Why the Dreyfus Affair Does and Doesn't Matter
Green Bag, Vol. 13, No. 2, p. 331, 2010
15 Pages Posted: 15 May 2010 Last revised: 25 Jun 2010
Date Written: June 24, 2010
Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish-Alsatian origin who in 1894 was falsely charged with treason for selling secrets to the German military attaché in Paris. The evidence against Dreyfus was appallingly flimsy – based almost entirely on the disputed similarity of his handwriting to a document that had been filched from the wastebasket of the German embassy – but it was bolstered by the virulent anti-Semitism that was then widespread in the French army. Even after it became fully apparent to the authorities that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the drunken and debt-ridden scion of an illegitimate branch of the Hungarian royal family, the Dreyfus case was kept alive by anti-Semitism and forged evidence. Dreyfus was twice convicted by military tribunals. He spent over four years on Devil’s Island before he was pardoned by the President of the Republic and eventually exonerated by a civilian court.
In “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters," lawyer and acclaimed novelist Louis Begley argues that the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus is a relevant historical parallel to the recent “crimes” at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In a concise volume – published by the Yale University Press as part of its “Why X Matters” series – Begley provides a lucid and beautifully written account of L’affair Dreyfus from beginning to end. He also contends that the Dreyfus case is analogous to “the tragic absurdity of the claim the Bush administration used to justify the scandal of its detention system.” Begley is right, of course, that the Dreyfus case is important and should not be forgotten.
This essay explains that Begley’s broader contention – that the Dreyfus affair reveals something profound about the Bush administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror – is overdrawn and unpersuasive.
Keywords: Dreyfus Affair, Anti-Semitism, Political Trials
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