The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two

The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two

by Piers Paul Read
     
 

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July 20, 1894. The German Military Attache in Paris. Colonel Maximillien von Schwarzkoppen received a visit from a seedy-looking middle-aged Frenchman who would not give his name. He told Schwarzkoppen that he was a French army officer serving on the General Staff; that he was in desperate need of money; and was therefore prepared to sell military secrets to the

Overview

July 20, 1894. The German Military Attache in Paris. Colonel Maximillien von Schwarzkoppen received a visit from a seedy-looking middle-aged Frenchman who would not give his name. He told Schwarzkoppen that he was a French army officer serving on the General Staff; that he was in desperate need of money; and was therefore prepared to sell military secrets to the Germans.


Captain Alfred Dreyfus, then aged 35, was a high-flying career artillery officer. Shy, reserved, sometimes awkward, but intelligent and ambitious, Dreyfus had everything he might have hoped for: a wife, two enchanting children, plenty of money and a post on the General Staff. However, Dreyfus' rise in the army had not made him friends. Many of them came from the impoverished Catholic aristocracy and disliked Dreyfus because he was rich, bourgeois and, above all, a Jew.


On October 13, Captain Dreyfus was summoned by the General de Boisdeffre to the Ministry of War. Despite minimal evidence against him he was placed under arrest for the crime of high treason. Not long afterwards Dreyfus was incarcerated on Devil's Island.


But how did an innocent man come to be convicted? And why was he kept locked up for so long?


The Dreyfus Affair uniquely combines a fast-moving mystery story with a snapshot of France at a moment of great social flux and cultural richness - the Belle Epoque, the Impressionists, novelists such as Flaubert, Zola, the Goncourts, Proust. It is a key to an understanding of later history; the Holocaust and Zionism: the virulent anti-Semitism of the anti-Dreyfusards and the decision that the Jews must have a state of their own.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The wrongful 1895 conviction of French-Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy was based on fabricated evidence. But though innocent, according to Read, a British writer known for Catholic-themed novels who sees the Dreyfus affair as a defining moment in the history of the Catholic Church, Dreyfus was a less than admirable figure: arrogant, very intelligent, but awkward and abrupt, with no friends at work and several questionable extramarital relationships. Read writes that even Theodor Herzl, who founded modern Zionism reportedly on account of the Dreyfus case, initially believed the evidence showing Dreyfus was guilty. It’s unclear what bearing these facts have on the question of Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt or on the fracture that emerged in France between Dreyfus’s supporters (including Emile Zola and his famous “J’accuse” statement) and his enemies. While absorbing and perceptive in parts, Read’s (The Death of a Pope) effort often feels disjointed and lacks the nuance of Ruth Harris’s and Frederick Brown’s recent books on the Dreyfus affair. Moreover, for unexplained reasons, Read emphasizes the work of some recent historians who dispute the accepted view that anti-Semitism was at the heart of Dreyfus’s conviction. In the end, Read adds little to our understanding of this critical event in French and Jewish history. Photos. Agent: Gillon Aitken (U.K.) (Mar.)
Booklist (starred)

Read has done a masterful job of explaining both what happened and why it happened. [He] offers wonderful portraits of the key figures in the unfolding tragedy, and he strives successfully to explain the motivations, fears, and hatred of both sides. This is a great re-examination of one of the most dramatic and consequential episodes in French history.
B&N Review

Piers Paul Read's fresh and comprehensive take on the scandal sheds new light on Dreyfus's personal life, looks closely at the poor man's unjust exile, and tries to assess just what endowed this incident with its long-lasting fascination.
Library Journal
There are hundreds of books about the saga of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the wealthy Jewish military officer unjustly accused and convicted of selling French military secrets to the Germans in the aftermath of France's ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Informed by past scholarship as well as original sources, prolific fiction and nonfiction author Read (Alive) analyzes why the case has had such enduring appeal. Its applications to today are evident, unfolding as it did in the midst of a cultural war over a nation's identity. While anti-Semitism played a part, the question of Dreyfus's guilt also revealed an ideological rift between Right and Left, Catholics and secularists, reactionaries and progressives. L'affaire drew international attention because of the involvement of what we now call prominent "public intellectuals." Novelist Émile Zola became a hero in France for defending Dreyfus. VERDICT Enriched by glimpses into the captain's personal life as well as by descriptions of his ordeal in the French penal colony at Devil's Island, this book is highly recommended to general readers or undergraduates interested in French history, anti-Semitism, or church-state tensions in the modern period. [See Prepub Alert, 9/22/11.]—Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist/historian Read (The Death of a Pope, 2009, etc.) revisits the notorious case that revealed the ugly extent of anti-Semitism in France. The conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason on December 22, 1894 was only the beginning of a 12-year ordeal that divided France and remains one of history's most famous instances of official misconduct and injustice. It ended with the Jewish officer's complete exoneration, but only after he had suffered nearly five years' imprisonment on Devil's Island. Members of the armed forces forged documents and gave false testimony to ensure that his guilt was not questioned, while members of the government looked the other way in the interests of not damaging the public's faith in the army. Read's account, based mostly on secondary sources, adds one new element to this oft-told tale: an effort to explain the motives of the anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom (like the author) were Catholic, as something beyond knee-jerk anti-Semitism. "The Affair is intelligible only if it seen in the context of the ideological struggle between the France of St. Louis and the France of Voltaire," writes the author. True enough, but his attempt to provide that context by detailing the persecution of Catholic priests during the French Revolution and the ongoing anticlericalism of secularists in the Third Republic at times seems uncomfortably close to justifying the misdeeds that condemned an innocent man. It's a matter of tone rather than factual inaccuracy. We hear repeatedly about Dreyfus' aloof manner and the poor impression he made at his several trials, while Read writes of the generals who refused to pursue compelling evidence against the real traitor, "to them the choice was between injustice and disorder." An obvious miscarriage of justice is certainly more understandable when one realizes that the anti-Dreyfusards believed that clearing him would shake the foundations of the state. It does nothing to soften the repulsive impression made by mobs shrieking "Dirty Jew!" as Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted. A brisk, readable retelling with a slightly odd emphasis.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781608195084
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
03/20/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
659,089
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Piers Paul Read was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. He received his B.A. in 1961 and M.A. in 1962 from Cambridge University. In the years 1963-64, he spent a year in on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. This inspired his second novel The Junkers (1968). In the years 1967-68, he spent a year in New York - an experience he used in The Professor's Daughter (1971). Read is best known for his book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which documented the story of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The book was adapted into the 1993 film Alive: The Miracle of the Andes.

Read's first notable success was his book Monk Dawson (1969), which won him a Hawthornden Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award and was made into a film of the same name.

In 1988 he was awarded a James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his book, A Season in the West and in 2003 his authorized biography of the actor Alec Guinness was published to great acclaim.

Piers Paul Read lives in London
Piers Paul Read is best known for his book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which documented the story of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 and was adapted into a film in 1993. He has won a number of prizes for his fiction, including the Hawthornden Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

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