Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century

Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century

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by Ruth Harris

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National Jewish Book Awards Winner

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongfully convicted of being a spy for Germany and was imprisoned on Devil's Island. Oxford historian Ruth Harris presents the scandal of the century in all its human complexity. Drawing on private letters and thousands of previously unconsidered sources, Harris

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National Jewish Book Awards Winner

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongfully convicted of being a spy for Germany and was imprisoned on Devil's Island. Oxford historian Ruth Harris presents the scandal of the century in all its human complexity. Drawing on private letters and thousands of previously unconsidered sources, Harris offers a definitive account of the tragic drama that divided French society and stunned the world. Sweeping and engaging, Harris's retelling of the Dreyfus Affair extricates it from the myths of both the left and the right, offering a new understanding of one of the most significant episodes in modern history.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review Leo Damrosch

It is the goal of the Oxford historian Ruth Harris to extricate the Dreyfus Affair from the myths it has generated, on both the left and the right, and to trace its tortuous evolution from 1894 to 1906 in all of its human complexity. Combining an even-tempered tone with generosity of imagination, she has achieved that goal… Harris's excellent Dreyfus deserves a wide audience for its patient, fair-minded exploration of human ideals, delusions, prejudices, hatreds and follies.
The Weekly Standard Christopher Hitchens

Scrupulous and well-written… Ruth Harris's rather beautiful and complex study is a conscious attempt to add, or better say restore, the layers of ambiguity that are lost if we accept the almost classical model of confrontation between darkness and enlightenment. It's not that she is, in any usual sense, a revisionist. Indeed, her restatement of the essential and unarguable point--the complete innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus--could scarcely be bettered… In some ways, then, Harris's narrative actually enhances the traditional picture of good triumphing over injustice, with the French secular left wearing the white hat. But she expertly identifies the exceptions.… Harris is to be thanked for the care and measure of her sifting and weighing, and for the deep historical perspective that she brings to the undertaking.
The New York Review of Books Robert Gildea

An extraordinary study of the affair as a tragic drama that swept up a man, his family and friends, and more widely French society and the French state… The strength of Ruth Harris's book is to present the Dreyfus Affair as a human and social drama. Whereas many accounts concentrate on the conspiratorial and public dimensions of the debate, Harris--who has read thousands of the private letters of those involved--moves easily between the public and the private, the intellectual and the emotional… She demonstrates that the Dreyfusards were not all apostles of the Enlightenment; neither were all anti-Dreyfusards benighted traditionalists.
The San Francisco Chronicle Michael S. Roth

Harris has uncovered a wealth of new documents, and she tells her story to satisfy those with an appetite for rich historical detail.… Simple dichotomies make for dangerous politics and for dubious histories. This balanced and thoughtful account of Dreyfus is a compelling reminder of the complexity and pathos of the past.
The Nation John Palattella

Ruth Harris's meticulous, assured, and engrossing account of the Dreyfus Affair calls to mind none of the many books on the subject… Harris has produced a history sensitive to historical limits. She unravels decisions made in the swirl of experience, fraught with contradiction, accident, and incoherence and governed by emotion as much as reason, by prejudice as much as principle.… Harris's eye for the vivid detail gracefully complements her analytical rigor and is one reason her book is a pleasure to read.
Washington Monthly Michael O'Donnell

Excellent… A thorough work of scholarship with a firm sense of its own place in the historiography… A carefully crafted intellectual history of fin-de-siècle France that explores at length the biographies and feuds of dozens of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. All of Harris's investigations are thoughtful and beautifully written.
The Jewish Chronicle - Neal Gendler

Longer works about Dreyfus have been written, but I can't imagine one better... The cast rivals War and Peace, and Harris tells who they were, what shaped their views and their roles in the affair. These interesting accounts enormously deepen our understanding.
Truthdig Peter Brooks

