The Dreyfus Affair: A century-old controversy resonates today

Why the publishing business is suddenly hot for a 19th-century scandal
Jacqueline Swartz
Mary Evans Picture Library/CP/ Apic/Getty Images

Though his story is more than a century old, Alfred Dreyfus, the protagonist of the Dreyfus Affair, the greatest cause célèbre in French history, is experiencing something of a resurgence. In a time of rampant anti-Semitism, the French captain— an Alsatian Jew—was falsely convicted of espionage and sent to the hellhole of Devil’s Island for five years. He was released in 1899, granted a full exoneration in 1906, and fought in the First World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. But for decades after his death in 1935, little was said about his ordeal. “People didn’t want to discuss it,” says Charles Dreyfus, Alfred’s grandson. “It was not a glorious part of French history.”

But recently, several authors have taken a stab at this sordid tale of military cover-ups and the incarceration of an innocent person. Last year, Louis Begley released Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, arguing that the travesty of justice has lessons for the U.S. in the post-9/11 era. (Charles found the book interesting, and sympathetic, “although a bit of a stretch.”) Other books, which have hit the shelves more recently, include For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, by Frederick Brown, and Oxford historian Ruth Harris’s Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century. And earlier this month, the Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor published A Man in Uniform, a fictional take.

Though he isn’t writing a book on the topic himself, Charles, a gentlemanly and eloquent 83-year-old living in Paris, remains very active in preserving the memory of his grandfather. He is the vice-president of an association currently raising funds to build the Maison Zola-Musée Dreyfus—the world’s first Dreyfus museum—in Médan, France. He has also delivered speeches about the scandal at conferences and at the French supreme court. And when, a few years ago, U.S. Jewish groups called for a boycott of the Cannes film festival as a way of protesting French anti-Semitism and invoked the Dreyfus name, Charles sent the groups an email with his own protest. “In France today, you don’t see traditional anti-Semitism,” he says.
“What you do see is an extension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I certainly don’t feel threatened here.”

Charles welcomes all the attention being paid to his grandfather’s story, but admits to being a bit unsure as to why the affair has suddenly become a hot topic. French historian and Dreyfus specialist Vincent Duclert has a theory: in the post-George W. Bush era, he says, there has been an “Americanization” of the Dreyfus Affair. “The Dreyfus Affair is now read by Americans as a test of their own Bill of Rights,” says Duclert. “It invites questions of law, of justice.” Some have said the ghost of Devil’s Island lives in Guantánamo.

Duclert described his own book, Alfred Dreyfus: L’honneur d’un patriote, a 1,200-page tome published in 2006, as the most exhaustively detailed life of Alfred Dreyfus. It makes the case for Dreyfus as more than a victim—a hero. The author is hoping it will be translated into English soon. Though he knows Duclert and approves of his book, Charles is appealing for brevity: “Who is going to read a 1,200-page book?” Considering all the new titles out there on the topic, book publishers seem to think all kinds of people.