How to Understand the Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus in a police photograph by Alphonse Bertillon immediately after the military degradation ceremony that followed his conviction for treason, January 1895

On February 13, 1898, the French newspaper Le Figaro carried a cartoon by the caricaturist Caran d’Ache. In the first frame the bearded man presiding at a family dinner as a manservant brings on the soup says, “Above all, we must not talk about the Dreyfus Affair.” In the second, above the caption “They did talk about it,” pandemonium has broken out. Chairs are upturned, crockery is flying, and the diners—both men and women—are attacking each other with forks, cruets, bottles, and their bare hands.

This cartoon has come to symbolize the passion and divisiveness of the Dreyfus Affair, which for several years on either side of 1900 churned up the French political scene. In a bizarre and fascinating way the case of one man convicted of treason—rightly according to some, wrongly according to others—and imprisoned for four years on a remote island divided a nation. The noise reached from the law courts and halls of parliament into public meetings and onto the streets, and at the same time into salons, dining rooms, and even bedrooms. It mobilized politicians and intellectuals, army officers and clergymen, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, anti-Semites and nationalists. The issues that it raised looked back to the French Revolution and forward to the Holocaust.

Three recent studies of the Dreyfus Affair show three different ways of writing about it: as a detective story, as a war of ideas, and as a human and social drama. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters by Louis Begley, lawyer and author of Wartime Lies, among other books, puts in the foreground the detective story, with its elements of anti-Semitism, although his writing is particularly powerful in drawing lessons for American society after September 11. For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown, who has written biographies of Flaubert and Zola, sets the affair in the context of ongoing conflicts in France since the Revolution. Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Oxford historian Ruth Harris, who has unearthed a mass of new documentation, is an extraordinary study of the affair as a tragic drama that swept up a man, his family and friends, and more widely French society and the French state.

Accounts of the Dreyfus Affair as a detective case begin in September 1894, when a cleaning woman who was also a spy in the pay of the Statistics Section, or counterespionage arm, of the French army found a document—the so-called bordereau—in the wastepaper basket of the German military attaché in Paris and forwarded it to her masters. It contained a number of military secrets, including information about a 120-millimeter cannon that the French were developing. The French army had not yet recovered from its…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.