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Review: The Man on Devil's Island, Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France.

John Dorney By John Dorney Published on December 7, 2016
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Many of us with a passing interest in French and European history will have heard of the Dreyfus affair. Until reading Ruth Harris’s fine book The Man on Devil’s Island, though, I had little idea of the full story behind nor any real understanding of why ‘The Affair’ convulsed France throughout the 1890s.

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish engineering officer in the French Army, was accused of spying for Germany, tried and convicted of treachery. Someone had leaked plans of French fortifications and new weapons to Germany, French intelligence came upon a letter offering to sell such secrets for money and Dreyfus, on the flimsiest of evidence, took the blame.

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Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus, a native of Alsace, the French province annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, came under suspicion initially because he had visited his home province to see relatives, which technically was an illegal visit to an enemy power. It did not help him either that he was Jewish and an ‘intellectual’ graduate of a polytechnique. He was thus, in the eyes of many of his fellow officers, a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ with no real ties to the French nation.

The sole actual evidence presented against Dreyfus was the intercepted letter or ‘bordereau’, which, by some convoluted logic, was pinned on Dreyfus. Despite the letter not matching Dreyfus’s handwriting (the Army concluded that the cunning Dreyfus must have forged his own handwriting so it would not match) and despite the real Germany spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy actually being uncovered two years later, Dreyfus was sentenced to penal servitude on the Devil’s Island in the Caribbean, where he was kept in what was effectively a wooden box for five years.

The crux of the Affair was that the Army court martial convicted Dreyfus based more on their own prejudices than real evidence. Even worse, once they had the evidence that he was innocent, the Army high command took the view that publicly reversing their verdict would damage the image of the military and could not be done. Certainly not on account of a ‘German Jew’.

And so, once the case was outlined and publicized, most prominently by the journalist and novelist Emile Zola in his famous letter ‘j’accuse’, France was split into two rival camps. The Dreyfusards, a coalition of left wing and liberal intellectuals, anti-clericals and, to a surprisingly small degree, the Jewish community, strove for Dreyfus’s release and for his pardon.

This, we might readily understand. Dreyfus was, after all, a patriotic Frenchman, who had left his native Alsace, after it was annexed by the Germans in 1871, to serve in the French Army. The case against him was so flimsy that it cried out to be rectified, the injustice so obvious it could hardly be ignored.

Two rival camps

More intriguing though, is what the case meant to the Dreyfusards. It was hardly at all about Dreyfus himself and far more about hammering what the left saw as the ignorant, prejudiced, reactionary right wing, sullied by monarchism and ‘obscurantist’ Catholicism. They, on the other hand, the Dreyfusards, represented progress, enlightenment, scientific principles, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Still, however arrogant, as Harris herself acknowledges, some Dreyfusards may have been, it is not difficult to see where they were coming from.

It is more difficult to understand what might have motivated the anti-Dreyfusards. And so it is perhaps more intriguing still to read about the anti-Dreyfusards, such as Edouard Dumont of the newspaper La Libre Parole. How could they have defended such an indefensible position? For them, it was not important whether Dreyfus was guilty, it was much more important that what they saw as the pillars of the French nation; the Army, Catholicism, the ‘purity of the French race’ not be sullied by a public reversal of the verdict of the Dreyfus case.

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Anti-Semitic agitation in Paris, Dreyfus's brother is burned in effigy.

A Jew was after all, to their mind, not a real Frenchman. Even if Dreyfus was not the one who was selling military secrets to the Germans, it was certainly his supporters, a rabble of godless and deracinated intellectuals who were attempting to destroy ‘the eternal France’, by attacking the Army and the Church.

An Army major named Henry in 1898 admitted that he had forged evidence against Dreyfus and subsequently cut his own throat. Dreyfus was finally released in 1899 after a military court confirmed the verdict of guilty but Dreyfus was pardoned by the President Emile Loubet. But Dreyfus was not actually cleared of charges and re-admitted into the Army until 1906.

The Affair caused lifelong friendships to break up, saw bitter invective exchanged, witnessed street riots and even assassinations. Dreyfus’ lawyer at his retrial in 1899, Ferdinand Labori, was shot and wounded by an unknown gunman. Dreyfus himself survived an assassination attempt by an anti-Semitic journalist in 1908.

The origins of French secularism: 1903 not 1789

Perhaps the most important long term effect of the Dreyfus affair however came in the Republican reaction to it. The ‘Radicals’, a left wing Republican group, came to power in the election of the ‘Left Bloc’ in 1902, a coalition of Republicans, liberals and socialists, largely drawn together by the Dreyfus affair.

Determined to smash the ‘reactionary’ Catholics, who had to their mind, not only framed Alfred Dreyfus, but imperiled the Republic, they formally separated Church and state in France. Over 200 religious orders, accused of ‘obscurantist preaching’ were declared illegal and exiled from France. The Radicals purged the Army of pious Catholic officers and used troops to forcibly seize Church property.

One often assumes that French secularism dates back to the Revolution of 1789. In fact, as readers of this book will discover, it dates back to the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair. It was then, 1903, that it was decreed that no religious school could receive state funding and that no religious symbols could be displayed in the classroom or any other official building and that civil and that church marriages would be separate.

The anti-Semitic Right, despite its defeat in the Dreyfus affair, did not disappear and had its final real flourish in the wartime Vichy regime, which collaborated in sending thousands of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. After the Liberation of 1945, they were both defeated and discredited.

Today the Dreyfus affair has some quite frightening resonances in contemporary Europe. Europeans, and not only in France, are again divided into mutually antagonistic intellectual camps.

Echoes of the Affair today

One camp, who declare ‘refugees welcome here’ another, apparently on the rise, insisting that there is an active ‘clash of civilisations’ and that Muslim immigrants to Europe represent the ‘enemy within’. One camp, favouring European integration and liberal universalism, the other championing traditional national identity and , explicitly in the case of Britain, scorning the EU. One camp maintains that ‘terrorism has nothing to do with Islam’. The other that ‘Islam is a cancer’.

Just like the pro and ant-Dreyfusards in belle époque France, the two camps increasingly see each other as incomprehensible and despicable. Both see the other as a threat to European civilisation as they understand it.

It would be a mistake though, to totally equate those who fear and dislike Islam in Europe today to the anti-Dreyfusards of the 1890s. For unlike them, todays right wingers and nationalists champion secularism (in France especially) against Muslim religiosity.

The Dreyfusards believed above all that enlightenment, logic and faith in human dignity would, in the end, carry the day. We must hope they were right.

    Irish historian. Author of 'Peace After the Final Battle' The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924. Editor of the Irish history website www.theirishstory.com