Illuminating… Harris paints well the complex lives created by Dreyfus's condemnation, and offers a richly textured account of the dramatis personae--not only in the Dreyfusard camp, but anti-Dreyfusards as well.… One of Harris' main accomplishments in her rich and nuanced book is restoring a face to Alfred Dreyfus himself. He has never seemed the adequate hero for such an epic struggle.… In detailing Dreyfus's family life--especially his close relation with his intrepid and forceful wife, Lucie--and his unwavering commitment to the army and its values, his firm if rigid sense of the honorable course of action, she makes him more understandable than most previous historians.
The Guardian (UK) Carmen Callil

A most comprehensive and nuanced account of the participants on both sides of the imbroglio, rich with information… Harris is a first-rate narrative historian... What marks Harris's contribution is her formidable research skills, her exceptionally wide general and historical reading, and her always interesting eye for the revealing anecdote or pen portrait.
Richard Wolin

In many respects, the Dreyfus Affair remains the founding event of modern politics. Ruth Harris's insightful and fascinating study brings the debate, which riveted France and the world for over ten years, back to life. With an ethnographer's attention for the salient detail, time and again Harris reveals aspects of the Affair that her predecessors, among both ideological camps, have inexplicably overlooked. She achieves all of this with a mellifluous prose style and an accomplished novelist's sense of narrative framing. Her book on the Affair is destined to become the standard work for years to come.
author of The Idea of the Self: Thought and Ex Jerrold Seigel

Ruth Harris's new book on the Dreyfus Affair tells the story colorfully and with admirable completeness, while revealing new dimensions that both complicate and enrich our understanding of what drew people to involve themselves with it. Her sensitivity to the personal motives at work on both sides and to the sometimes surprising features of religious and secular culture of the time makes what has long been recognized as a moment full of passion and significant conflict still more engrossing.
author of The Trial of Madame Caillaux Edward Berenson

Ruth Harris is one of the most thoughtful and original historians writing in English today. In her hands, the Dreyfus Affair escapes the century-old interpretation of its protagonists to reveal the humanity of Alfred Dreyfus, who disappointed his supporters, and the courage of his wife, Lucie, whom they largely ignored. By the end, we realize that because pro- and anti-Dreyfusards inhabited the same cultural universe, they weren't as far apart as many historians have believed. Dreyfus's proponents were right, of course, but for reasons more emotionally and politically complex than we have known until now.
Leo Damrosch
It is the goal of …Ruth Harris to extricate the story from the myths it has generated, on both the left and the right, and to trace its tortuous evolution from 1894 to 1906 in all of its human complexity. Combining an even-tempered tone with generosity of imagination, she has achieved that goal, charting a steady course through the voluminous literature that the affair inspired and exploring the reactions of scores of soldiers, politicians, journalists, salonnières and ordinary citizens…Harris's excellent Dreyfus,…deserves a wide audience for its patient, fair-minded exploration of human ideals, delusions, prejudices, hatreds and follies.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Harris (Lourdes) revisits that notorious miscarriage of justice, the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a dedicated Jewish French army captain was convicted of spying for Germany based on flimsy and fabricated evidence, and sentenced in 1895 to life on remote Devil's Island. Utilizing private correspondence and archives, Harris trains her gaze on several key players: Lucie Dreyfus, who changed from modest wife and devoted mother into an unremitting fighter for her husband's release; Dreyfus's chief polemicist, émile Zola, charged with libel for his confrontational writings during the affair, was equally reckless (in Harris's word), creating a secret, second family with his maid; and Col. Georges Picquart, who while in charge of the Dreyfus investigation, discovered the real culprit. Despite his dislike of Jews, Picquart defied his superiors to free Dreyfus; for his efforts, he was himself imprisoned on trumped-up charges. While detailing how many on the political and religious right embraced anti-Semitism as a nationalist unifying passion, Harris also demonstrates that the Dreyfusards were flawed men and women who often overcame prejudices and fears to battle the conspirators against Dreyfus. This well-researched, and nuanced book is an engrossing account, the second this year after Frederick Brown's For the Soul of France. 68 b&w illus. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A patient reexamination of the Dreyfus Affair, revealing the "unusually intense process of emotional mobilization" involved on both sides. Oxford University fellow and tutor Harris (Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, 1999, etc.) views the Affair as the stakeout of two sides, the so-called intellectuals (claiming rationality and republicanism) and anti-intellectuals (nationalism and clericalism). Both groups' convictions were not so clear-cut, and motivations were often muddied. Accused of high treason in 1894 for penning a bordereau offering military secrets to the Germans, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a rising young French officer of Jewish origins, was publicly denounced and sent to prison on Devil's Island for nearly five years. Meanwhile, Col. Georges Picquart came forward with revelations about the real spy, Walsin Esterhazy, but was silenced by the military. As the case became public, gradually lines were drawn in outrage. One side exposed the lack of proof, pervading anti-Semitism and clear miscarriage of justice, while the other side maintained an unshakable confidence in the French military and relief that "such a crime was not committed by a real Frenchman." Dreyfus's younger brother, Mathieu, proved indefatigable in garnering support, convincing journalist Bernard Lazare to take up the cause-"They needed a Jewish traitor fit to replace the classic Judas," Lazare wrote-while novelist Emile Zola, "attracted to the Affair above all because it was a good story," didn't publish his incendiary article "J'accuse . . . !" until January 1898. Arguments exploded from both camps, involving the inflexible force of the military, the uneasy situation of the Jewish community and the salonnieres who helped disseminate ideas in the backrooms. Above all, Harris capably depicts the brittle figure of Dreyfus himself, honorable but broken. A contextually comprehensive study of the battle for France's soul and the figures radically politicized by the debate. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Literary Agency

