Reduced to its bare outline, the "Dreyfus Affair," which rocked French society for close to a decade, seems simple. The year was 1894, and officers in the French army suspected there was a spy in their midst, someone in the highest ranks, who was selling secrets to Germany. They checked a list of officers with access to the information passed, and what popped out at them was the name Alfred Dreyfus. Of course! A Jew. Who else would betray the nation?
Based on only the flimsiest evidence — the handwriting of the accused vaguely resembled that of the actual spy — Dreyfus was found guilty, despite his pleas of innocence, and was then relegated to a horrific degradation ceremony on Saturday, Jan. 5, 1895.
In the courtyard of the école Militaire in Paris, in front of diplomats, journalists and aristocrats, Gen. Paul Darras, on horseback, his sword high, announced: "Alfred Dreyfus, you are no longer worthy of bearing arms. In the name of the people of France, we dishonor you."
Dreyfus protested yet again: "Soldiers, an innocent man is being dishonored. Long live France! Long live the Army!"
The public had not been invited, and yet thousands of people had assembled outside the gates. They shouted: "Death! Death to the Jews!"
Sgt. Maj. Bouxin, of the Garde Républicaine, then ripped the decorations from Dreyfus' cap and sleeves and tossed them to the ground. "Long live France!" Dreyfus wailed. "I am innocent! I swear it on the heads of my wife and my children!"
His clothes in tatters, the "guilty" man was forced to make a tour of the military assembly while the crowd called him "Coward! Judas! Dirty Jews!"
Dreyfus was then shipped to Devil's Island, where he remained for more than four years, the majority of it spent in a punishing form of solitary confinement.
After this point, everything about the Dreyfus Affair — as it was called by Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards — became complicated, with repeated dissimulation and abuses of power. The real spy's identify was soon discovered by military and legal officials, but almost all of them still thought Dreyfus guilty. Saying otherwise meant discrediting the major institutions of French society — the army, the Catholic Church and the aristocracy.
These intricacies, especially the legal abuses, are revisited in Louis Begley's new book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, published by Yale University Press. Begley has all the requisite credentials for the assignment: Most readers know him as the author of About Schmidt (made into a popular film with Jack Nicholson). But till his recent retirement, he was also a senior partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, where he practiced law for 45 years.
These same credentials, however, seem to work against the work's best intentions. The author's interest in the case is almost purely legal, and he examines it with great scrupulosity in an attempt to attack not anti-Semitism or the French but the legal abuses perpetrated during the George W. Bush administration.
Begley will give us a chunk of Dreyfus history, then tell us what Bush and his cronies did wrong, and how the French abuses forecast them. So we hear of Dreyfus suffering on Devil's Island, and are then told that the Guantánamo detainees may be just as innocent as the unfortunate Frenchman.
There is nothing wrong with any of this, though it seems skewed in its reasoning. And that's because there really is only one lesson to be drawn from the Dreyfus Affair — and that's a Jewish one.
The first clue that something is amiss with Begley's book is that there's not a single reference to Theodor Herzl, who was a prominent player — especially in the one significant sense that holds the key to the meaning of events for Jews.
The spy case marked a seminal moment in the 19th century that provided a foretaste of what was to come in the 20th — both the anti-Semitism that fueled the Nazi movement, and also propelled the Vichy government in France and its own anti-Jewish measures.
To understand these 20th-century implications, one must look closely at how the affair affected Herzl. He witnessed Dreyfus' degradation ceremony, and myth has it that the incident motivated this assimilated Viennese Jew, stationed in Paris as a journalist, to write the famous pamphlet, The Jewish State, the bible of modern political Zionism.
But according to certain Herzl biographers, the writer was working toward his conversion to Zionism for longer than is commonly accepted, and the Dreyfus Affair simply provided the last straw.
At the time of Dreyfus' arrest on Oct. 15, 1894, Herzl had just completed his play, "The New Ghetto." The central character was Dr. Jakob Samuel, a high-minded Jewish lawyer who was trying to break out of the very social Jewish "ghetto" he felt was constraining him, when he was killed in a duel by an anti-Semitic aristocrat. The death was meant to be a warning to Jews that their position in "enlightened" Europe was untenable.
But Herzl also happened to be the Paris correspondent of Vienna's Neue Freie Presse and was expected to file stories about the Dreyfus trial. Like other Jews of the period, he believed the army officer was guilty and, for two weeks, sent cables reflecting this position.
Then came the degradation ceremony, which shocked Herzl. One traitor, and the people call for the death of all Jews? Could this really be happening in modern France 100 years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man? What could be expected of less civilized countries?
In Herzl's eyes, Dreyfus represented the tragedy of the emancipated Jew — trapped in the "new ghetto": He conformed to modern society's ways, spoke its language, sewed its insignia on his shoulder — only to have it torn off on a gray winter morning. Herzl raised his voice in warning by writing The Jewish State and spending the rest of his life in the cause of Zionism.
Dreyfus was eventually freed from Devil's Island, but, ironically enough, not before he was mistreated in any number of other terrible ways by the military and the legal establishment. After the horrors of his imprisonment, he was said to never have had another peaceful night.
Still, there was one stroke of luck. He died in 1935; if he'd lived longer, he, like other assimilated Jews who hadn't listened to Herzl's call to establish a state in Zion, might have been a victim of the Vichy government, which has been characterized as the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards. Most likely, he would have been sent to the infamous French camp called Drancy, and then to Auschwitz to suffer again at the hands of anti-Semites.
Herzl had witnessed the truth as the French mob called for death to the Jews. No matter the insights that Begley provides into the intricacies surrounding this infamous case, Herzl's truth — his flash of insight during the degradation ceremony — is really the only usable lesson that Jews can draw from this tragic affair.