This blog is supposed to be devoted to issues related to the Great Depression and people making use of parallels between our current affairs and the Depression. I set out to do this because I've done lots of research into the Depression and actually know something about it. But the Depression is not the only thing I've done research into and know something about. I used to be a historian of modern France and for many years did my research in libraries and archives in France. The Depression isn't the only subject abused lately by people who don't know very much about it. Another topic that too often crops up as a metaphor for contemporary events and, thus, continues to attract crowds of commentators who know little about it is the Dreyfus Affair.
I saw a prime example when my brother sent me a review of Louis Begley's "Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters" printed in the New Yorker last fall. The review was by a writer named Adam Gopnik, about whom I know nothing. I have not and do not plan to read the book by Begley, who is evidently a novelist and lawyer greatly exercised by the prisoners at Guantanamo. We may very well share similar views about the prison at Guantanamo and the rights of its prisoners, but I doubt we would agree much about the Dreyfus Affair.
I don't know if Gopnik is getting his misinformation about France and the Dreyfus Affair from Begley's book, but before running such a review somebody at the New Yorker should have done a bit of fact checking. I'll start with Gopnik's assertion that after the defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1871 the French Republic changed its laws to make officer recruitment and promotions more meritocratic, democratic and less aristocratic. In fact it was exactly the opposite: the lesson that the Republicans drew from their defeat was the method of promotions from the ranks introduced by Napoleon I during his Empire and retained by French kings afterward guaranteed an army of amateurs led by poorly educated peasants. Exhibit A in this argument was General Francois Bazaine, whose gross incompetence (and supposed treachery) cost France here mightiest fortress at Metz and surrendered an entire French army into German imprisonment. The French resolved to build a professional officer corps--modeled after the Prussians'--from "the very best" French schools had to offer. This meant that officer candidates were drawn not from the ranks educated in village elementary schools across France, but from a small number of elite and expensive--mostly Catholic--institutions favored by the aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie. As the reforms took hold the profile of French officers assumed an increasingly aristocratic and Catholic profile. See: Raoul Girdardet, La Société militaire de 1815 à nos jour (Plon, Paris, 1953) who explains it all.
Gopnik is right on several points: the persistence of Mathieu Dreyfus, brother of the wrongly convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus, kept the Dreyfus case alive and in the public realm and thus deserves credit for his brother's ultimate vindication; Senator Auguste Schereur-Kestner was an early selfless advocate for Dreyfus who jeopardized his career by championing his cause; Colonel Georges Picquart also endangered his career and his life by repeatedly pushing to have Dreyfus's case reopened. However, the rest of the Dreyfusard gang are rather less saintly and most often jumped on the Dreyfus bandwagon to further their own careers or pet causes that had little to do with the innocent captain languishing on Devil's Island.
When Gopnik writes, "At last, the appeals worked their way to the top of the French courts, and a second Dreyfus court-martial was ordered," he betrays a lack of familiarity with the story. Captain Dreyfus's wife, Lucie, submitted a petition of appeal to the Army immediately upon his conviction in 1894 and it was rejected, leaving a presidential pardon as the only recourse. It was denied. This legal dead end for the Dreyfus family meant that the only way to get Alfred out of prison was to get the laws changed and that meant political action. Thus, the family chose to pursue a political path because there was no judicial path open to them. The resulting politics chaos is what made it an "Affair."
Gopnik then claims "the fix was in" for Dreyfus's second trial--ordered by Prime Minister Rene Waldeck-Rousseau to put an end to agitation in the streets stirred up by the two sides in the Affair. He is repeating the assertion that would have landed Emile Zola in jail in 1898 if he hadn't fled to England after his conviction for libel for unsupportable assertions in his famous article "J'Accuse." Zola had falsely claimed that Dreyfus's judges in his first trial in 1894 were just following orders when they convicted him. Of course they were not, nor were the judges in Rennes who found Dreyfus guilty in his retrial in 1899. They found Dreyfus guilty because they were incompetent judges, not because they had been ordered to.
Throughout Gopnik insists that the Dreyfus Affair pitted "the good guys" on the left against "the bad guys" on the right. That simplistic scheme doesn't work on any level. Many on the left were vehement anti-Dreyfusards, while the politicians who decided to finally end the Affair and saw to its conclusion were no one's idea of leftists: prime Minister Rene Waldeck-Rousseau made his legal career as lawyer for the Comite des Forges--roughly the equivalent to being the head lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers. He could get along with French socialists only because he was no friend of the Catholic Church nor of aristocrats who still dominated "society." The other politician whose conversion to the Dreyfus cause allowed for the revision of the case was Raymond Poincare, who pretty much defined the center of French politics--neither left nor right. Without Poincare and his fellow centrists revision would have been impossible.
But more importantly, "the good guys" were not devoted to justice and rule of law any more than their anti-Dreyfusard opponents. They were happy to see anti- Dreyfusard in chief, Paul Deroulede, dragged into a kangaroo court on trumped up charges of conspiracy and railroaded into exile. Best of all, the prosecution even used a document that had been tampered with by the police to buttress their case. How Paris Police Prefect Louis Lepine was any more of a "good guy" than "bad guy" forger Hubert Henry is hard to see. But people have been seeing things in the Dreyfus Affair that aren't there for over a century now.