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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 15 August 2014

J'Accuse!...Dreyfus and the Principalities and Powers

In 1895 in Paris, Alfred Dreyfus, an army officer, was convicted of handing over French military secrets to the Germans. He was condemned to life imprisonment for treason, was ceremonially stripped of his military rank, his insignia were removed and his sword was ritually broken before he was sent to Devil's Island for the rest of his days. He was 35.

Evidence subsequently came to light that suggested that Dreyfus was not the traitor after all. A new head of intelligence, George Picquart, reported that he had scrutinised the documents on which Dreyfus' conviction had been based, and deduced that another man, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was the spy. However, a re-trial astonishingly affirmed Dreyfus' guilt, a verdict that sent my predecessor Dean Hensley Henson into an 'unspeakable rage'. It took four years of tortuous legal process for him to be pardoned and a further seven before he was officially exonerated. He was re-instated in the army, and served with distinction in the Great War. He died in 1935.

The story is the subject of Robert Harris' latest novel An Officer and a Spy. Not knowing anything about Dreyfus beyond the bare facts of this cause célèbre, I found it to be an absorbing read. As in all his books, Harris, an ex-journalist, researches his material with meticulous care - and in the case of the Dreyfus Affair, there is a lot of it. Harris' makes Picquart his mouthpiece and his use of the historic present (how John Humphrys must hate it!), together with his mastery of the plot's endless twists and turns, makes the novel a superbly vivid read. 

You don't necessarily expect beach reading to be memorable, but (always the mark of a good book) I am continuing to think about its big themes. For make no mistake: this was the most dramatic political scandal in modern France, and one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in western judicial history. It sharply divided public opinion at the time, led to protests on the streets, and even now more than a century later its consequences continue to reverberate in French political and religious consciousness.

Three factors made it so toxic. The first is that Dreyfus was from Alsace. He came from lands that had been occupied by the Germans since the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870. France's humiliation in the generation before Dreyfus was an open sore that was never going to heal (as the Great War demonstrated). So anyone accused of treason in relation to this bitterly hated enemy would inevitably incur huge public wrath. And this was perhaps the first example of an event where the power of 'public opinion' would count for so much.

The second is the conduct of politicians and the military. What came to light during the affair was the extent to which the very highest echelons of the French army had colluded with lies, forged documents and falsified evidence all because of an a priori doctrine that if Dreyfus had been convicted by a military court, its findings had to be sacrosanct. It took courageous 'intellectuals' (a word first coined during this affair) to insist that the conduct of the case raised serious questions about the integrity of the nation's senior leadership. The novelist Émile Zola was in the forefront of this 'Dreyfusard' protest against the corruptions of power and the comprehensive culture of the cover-up. He wrote a famous article that appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, J'accuse! as a result of which he was also arraigned before a court of law. 

But by far the most powerful forces at work in the affair were due to the fact that Dreyfus was a Jew. His conviction played right into the barely-suppressed anti-semitism of the fin de siècle. This ugly strain ran from top to bottom of French society. A torrent of abuse towards Jews was rapidly unleashed, some of it acted out as physical violence. Jews were not only mercenary and manipulating. Dreyfus had demonstrated that they were not to be trusted. Their claims to assimilation as authentic French citizens were exposed as hypocrisy. And even when Dreyfus was reinstated, the anti-Semitic genie would not willingly get back into the bottle, as is evidenced by the treatment of French Jews under Nazi Occupation, and the spate of anti-Jewish episodes that continues to this day. 

So Robert Harris' book, while it doesn't set out to moralise, does offer food for thought about our contemporary society: how we deal with one another as nation-states, how we lead with integrity in public life, our covenant with the armed forces, how we conduct judicial processes, how we listen to victims, and above all, how we handle religious, ethnic and cultural difference in society, especially when it comes to minorities. All this could be said to be about how we 'speak truth to power'. Dreyfus was an historical watershed whose central issues are still very much with us, in Britain no less than France. We need to be vigilant if we care about our values as a nation.

It's amazing how much you can learn from what you read on the beach. 

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