Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair (Jewish Lives)

Image of Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair (Jewish Lives)
Release Date: 
February 27, 2024
Yale University Press
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“Those who know about the Dreyfus Affair will learn as much from these pages as those who have never heard of it. Samuels offers a fresh lens on an old story . . .”

The Dreyfus Affair has been thoroughly written about since Dreyfus's arrest for treason on October 15, 1894. The story of a Jewish officer selling military secrets to the Germans was all over the French newspapers, especially the antisemitic press. Emile Zola's famous headline, "J'Accuse," laying out how the military brutally punished an innocent man while allowing the real culprit to go free, is equally famous. What has been lost in all the screaming headlines has been the man himself. Samuels restores him to his rightful place at the center of the affair, from his childhood in Alsace to his rise in the French military to the pardon he ultimately received from the government.

The book is thoroughly researched; the author draws on the newly available archive of documents donated by the Dreyfus family. Samuels uses these letters and Dreyfus' own notebooks to present not only Dreyfus, but his family and the people who supported him throughout his long ordeal. Beyond this, Samuels has clearly read the contemporary newspaper stories, which he quotes throughout the book, as well as the scholarship devoted to studying and explaining the deep rupture the affair caused in French politics and culture. That would be enough for any single title, but Samuels goes further by looking at the "Jewish dimension of the affair."

"Although everyone knows that Dreyfus was Jewish—often it is the only thing that people know about the case—the role that Dreyfus's Jewishness played both for him and for his opponents has rarely been the focus of study. And the profound effect of the affair on Jews around the world has gone almost completely unexamined."

There is nuance and care in these pages, no rush to form a simple judgement. Yet the whole reads more like a compelling drama than dry academic analysis. The convulsive twists and turns are vividly described, including the series of forgeries made to bolster the army's case, the shots fired at Dreyfus's lawyer and years later, at Dreyfus himself. It's an absorbing—and sickening—story of antisemitism encapsulated in the form of one man.

Through it all, Samuels keeps Dreyfus himself front and center:

"Through his heroic resistance to the torture inflicted upon him by the French state—a resistance that required a daily struggle for survival in shockingly brutal conditions over a period of five years—he enabled a gross miscarriage of justice by the military and government authorities to come to light. It was only because of his belief in the principles of equality and justice for all, and his willingness to fight for them, that these principles eventually triumphed."

He also keeps Dreyfus's Jewishness firmly in mind, while taking care to show what that meant in France at the time:

"The great majority of French Jews . . . remained Jewish even as they attended the most prestigious French schools, wrote dictionaries of the French language, or joined the French language. . . . This was because the France they loved and yearned to be part of was the France of the Revolution, the France that had declared its fidelity to universalist values by granting the Jews full civil rights. As Jews, they therefore felt doubly French, since it was their emancipation that had helped define the new kind of nation that France had become."

There was, Samuels argues, no need to "assimilate" the way Jews did in Germany and the United States. France allowed Jews to be both Jewish and French. They did not have deny their religion or ethnicity in order to belong to the country where they lived. They "referred to themselves as Israelites, which they considered a more distinguished term than Juif or Jew."

It was exactly this position, allowed by Napoleon, that the more conservative elements of French society objected to, saying that only the Jews had "profited from the French Revolution." They:

"yearned for a return to the old feudal order and for a society rooted in religious values. This reactionary faction found adherents principally among the segments of society that had been left behind by capitalist modernity—impoverished aristocrats, fundamentalist Catholics, insecure shopkeepers, and some segments of the rural peasantry. All these groups had been conditioned to hate Jews by centuries of prejudice . . ."

Samuels goes on to show Dreyfus's own awareness of how his Jewishness lay at the core of the trumped-up charge against him. He carefully lays out the ample evidence of the military's antisemitism, fed by the government and rabid public opinion. The rupture in French society is also made vivid. Everyone was either for or against Dreyfus. It wasn't possible to remain apolitical on such a vital question, with families fighting among themselves over which position was right. The affair had become an issue of the rights of the individual against the state.

"The Dreyfus Affair offered the first real test of the liberal institutions that had developed in the west over the course of the previous century. Could the rights of the individual compete against the interests of the military and state bureaucracy? Would the justice system prove independent of the pressure of the military and popular prejudice? Did equality before the law truly apply to every citizen, regardless of race and creed?"

These questions seem especially relevant today, as does the issue of heightened antisemitism.

"For Jews across the ideological and religious spectrum, the affair provided the lens through which they viewed their future. . . . the affair had helped to redefine the nature of Jewish identity for the modern age."

Those who know about the Dreyfus Affair will learn as much from these pages as those who have never heard of it. Samuels offers a fresh lens on an old story in a carefully crafted book that is both searing social history and sensitive biography.