The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History

Written by Piers Paul Read
Review by Lucinda Byatt

This notorious case has undergone numerous academic and popular study, following the centenary of Alfred Dreyfus’ rehabilitation in 1906. The subtitle of Read’s book is borne out by his detailed reconstruction of how officers and commanders deliberately ignored or, worse, fabricated evidence. This cause célèbre started with a scrap of a letter (or bordereau) containing French military details, found in a German embassy wastepaper-basket by a cleaning lady working for French Intelligence.

Brilliant, rich and, importantly, Alsatian, Dreyfus had risen quickly through the army ranks but had attracted attention because of his Jewishness and introspectiveness. Graphologists analysed the bordereau to link it to Dreyfus, even without convincing evidence. Read cites anti-Semitism as a primary contributory factor towards Dreyfus’ arrest on 15 October 1894 and subsequent exiling on the notorious Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana.

In spite of the Supreme Court’s declaration of Dreyfus’ innocence and his award of the Légion d’Honneur in 1906, the Affair cast a long shadow into the 1940s, when the anti-Dreyfusard Action Française was influential in France’s shameful treatment of Jews under the Vichy regime. This is a fascinating, painstakingly researched account of the triumph of personal – and family – resilience against state persecution.