‘The Dreyfus Affair’ by Piers Paul Read

Dreyfus-Affair-bloomsburyThe Dreyfus Affair pops up time and again when reading French books from the end of the nineteenth century. I’ve recently been reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which the characters keep discussing the Affair and anyone who has read anything about Zola will realise that Zola played a significant part in the Affair. Up to now I’ve just read around the Dreyfus Affair and have only been aware of the bare bones of the story; but the topic is a fascinating story in its own right and I thought it was time to read more on the subject.

‘The Dreyfus Affair’ by Piers Paul Read, I feel, is directed towards the general reader and Read gives as much background information as possible; he starts off by taking us back to the French Revolution. This seems a bit excessive at first but it’s useful because Read shows how during the revolutionary period full civil rights were extended to Jewish people, how the Catholic church came under attack and how the aristocracy were treated, er, harshly. He then proceeds to sketch out the Franco-Prussian war and the effect that this French defeat had on the French psyche. Although a lot of this may be already known by the reader it is useful because with these early chapters Read is mainly attempting to explain how and why the anti-Dreyfusards were so aggressively opposed to Dreyfus and the Dreyfusards; they saw the conservative, Catholic-centred French society under attack from Jews, protestants, money-men, Germans, intellectuals, deviants and the like.

Throughout the narrative the Dreyfusards have to battle against an extremely anti-Semitic press led by Édouard Drumont and his paper La Libre Parole. The paper does not just attack the Dreyfusards but also the army if it is seen to be too lenient towards the Jewish people. Drumont believes that Jews are all part of a ‘syndicate’ which includes Protestants, Free Masons, bankers etc. and which is out to take control of France and enslave Catholics. Anyone who is lenient towards Jews are soon accused of being on the syndicate’s payroll.

I don’t intend to describe every detail of the Dreyfus Affair as it gets very complicated, but it starts out quite simply: a note is retrieved from a wastepaper basket in the German embassy that suggests that a French officer is passing military secrets to the Germans; they soon narrow the list of likely officers down until they get to Dreyfus and when they compare his handwriting to the note it looks similar enough for them to arrest Dreyfus. Du Paty, who ends up being one of the main villains in the whole story, is an amateur handwriting expert and it is his persistance that drives the case against Dreyfus. When more experienced handwriting experts look at the evidence they don’t quite agree. With so little evidence it is uncertain why General Mercier decided to continue with the prosecution of Dreyfus. Read suggests that he may have been frightened of La Libre Parole finding out that he’d dropped a treason case against a Jew, or it may have been that he wanted to appear as a strong leader. Read doesn’t believe that at this stage the prime motive for advancing the case was anti-Semitic, as such.

On 15th October 1894 Dreyfus was officially arrested. Dreyfus declares his innocence throughout and those hoping to prosecute him have nothing more to go on than the comparison of his handwriting with that on the note. This is, for me, the first time where the military missed an opportunity to exit from the debacle. At this stage even du Paty suggests that if the evidence is too weak then they must let him go. So what do they do? Well, General Mercier basically fabricates a ‘secret dossier’ on Dreyfus. But why? Read suggests that it was Mercier’s fear of the anti-Semitic press and of losing prestige amongst his colleagues that drove him to do this:

The die was cast. If Mercier were now to free Dreyfus, he would be accused, as in the case of Schulmann, of being in the pay of the Jews. He would also lose face with his cabinet colleagues, particularly the Foreign Minister Hanotaux, who had advised him to drop the case against Dreyfus.

So Dreyfus was convicted of treason after the dodgy handwriting ‘experts’ had declared that the difference in styles was due to Dreyfus deliberatly disguising his style. Major Henry had stated that a ‘respectable person’ had accused Dreyfus and when this was still not enough to convict him they brought out the secret dossier which was viewed in private. Dreyfus was shipped off to Devil’s Island where he would live virtually in solitary confinement for five years.

We now enter the next stage of the Affair. Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu now spends all his time to try to prove his brother’s innocence but with little success. Meanwhile another officer, Picquart comes across a new piece of evidence, a petit bleu telegram, again from the German embassy, that has the exact handwriting as the original note and Picquart can prove that the real culprit was Major Esterhazy. So, this is another chance for the military to put things straight. Do they? No, they ship Picquart off to Tunisia to get him out of the way and fake some more documents.

