Hundreds of books have been written about the Dreyfus Affair. Piers Paul Read’s 2012 The Dreyfus Affair is perhaps a little unusual in that it tries to be as even-handed as possible. Read is a Catholic but this is not really a Catholic account of the affair. On the other hand it is at least not an anti-Catholic account, unlike most books on the subject.
In 1894 French counter-intelligence obtained a letter (stolen from the German Embassy in Paris) which indicated that a French officer was selling military secrets to the Germans. The stolen letter had been written by the spy and it also included details of the secrets involved, which substantially narrowed down the list of suspects. It soon became apparent that the most likely suspect was an Alsatian Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus had access to the documents concerned and the hand-writing on the letter seemed to resemble Dreyfus’s hand-writing rather closely. Dreyfus was arrested after an investigation which was not as thorough as it should have been. The officers involved in the investigation sincerely believed that Dreyfus was guilty but the actual evidence was a little thin. Dreyfus was found guilty by a court-martial and sent to Devil’s Island.
The entire proceedings were characterised by excessive haste, excessive zeal and considerable carelessness. The result would be a controversy that would rock the country for years to come.
France was split into two warring camps, the Dreyfusards (who believed Dreyfus was the victim of a miscarriage of justice) and the Anti-Dreyfusards (who were convinced of his guilt). The Anti-Dreyfusards tended to be fanatical supporters of the Army while the Dreyfusards were more likely to be equally fanatical supporters of the secular Republic.
Of course the issue that has dominated the affair for most historians has been the allegation that Dreyfus was a victim of anti-semitism. This might appear to be quite plausible except that it does not take into account the situation in late 19th century France. French Jews at that time were wealthy and powerful and privileged. It is not very likely that Dreyfus was victimised because he was a Jew – in fact it’s perhaps more likely he was accused in spite of the fact that he was Jewish, it being known that Jews had powerful protectors.
While the accusations against Dreyfus do not appear to have had any anti-semitic component the aggressive tactics of the Dreyfusards, especially after Émile Zola took a break from writing his loathsome degenerate novels to throw himself into the fray, did unleash a real wave of anti-semitism. This was however rather minor stuff compared to the vitriolic anti-Catholic campaign that was to follow.
There was a very great deal of discrimination on the grounds of religious in late 19th century France but it was directly almost entirely at Catholics. Catholics had been persecuted intermittently but brutally since the Revolution. It’s possible that as many as 170,000 Catholics were slaughtered in the Vendée in the 1790s). The Third Republic established in 1870 was fiercely anti-Catholic.
The fact that Anti-Dreyfusards were likely to be Catholics while Dreyfusards were much more likely to be Jews, Protestants or atheists made the Dreyfus Affair a significant event in the religious Cold War of the time.
There was in fact a culture war being waged in France, with the anti-Catholic forces determined to utterly destroy the Catholic religion in France. Unfortunately the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair strengthened their hand and the result was another round of persecution. The pettiness, the vindictiveness and the viciousness of the French Third republic almost defies belief. All combined with staggering levels of corruption and incompetence. It’s not difficult to understand the modern French enthusiasm for national self-destruction when you consider that the French have been trying to destroy themselves for more than two centuries.
As for the case of Dreyfus himself it seems that he was the victim of the extraordinary incompetence and duplicity of the French intelligence service. The trouble with spies is that they grow so used to deception that they end up lying to everyone, including their own government. The cynicism of self-serving peacetime senior officers concerned purely with protecting their own interests also contributed.
Read’s book is interesting enough as an account of the Dreyfus case itself but it’s much more fascinating as an examination of a fateful and squalid period of French history that has considerable relevance to the culture wars of today. Recommended.