Piers Paul Read: France is Still Fractured by the Dreyfus Affair

Roundup: Talking About History

Piers Paul Read’s 'The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History’ is published by Bloomsbury this week.

France in the last decades of the 19th century saw an extraordinary flourishing in the arts, the sciences and technology which, along with its climate of sexual permissiveness, earned this period the title of la belle époque. To celebrate these achievements, the French government prepared for a Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, with an ambitious programme of building that included two railway stations, Gare de Lyon and Gare d’Orsay, and two exhibition halls, the Grand and the Petit Palais.

These plans were suddenly jeopardised, in the autumn of 1899, by an international campaign to boycott the exhibition, a result of the outrage felt throughout the world at the conviction, at a court martial in Rennes, of a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, on charges of passing secret documents to the Germans. This was his second court martial. The first, five years earlier, had led to a sentence of life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. A campaign by his family, his lawyer and a small number of supporters had eventually uncovered overwhelming evidence that the traitor was not Dreyfus but another officer, Charles Walsin-Esterhazy. However, senior officers on the general staff and in military intelligence feared that to admit a miscarriage of justice would not just lose them their jobs but discredit the army. To thwart a revision of the case against Dreyfus, they resorted to a series of threats, forgeries and dirty tricks.

On January 13, 1898, France’s leading novelist, Émile Zola, entered the fray with a polemic, J’Accuse, naming the officers responsible for the conspiracy against Dreyfus. It was hailed as heroic by the Left, outrageous by the Right, and provoked anti-Semitic riots throughout France. Opinion abroad was incredulous. How could France, the most civilised country in Europe, experience this eruption of medieval barbarism? Why had the case of one Jewish officer led to this rage against all Jews?...

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