Sunday, 15 September 2013

One of the most shameful episodes in French history in The Dreyfus Affair

From The Week of September 9th, 2013

There can be no doubt that the concept of the nation state has been a net benefit to humanity. It organizes disparate populations, it implements a standard of law and personal conduct that fosters communities, and it ignites the twin fires of enlightenment and industry that are the engine of progress. However, no matter how long the nation state abides, it will forever be plagued by an unreconcilable conflict of interests that is sure to eventually doom it. For the nation state requires individuals to believe in a collective idea, an artificial construct of borders and traditions that, as time advances, as its honor, its past, and its values become ingrained in generations, its adherents will increasingly strive to protect. And given that national power is accrued at the expense of individual power, eventually, the rights of the individual will become completely subject to the whims and the needs of the state, requiring revolution and upheaval to reset the balance. This lesson is made exquisitely clear in Piers Paul Read's excellent work.

In 1894, France found itself embroiled in a scandal that, with the benefit of hindsight, seems fitting for its troubled nineteenth century. For these hundred years were, for this proud nation, some of the most turbulent in its history. Continental wars, political crises and social upheaval all had their violent moments in the sun, requiring the French people to continually adjust themselves to ever-changing circumstances. But while most of these conflicts were instigated by external provocations or internal ambitions, the Dreyfus Affair was a trauma that bubbled up from a most unexpected and well-regarded source, the grand French army.

A relatively well-off French Jew, Alfred Dreyfus was a difficult man to like. A serious officer who had attained the honorable rank of captain, he appears to have had little regard for what others thought of him, a disposition no doubt accentuated by the fact that he earned, as a result of his family's extensive holdings, a pension far in excess of the wage of most of his comrades. However, no matter his social shortcomings, he seems to have been an honorable member of an honored institution, making it all the more shocking when, in 1894, he was accused of treason.

Still smarting from defeats in the Franco-Prussian war, French relations with Imperial Germany were uneasy at best. So when evidence arose, of classified French-Army documents being passed to the Germans, an investigation was feverishly launched to find the perpetrator. Suspicion immediately fell upon Dreyfus who, despite the case against him being weak-unto-nonexistent, was hurriedly convicted, court marshalled and sent to rot in a hellish French penal colony. This injustice inspired a five-year campaign, spearheaded by his wife, his family, and certain honorable members of the Army high command, to exonerate him, an effort that was ultimately successful, though, not before damages to health, to career and to reputation were done to Dreyfus, to his allies, and to France itself, damages that would leave scars well into the next century.

A riveting tale of betrayal and determination, The Dreyfus Affair is first-rate micro-history. Drawing upon the documents from Dreyfus' two military trials, as well as the victim's personal correspondence, Mr. Read has fashioned an arresting work of injustice and dishonor that not only explicates this 120-year-old crime, but rightfully elevates it into a parable for humanity. All of the players in this repugnant incident are given life and form. Moreover, the reader is made to understand both the agonies of the wrongfully accused and the torments of solitary confinement in ways that will linger for some time. All of these virtues do merit to the memory of a shamefully persecuted man.

The Dreyfus Affair is a complex work that is at its best when speaking to the shortcomings of humanity, in general, and French culture, in particular. The men and women who fought righteously for Dreyfus are inspiring. For these ranks were not merely made up of a family that would naturally be expected to defend him. Officers, novelists and politicians all rallied to Dreyfus' cause. And while it's too much to expect that they did so without any sort of personal agenda, it's clear that their motives were pure in a manner that does honor to the French character. However, on the other side of the ledger lies some of the most shameful conduct imaginable. The strong skein of anti-Semitism that ran through French society at this time is made eminently and revoltingly clear. Moreover, the willingness of the Army's high command to blithely let Dreyfus rot even long after they learned that the case against him was nonexistent is nothing short of the definition of selfishness. For these men put the health of the state and the honor of the army ahead of the truth and, in doing so, consciously protected a "pure French" traitor while condemning the innocent "French Jew." The state over the individual, concealing a crime to shield the honor of institutions... It does not get more convenient, nor more despicable.

An absolute must-read that transcends time and place and speaks to political and philosophical conflicts as real today as they were in the nineteenth century... Excellent work... (4/5 Stars)

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