Storm in a Wastepaper Basket

By Massie, Allan | The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Storm in a Wastepaper Basket


Massie, Allan, The Spectator


The Dreyfus Affair by Piers Paul Read Bloomsbury, £25, pp. 408, ISBN 9781408801390 'It's the revenge of Dreyfus, ' came the cry from the dock. The speaker was the veteran right-wing ideologue, Charles Maurras, found guilty of treason in 1945 for his support of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

It wasn't of course that, and yet there is a sense in which Maurras spoke the truth.

The Dreyfus case had divided France half a century before Maurras was put on trial in Lyon. The division between what Piers Paul Read, in this masterly and eminently balanced account of the Affair, calls 'the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire' had never been closed. The end of the Third Republic and its replacement by Vichy's 'Etat Francais' in 1940 represented the victory of the anti-Dreyfusards.

The anti-clerical Republic with its roots in the great Revolution of 1789 gave way to a regime that was Catholic, monarchical, militarist and nationalist, hostile to Jews, Freemasons, Protestants, socialists, communists and anti-clericals. .

The Affair itself, complicated and often confusing in its course, was simple in essence. A French agent, working as a cleaner in the German embassy in Paris, retrieved a paper - the famous 'bordereau' - from a wastepaper basket and handed it to her controller. Clearly a French officer was passing information. Suspicion fell almost at once on Captain Dreyfus. There was no good evidence - virtually no evidence at all - against him. But he was an outsider: a rich Alsatian Jew, who still had family in Alsace, annexed by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

Anti-Semitic feeling was strong in late-19th-century France - Jews and French Protestants controlled most of the banks. Yet, as Read points out, there were other Jewish officers in the Army, and by no means all Dreyfus's accusers were anti-Semitic. (Paradoxically, the officer, Colonel Picquart, who would be Dreyfus's chief defender in the Army, and who would ruin his own career by exposing the injustice done to him, was himself antiSemitic. ) Dreyfus was unpopular with his colleagues, certainly, but as much because he was taciturn and gave the impression of thinking himself superior, as because he was Jewish. If he had been of a different temperament he might never have fallen under suspicion. Later, when he became the celebrated victim, he disappointed many of his supporters by his self-control and continuing respect for the Army.

Despite the absence of evidence he was court-martialled, dishonoured and imprisoned on Devil's Island. Family and friends worked to clear him. Documents still kept disappearing and finding their way to the Germany embassy. Clearly there was another spy. He was Major Charles Walsin Esterhazy, a heavily indebted man-about town.

The Army chiefs, however, continued to maintain that Dreyfus was guilty. They feared that to admit the miscarriage of justice would bring discredit on the Army. …

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