Drey­fus: Pol­i­tics, Emo­tion and the Scan­dal of the Century

Ruth Har­ris
  • Review
By – September 26, 2011

Tak­ing the Drey­fus case as her point of depar­ture, Ruth Har­ris has writ­ten a dev­as­tat­ing book that goes far beyond that issue. 

Alfred Drey­fus was, of course, the French Jew­ish offi­cer who, in 1894, was framed by his army, con­vict­ed of trea­son and con­demned to a bru­tal impris­on­ment on Devil’s Island. High-rank­ing army offi­cers con­spired to forge mass­es of evi­dence to cov­er up for the real cul­prit, one of their own, and to inflame the pub­lic, which respond­ed, against Jews and any­one who ques­tioned our noble army.”

By now, in this long, metic­u­lous­ly researched vol­ume, Har­ris’ argu­ment has emerged. The country’s angry agi­ta­tion stems basi­cal­ly from its defeat by Ger­many in 1870 and its humil­i­at­ing loss of Alsace-Lor­raine. And who was at fault for that dis­as­ter? The eter­nal scape­goat, of course, the Jews.

Deplor­ing the potent lan­guage of hate,” Har­ris asks a trou­ble­some ques­tion: how can a coun­try pre­serve, or, if nec­es­sary, recap­ture civ­i­lized val­ues when jus­tice is per­vert­ed at the high­est lev­els of soci­ety? She quotes one French gen­tle­man: How can we defend democ­ra­cy against them?”

Final­ly, Drey­fus, phys­i­cal­ly bro­ken, was freed and par­doned for the crime he hadn’t com­mit­ted. Rein­stat­ed in the army, he received nei­ther inter­im pay nor pro­mo­tion for time in prison. 

Writ­ten pri­mar­i­ly for a schol­ar­ly audi­ence, this is a thor­ough, seri­ous treat­ment of a pop­u­lar sub­ject. Large libraries and aca­d­e­m­ic shelves will want to car­ry it. Acknowl­edge­ments, bib­li­og­ra­phy, chronology.

Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

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