Why The Drey­fus Affair Matters

Louis Beg­ley
  • Review
By – September 9, 2011

His­to­ry remem­bers Cap­tain Alfred Drey­fus as a vic­tim of French anti-Semi­tism who was con­vict­ed of espi­onage he did not com­mit, and exon­er­at­ed thanks to the pas­sion­ate sup­port of the nov­el­ist Emile Zola. Louis Beg­ley insists that the lessons of the Drey­fus Affair, beyond the par­tic­u­lars of the his­tor­i­cal episode, extend to abus­es of pow­er and anti-Jew­ish behav­ior at large today.

In the spare lan­guage of his nov­els, Beg­ley builds a dev­as­tat­ing case against the con­spir­a­tors who know­ing­ly per­vert­ed the jus­tice sys­tem as they made Drey­fus a scape­goat. Then he goes on to draw a straight line from the anti-Semi­tism of the Catholic Church and the French mil­i­tary in the 1890’s down to the present. 

The French Jews, he writes, nonethe­less had a ten­den­cy to min­i­mize the impor­tance of anti-Semi­tism, remain pas­sive, and avoid speak­ing out against out­ra­geous behav­ior. …Eman­ci­pat­ed Jews had fall­en in love with the good news that they could be like oth­er peo­ple, [but] oth­er peo­ple’ did not want Jews to be like them. They want­ed Jews out of the way.” 

Beg­ley, writ­ing in 2008, was struck by the par­al­lels between the stan­dard oper­at­ing pro­ce­dures for the Guan­tá­namo prison camp and the instruc­tions for the admin­is­tra­tion of Devil’s Island, where Drey­fus suf­fered soli­tary con­fine­ment under hor­ri­ble con­di­tions for some four years. He asks whether each suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tion will have its own Zolas, ready to defend human rights…against abuse wrapped in claims of expe­di­en­cy and rea­sons of state.” Begley’s riv­et­ing details and unremit­ting pas­sion make this book a wor­thy suc­ces­sor to J’accuse. Cast of char­ac­ters, chronol­o­gy, index, notes.

Discussion Questions