Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, By Louis Begley

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The Independent Culture

In a climate of nationalist paranoia, a cruel and unusual prison is created on a military base on an island in the Caribbean. Human rights, and especially the due process of law, are traduced in the name of homeland security. A nation which trumpets itself as a beacon of democracy and freedom, is accused, at home and abroad, of spitting publicly on its own ideals.

Guantánamo 2002-8? Yes, but also Devil's Island, French Guyana 1895-1899. Captain Alfred Dreyfus never wore an orange jump suit. He was the sole prisoner of a special military prison created for him as an alleged spy for Germany and traitor to the French republic. He was treated abominably but, in some respects, better than the inmates of Guantánamo Bay. He was never tortured, except for the mental torture of being publicly humiliated as a traitor by the country he revered.

The parallels between the Dreyfus case and Guantánamo Bay are intriguing but also, perhaps, treacherous and misleading. They provide the starting point for an unusual book by the American lawyer and novelist, Louis Begley. Like Alfred Dreyfus, Begley is Jewish: the Dreyfus case is usually interpreted as a baleful dress-rehearsal for Nazism, a warning that age-old European anti-Semitism had been raised to a blind intensity by the social earthquakes and nationalist rivalries of the 19th century. Begley argues that the 11-year battle to prove the innocence of Dreyfus – which divided France, splitting families, political allies and even the Impressionist painters - carries a more universal lesson. "Will there be in (every) generation men and women ready to defend human rights and the dignity of every human life against abuse wrapped in claims of expediency and reasons of state?"

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a wealthy, brilliant but disagreeable young artillery officer working for the French general staff in Paris in 1894. A note found in a wastepaper basket at the German embassy by an office cleaner and spy revealed that a French officer was selling military secrets to the hated Boche. Dreyfus was wrongfully accused, partly because he was the only Jew on the general staff.

To the incompetent, anti-Semitic, high-Catholic, military hierarchy, he was the obvious suspect. He was convicted by a court-martial on trumped up evidence, stripped of his insignia before a baying crowd at the Ecole Militaire, and shipped to a one-man prison off Guyana. Evidence emerged that another officer, from a high-Catholic family, was the likely culprit. The general staff and military intelligence faked new evidence against Dreyfus.

To cut a long and extraordinary story short, a second military court found Dreyfus guilty again in 1899. Amid national uproar, he was pardoned by President Emile Loubet six days later. His name was not fully cleared until an appeal court ruling in July 1906.

The "affair" was played out against the national humiliation and paranoia of defeat by the Prussians in 1870. It divided the nation on the muddled fault-lines of the French Revolution: secularity versus religion; democracy versus military prestige; law and justice versus a mystical belief in the greatness of the nation. Many anti-Dreyfusards were driven by a sincere belief that their side - the military, the church, the anti-Republican haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy – represented the "real France". It hardly mattered whether an obscure Jewish officer was guilty or not. A victory for the pro-Dreyfussards would be an intolerable blow to Frenchness itself.

After laboriously drawing parallels with Guantánamo, Begley goes on to tell the Dreyfus story extremely well. You have the combined power of the two Louis Begleys: the clear-minded lawyer and the master of prose narrative. As he is drawn deeper into the fascinating morass, one has the impression Begley loses some interest in his parallel. There is, after all, a glaring difference between the two "affairs".

Unlike the leading figures in the Bush asministration, the anti-Dreyfusards did not traduce their own values. The Bushies trampled justice and due process in the name of "liberty" and "democracy". The anti-Dreyfusards had no time for such dangerous abstractions. They believed only in themselves and the gloire of France.

Their defeat was an important victory for the principles of democracy and justice, not just in France, but it did not prevent Europe from plunging into two world wars, Nazism and the Holocaust. The hypocrisy of the Bushies was far greater; their defeat, in the eyes of US public opinion, is far less complete. And what of the real spy, Marie-Charles Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy? He was never convicted but was forced to flee to England, where he died in 1923. His only punishment was to end his days in Harpenden.

John Lichfield is Paris correspondent of The Independent