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Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century

By Ruth Harris

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Harris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5802-8



On 14 October 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, his wife, Lucie, and their two young children, Pierre and Jeanne, spent the evening at the Paris home of his in-laws, Monsieur and Madame Hadamard. The young family lived in a huge and sunny apartment on the rue du Trocadéro, with servants, expensive clothes and fine food. Alfred kept two horses, rode every day in the bois de Boulogne, and was even a bit vain about his talent as a horseman. When in the capital on military business during the summer, he could send his wife and children to the seaside at Houlgate without thinking of the cost. The family knew how to enjoy its fortune, which came from textiles on Alfred's side and diamonds on his wife's.

Despite the opulence of their lifestyle, Lucie and Alfred lived for more than their social position. When she first met her future husband at her parents' home in 1889, she was struck above all by the young soldier's idealistic devotion to his country. Alfred strived for excellence in his military career because of a fierce patriotism, which Lucie shared. When the Germans occupied Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War, their families left their regional homeland and migrated to the French 'interior', where they took French citizenship. The two shared the memories and ways of their Mosello-Alsatian Jewish world, even though they epitomized the desire to acculturate into wider French society.

The months before Alfred's ordeal began were the happiest of his life. He had settled into marital and domestic bliss, slowly relinquishing his flirtatious involvements with femmes du monde in favour of the deep affection that Lucie provided. When she gave birth to their daughter Jeanne on 22 February 1893, Alfred feared for Lucie's life, and took leave from the army to be at her bedside until she recovered. Although Alfred's father had died the year before, the couple saw only a rosy future before them – beautiful children, a happy home and a satisfying career. The Sunday at the Hadamards' was in fact the last evening of an existence in which, as he said, 'everything in life seemed to smile on me.'

At nine the next morning, 15 October, Alfred was summoned to an inspection at the Ministry of War on the rue St-Dominique; unusually, he had been told to come in civilian clothes rather than in uniform. Commandant Armand du Paty de Clam showed him a gloved hand and asked him to take a dictation, as an injury meant he could not write himself. In mid dictation du Paty suggested Dreyfus's trembling hands were an attempt to disguise his handwriting. Dreyfus replied that in fact it was simply because his hands were cold, not realizing that the exercise was designed to see if his handwriting matched that on the incriminating bordereau, which had been recovered from the German embassy in Paris. To no avail: du Paty stopped the interview and accused Dreyfus of high treason.

