BOOK REVIEW: Famed trial (dubiously) reapplied


By Louis Begley

Yale University Press, $24, 250 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

In 1894, a French artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus was arrested and charged with selling military secrets to a foreign power, in this case France’s mortal enemy Germany. On the flimsiest of evidence, much of it forged and the rest trumped up, Dreyfus was convicted by a court-martial and sentenced to a harsh regime of life imprisonment in solitary confinement on the infamous Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.

As a dedicated patriotic officer, Dreyfus was an unlikely candidate to have committed treason. In addition, he was wealthy and so had no financial motive for doing so. Why, then, was he singled out for such unjust treatment? Simply because he was a Jew - that was the view then of his multitudinous supporters in France and indeed across Europe, and nothing has emerged in the century plus since then to change that fact. What came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair roiled France’s political waters for more than a decade after the officer’s conviction and became a worldwide cause celebre. As Louis Begley writes in his detailed examination of the Dreyfus phenomenon:

“Meanwhile l’Affaire Dreyfus was tearing France apart. … Public opinion outside of France was overwhelmingly on the side of Dreyfus. … Spectacular supporters of Dreyfus outside France included Queen Victoria and her attorney general; Empress Eugenie, the widow of Napoleon III; the Bourbon, Orleans, and Bonaparte pretenders to the French throne … the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley and his wife, Mark Twain; and, according to some, the pope and leading Vatican prelates. Anti-Dreyfusards were a right-wing coalition of army officers, anti-Semites, militarists, extreme nationalists, anti-republicans of every stripe, royalists and Bonapartists oblivious of the views of their princes; members of the conservative bourgeoisie and provincial nobility, clericalists and lower ranks of the clergy.”

Mr. Begley is a longtime practicing lawyer as well as an acclaimed novelist and he wears both hats to good effect in his forthright and impassioned book. He knows how to tell a good story and is adept at following the tortuous legal and political processes that, after a great deal of sturm and drang, resulted in Dreyfus’ exoneration and restoration of his position and rank. Mr. Begley notes that Dreyfus’ public degradation following his conviction has been described many times:

“A gigantic Garde republicaine noncommissioned officer ripped off Dreyfus’s insignia of rank, epaulettes, buttons and braid, and broke his sword on his knee. His uniform in shreds, the convict performed the ‘Judas parade’: flanked by four artillery troopers, he marched along the sides of the immense courtyard lined by soldiers drawn from each regiment garrisoned in Paris standing at attention; at every opportunity he cried out that he was innocent and proclaimed his love of France; beyond the courtyard, a huge mob held back with difficulty by the police, yelled death to the traitor, the Judas, the dirty Jew in an outpouring of hatred. … ”

And so Dreyfus was sent forth to his purgatorial imprisonment in a harsh, malarial environment made still harsher by the cruel, sadistic conditions especially created for him. Indeed, he suffered from malaria for the rest of his life. Pardons and rehabilitation couldn’t change that.

An interesting feature of Mr. Begley’s book is that he doesn’t allow the martyred officer’s sufferings to blind him to Dreyfus’ faults. Dreyfus apparently had an unpleasant voice and a similar mien that could alienate even those predisposed in his favor, like Lord Chief Justice Russell, an observer at his second court-martial, reporting to his passionately pro-Dreyfusard Queen Victoria:

“I was full of pity for him and entered the Court with every desire to be impressed by him; but I was not. He does NOT impress one favourably. He is mean-looking, with a hard, unsympathetic face; and, so, far as expression goes, I must reluctantly admit that there was no openness, frankness or nobility in his expression. He did I think display a great deal of dignity in the passionless immobility with which he, almost throughout the entire proceedings, listened to the injurious and, as I believe, often lying statements launched against him.”

Displaying the lessons of decades as a practicing lawyer, Mr. Begley dryly comments that “Every lawyer who has had to face a tribunal knows that the credibility of a witness is a matter of intangibles. A doubt as to his character and veracity raised by a witness’s demeanor is all but impossible to expunge.”

Mr. Begley is too wise an analyst not to show how a victim becomes blamed for everything about him once he has been singled out, but his focus is directed squarely on the political and social climate of France following its disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. As a guide to what happened to Dreyfus and why, his account is an excellent one.

Would that the same might be said for his notion of why the Dreyfus affair matters. That it does so as a cautionary tale is manifest, but unfortunately, Mr. Begley seems obsessed by George W. Bush and Guantanamo and cannot help making specious connections between what happened to Dreyfus and them. There is indeed a valid case - or rather cases - political, judicial, moral and ethical - to be made against Guantanamo, but they are not aided by such a disproportionate comparison.

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