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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.

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