- The Dreyfus Affair and the Rise of the French Public Intellectual by Tom Conner
Alfred Dreyfus, a thirty-five-year-old French army captain, was arrested in October 1894, found guilty of high treason, drummed out of the military, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. While Dreyfus was in exile, his brother and Bernard Lazare launched a vigorous campaign, to which Émile Zola and others famously added their support. It was this campaign that transformed the Dreyfus case into an affair: a scandal that transcends a purely legal matter of guilt versus innocence and becomes a dispute that is not or has not at a given time been entirely resolved. Characterized by a passionate polarization of le monde intellectuel, the Affair subsequently became one of those moments in French history — along with the Occupation and the Algerian War of Independence — to which historians are always returning. As Conner notes, Charles Péguy astutely stated several years after Dreyfus’s rehabilitation: ‘the longer this affair has been over, the more evident it becomes that it will never be over’ (p. 24; Conner’s translation). In his account of the complexities and the actions of the key players in the Dreyfus Affair, Conner therefore covers ground that has been tramped over many times before, as those familiar with the episode will realize. He shows how and why Dreyfus himself was almost forgotten, as traditionalists used the printed media to promote a vision of France underpinned by values of order, authority, nationalism, and exclusion, against their republican opponents defending a France built on truth, justice, reason, and human rights. Conner’s contribution to the already vast bibliography of the Dreyfus Affair sets out to provide what the author calls ‘a critical synopsis of the Affair, not its definitive history or a biography of Dreyfus’ (p. 33), a synopsis that sheds light on the actions of its main protagonists and on the rise of the public intellectual. There is indeed an abundance of data here but sadly Conner too often loses sight of that valuable dictum that less is usually more. He writes in sentences which are overly long, and which often contain clumsy parentheses. He has a tendency to shoot off at tangents and to include too many morsels of detailed information; this means that he ultimately fails in his stated aim to provide an account ‘that is comprehensive in scope but not cramped by too much detail’ (p. 34). This is compounded by unnecessary repetition: we have, for example, three descriptions of the committed intellectual (pp. 44, 50, 120), expressed in almost identical terms. Conner is right to remind us that Dreyfus was neither the first nor the last victim of a state miscarriage of justice and that democrats should try to hold their governments to account, but some of the historical parallels he draws with the Dreyfus Affair need to be developed and not simply asserted. In conclusion, there are probably not enough new insights here for those already familiar with the subject and there is too much densely written material for those who are not.