Luckily enough the information is leaked and Mathieu gets to know the name of the real culprit and kick up a fuss. The military protect Esterhazy, even though they now know that he’s the traitor, and Esterhazy has to attend a court martial – he’s found to be not guilty of course! And Picquart is arrested and sent to prison for passing on military documents. So we now have two innocent men incarcerated and the guilty man protected by the military and shipped off to England. Read states:

It was clear that, whatever the evidence and however the clear the reasoning, the French were unwilling to accept that they were being deceived by the leaders of the one institution that retained their respect – the army.

This was on 10th January 1898 and on 13th January Émile Zola entered the fray with his open letter to the French President, called J’accuse..! Read says that ‘given that much of what he wrote was inevitably conjecture, Zola’s pamphlet was a remarkably accurate summary of the Dreyfus Affair.’ Accurate and explosive; it sparked anti-Semitic riots across France and resulted in Zola going to trial for defamation. He was found guilty, of course, though he was allowed to appeal the decision. He lost the second trial and left for England – this period is covered in Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England: A Story of Exile.

From hereon events proceed at a blistering pace and it’s quite confusing, so in summary: Cavaignac the new War Minister tried to put an end to the Dreyfusard cause but Henry’s forgeries were uncovered and Henry committed suicide; the President Faure died and Loubet was elected; the secret dossier was dismissed as a fake.

In the end Dreyfus was recalled to attend a second court martial in Rennes on 7th August 1899. This was surely the military’s last chance to redeem itself. But no luck, Dreyfus was re-convicted of treason but with ‘extenuating circumstances’. His sentence was for ten years. The prime-minister, exasperated at the military’s decision, ended up offering Dreyfus a pardon which he reluctantly accepts as he’s still technically guilty of the crime. This compromise that basically satisfies no-one appears, with hindsight, to be just what is needed to defuse the situation; it’s a bodge but it allows things to settle down for a while.

It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was declared ‘not guilty’ by the Supreme Court. He died in 1935.

In trying to write a review of a book on the Dreyfus Affair I’ve found it difficult not to just recount the actual story. But the book is very readable and well-researched and although the author states in the introduction that there has been little new evidence since the 1970s on the subject there is something to be said for a new book for the general reader and this is a brilliant introduction.

22 comments on “‘The Dreyfus Affair’ by Piers Paul Read

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for this review. For a couple of contemporary cartoons devoted to the affair, see my post https://readingzola.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/jaccuse-zola-and-dreyfus/.

    It is also worthwhile to read the text of J’Accuse.


    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Nancy, I enjoyed your earlier review. I read, J’accuse straight after the PPR book. I understand Zola wrote a few more articles on the Dreyfus affair so I’ll have to track them down.


  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been looking for a general book about the Dreyfus affair and this sounds llike it might just be the one!


    • Jonathan says:

      I’d thoroughly recommend it. It almost reads like a novel but I think that’s mostly due to the drama of the events.


  3. bennythomas says:

    The Dreyfus Affair is essential to understand the background of European history leading up to the WWII and creation of a homeland for Israel. Leading to the Dreyfus case was the Panama scandal where the Government was accused of corruption behind which were two Jewish middlemen whose defense implicated the dirty wheeling and dealing of the bureaucrats. Newspapers backed by the Church, monarchists pointed to a concerted effort by International Jewry to destabilize European states.( Baron Rothschild’s fortune from peculating in the Railways was more than French treasury) Dreyfus case was reported in all European newspapers in Germany and lands under Habsburg dual monarchy. This virulent campaign was covered by Theodor Herzl who realized the Jews did not stand a chance in Europe. It was single most leading cause for his efforts to create a nation rather than Jews as a race in Europe. Prejudice and disinformation by Germans about Jews mixing blood of Christian children (spread by Catholic Clergy.They were sore at the Jews getting certain legal right because of Bismarck who rewarded them for their support in his war against the Church) did much damage. All these led to give National Socialism a common platform for the man on the street to join the Party. The German nation of ordinary citizens actually made Hitler carry out the final solution since it made them line up behind him. Hannah Arendt would call them as banality of evil.


  4. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for your comments bennythomas. In many ways it’s probably not a good idea reading about the Dreyfus Affair as an isolated incident because as you mentioned there were events leading up to it and it affected events following it. Hannah Arendt’s book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ is quoted from several times in this book. I may have to check out that one.


