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.