Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Overview

In December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a brilliant French artillery officer and a Jew of Alsatian descent, was court-martialed for selling secrets to the German military attaché in Paris based on perjured testimony and trumped-up evidence. The sentence was military degradation and life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a hellhole off the coast of French Guiana. Five years later, the case was overturned, and eventually Dreyfus was completely exonerated. Meanwhile, the Dreyfus Affair tore France apart, pitting ...

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Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

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Overview

In December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a brilliant French artillery officer and a Jew of Alsatian descent, was court-martialed for selling secrets to the German military attaché in Paris based on perjured testimony and trumped-up evidence. The sentence was military degradation and life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a hellhole off the coast of French Guiana. Five years later, the case was overturned, and eventually Dreyfus was completely exonerated. Meanwhile, the Dreyfus Affair tore France apart, pitting Dreyfusards—committed to restoring freedom and honor to an innocent man convicted of a crime committed by another—against nationalists, anti-Semites, and militarists who preferred having an innocent man rot to exposing the crimes committed by ministers of war and the army’s top brass in order to secure Dreyfus’s conviction.

Was the Dreyfus Affair merely another instance of the rise in France of a virulent form of anti-Semitism? In Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, the acclaimed novelist draws upon his legal expertise to create a riveting account of the famously complex case, and to remind us of the interest each one of us has in the faithful execution of laws as the safeguard of our liberties and honor.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
Particularly powerful in drawing lessons for American society after September 11.—Robert Gildea, New York Review of Books

— Robert Gildea

The Green Bag
Begley provides a lucid and beautifully written account of L’affair Dreyfus from beginning to end.
—Steven Lubet, The Green Bag

— Steven Lubet

The Review of Politics
Commendable for its narrative clarity.—Thomas Kselman, The Review of Politics

— Thomas Kselman

The Canadian Jewish News
Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters skillfully analyzes the forces that . . . divided a nation in a spectacular historical drama.—Sheldon Kirshner, The Canadian Jewish News

— Sheldon Kirshner

Washington Monthly
Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a slim, elegant work—another impressive volume in Yale University Press's 'Why X Matters' series.—Michael O'Donnell, Washington Monthly

— Michael O'Donnell

The Morning News
Concise and precise.—Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News

— Robert Birnbaum

Ruth Scurr
Beyond being a clear introduction to the historical, legal, cultural and literary ramifications of the Dreyfus Affair, this book is a call to arms to contemporary creative writers to address the damage done to "the fabric of American society by the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration committed in the course of its pursuit of the war on terror." Begley eagerly awaits the emergence of America's Zola or Proust, to probe courageously the wounds of deep political division in great fiction. "Once again it is up to us poets to nail the guilty to the eternal pillory," Zola wrote to Dreyfus's wife. Begley argues that that time has come again.
—The New York Times
New York Times

"Begley''s own contribution to dispelling silence and indifference consists in deftly retelling the story of the Dreyfus Affair and explicitly connecting it to our times. . . . The Dreyfus Affair will continue to matter as long as there are those prepared to defend human rights and the dignity of every human life against claims of expediency, reasons of state and official miscarriages of justice."—Ruth Scurr, The New York Times

— Ruth Scurr

Jewish Book World
“Begley's riveting details and unremitting passion make this book a worthy successor to J'accuse.”—Jewish Book World
The Jewish Chronicle

"...a brilliant work of historical storytelling, reminding us to what extent the drama is in the detail."--The Jewish Chronicle

— Natasha Lehrer

Robert Paxton
"No other work in English on the Dreyfus Affair matches the clarity, the concision, and the passion of this one. A lawyer and novelist, Louis Begley explains the legal technicalities and untangles a byzantine narrative. He shows why this abuse of power should still concern us today."— Robert O. Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism
Jane Kramer
“I can’t imagine a more unequivocal, socially acute, or legally astute book about the whole hateful Dreyfus Affair than Louis Begley’s “Why Dreyfus Matters.” Add to that the limpidity, the novelist’s eye, the moral passion, and the very considerable narrative gifts that have made Begley’s fiction famous, and you have one of French history’s most tellingly muddled moments, distilled and restored to the drama it in fact was for the country it divided.”—Jane Kramer
New Yorker - Adam Gopnik
“A brave new book [and] a pointed warning and reminder of how fragile the standards of civilized conduct prove in moments of national panic.”—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Washington Monthly - Michael O'Donnell
"Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a slim, elegant work—another impressive volume in Yale University Press's 'Why X Matters' series."—Michael O'Donnell, Washington Monthly
New York Review of Books - Robert Gildea
“Particularly powerful in drawing lessons for American society after September 11.”—Robert Gildea, New York Review of Books

