Review: Dreyfus, the miscarriage of justice that bitterly divided France and became a cause célèbre

Review: Dreyfus, the miscarriage of justice that bitterly divided France and became a cause célèbre

Robert Shiels commends an important new book on the Dreyfus case which exposed the anti-semitism in French society that would eventually find expression in the Vichy regime and the obscenity of French police rounding up Jews to be sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

Maurice Samuels, a Professor of French at Yale University, by placing the events concerning Alfred Dreyfus in a wide context of France of the time, gives a commendable overview of the life of Dreyfus and his promising career as a French Army officer.

It is notable that the very first footnote in this book records that by 1970 there were calculated to be 551 works about the Dreyfus Affair, and “the number has grown exponentially since then”. Yet, this deceptively small book is important on its own merits.

Not least of the problems around the study of the scandal is how to focus on the event: some take it as an opportunity to analyse French society or politics of the time. Others seek to demonstrate that the injustice inflicted on Dreyfus himself has been replicated later elsewhere in the world, and so on.

In a rounded narrative, unlike many historians, Samuels argues that Dreyfus was not an “assimilated” Jew. Rather, he epitomised a new model of Jewish identity made possible by the French Revolution, when France became the first European nation to grant Jews full legal equality.

The study develops to show how a false accusation led to the criminal trials about which there are few details but no less emphasis is made as to their injustice.

The exceptionally harsh conditions of imprisonment for Dreyfus on Devil’s Island, the fight to prove his innocence that divided the French nation, and his life of quiet obscurity after the Great War are narrated perhaps in more detail than is usual.

Nevertheless, Professor Samuels also shows the profound effect of the Dreyfus Affair on the lives of French Jews and others around the world. While some Americans were sympathetic to the plight of Dreyfus, others saw parallels with the plight of other minorities, with particular regard to Black lynchings there.

The global interest in the plight of Dreyfus was extensive but with some French politicians wanting to universalise the politics of the whole event to move from the injustice done to an individual to social injustice more broadly. Dreyfus was both the victim of injustice and a symbol for so much else.

The views of the author on the subject of his book may be followed up in further details in a video available here.

Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair by Maurice Samuels. Published by Yale University Press, 224pp.

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