Devil's Island to Guantánamo


Why the Dreyfus Affair MattersBy Louis Begley Yale University Press, 250pp. US$24

‘L’AFFAIRE DREYFUS’, which shook belle époqueParis and split France in two, is a tangled web of conspiracy and cover-up compounded by lies and forgeries, with at its centre an innocent victim, wrongly convicted and cruelly imprisoned on a malarial tropical island under specially modified laws, only to be exonerated a decade later. No wonder it reminds Louis Begley of Guantánamo.

The tale of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s two court martials in 1894 and 1899, his military degradation, life sentence and deportation, presidential pardon and rehabilitation, has often been told. Begley, an American novelist with a 45-year legal career, draws on an impressive array of sources, primary and secondary.

Why this notorious miscarriage of justice should fascinate him is easy to understand: it contains all the ingredients of a thrilling yarn, with its lacklustre victim, colourful villains, wealth of psychological case studies and enduring political ramifications. Begley brilliantly analyses the courtroom dramas, elucidating not just the facts but exactly when each detail was revealed – who knewwhat and when is just as important, to both sides, as who didwhat and why. The lawyer in Begley is ideally placed to explain the niceties of the French legal system and its occasional descent into staggering impropriety.

The web is effortlessly untangled and the reader is instantly drawn into the story, the personalities and backgrounds of its key players, the stakes involved. Those stakes were high: that the German military attaché in Paris was being fed sensitive military information was indeed high treason in the 1890s, when France was still embittered over the defeat of 1871.

The gradual process of identifying a suspect and supplying a plausible motive is recounted in rich detail. Dreyfus’s incrimination and sentencing are followed by a graphic account of his solitary confinement in a stone cell on Devil’s Island, a former leper colony off the coast of French Guiana. The apparatus of the République’s justice was vindictive: conditions were vile, little or no exercise was permitted. His health rapidly deteriorated.

Then there is the parallel story of how the truth was brought to light through a relentless campaign of persuasion by Mathieu Dreyfus, the victim’s brother, who enlisted a kernel of supporters among his friends and acquaintances. Small facts, casually collected, were juxtaposed to piece together the jigsaw of what had really happened. The recruiting of the novelist Émile Zola, who became Dreyfus’s most notorious champion, proved a brilliant stroke. Gradually the machinations of the other side were unmasked, in all their ignorance, stupidity and malice. Begley catalogues the pathetic defensive tactics of the Army General Staff: incompetently manufactured documents, rumours, lies, even suicide. Not to mention the character of the real traitor, the profligate and absconding conman Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy.

The cast is mostly male, except for Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, and two other supporting roles entrusted to women: Madame Bastian, a cleaning woman paid to deliver the contents of the German attaché’s waste paper basket to the French war ministry’s intelligence and counterintelligence bureau; and Madame de Boulancy, Esterhazy’s former mistress, to whom the scoundrel owed money. She spitefully fed his letters to the Dreyfusards who used them as evidence against his character.

And all this against the Greek chorus of public opinion. The manipulation of the latter, by a virulently anti-Semitic press as much as by Zola’s courageous outbursts, lends the story a stamp of modernity.

Finally, Begley’s last chapter eloquently evokes literary echoes, especially Proust’s depictions of the convoluted ways in which salon society kept Jews or Dreyfusards at arm’s length.

Alfred Dreyfus himself was not helped by his unattractive speaking voice and unconvincing courtroom demeanour. Begley sees “a serious and modest man who had nothing heroic about him except obstinate and taciturn courage. He was incapable of eloquence and grand gestures”. An assimilated Jew, he remained a patriot to the last, fervently loyal to the French army whose top brass had conspired to incriminate him.

Despite the fact that France was ahead of other European states in its assimilation of Jews, French anti-Semitism ran so deep that when Dreyfus was first convicted, many French Jews felt it was better to let matters lie and not raise a stir. (Léon Blum once wondered whether Dreyfus himself would have been a “Dreyfusard” had the cards been dealt otherwise.)

Also, Dreyfus came from a wealthy industrial family in Alsace. This made him doubly marginal: after the Franco-Prussian War, “Elsass” had been placed under Prussian rule. Ethnically and geographically, his provenance touched a nerve of European history that was to dominate the 20th century.

Does the Dreyfus Affair still matter? The case resonates in two important ways. Firstly, Begley has a contemporary human rights agenda. He draws striking parallels between the fallout from 9/11 in the USA and the political mood in France after 1871. Both empires had undergone a “defining national trauma”, pillars of the establishment in both regimes had distorted legal procedures and, Begley insists, Guantánamo is the Devil’s Island of Bush’s America.

Moreover, one cannot help sensing that the author’s own emblematic identity suggests a particular affinity with Dreyfus. As revealed elsewhere, Louis Begley (Ludwik Begleiter) is himself from the heart of Old Europe. Born a Polish Jew, he survived the Holocaust as a child, and moved to the New World and a new identity.

Dreyfus’s name was cleared, he was made a chevalierof the Legion of Honour, but his career and health were ruined. He was never compensated for the lost years, and resigned from the army in 1907 only to re-enlist during the Great War. The generals who had plotted against him were granted immunity.

Does the affair teach any lessons? It certainly illustrates the cruelty of history, or of fate, or both. After Dreyfus’s exoneration, other matters claimed the attention of the French chattering classes. Yet it continues to haunt French society. In 2002, a statue of Dreyfus in Paris was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.

As for the Muslim scapegoats of Bush’s “war on terror”, history has still to reveal their plight.

Phyllis Gaffney is a senior lecturer in French and Francophone Studies at UCD