The so-called Dreyfus Affair was one of the flashpoints of modern history, an event that cast an ominous shadow over the fate of European Jewry and, not incidentally, motivated Theodor Herzl, who covered the trial as a journalist, in his creation of Zionism — if a Jew could be victimized in France, the birthplace of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” where in the world were the Jews truly safe from anti-Semitism?
At the core of “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century” by Ruth Harris (Metropolitan Books, $35.00) is a familiar tale — the framing of a Jewish officer in the French on false charges of espionage in 1894, his incarceration on Devil’s Island, and his rehabilitation after a bitter struggle between “a conspiracy of injustice” and “humanist values of respect and tolerance,” as French president Jacques Chirac put it in 2006. Yet the author of “Dreyfus” insists that some important facts about the Dreyfus Affair have been overlooked.
“I had a feeling that I had something new to say,” announces historian Ruth Harris, a fellow at Oxford University, “even though it was a subject that had already produced hundreds of historical works.”
Her book, in fact, is a fresh reading of the historical evidence that reveals, in the author’s words, “how personality, friendship, love, hate and above all fear were key elements in a tale that has too long been confined to the more familiar terrain of conventional military, political and social history.” The result is “a cocktail of contradictory fears and beliefs,” a revisionist account of the Dreyfus Affair that allows us to see the victim, his persecutors and his defenders as something more than stick figures in a political cartoon.
Harris, for example, insists on rescuing Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, from the marginal role she is assigned in conventional histories. We learn, for example, that a malicious government investigator repeatedly “torment[ed] Lucie with stories of her husband’s womanizing and gambling, painting a double life of libertinage and espionage.” The stalwart young woman kept faith with her husband: “I protested with all my might against his accusation.”
Although we are taught to regard Dreyfus as a symbolic victim of anti-Semitism, Harris points out that the letters Dreyfus wrote to Lucie from Devil’s Island contain “no mention of his Jewishness, no suggestion that he is a victim of an anti-Semitic plot, no prayer offered up to the Almighty.” Rather, he implores his beleaguered wife “to restore his honour, for his sake and for his family’s.” Like many of those who took up his cause, Dreyfus saw himself as a French patriot rather than a Jewish martyr.
“After the deportation, Lucie changed from modest wife and devoted mother to a sacrificing heroine who swore to wear black until her husband’s return and to fight unremittingly for his release,” writes Harris. “Her life became consumed by correspondence and meetings with supporters, while her private energies went into writing letters to her husband and hiding his plight from the children.”
Even the iconic moments in the Dreyfus Affair are cast in a new light. The French novelist Zola, for example, famously published a tract in defense of Dreyfus under the ringing title “J’Accuse!” But Harris allows us to see the story behind the famous headline. When first approached by the defenders of Dreyfus, Zola refused to get involved: “I prefer to keep away,” he wrote to his wife, “the wound is too inflamed.” He loved a good fight, but mostly when it concerned literature rather than politics. “Zola was attracted to the Affair above all because it was a good story,” explains Harris, and she quotes Zola: “What a gripping tragedy, and what superb protagonists!”
Harris does not neglect the overarching issues that have attached themselves to the Jewish captain, nor does she reduce the nuances and complexities of the case to melodrama. Indeed, she emphasizes that both his oppressors and his defenders were motivated by passions that had nothing whatsoever to do with Dreyfus himself. “I am indifferent about Dreyfus, let them cut him into pieces and eat him,” declared French politician and journalist Georges Clemenceau, who published Zola’s pro-Dreyfus tract in his newspaper.
Still, the point that Harris makes with such authority and élan is that great and enduring causes are the handiwork of mere mortals, and it’s a healthy caution against turning them into plaster saints. “The Dreyfusards do not require the myth of spotless heroism and purity that was built around their advocacy after the Affair was over,” she concludes. “They were men and women with all the flaws, inconsistencies and occasional cruelties of ordinary people, and should be admired as such.”