Bloomsbury, £25, 408pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Dreyfus Affair, By Piers Paul Read

 

Anne Sinclair recently compared her husband, Dominic Strauss-Kahn, to Alfred Dreyfus as victims of injustice. This absurdity at least confirms the centrality of Dreyfus in the French public memory, over 100 years on. The verdict against him was disgraceful. An army officer, he was accused of espionage, on the basis of forged documents and scraps of waste paper from the German embassy. He was court-martialled and sentenced at a show trial staged by the French army. The very absence of evidence was taken as confirming the guilt of this modern Judas.

He was then exiled to Devil's Island, and kept in inhumane squalor. His counsel rightly observed "if Captain Dreyfus were not Jewish, he would not be in prison". After a public outcry, sparked by Emile Zola's pamphlet J'Accuse, Dreyfus returned home only to find another military tribunal confirm the original verdict, even though Count Esterhazy was known to be the guilty spy. Finally in 1906, 12 years on, a presidential pardon confirmed Dreyfus's total innocence. He returned to the army, received the Legion of Honour, and served at Verdun. In the face of shameful obstruction, French democracy had finally been vindicated.

The Dreyfus saga calls for the arts of the novelist, and it has found one in Piers Paul Read. With 600 previous volumes on the topic, he has no new discoveries. Nor does he do much to project Dreyfus against the ideological clashes of France since 1789. But what he does do splendidly is convey the drama of this episode. He brings to life the tensions of trials and courts martial, the agonies of Dreyfus in prison and of his loyal family.

He brings out the emotional turmoil of key players. Not only are celebrities like Zola and Clemenceau (misleadingly called a Socialist) illuminated, but also tormented nationalists like Cavaignac, subtle political players like Waldeck-Rousseau, the half-deranged right-wing journalist Drumont, the flamboyant anarchist Lazard, lying officials like Henry of the Army Statistical Section (committed suicide), the spy Esterhazy (exiled to England), and implicated bystanders - like the numerous wives and mistresses. Particularly striking is the portrait of the unsung Commandant Picquart, a Jesuit-trained conservative with limited sympathies for the Jews, whose dogged commitment to principle saw him unearth the documentary evidence of Esterhazy's treachery. Picquart was dismissed from the army, went to prison himself, and quarrelled with generals and Dreyfus's own family. But Clemenceau made him minister of war: virtue brought its reward.

Earlier academic accounts have shown how the gulf between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards has been over-simplified. It was more than a simple conflict between rational enlightenment and bigotry. The Catholic church was not as directly culpable as many Dreyfusards alleged, while the initially small Dreyfus camp was a mass of contradictions. Zola often displayed anti-Semitism in his writings and was perhaps an author in need of the oxygen of publicity. Even Jean Jaurès, brave leader of the socialists, was a late-ish convert to the cause.

Even so, the two sides in the affair should not be accorded the same moral equivalence. One noble feature was the role of the intellectuals. Dreyfus's supporters included Marcel Proust (self-proclaimed "first Dreyfusard"), Anatole France, Charles Péguy, Monet and Pissarro. With French military morale precarious after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, this needed courage: no trahison des clercs here.

Read's conclusion barely hints at the impact of Dreyfus in the 20th century. Léon Blum, leader of the Popular Front in 1936, was attacked then for having been a Jewish Dreyfusard. Marshal Pétain, another survivor from that era, would authorise the mass deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz. Then, in 1946, the virulently anti-Semitic journalist Charles Maurras was sentenced for pro-fascist activities. He had once denounced Jews, freemasons and Protestants as internal aliens. His bitter voice now recaptured enduring hatreds. "This is the revenge of Dreyfus."

Kenneth O Morgan's most recent book is 'Ages of Reform' (IB Tauris)

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