When the passage of time might be expected to have washed away memories, this is only one of several recent books keeping alive "The Dreyfus Affair" in which a Jewish captain was found guilty of espionage in 1894 at an inept and corrupt court martial. Not only is truth stranger than fiction here, but it exposes the deep rift between on one hand the Catholics, bitter over past persecution by the French revolutionaries, yet still considered too influential in education and the army, and on the other hand the secular republicans, often seen as in league with a "syndicate" of wealthy Jews following their "liberation" by the French National Assembly in 1791.
So keen is the author to set the scene that we do not hear much about Dreyfus until Chapter 5. Although leavened with many fascinating details, such as the twisted sense of honour of the military men who arrested Dreyfus, leaving a gun loaded with a single bullet in reach as a hint for him to "do the right thing", this deeply researched study makes exhausting reading at times. This is due partly to the large number of characters with long complicated names, often in inverse length to their importance, also to the author's inability to resist distracting us with facts about them, even if marginal to the main theme.
1890s Paris is presented as a kind of Ruritania with leading figures swapping mistresses, indulging in duels, and accepting bribes to conceal embarrassing facts like the bankruptcy of the Panama Canal Company. Just as expenses scandals at Westminster are made to seem small beer, the excesses of our media pale into significance compared to the bilious anti-semitic outpourings from the pens of "respected" Catholic journalists. There are fascinating parallels with today: Dreyfus was convicted at one stage by a "dodgy dossier"; the need to protect national security was made a reason for not producing vital evidence which was shown, if at all, to the prosecution but not the defence; those who knew or came to believe that Dreyfus was innocent felt that establishing this was less important than maintaining the reputation of the army, whose senior staff had mistreated him. The recent controversy over the French striker Anelka's use of the "quenelle" or reverse nazi salute favoured by his friend the comedian Dieudonné show that the issues surrounding Dreyfus retain their substance, in a different form.
The books succeeds on both a broad historical and personal level. For the sake of his health and his family, did Dreyfus have any option but to accept a pardon even if it implied admission of guilt? Sadly, this capitulation divided his supporters, some to the extent of becoming estranged from him and each other. The final sad irony is the fate that met his loyal wife after his death: to spend her final years hiding from the Nazis in, of all things, a convent.