After interviews lasting two hours, during which Dreyfus repeatedly protested his innocence, he was carted off to the central military prison, a converted convent at the angle of the boulevard Raspail and the rue du Cherche-Midi. There he was interrogated seven times between 18 and 30 October, and prevented from talking or writing to his wife. During these sessions du Paty and the archivist of the intelligence unit, Félix Gribelin, accused him of using his frequent visits to Alsace to meet his spymasters, and portrayed him (wrongly) as a womanizer and a gambler – this supposedly providing the motive for treason. Dreyfus admitted only one contact with the German embassy: when he had requested a permit to visit Alsace and was refused. He never asked again. He had gone illegally, like many Alsatians, but only to maintain links with his homeland, not with any clandestine business in mind.

During the interrogations he was forced to do repetitive handwriting exercises, sit and stand as ordered and, above all, answer questions without knowing what the charges were about. They had him copy excerpts from the bordereau in the hope that his handwriting would match that of the document, but he was not allowed to see the whole thing. When he insisted on his innocence, his interrogators tried to startle him into a confession by shining bright lights into his eyes. Commandant Ferdinand Forzinetti, the prison governor, protested and banned such techniques, but Dreyfus none the less remembered the interrogations as a torture, during which the 'great memory' that had served him so well when he furthered his studies at the Ecole supérieure de guerre 'disappeared sometimes totally'.

He kept calm during the interviews, but when he returned to his cell he shrieked in agony and banged his head, mindless of any harm he might inflict on himself. He defended himself by pointing to a spotless career and by asserting that he had no reason to spy on the country he had sworn to defend. Isolated from his wife and children, Dreyfus was overwhelmed. Forzinetti, the first soldier to doubt his guilt, now began to voice his concerns to 'members of parliament, journalists and prominent people'. On 27 October he also warned the minister of war, Auguste Mercier, that there was a risk Dreyfus might go insane or kill himself:

This officer is in an indescribable mental state. Since his last interrogation, undergone Thursday, he has fainting spells and frequent hallucinations; he cries and laughs in turns, and never stops saying that he feels his mind is going. He always protests his innocence and shrieks that he will become mad before it is recognized. He constantly asks for his wife and children. It is feared that he will commit a desperate act, despite all the precautions taken, or that madness will ensue.

The bordereau that set off the drama had been found in late September by a charlady, Marie Bastian, who regularly fished out discarded correspondence and reports from the waste-paper bin of Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen, the military attaché at the German embassy. The suave Schwarztkoppen was the confidant of the German ambassador, the Count of Munster, and, despite official denials, was also responsible for gathering intelligence. This is what he threw away:

Being without news indicating that you want to see me, I am none the less sending you, sir, some interesting information:

1. A note on the hydraulic brake of the 120mm cannon and on the manner in which this part has performed;

2. A note on covering troops (some modification will be brought by the new plan);

3. A note on the modification of artillery formations;

4. A note concerning Madagascar;

5. The plan for a firing manual for the field artillery.

The last document is extremely difficult to get hold of and I can have it at my disposal only for a very few days. The minister of war has sent a fixed number of copies to the regiments, and these regiments are responsible for them. Every officer holding [a copy] is obliged to return it after manoeuvres.

If you would like to take from it what interests you and hold it at my disposal afterwards, I will take it. Unless you want me to have it copied in extenso, and then send you the copy.

I am off to manoeuvres.

In fact, Schwarztkoppen had had no dealings with Dreyfus at all, but had hired the real spy, Commandant Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who had supplied the bordereau to pass on the confidential (though low-grade) intelligence probably towards the end of September 1894.

Although torn into six pieces, the bordereau had been easily put back together by Commandant Joseph Henry, an officer in the military's Statistical Bureau, a small organization chiefly concerned with counter-intelligence. He had recognized its importance and showed it to Captain Jules Lauth and Félix Gribelin, who in turn informed Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Sandherr, an anti-Semitic Alsatian who ran the bureau. The three men together concluded that the General Staff – the so-called arche-sainte, or 'holy of holies' of the army's high command – had a spy in its midst. They believed (wrongly) that the references to field artillery and the 'new' manual pointed to an artilleryman as the likely culprit. The head of the General Staff, General Charles de Boisdeffre, was away, so the bordereau was sent directly to the Ministry of War.

