The Lesson of the Dreyfus Case

Another book about the Dreyfus Affair? What could possibly justify loading another volume upon that already over-crowded shelf? The simplest answer is the timelessness of the story. It is a morality tale.

One day in 1894 a charwoman in the German embassy in Paris, who works for French intelligence, finds in the military attaché’s wastebasket a paper indicating that a French officer is leaking military secrets to the Germans. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer in the French General Staff, is wrongfully accused, and the villains (in this case, senior intelligence officers) make the accusation stick by forging additional documents. Adding illegality to forgery, they show them secretly to the court-martial, but withhold them from the defense. As the hero rots on Devil’s Island, only his wife, his brother, and a few outsiders maintain their belief in his innocence.

Their unfolding discovery of the truth, and their efforts to persuade others of the hero’s innocence, lead them through years of dramatic twists and turns. Their best efforts are fruitless against routine, the weight of a res judicata, and the prestige of the Army and its nationalist and clerical allies. But chance encounters and the enemy’s blunders help them. So, ironically, do moments when some officers of straightforward virtue, unaware of the cover-up, unwittingly blurt out revelations. Finally, after twelve years of struggle, justice triumphs. The appeals court annuls Dreyfus’s two court-martial condemnations. But instead of living happily ever after, the heroes fall to squabbling among themselves. Purists such as Charles Péguy feel that Dreyfus himself and his closest advisors have sullied the pure passion of the first days by making political deals and compromises along the way.

Jean-Denis Bredin has told this story with a precision, passion, and vivid sense of character that show why he is one of the most celebrated trial lawyers practicing in France today. If one is limited to a single book about the Dreyfus case and its consequences, this should be it.

Villainy and heroism appear in a remarkably pure state in the Dreyfus tale. The judicial rights of an accused man stand on one side, raison d’état on the other. And the man in this case (unlike the victims of comparable judicial travesties in the United States, such as Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and even Sacco and Vanzetti) seems beyond doubt to have been totally innocent of any act even remotely related to the accusation. That makes the initial choice of Dreyfus as the suspect all the more blatant a case of prejudice, and the subsequent ever-widening cover-up all the more blatant an abuse of raison d’état.

The Dreyfus tale thus lends itself all too easily to reductionism or bombast. That Bredin manages to be both passionate and exact is his first outstanding virtue. He is admirably free of the baroque conspiracy theories that sprout so luxuriantly on both sides of this case. He refuses to suppose that all mysteries must be soluble by …

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Letters

Handle with Felt Gloves April 24, 1986