skip to Main Content

Book Review: Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

This install­ment in our ongo­ing series of book reviews takes on Why the Drey­fus Affair Mat­ters by lawyer/novelist Louis Beg­ley.  Hugh Murtaugh’s com­pli­men­ta­ry review of Begley’s work inter­twines the Drey­fus and the Guan­tanamo nar­ra­tives.  Both Beg­ley and this review­er con­clude with the same lament from Proust: “As for ask­ing one­self about its val­ue, not one thought of it now .… It was no longer shock­ing. That was all that was required.”

By Hugh K. Murtagh

The sto­ry of Guan­tanamo Bay is not over. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma will not be able to shut­ter the island prison until at least 2011, and then only by mov­ing the remain­ing detainees to a state­side facil­i­ty. Time pass­es, details emerge: the “Camp Delta Stan­dard Oper­at­ing Pro­ce­dures” find their way onto the inter­net; a mil­i­tary judge will not allow the pros­e­cu­tion of a ter­ror­ist leader because he has been so bad­ly abused; Sami al-Hajj, the al-Jazeera jour­nal­ist held for years on chang­ing unsub­stan­ti­at­ed charges, is final­ly released to Sudan, with his diaries.

There are more chap­ters to be writ­ten, and per­haps the worst are yet to come. If his­to­ry is any guide, in fact, this is almost cer­tain­ly true. A hun­dred years ago, anoth­er country—reeling from a debil­i­tat­ing attack, recom­mit­ted to its mil­i­tary, and rent by racism—treated a pris­on­er almost exact­ly as the Unit­ed States has treat­ed the Guan­tanamo detainees. The result was a decade-long scan­dal that con­vulsed the nation—and por­tend­ed a continent’s dark­est days. The coun­try was France; the pris­on­er was Alfred Drey­fus. The cau­tion­ary tale of The Drey­fus Affair deserves an impor­tant place in our cur­rent polit­i­cal and legal mem­o­ry.

In Why the Drey­fus Affair Mat­ters, Louis Beg­ley brings us the sto­ry of the Affair. Beg­ley is a bril­liant choice for this exam­i­na­tion, the lat­est in the “Why X Mat­ters” series from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Beg­ley is an expe­ri­enced lawyer (he retired in 2004 after 45 years at Debevoise Plimp­ton) and an acclaimed nov­el­ist (About Schmidt, The Man Who Was Late). 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.

What star­tles here is not just the sto­ry itself but how clear­ly the sto­ry evokes Guan­tanamo Bay. In 1894, the French army accused a Jew­ish offi­cer of trea­son, on the basis of thin evi­dence leav­ened by anti-Semi­tism. He was tried before a closed mil­i­tary tri­bunal and ulti­mate­ly con­vict­ed on the strength of a secret dossier of hearsay and altered doc­u­ments sub­mit­ted to the judges and hid­den from the defense. He was sen­tenced to life in exile. The pun­ish­ment should have been trans­porta­tion to New Cale­do­nia, the usu­al home of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, where Drey­fus might have lived in rel­a­tive free­dom with his fam­i­ly. How­ev­er, France passed a spe­cial law, with Drey­fus in mind, that enabled Drey­fus to be sent to Devil’s Island, a malar­i­al rock­pile off the coast of French Guinea, and there impris­oned alone in a small cell watched over by guards for­bid­den to speak to the pris­on­er.

As Beg­ley notes, Guan­tanamo Bay jumps “irre­sistibly” to mind, as do the Bush administration’s attempts to restrict judi­cial review of charges against ene­my com­bat­ants. Just as in the ini­tial tri­al of Drey­fus, the Com­bat­ant Sta­tus Review Tri­bunals (CSRTs), estab­lished grudg­ing­ly by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion in 2004, were closed mil­i­tary tri­bunals where hearsay and oth­er ques­tion­able evi­dence was admis­si­ble, and the pros­e­cu­tor could offer evi­dence to the judges with­out reveal­ing it to the defense. How­ev­er, the Supreme Court repeat­ed­ly heard chal­lenges from the detainees and reject­ed the Bush administration’s attempts to put Guan­tanamo beyond mean­ing­ful judi­cial review. And although Beg­ley sug­gests this echoes the actions of the equiv­a­lent French court, the Cour de Cas­sa­tion, a clos­er exam­i­na­tion sug­gests it does not: polit­i­cal and pro­ce­dur­al hur­dles delayed and dimin­ished the  inter­ven­tion of the Cour de Cas­sa­tion in the case of Drey­fus. (Most notably, a request for review had to come from the gov­ern­ment.) The avail­abil­i­ty of U.S. courts to Guan­tanamo detainees seems a true and pos­i­tive dis­tinc­tion from the Drey­fus Affair.

But the inter­ven­tions of the U.S. Supreme Court erase nei­ther the wrongs of Guan­tanamo nor the anal­o­gy to the Drey­fus Affair. In fact, exam­in­ing the larg­er forces behind the Drey­fus Affair, as Beg­ley does after estab­lish­ing the par­tic­u­lar par­al­lels, tends to deep­en the sim­i­lar­i­ty. Beg­ley sees two larg­er forces at work in the Affair, both clear­ly rel­e­vant to the Unit­ed States and Guan­tanamo Bay: nation­al secu­ri­ty and racism. As to the for­mer, France suf­fered a seri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal blow when it lost the Fran­co-Pruss­ian War in 1871. There­after, it recom­mit­ted to its mil­i­tary, and by the 1890’s, with French soci­ety beset by internecine con­flicts, the army had become the “ulti­mate source of nation­al sta­bil­i­ty and pride.” Dur­ing the Drey­fus Affair, the army was able to insu­late itself behind its pop­u­lar sup­port and to invoke the imper­a­tive of nation­al secu­ri­ty when chal­lenged. As a result, it was able to car­ry out abus­es of pow­er and out­right crimes: cre­at­ing a secret dossier, hound­ing a whistle­blow­er from the army and accus­ing him of trea­son, shield­ing the true trai­tor, forg­ing doc­u­ments, and sub­orn­ing mil­i­tary judges.