The torn-up note outraged Mercier, who became one of the pivotal figures in the Affair. Of Catholic upbringing but with an English Protestant wife, he was known in military circles for his liberalism and brilliance – he had graduated from the elite Ecole polytechnique second in his class. His appointment as minister of war in May 1894 was greeted with enthusiasm by the military, who were glad to have one of their own in charge. The right, however, disliked his Republican inclinations and the fact that he did not go to mass.

Before long Mercier, like his predecessors, was criticized for weakness in confronting the ever-present German threat. Edouard Drumont, the editor of the anti-Semitic La Libre Parole, returned to the theme of linking military unpreparedness with Jewish subversion. He had unleashed a campaign against Jews in the army in 1892, citing their 'preponderance' as officers as one of the reasons for France's military unpreparedness. Drumont's vilification had tragic consequences when the Marquis de Morès, a notorious anti-Semite, killed the Jewish Captain Armand Mayeur in a duel. The outcry and the mourning generated by the funeral forced him to suspend his campaign. But the rumour of a Jewish spy allowed him to reopen the attack.

Mercier was thus under tremendous pressure to demonstrate his own firmness and the army's ability to respond to a threat by catching the traitor as quickly as possible. Copies of the bordereau were quickly sent out to the section heads of the General Staff, and Lieutenant-Colonel Albert d'Aboville, newly arrived as head of the Fourth Bureau, developed a theory that directed the Statistical Bureau to Dreyfus. He reasoned that the bordereau showed someone familiar with work being done across the General Staff, in the First, Second, Third and Fourth bureaux, each of which was responsible for different aspects of strategy, logistics and supplies. He deduced that this could only be a stagiaire, one of the privileged young trainees from the Ecole supérieure de guerre who were given a rounded training by moving through the various offices. Formed between 1876 and 1880, the Ecole supérieure de guerre borrowed self-consciously from German models and was part of the package of reformist measures to reinvigorate the army after the defeat of 1871. Dreyfus was one of these rising academic stars.

When they began to focus on this much smaller circle of suspects, Aboville and his superior, Colonel Pierre Fabre, saw a resemblance between Dreyfus's handwriting and that on the bordereau. From that moment no other suspects were seriously investigated, and no one else was interrogated, even though the final line of the bordereau mentioned that the writer was about to go on manoeuvres. Dreyfus had never gone on manoeuvres, but Aboville and Fabre decided that this phrase had to refer to a General Staff expedition to the Eastern frontier in June and early July. Dreyfus had distinguished himself during this trip because of a knowledge of artillery that he had gained at a special training school at Fontainebleau earlier in his career. General Charles Le Mouton de Boisdeffre had singled him out for a private chat because of his expertise.

Aboville and Fabre told the deputy chief of staff, General Arthur Gonse, of their conclusions. De Boisdeffre was visibly upset, since he had esteemed Dreyfus's ability and diligence, but Sandherr, the head of the Statistical Bureau, was merely surprised that Dreyfus's guilt had not struck him earlier, and reportedly remarked about Jews in general: 'It was really shrewd of me not to want any of them in my section.' He also claimed to have seen the young officer lurking around asking prying questions. From the very beginning, therefore, suspicion fell on Dreyfus both as a Jew and as an outsider who had been foisted on the General Staff as part of the 'Germanic' military reforms.

Although Mercier was convinced, others wanted expert confirmation. They turned to du Paty de Clam, whom the Dreyfusards would later portray as a monocled robot, an intellectual dilettante and a dangerous fantasist – the epitome of the mad Catholic aristocrat. But the view of his colleagues was different. Du Paty spoke several languages and was omnivorous in his interests (he loved adventure tales) and was related to General de Boisdeffre. He came from a family of magistrates, and fancied himself to be seriously knowledgeable about the law; it was because of his interest in graphology that he was given the bordereau. He examined it and on 7 October 1894 reported back to his super iors that they had correctly identified the traitor.

