Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, By Louis Begley

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Louis Begley re-tells the story of the Dreyfus affair, in which the French Jewish army officer was arrested in 1894 for spying for the Germans – unjustly and without evidence – and spent five years in disgusting conditions in prison on Devil's Island. After public protests on his behalf, aided by such figures as Leon Blum, Zola and Anatole France, he was eventually released, though his name wasn't officially cleared until 1906.

The concerted cover-up by military authorities, the trail of forged documents, the instinct of officials to protect themselves and their colleagues, the blind prejudice of those who simply didn't want Dreyfus to be innocent: all make you want to scream aloud, a century later, at the injustice of it. The case reveals a deep-seated anti-Semitism among sections of the French population ("What do you care if that Jew stays on Devil's Island?" said one anti-Dreyfusard), which was to resurface with tragic effect in Vichy France, 40 years later. And as Begley argues, the same indifference to justice can be seen in the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Begley is right: the Dreyfus affair still matters.

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