by Louis Begley
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 249 .
Chron, notes, index. $24.00. ISBN: 0300125321
In Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, German-born Americannovelist (About Schmidt, etc.), businessman, and attorney Begley not only gives us a modern account of the "Dreyfus Affair," but also attempts uses the notorious incident to remind us that of how well-intentioned leaders can quickly plunge their nations into deception, dishonor, and scandal.
The story of Alfred Dreyfus, once an international cause celebre, is today fairly well known and hardly controversial. Evidence having turned up that an officer on the French General Staff was a spy for Germany, certain senior personnel became convinced it was Dreyfus, despite any real evidence beyond the fact that he was Jewish. So documents were fabricated, civil rights abridged, court martial procedures short-circuited, to insure that Dreyfus was convicted, expelled from the Army, and imprisoned in Guiana. As the fabrications became public, rather than admit that there were some rotten apples in the French Army, most officers and political leaders chose to "protect the honor" of France, leading to an increasingly acrimonious public scandal. In the end, Dreyfus was vindicated, but the political rifts created by the affair rankled for the remainder of the time of the Third Republic. This is all very well told, as Begley makes use of the most recent scholarship on the affair.
Begley then goes on to draw lessons from the affair, noting similarities between the events in France around the turn of the twentieth century and such scandals as Watergate, the Wilson-Plame Affair, and so forth. Here he falters, because he draws upon only one side of the political spectrum for his examples of cover-ups and similar misconduct by those in high places. Nor does he address the over-reaction by the triumphant pro-Dreyfus faction in France (the "Drefusards") that led to purges of conservative but otherwise totally innocent officers in the French Army in the first years of the new century, leading to further scandal during the "Affairs des fiches."
Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is worth reading, but precisely because the affair does matter, it's also worth doing so while keeping in mind the author's political agenda.