Mercier wanted to move against Dreyfus and on 11 October called a small meeting with a few fellow ministers – the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of justice – to keep them informed. Gabriel Hanotaux, the foreign minister, worried about the general's haste and the possible diplomatic consequences of revealing that French Intelligence had stolen material from the German embassy. Jean Casimir-Perier, the president of the Republic, also advised caution, fearful that the bordereau might not be enough to convict, while revealing the story could easily cause a political scandal. But, relying on the erroneous deductions of his officers and wishing to fend off critics, Mercier refused to change course. What is more, he never backed down, and instead became the leading figure in what would become a far-reaching military conspiracy. He signed the arrest warrant on 14 October, and Dreyfus was taken into custody the next day.

When he finally saw the bordereau on 29 October, Dreyfus was reassured: he had not worked on covering troops, knew nothing about Madagascar, was completely unaware that a new shooting manual was proposed and was unfamiliar with the 120mm gun. So pitiful was the army's case against him, in fact, that he believed that his fellow officers would soon enough realize their mistake and let him go. On 15 October, du Paty searched the Dreyfuses' apartment on the rue du Trocadéro with the head of the Sûreté nationale, Commissioner Armand Cochefert, but they discovered nothing of interest. All they did find was Alfred's meticulously kept accounts, which indicated an annual income of 40,000 francs and a permanent credit of several hundred thousand francs from the family's textile business. Moreover, his father's death meant that he had recently inherited another 110,000 francs. Dreyfus, in other words, was hardly short of money, the most usual motive of the spy.

Even du Paty was worried by the lack of evidence and warned de Boisdeffre on 29 October that Dreyfus might be acquitted. Nor was there much chance that a confession might solve the problem: in every interrogation Dreyfus protested his innocence and reiterated his lack of motive: 'Nothing in my life, nothing in my past could have led me to believe that one could possibly lay such an accusation against me. I sacrificed my situation in Alsace to serve my country, which I have always served with devotion.' In a letter to his wife on 6 December he was even more categorical, reminding Lucie of the anguish that German triumph and occupation had caused him.

Do you remember I told you that, finding myself in Mulhouse about ten years ago in September, I heard passing under our windows a German band celebrating the anniversary of Sedan? I felt so very distressed that I cried from rage, bit my sheets in anger and swore to dedicate all my strength and intelligence to serve my country against those who thus insulted the grief of all Alsatians.

The only substantial evidence against him was the bordereau itself, and so the investigation turned to handwriting experts to make the connection with Dreyfus more certain. On 11 October, Mercier asked Alfred Gobert, an expert at the Banque de France, to examine the document, but two days later rejected his conclusion that Dreyfus had not written it. Subsequently the army sought to discredit Gobert as both 'defiant' and suspicious for asking the name of the accused: as a man accustomed to civil justice, he had been discomfited by the military's secretive approach.

Even before Gobert delivered his report, Mercier had contacted Alphonse Bertillon, the head of the anthropometric service at the Prefecture of Police, who had made his name by developing an index of cranial and bodily measurements to identify repeat offenders. Although Bertillon had no official standing as an expert to the judicial system, he maintained that the discrepancies between the two handwritings were the result of a clever 'auto-forgery' designed by Dreyfus to disguise his own hand. His report was presented with all the technical fanfare of late nineteenth-century scientism and was accepted with enthusiasm by the military, but ultimately would severely tarnish the credentials of forensic science just as anthropometrics and fingerprinting were taking hold as genuinely valuable fields. Three more experts were called before the first court martial, but Bertillon spoke to two of them before they looked at the bordereau; thus directed, they followed his conclusions, although the third, Eugène Pelletier, worked independently and agreed with Gobert.


Excerpted from Dreyfus by Ruth Harris. Copyright © 2010 Ruth Harris. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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