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France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History.

Michael Burns. France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 210. Cloth, $39.95; ISBN 0-312-21813-3.

One driven to bed by a chronic illness endures both pain and the prolongation of time; one who suffers injustice might wait long years for a remedy. So it was in 1894 with Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew in the French army whom fellow officers targeted. His arrest resulted from the acquisition of a military memorandum (bordereau) imputed to him on tenuous grounds as the basis for a charge of treason. Arrested, accused of high treason, tried, and convicted, he went to prison.

Michael Burns's documentary history of the Dreyfus affair provokes rumination about the anti-Jewish crusade that ill fits a modern, republican state, yet typified the human capacity for evil and self-delusion. In its irrationality and potential ferocity, it recalled the downside of the French Revolution only a century before. Church-state conservatism, army reactionism, and anti-Semitism worked mischief. There are key documents such as Maurice Barres's revealing election campaign speech in 1898, several years after Dreyfus's trial and imprisonment. As a "professional anti-Semite," Barre's made the Jewish question key to the French national soul. Edouard Drumont's La Libre Parole spewed tirades and fictions against Jewish army officers as a dominant class that subverted French national values.

Dreyfus's trial and imprisonments, finally as the sole prisoner on Devil's Island, and the Dreyfusards' investigations and appeals make intriguing reading. The events and details unfold in arousing fashion. The indications of collusion among anti-Dreyfusards stand clear. The general staff's case dossier shows their resolve to destroy Dreyfus, but George Picquart, the new chief of the Statistical Section, discovered that Commandant Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy had forged the incriminating bordereau. For his pursuit of justice, Picquart, himself a Jew-hater, was imprisoned and dismissed from the army, whose command went far to suppress his findings.

The book provides a useful List of Principal Characters, a selected bibliography, and a complete index. Burns's extensive commentary gives continuity and a concise but thorough accounting of related developments. The footnotes provide sound direction for deeper analysis.

The book works on several levels. First, the document collection offers students a chance to use primary and secondary sources in a handy volume. Second, the documents and editor's comments reveal balanced historical judgment without sensationalism; even with the account of Mathieu Dreyfus's seances with a clairvoyant who revealed the false dossier, the documents speak for themselves. Third, the volume exposes modern anti-Semitism in focused, personal contexts: Dreyfus himself, his family and supporters, the military officers behind the scandal, and the anti-Dreyfusard champions, among them the suicidal hero Commandant Hubert-Joseph Henry. Fourth, the volume shows how disruptive and dangerous was the extreme politicization borne of French ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. Fifth, the documentary history clarifies the influences of journalists and other publicists in l'affaire Dreyfus, including Emile Zola, whose J'Accuse revealed the affair as a malicious farce. A century later, students will recognize the power of the modern media, then as now, to shape public and official sentiments. I recommend this book for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.

Jerry L. Summers East Texas Baptist University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Summers, Jerry L.
Publication:Teaching History: A Journal of Methods
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:526
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