The Morning News - Robert Birnbaum
"Concise and precise."—Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News
The Green Bag - Steven Lubet
“Begley provides a lucid and beautifully written account of L’affair Dreyfus from beginning to end.”
—Steven Lubet, The Green Bag

The Review of Politics - Thomas Kselman
"Commendable for its narrative clarity."—Thomas Kselman, The Review of Politics
The Canadian Jewish News - Sheldon Kirshner
"Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters skillfully analyzes the forces that . . . divided a nation in a spectacular historical drama."—Sheldon Kirshner, The Canadian Jewish News
New York Times - Ruth Scurr
"Begley's own contribution to dispelling silence and indifference consists in deftly retelling the story of the Dreyfus Affair and explicitly connecting it to our times. . . . The Dreyfus Affair will continue to matter as long as there are those prepared to defend human rights and the dignity of every human life against claims of expediency, reasons of state and official miscarriages of justice."—Ruth Scurr, The New York Times
Foreign Affairs - Andrew Moravcsik
"In thousands of political battles—including those over the Iraq war—Western publics have relived the Dreyfus Affair ever since."—Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs
The Jewish Chronicle - Natasha Lehrer
"...a brilliant work of historical storytelling, reminding us to what extent the drama is in the detail." — The Jewish Chronicle
Journal of International Law and Politics
"Begley is a brilliant choice...And he has written a brilliant book, using a lawyer's skill to marshal the facts and a novelist's art to relate them. The result is a history that drives the reader forward and occasionally steals his breath." - Journal of International Law and Politics
Economist
“As a primer on the affair, this is a first-rate narrative and a heartfelt plea to modern democracies to stick to their values and defend basic liberties, however threatened they feel.” — The Economist
New Yorker
Selected as a Favorite Book of the Year, The New Yorker
Foreign Affairs

"In thousands of political battles—including those over the Iraq war—Western publics have relived the Dreyfus Affair ever since."—Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs

— Andrew Moravcsik

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300125320
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/22/2009
  • Series: Why X Matters Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Louis Begley

Louis Begley is a bestselling novelist and a lawyer who retired after a 45-year career as partner in a prominent law firm. His fiction includes Wartime Lies, About Schmidt, and Matters of Honor.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xv

1 "If they haven't been ordered to convict him, he will be acquitted this evening" 1

2 "The past is never dead" 47

3 "What do you care if that Jew stays on Devil's Island?" 83

4 "The truth marches on and nothing will stop it" 125

5 "Dreyfus was rehabilitated, Picquart became minister of war, and nobody said boo" 187

Cast of Characters 205

Chronology 215

Notes 229

Index 239

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 9, 2010

    The Dreyfuss Affair

    Louis Begley's brief, but stimulating review of the events surrounding The Dreyfus Affair, is a remarkable reading experience.
    I came away with two questions:
    1) Why did it take 12 years for Dreyfuss to be exonerated of a crime he did not commit and that most people in France believed he did not commit
    2) Could we not learn from this experience that disregarding simple fairness in a society that prizes fairness under the law?

    Louis Begley informs us that there was such a high degree of protection of the honor of the French military, that everything was done - not to protect or exhibit fairness to Dreyfuss - but to protect the honor of the French military.
    And we did not learn from this experience, as Begley suggests that the George Bush administration treated Muslim's after 9/11 no better than the Jews were treated at the end of 19th centry.
    Of great interest, at the end of the book is the analysis by Begley as to the impact the Dreyfus Affair had the literature of 19th - early 20th centry French literature.
    Besides being a gifted writer, Begley is a professionl lawyer. The intricacies of the legal issues surrounding the case become even more enlightening as a result of Begley's command of this material

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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