  5. bennythomas says:

    You may want to read Arendt’s covering of the Eichmann case when e was tried in Israel for his role in the Final Solution.Another book discusses the Jewish problem is the biography of Theodore Herzl. Dreyfus was merely a victim. The malaise that affected the Third Republic is dealt at length in the collapse of the Third Republic by Wlliam L. Shirer. No wonder in six weeks Hitler could walk over to Paris in the month of June,1940. Dreyfus case is in detail discussed there.


    • Jonathan says:

      Oh wow, the Shirer book looks interesting and large, thanks.

      It’s strange really; about a week ago I’d never heard of Hannah Arendt – then the name crops up reading the Dreyfus book; I’m also reading ‘Life and Fate’ (nearly finished it) and as Eichmann appears as a character in it I was trying to find out some detail about his life and once again Arendt’s name crops up, this time in relation to the book on the trial; and then last week Nancy (silverseason) had a blogpost on the Eichmann book (http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/hannah-arendt-eichmann-in-jerusalem/). It must be fate!


      • bennythomas says:

        I have read the Shirer book and it was a revelation how little things are kind of calling cards of ‘fate’ as you put it.Socio-political economic forces hitting the nation polarized further and further apart since there was no basic unity of will or vision what France ought to become. In short the unresolved split that caused the French Revolution was not handled once and for all!


  6. Azimov says:

    ‘The Man on Devil’s Island’ by Ruth Harris is another good book on the subject. It also provides a lot of background material to put thing in context.


    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Azimov. Ruth Harris’s book is quoted quite a bit in this book and as such it’s on my TBR list. I recently listened to a BBC Radio4 programme by Melvyn Bragg on the Dreyfus Affair that included Ruth Harris.

      Another book that looks fascinating is ‘For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus’ by the Zola biographer Frederick Brown – I think that might be my next one to read that touches on the Dreyfus Affair.


  7. Rachel says:

    Thanks for this review! And YES- For the Soul of France is excellent 🙂


  8. Lisa Hill says:

    Jonathan, you are a treasure. The breadth and depth of knowledge you have about Zola is amazing, and I am so grateful that you share it here with us:)


    • Jonathan says:

      Wow! Thanks Lisa. Still learning though. The problem (not really a problem!) is that since reading the Dreyfus book I want to read more history books (especially some that were mentioned in earlier comments) and more Zola.


  9. Azimov says:

    I haven’t read ‘For the Soul of France’ but if it’s as good as Brown’s biogs of Zola and Flaubert, I will definitely order a copy. I noticed on Amazon that he’s just published a sequel called ‘The Age of Unreason’. Another volume to add to the huge to-be-read list.


  10. Azimov says:

    That should be ‘The Embrace of Unreason’. Time for new glasses i think….


    • Jonathan says:

      I think I need glasses too. I’d noticed that book but didn’t ‘really notice’ that it followed on from the ‘Soul of France’ book. Thanks for that…another one for the TBR pile.


  11. I really appreciate this review, although I rather doubt that I shall read it, as I am altogether too high strung and hypersensitive. Life is grim enough without more evidence of evil as carried out by fellow humans. I was most impressed by something Piers Paul Read wrote on the Internet that revealed he is as deeply in love with our Holy Catholic Faith — even though I knew all the histories of horror the Church has been involved in over the centuries. Human beings have piled tons of manure upon the Pearl of Great Price — I just thank God that, despite what I knew of the evil perpetrated by the Church human children, I was always, even in my early 20s, able to separate its teachings from the mountain of manure cast on its operations over the centuries by humans.


    • You want me to post a reply to MY reply??? I’m puzzled, to say the least. I became aware of Piers Paul Read 2-3 months ago, and am looking forward to reading his books, although I don’t know how I missed him in all my 80 years, as I have been a voracious reader since early childhood.. I found his comments on Our Holy Catholic Faith inspiring, a considerable comfort in a world at hatred of Christianity at large and Catholicism as a whole. I wrote to him, and apparently his agent, Clare Alexander, of AITKEN ALEXANDER literary agency allowed my message to reach him. As I am a highly educated individual with an equally high IQ, I can’t help resenting having a possessive agent guarding access to persons whose opinions, writings and lives reach far beyond themselves and deeply affect me and millions of other “Inquiring Minds.”.




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