A Divided Nation

This is my review of The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France by Ruth Harris.

It is hard to identify a modern event which has had as much impact on society as the trials and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus on what we now believe to be a trumped up espionage charge of relative insignificance. Having read recently Piers Paul Read's very detailed yet clear and moving account of this, from the arrest of Dreyfus in 1894 to his pardon and reinstatement in the army in 1906, I turned to Ruth Harris for a wider analysis of Dreyfusards versus anti-Dreyfusards.

In the promising introduction, Harris emphasises how families were divided by the Dreyfus affair, with people on both sides often holding contradictory and conflicting views about everything except the innocence or guilt of the man at the heart of it all, or at least his right to a retrial or declaration of innocence. The author presents "two Frances" fighting "for the nation's soul": on one hand, the Dreyfusards, mainly republicans, Protestants, or socialists, upholding Truth and Justice in their demands for a retrial versus the anti-Dreyfusards, often Catholic, anti-semitic, with monarchist sympathies, champions of Tradition and Honour, either convinced of the guilt of Dreyfus or prepared to sacrifice him rather than overthrow the ruling of a military court when they were concerned to support and build up the army after the humiliation of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

I do not mind that only brief sections of this book are devoted to Dreyfus himself. I admire the author's depth of research and evident deep knowledge, and perhaps, with 137 pages of notes and bibliography, this is not intended for a general reader. Much as I wanted to get absorbed, I found the reading of this excessively hard going. There is a surfeit of detail in an indigestible form, made worse by a fragmentation of information e.g. on the anti-Dreyfusard Maurice Barrès, and the inclusion of specialist terms with inadequate explanation for a non-expert e.g. page 137 (paperback version) references to revolutionary Blanquists and revanchists from the Ligue de la patrie française. In short, there is a failure to distinguish clear, major points from a morass of over-condensed detail on too many characters and attitudes.

I would like to find another book on this of period of French history, but was forced to the disappointed conclusion that it was not worth the expenditure of time to plough through this, referring to other sources for clarification on the way.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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