Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair

  • By Maurice Samuels
  • Yale University Press
  • 224 pp.

Echoes from a long-ago antisemitic persecution linger today.

Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair

Many historians have attempted to sort out France’s “L’Affaire Dreyfus” since its unfolding in 1894. In Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair, Maurice Samuels, professor of French and director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, approaches the topic by exploring the history of the Jewish Dreyfus family.

This is especially canny given that la famille Dreyfus hails from Alsace, a fickle region that changed its identity from French (before 1870) to German (after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871) to French (after World War I) to German (during the Nazi occupation of 1940) to Vichy French (from 1940-1944) to, finally, French again in 1944 (after Charles De Gaulle and the Free French liberated it).

The Dreyfus family, once Orthodox in spirit and practice, gradually became more secular in the interest of improving its wealth. Hence, Alfred Dreyfus was deemed “nonobservant” in his lifetime, although he never abandoned Judaism. He was schooled primarily in Paris, where he studied at École Polytechnique, and enlisted in the French army upon graduation. At the time of his arrest on October 15, 1894, he was in training to join the general staff as an officer.

Samuels emphasizes the shock Dreyfus and his family endured when he was unexpectedly charged with treason — for allegedly passing intelligence to the German embassy — and arrested. After quickly being found guilty on scant evidence, Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison and shipped to Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.

Despite the emergence of new evidence in 1896 that pointed to the likely real culprit, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy (who was acquitted following a two-day trial), Dreyfus was, in 1899, hauled back into court and brought up on additional charges based on forged documents.

While all this was transpiring, greater drama was playing out in the streets of Paris and throughout France. Catholics, clergy, nationalists, monarchists, and assorted right-wing authoritarians in the press were declaring Dreyfus a traitor symptomatic of the Jewish perfidy sullying the nation.

On the other side were “Dreyfusards” like Émile Zola, who, in 1898, wrote the famous open letter “J’Accuse!” in which he accused the military and government of an antisemitic conspiracy against Dreyfus. Although convicted on the new charges, Dreyfus was nonetheless granted a pardon, no doubt in response to the growing public outcry. In 1906, he was formally exonerated. At 55, Dreyfus returned to the army to fight in World War I alongside his son, Pierre. He later retired and wrote academic articles and book reviews until his death in 1935 at age 75.

Samuels ably chronicles the grave injustice done to the Dreyfus family and frames L’Affaire as part of an undeclared civil war every bit as pernicious as the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) during the French Revolution. Most of the blame, he contends, goes to the largely antisemitic military and journalist corps. The former had and withheld evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence; the latter knowingly parroted false claims of his guilt.

As Julian Jackson wrote in France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, which recounts the post-World War II prosecution of the former Vichy government leader, French conservatives never forgot Dreyfus. After suffering through the rule of Prime Minister Léon Blum (a Jew who was once nearly beaten to death in Paris), as well as that of the pro-Dreyfus Georges Clemenceau at the end of WWI, Vichy France was more than happy to ship 77,000+ French Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi killing centers in the east.

In spite of its liberation from Hitler in 1944, France continues to be plagued by antisemitism. Politicians like Marine Le Pen, a powerful member of the right-wing National Rally party, perpetuate the canard that Jews control the banks and academia. The current war in Gaza has fanned the flames of antisemitism even more; Samuels points out that the tension among Jews vis-à-vis Zionism existed even in Dreyfus’ day.

The author is to be commended for his thorough research in Alfred Dreyfus, which allows the views on all sides of L’Affaire to be given equal treatment. Hopefully, readers will come away from this work with a better understanding of the unique intricacies of the case and an awareness of French Jews’ ongoing struggle for acceptance.

Andrew M. Mayer is professor emeritus of humanities and history at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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