The story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus has long had an iconic status, evoked with the expectation that everyone knows and appreciates its weighty implications. Léon Blum, writing about it in 1935, likened the battles over Dreyfus to the fascist challenge to the Republic immediately before the Popular Front of 1936. A decade later, the aged monarchist writer Charles Maurras, sentenced by a French court to life imprisonment for collaborating with the Germans, protested, “It is the revenge of Dreyfus!”. Behind these mythologies, the story of the real Dreyfus has an agreed core. A patriotic Jewish officer of the French general staff, Dreyfus was arrested in 1894 on trumped-up charges of selling military secrets to the Germans. He then faced a secret court martial, a humiliating ceremony of military degradation and a cruel deportation to Devil’s Island, off the shores of French Guiana, where he rotted away for over four years, suffering horribly while his supporters gradually organized to review his conviction, eventually securing his reinstatement. Historians frequently distinguish between the detailed account of this story – the Dreyfus case – and the broader Dreyfus Affair: the conflict over the convicted traitor that divided France; the mobilization both for and against revision of the original judgment; and disputes about the deeper implications, both for France at the time and subsequently, for the history of Jews in the post-emancipation period; and for the continuing struggle for civil rights wherever innocent people face the overweening power of the State.
more from Michael R. Marrus at the TLS here.