Dreyfus Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century

Ruth Harris




Trade Paperback

572 Pages



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In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongfully convicted of being a spy for Germany and imprisoned on Devil's Island. Over the following years, attempts to correct this injustice tore France apart, inflicting wounds which have never fully healed, repercussions of which are revealed by Harris in government, society, family, and even literature.

Drawing upon thousands of previously unread and unconsidered sources, prizewinning historian Ruth Harris goes beyond the conventional narrative of truth loving democrats uniting against proto-fascists. Instead, she offers the first in-depth history of both sides in the Affair, showing how complex interlocking influences—tensions within the military, the clashing demands of justice and nationalism, and a tangled web of friendships and family connections—shaped both the coalition working to free Dreyfus and the formidable alliances seeking to protect the reputation of the army that had convicted him. Sweeping and engaging, Dreyfus offers a new understanding of one of the most contested and significant moments in modern history.


Praise for Dreyfus

"An extraordinary study of the affair as a tragic drama that swept up a man, his family and friends, and more widely French society and the French state . . . The strength of Ruth Harris's book is to present the Dreyfus Affair as a human and social drama. Whereas many accounts concentrate on the conspiratorial and public dimensions of the debate, Harris—who has read thousands of the private letters of those involved—moves easily between the public and the private, the intellectual and the emotional . . . She demonstrates that the Dreyfusards were not all apostles of the Enlightenment; neither were all anti-Dreyfusards benighted traditionalists."—Robert Gildea, The New York Review of Books

"The scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair still resonates after more than a century, though it has been blurred for most Americans by time and distance. It is the goal of the Oxford historian Ruth Harris to extricate the story from the myths it has generated, on both the left and the right, and to trace its tortuous evolution from 1894 to 1906 in all of its human complexity. Combining an even-tempered tone with generosity of imagination, she has achieved that goal, charting a steady course through the voluminous literature that the affair inspired and exploring the reactions of scores of soldiers, politicians, journalists, salonnières and ordinary citizens. A helpful Dramatis Personae at the end of the book lists nearly 150 people, all of whom are given substantial treatment during the course of the narrative . . . For the story in depth [readers] should turn to Harris's excellent Dreyfus, which deserves a wide audience for its patient, fair-minded exploration of human ideals, delusions, prejudices, hatreds and follies."—Leo Dambrosch, The New York Times

"In many respects, the Dreyfus Affair remains the founding event of modern politics. Ruth Harris's insightful and fascinating study brings the debate, which riveted France and the world for over ten years, back to life. With an ethnographer's attention for the salient detail, time and again Harris reveals aspects of the Affair that her predecessors, among both ideological camps, have inexplicably overlooked. She achieves all of this with a mellifluous prose style and an accomplished novelist's sense of narrative framing. Her book on the Affair is destined to become the standard work for years to come."—Richard Wolin, author of The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s

"Ruth Harris's new book on the Dreyfus Affair tells the story colorfully and with admirable completeness, while revealing new dimensions that both complicate and enrich our understanding of what drew people to involve themselves with it. Her sensitivity to the personal motives at work on both sides and to the sometimes surprising features of religious and secular culture of the time makes what has long been recognized as a moment full of passion and significant conflict still more engrossing."—Jerrold Seigel, author of The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Europe since the Seventeenth Century

"Ruth Harris is one of the most thoughtful and original historians writing in English today. In her hands, the Dreyfus Affair escapes the century-old interpretation of its protagonists to reveal the humanity of Alfred Dreyfus, who disappointed his supporters, and the courage of his wife, Lucie, whom they largely ignored. By the end, we realize that because pro- and anti-Dreyfusards inhabited the same cultural universe, they weren't as far apart as many historians have believed. Dreyfus's proponents were right, of course, but for reasons more emotionally and politically complex than we have known until now."—Edward Berenson, author of The Trial of Madame Caillaux

"Harris (Lourdes) revisits that notorious miscarriage of justice, the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a dedicated Jewish French army captain, was convicted of spying for Germany based on flimsy and fabricated evidence, and sentenced in 1895 to life on remote Devil's Island. Utilizing private correspondence and archives, Harris trains her gaze on several key players: Lucie Dreyfus, who changed from modest wife and devoted mother into an unremitting fighter for her husband's release; Dreyfus's chief polemicist, Émile Zola, charged with libel for his confrontational writings during the affair, was equally reckless (in Harris's word), creating a secret, second family with his maid; and Col. Georges Picquart, who while in charge of the Dreyfus investigation, discovered the real culprit. Despite his dislike of Jews, Picquart defied his superiors to free Dreyfus; for his efforts, he was himself imprisoned on trumped-up charges. While detailing how many on the political and religious right embraced anti-Semitism as a nationalist unifying passion, Harris also demonstrates that the Dreyfusards were flawed men and women who often overcame prejudices and fears to battle the conspirators against Dreyfus. This well-researched, and nuanced book is an engrossing account, the second this year after Frederick Brown's For the Soul of France."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Ruth Harris

  • Ruth Harris is the author of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. A fellow and tutor at Oxford University, she has written widely on topics in French history, cultural history, women's history, and the history of medicine. She lives in Oxford, England.

  • Ruth Harris Iain Pears