Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

In This Review

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters
By Louis Begley
Yale University Press, 2009
272 pp. $24.00
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L'Affaire Dreyfus was the most widely debated European political event of the generation before World War I. Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery captain and a Jew, was falsely accused of spying for Germany, for which he spent over four years in solitary confinement on the remote and tropical Devil's Island. To this end, top French military officers forged documents, suppressed information, perverted the military tribunal system, and abused their subordinates. They were backed by right-wing and clerical anti-Dreyfusards, who mobilized anti-Semitic riots, spread nationalist propaganda, marshaled conservative obstruction -- even planned a political assassination. Liberal and socialist Dreyfusards, sparked by Émile Zola's heroic polemic "J'Accuse," supported the innocent man with an ultimately successful press campaign to pressure government officials and civilian courts to intervene. Begley, a lawyer, novelist, and historian, struggles to make it all relevant today. He dwells on anti-Semitism, which is less relevant to Western politics now than then. He invokes analogies to the Iraq war and the George W. Bush administration's policies on human rights, but in an oddly disconnected manner. All this misses the deeper point: the Dreyfus Affair cast the "red-versus-blue" mold of much modern politics, pitting conservative nationalists, soldiers, farmers, and religious interests in a partisan ideological battle against liberal journalists, academics, civilian professionals, urbanites, and cosmopolitans. In thousands of political battles -- including those over the Iraq war -- Western publics have relived the Dreyfus Affair ever since.