The Magazine

Why Captain Dreyfus?

The shame and redemption of France.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who happens to like Jews. 

French political cartoon

Mary Evans Picture Library / Everett Collection

            —Old saying 

Was the Dreyfus Affair, which in 1894 caused an innocent man to be sent to live in solitary and barbarous conditions in a tropical climate for five years, an act of arbitrary injustice or an act of anti-Semitism? Or is this, as the philosophers say, a distinction without a difference—injustice and anti-Semitism in this case amounting to one and the same thing? The world has known more than a reasonable share of both injustice and anti-Semitism, so why did the Dreyfus Affair cause nearly worldwide reverberations in its day, and why does it continue to hold interest, now more than a century later, in our own?

A vast number of books have been written on the Dreyfus Affair, among them Alfred Dreyfus’s Five Years of My Life, an account of his arrest, court-martial, and imprisonment on Devil’s Island, one of the Salvation Islands off the coast of Cayenne in French Guiana. Two movies have been made on the subject: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) starring Paul Muni, and I Accuse! (1958) starring and directed by José Ferrer. The English writer Piers Paul Read, author of books on the Andes survivors, the Knights Templar, Alec Guinness, and of numerous novels, has now written a comprehensive account of the Dreyfus Affair in all its labyrinthine twists and turns. His book is a reminder of the intrinsic fascination of all that befell the hapless Captain Dreyfus. 

The Affair began in 1894 with the discovery of the bordereau, or the letter torn into six pieces, by a maid in the pay of the French government in the wastebasket of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris. Pieced together by the Statistical Section, the department of the French Army responsible for military intelligence and national security, the bordereau, beyond doubt, was written by a French officer. Its author promised to provide information on a new French cannon, notes on modifications of French artillery formations, a proposal for a new firing manual for field artillery, and a few other items. 

Who wrote it? The Statistical Section got on the case straightaway. Because of the nature of the material which the author of the bordereau offered the Germans, the traitor (it was thought) had to have been an officer with experience in artillery. He also must have had a connection with the General Staff. A run through the list of officers who matched these qualifications turned up one Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer currently working as an intern with the General Staff. That Dreyfus was Jewish and hence considered not a true Frenchman but a foreigner was, as Eugen Weber calls it in France, Fin de Siècle, “frosting on the cake.”

Dreyfus was born in 1859, the youngest child of seven, to a successful textile manufacturer from Mulhouse, in Alsace. In his success, Dreyfus’s father Raphael increasingly parted from the Jewish ways of his past and attempted to Frenchify himself. After the German victory over France in 1870, in which the Germans took over Alsace, Raphael chose to retain his French citizenship. He sent Alfred to the College Chaptal, an elite private school in Paris. 

The young Alfred Dreyfus’s ambition was to gain entry through the examination system into the École Polytechnique, which would pave the way for a career as an officer. This he accomplished, as he did all else that was required for promotion in the French Army. Not least of the ironies of the Dreyfus Affair is that Alfred Dreyfus was a passionate patriot who viewed the French Army as a nearly sacred institution. 

An expert horseman and a quick study in finance and scientific military matters, Dreyfus became a model soldier. Normally shy, he was less so when putting forth his own ideas. Because of this, among the more traditional officers, Dreyfus was viewed, according to Piers Paul Read, as “pushy.” Nor was camaraderie his forte, for he tended to disdain the company of fellow officers, living happily within his family—his wife and two young children—in their plush apartment on the Avenue du Trocadéro in Paris. Dreyfus was well off to begin with; his wife’s dowry made him rich. Considered aggressive, standoffish, and wealthy, Alfred Dreyfus was a perfect target for French anti-Semitism. 

Read does an excellent job of setting out the alignments of fin de siècle French society: the modernists versus the traditionalists, the still-strong Catholic institutions under attack from Protestants, and secularists struggling for dominance in education and elsewhere. Economic crisis and the recent defeat at the hands of the Germans added a strong streak of xenophobia to French life.