Book Review: Ruth Harris ~ The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the affair that divided France (2010)

1) Above all. Let’s not talk about the Dreyfus Affair
2) They talked about it

This biography is more than a Life. Ruth Harris’s meticulous study of French politics, the Roman Catholic church, the Army, Anti-Semitism and human drama is stunning. She reveals intellectuals who took up the cause of a Jewish army officer: the sacrificial victim of a vicious plot. These included an Anti-Semitic officer who risked his career in the cause of justice and honour.

Dreyfus came from Alsace (in Germany from 1871). It took an enormous leap of imagination to appreciate that senior generals deliberately lied, fabricated evidence, knowingly used forgeries. Dreyfus was incarcerated on Devil’s Island in the hope he’d die. Conditions were as rugged as possible. This included keeping him in solitary confinement and chaining him to his bed in blisteringly hot, humid weather. He survived but his health was wrecked.

Once French Intellectuals took up the cause France was divided. They took no prisoners in their condemnation of General Mercier and the General Staff. But they were brutal and the opposition dug in their heels. Positions became entrenched. All classes in France took sides with many opposing Dreyfus because they couldn’t believe in an Establishment conspiracy of such complexity. French society fractured into social civil war. Dreyfus was vindicated but France was wounded.

Ruth Harris’s book isn’t a quick read but is compelling.

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