The Drey­fus Affair: The Scan­dal That Tore France in Two

Piers Paul Read
  • Review
By – April 3, 2012

As the author read­i­ly admits in his pref­ace, the Drey­fus Affair has been stud­ied and dis­sect­ed numer­ous times, spawn­ing hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of books. Piers Paul Read adds his con­tri­bu­tion to this embar­rass­ment of rich­es with a detailed, lucid account of a moment in his­to­ry that can be dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend.

In order to sit­u­ate read­ers in the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al realm of France in the 1890s, Read begins with the events of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. He traces a cen­tu­ry of con­flict between the pro­po­nents of sec­u­lar­ism and the divest­ment of reli­gion from the pub­lic are­na, ver­sus the defend­ers of Catholi­cism and its place in French pol­i­tics and soci­ety. Then, step by step, Read fol­lows the events lead­ing up to Dreyfus’s arrest, court mar­tial, and incar­cer­a­tion, point­ing out all of the small moments of deci­sion where his­to­ry might have tak­en a dif­fer­ent turn. As the ini­tial mis­car­riage of jus­tice mush­rooms and metas­ta­sizes into the Drey­fus Affair, Read is a sure and steady guide, pro­vid­ing vivid accounts of all of the char­ac­ters, their back­grounds, their roles, and their motives.

With Read’s close atten­tion to detail, fol­low­ing the numer­ous pro­tag­o­nists of the Affair to their graves, there is one curi­ous omis­sion. While he men­tions, in pass­ing, Emile Zola’s death by car­bon monox­ide asphyx­i­a­tion in 1902, he does not dis­cuss Zola’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished nov­el, Truth, which was a thin­ly veiled recount­ing of Drey­fus’ ordeal. Apart from this minor over­sight, Read’s book is a clear, infor­ma­tive, and read­able con­tri­bu­tion to the field.

Sara Lib­by Robin­son received her Ph.D. in Com­par­a­tive His­to­ry from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. Her forth­com­ing book, Blood Will Tell: Vam­pires as Polit­i­cal Metaphors Before World War I, is sched­uled for pub­li­ca­tion with Aca­d­e­m­ic Stud­ies Press.

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