The Man on Devil’s Island

Malcolm Crook looks at a notorious miscarriage of justice that rocked France in the 1890s

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Reviewed by: Malcolm Crook
Author: Ruth Harris
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30

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At the turn of the 20th century the controversial case of Alfred Dreyfus was resonating around the globe. This French artillery officer of Jewish descent had been wrongly convicted of passing intelligence to the Germans and cruelly imprisoned on a tropical island off the coast of South America. Though the miscarriage of justice was eventually rectified, L’Affaire Dreyfus remained deeply divisive and its centenary prompted fresh outrage, notably a violent spat in the French Chamber of Deputies.

The original events, which spanned a decade and involved perjury, forgeries, suicides, assassination attempts and projected coups d’état, did not simply concern the fate of a single individual but the national honour of France itself. As a result, political, military, religious and racial tensions smouldering under the Third Republic were set ablaze. In view of the acres of print devoted to the affair, both at the time and ever since, one might ask if there is anything new to be said on the subject: Ruth Harris’s substantial and scholarly book provides a richly rewarding affirmative response.

With the aid of copious illustrations, helpful chronology and a list of leading characters, she offers a compelling account of successive incidents from 1894, when a charwoman retrieved incriminating evidence from a waste bin at the German embassy in Paris, to 1906 when Dreyfus was finally exonerated. However, her outstanding contribution, which rests on extensive research, is to explore the motivations, mentalities and networks of numerous soldiers, politicians and intellectuals who became embroiled on either side of the affair. Prominent figures such as Emile Zola, Jean Jaurès or Maurice Barrès are discussed at length, but so are lesser players like the zealous Jesuit Stanislas du Lac, the tireless salonnière Marie Arconati-Visconti, or the abbé Joseph Brugerette, deprived of his teaching post for defending Dreyfus.

The absence of any neat polarisation between good and evil, left or right, is brilliantly demonstrated. Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike displayed intolerance, even elements of anti-Semitism, and an eagerness to endorse conspiracy theories. Harris deploys her wide-ranging knowledge of contemporary science and philosophy to explain these contradictions and, above all, as author of a fine study of Lourdes (Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age) she emphasises the pervasive influence of irrational currents swirling around the fin de siècle. The mass press also played a vital role in the intense, impassioned debate that followed Zola’s intervention in 1898 and a veritable ‘media circus’ accompanied the farcical retrial of 1899, which confirmed Dreyfus’s guilt. A presidential pardon would subsequently split his supporters, some of whom wished to continue the struggle and were bitterly disappointed in their unprepossessing hero.

There is understandably little space to devote to the aftermath of the affair and its relevance to the later course of French history. However, Harris does conclude with a pertinent reminder of the recent furore in France over Muslim ‘headscarves’, which has unleashed disturbing passions and unlikely alliances reminiscent of the late 1890s. The secular, indivisible Republic still has demons to exorcise.

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Malcolm Crook is professor of French history at Keele University