspondent named Theodor Herzl experienced a vertiginous sense of insecurity in Europe and resolved to secularize the ancient Jewish theme of a return to the Holy Land. Proust’s own satires on Zionism in Sodom and Gomorrah notwithstanding, the Dreyfus case became a hinge of that argument, too. 

Ruth Harris’s rather beautiful and complex study is a conscious attempt to add, or better say restore, the layers of ambiguity that are lost if we accept this almost classical model of confrontation between darkness and enlightenment. It’s not that she is, in any usual sense, a revisionist. Indeed, her restatement of the essential and unarguable point—the complete innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—could scarcely be bettered. He was disgracefully railroaded from the moment in October 1894 that he was summoned to the office of Commandant Armand du Paty de Clam (a name so Clouseau-like that Art Buchwald would have shrunk from inventing it) and tricked into writing a “dictation” that supposedly matched the handwriting on a secret letter recovered from the wastebasket of the German embassy. Swiftly convicted and then stripped of his uniform in public, in front of a sadistic crowd far worse than any ever assembled by the guillotine, he was shipped to the hellish prison-colony of Devil’s Island where the guards—I had not previously savored this detail—amused themselves by feeding him small morsels of rotting pork. Degradation to one side, the clear intention of the French authorities was that Dreyfus would not survive to live out his sentence.

A number of larger historical elements were involved in this collapse into an almost medieval anti-Semitism, in which the imagery of Judas and the sick rumors of blood-libel were revived by the nationalist right. Official France had not recovered from the ignominious defeat it had suffered during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, nor from the proletarian uprising of the Paris Commune that had succeeded the capitulation to Bismarck. And the Dreyfus family, like many of the principals in the case, was from Alsace. This meant that, in addition to being Jewish, they had to live down the suspicion of being German. Trying too hard to “pass” as French—Dreyfus was always ultra-patriotic—was a cause of suspicion in itself. Then, Paris at that period was continually swept by spy fever and hysteria: what Professor Harris calls “the paranoia of surveillance.” Finally, the scandals of the Panama Canal Company and the Union Générale, two investment opportunities that had imploded, leaving many smallholders bankrupt, had been widely blamed on mysterious Jewish financiers. All that was needed to complete the picture was the widespread identification of Jews with the left as well as with finance and capital, and their literally enviable success in the professions after the Republic had lifted many of their legal disabilities.

To this wide-front confrontation, between secular and Catholic France, militaristic and socialist France, republican and monarchist France, and to some extent urban and rural France, we owe the coinage of the vague but indispensable term “intellectual.” I had always thought this to have been invented purely as a term of abuse by the conservative partisans of la France profonde, but it seems that it was briefly employed in a positive manner by Georges Clemenceau, to describe the number of independent-minded thinkers who had rallied to the cause of Dreyfus after Zola had used Clemenceau’s pages in L’Aurore to publish his unforgettable open letter, J’Accuse. It was only after this that Maurice Barrès, the much admired novelist, had written a smoldering and sinister essay entitled “The Protestations of the Intellectuals,” in which he opined that “Jews and Protestants aside, the list called the ‘list of the intellectuals’ consists of a majority of fatheads, and then of foreigners—and finally of a few good Frenchmen.” (Many were those who jeered that Zola himself was of Italian origin.) It was left to those thus attacked to adopt the term—as had those once denounced as “impressionist”—as their own self-definition. 


By this stage, the actual question of Dreyfus’s guilt was more or less an irrelevance. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, another Alsatian as it happens, had lived up to his billing as an intelligence officer and discovered that Dreyfus’s handwriting in no way matched the scrawl on the German embassy paper. Probing only a little further, he was to find that the incriminating letter was an exact replica of the script of Commandant Walsin Esterhazy, a Flashman-style rogue and plunger and Jew-hater whose numerous duels, adulteries, and corruptions kept him permanently in need of funds.

It should all have been over at that point. But one of the many merits of this scrupulous and well-written book is to remind us how obscenely protracted the whole business was. Repatriated from Devil’s Island in a jittery and emaciated state after four years of maltreatment and isolation, Dreyfus was subjected to a second court-martial in the city of Rennes—a virtual provincial capital of the extreme religious right—and once again convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. So obvious was this travesty that he received a presidential pardon at the end of 1899. But it was not until July 1906 that the Court of Appeals annulled the Rennes verdict and opened the way for Dreyfus’s reinstatement in the ranks. In the course of that seven-year interval, Zola had died (or quite possibly been murdered, though Harris does not even discuss this possibility), the political left had won the legislative elections, and the National Assembly had passed a law on the separation of church and state. 

Quite possibly, then, had the anti-Dreyfusards not been so brutishly intransigent, the lasting damage to their cause might have been more limited. They really didn’t know how to give up: When Zola’s ashes were finally transferred to the Panthéon as late as 1908, a reactionary fanatic opened fire during the ceremony and hit Dreyfus in his arm. The would-be assassin was later acquitted. French justice was still partially blind in the right eye. On the very eve of the First World War, the great Jean Jaurès was shot in the back by another ultranationalist.

In some ways, then, Harris’s narrative actually enhances the traditional picture of good triumphing over injustice, with the French secular left wearing the white hat. But she expertly identifies the exceptions. In spite of the lion-like role played by Jaurès, founder of the modern French left, there were many socialists who identified the Jews with capitalism and who wanted to de-Judaize the whole issue for tactical reasons. Charles Maurras, I was somewhat surprised to learn, opportunistically employed the imagery of martyred blood and the Sacred Heart—France herself being the Christ-figure betrayed by loathsome Iscariots—without having any real Catholic convictions of his own. In comparable ways, many who detested Catholicism made emotional use of the image of Dreyfus as the victim of a new Calvary. Still, nothing can efface the foul record of the Assumptionist and other Catholic factions, who quite simply and ardently saw the Dreyfus case as the occasion for a final solution to the Jewish question, as well as an excuse to settle accounts with Protestants and Freemasons. They took especial delight in the fact that Zola was himself prosecuted on the anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s seventh apparition at Lourdes, a shrine which Zola had previously subjected to ridicule. Their easy resort to violence and their hatred for democracy marks them out as the spiritual ancestors of those who, mustered under the Croix de Feu in the 1930s, bellowed that they preferred Adolf Hitler to the Jewish Socialist Léon Blum (himself an early and distinguished Dreyfusard).

There had been nothing like it since Voltaire had unmasked his batteries against throne and altar in the cause célèbre of Jean Calas, a French Protestant first framed and then broken on the wheel. But Voltaire was defending a man who was already horribly dead, while Dreyfus remained reproachfully on the scene until his death in 1935. Several of his descendants were murdered by the Nazis, more than one of them in combat against the occupation. And was it not Vichy that recast the French coinage to read “Famille, Travail, Patrie” instead of the deathless trio of slogans from 1789? It seems quite thinkable to argue that the “laicization” of French society was a direct consequence of the Dreyfus wars, social and ideological and religious. Harris is to be thanked for the care and measure of her sifting and weighing, and for the deep historical perspective that she brings to the undertaking. 

Today in Paris, and in other French cities, there are neighborhoods where it is physically risky to be a Jew, and where raucous clerics openly insult and try to subvert the secular republic. Faced with this challenge a century later, the French left has not been able to find itself a comfortable or uncompromising position. The lesson of the Dreyfus case may well be that the search for such a position is a futile as well as a degrading one.


Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is the author, most recently, of Hitch-22: A Memoir.