But why do it? Part of the answer is sim­ply that lit­tle wrongs beget greater ones. But then why begin? Here, Beg­ley points to racism. Drey­fus was an avail­able, even an attrac­tive, tar­get, because he was Jewish—the only Jew­ish offi­cer on the elite Gen­er­al Staff. Not only was he an “oth­er,” but his oth­er­ness could absorb the stain of trea­son, leav­ing the French army clean. And anti-Semi­tism was not lim­it­ed to the army’s senior staff: it infect­ed the whole of French soci­ety. Although (or per­haps because) Jews enjoyed full cit­i­zen­ship in France—a mea­sure of equal­i­ty absent else­where in Europe—and suc­cess in every area of life, they were the tar­gets of vir­u­lent racism. This racism was potent even before Drey­fus was wrong­ly con­demned, but his con­dem­na­tion, and the tire­less  cam­paign­ing of his sup­port­ers, sped it and spread it, until it was pan­dem­ic and dead­ly.

The force and extent of this racism seems, at first blush, inap­po­site to the Unit­ed States today, while the nation­al secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion seems quite famil­iar. Beg­ley, for his part, light­ly notes both par­al­lels but leaves the read­er to pon­der their extent and mean­ing. Sure­ly both are rel­e­vant. The nation­al-secu­ri­ty par­al­lel between post-9/11 Amer­i­ca and fin-de-siè­cle France is inescapable and its impli­ca­tions are rather obvi­ous: if Amer­i­ca has grant­ed its mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment the pow­er and lat­i­tude of the French army, more out­ra­geous mis­con­duct may await dis­cov­ery. The racism par­al­lel fits less easily—there is no per­va­sive, sus­tained, pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic attack on Arab- or Mus­lim-Amer­i­cans in the Unit­ed States—but it arguably demands more atten­tion. If Amer­i­cans have not encour­aged the abus­es at Guan­tanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and else­where, we have accept­ed them rather qui­et­ly, along with two dev­as­tat­ing, open-end­ed wars in Mus­lim coun­tries. Again, Beg­ley does not press the point—he sim­ply traces France’s uncor­rect­ed anti-Semi­tism to its ter­ri­ble con­clu­sion.

With this back­ground in place, Beg­ley delves into the byzan­tine, 10-year-long saga that result­ed in the exon­er­a­tion of Alfred Drey­fus. This com­pris­es the bulk of the slim vol­ume, and two things are worth not­ing about it. First, Begley’s retelling is mas­ter­ful. It is effi­cient, com­plete, and riv­et­ing, and it weaves soci­etal, insti­tu­tion­al, and indi­vid­ual forces togeth­er seam­less­ly into a sin­gle nar­ra­tive. Sec­ond, despite this nar­ra­tive bal­ance, one fac­tor stands out from the oth­ers: the pow­er of indi­vid­u­als to force change. Although the Drey­fus Affair even­tu­al­ly con­sumed France, drew inter­na­tion­al atten­tion, and revealed tears in the Euro­pean continent’s social fab­ric, it began as the pri­vate cause of a lone­ly few. Lucie, Dreyfus’s wife, and Math­ieu, his broth­er, devot­ed their lives to the cause; Zola, the writer, and Pic­quart, the whistle­blow­er, risked their careers and their free­dom. With­out their actions, there would be no Drey­fus Affair. Togeth­er, they were able to uncov­er the con­spir­a­cy against Drey­fus, to dis­cov­er the true trai­tor, to force a tri­al of that trai­tor (a sham, as it turned out), a mil­i­tary retri­al of Drey­fus (also a sham in the end), a par­don after the retri­al defeat, and even­tu­al­ly a full exon­er­a­tion by the Cour de Cas­sa­tion.

There is true hero­ism here, and one won­ders if there is a U.S. par­al­lel for this as well. Beg­ley thinks so. He points to “jour­nal­ists ded­i­cat­ed to expos­ing the abus­es of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, mem­bers of the judi­cia­ry … mil­i­tary lawyers who have put their careers at risk … and civil­ian lawyers and law pro­fes­sors of all ages who have devot­ed thou­sands of hours with­out pay as legal defend­ers of Guan­tanamo detainees.” And this sounds right. In the Unit­ed States, per­haps there have been Zolas and Pic­quarts for detainees with­out a Lucie or a Math­ieu. If that is so, per­haps the U.S. will resolve the Guan­tanamo affair as France resolved the Drey­fus Affair.

But as Begley’s con­clu­sion sug­gests, that would still be a fail­ure. Beg­ley briefly can­vass­es the lit­er­a­ture that fol­lowed the Affair—looking to Zola, Ana­tole France, Proust—for the effects of the Affair. He finds the sto­ry rarely told and nev­er appre­ci­at­ed. Proust makes the most exten­sive use of the Affair, in A la recherche du temps per­du, but his nar­ra­tor con­cludes that the Affair was for­got­ten even before it had tru­ly end­ed: “As for ask­ing one­self about its val­ue, not one thought of it now .… It was no longer shock­ing. That was all that was required.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the Drey­fus Affair mat­ters for Beg­ley because it was for­got­ten. That is why it recurred. But here there is a chance to end the par­al­lels. The sto­ry of Guan­tanamo Bay is not yet over, nor for­got­ten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Back To Top