Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Ruth Harris’s Dreyfus; Deborah Amos’s Eclipse of the Sunnis.


In 1894 a captain in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason on account of a scrap of paper. It was a bordereau, or memorandum, about French artillery and troop movements that had been retrieved from a wastebasket in the German Embassy by a charwoman in the employ of French counterintelligence. Dreyfus was wrongly accused of treason by his superiors based on a dodgy handwriting comparison; they also thought he was guilty because he was a Jew, "an enemy from within." When doubts about Dreyfus’s guilt arose, his accusers manufactured incriminating evidence. Dreyfus was court-martialed, subjected to a degradation ceremony at the École militaire and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Kept in a tiny, stone-walled cell, he was forbidden to speak to his two guards; shackled to a metal bed at night, he was tormented by biting ants, suffocating heat and suppurating sores on his ankles. Dreyfus was an innocent man crushed by a state guilty of deceit and anti-Semitism. Has a piece of rubbish ever caused a person such misery?

Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century (Metropolitan; $35), Ruth Harris’s meticulous, assured and engrossing account of the Dreyfus Affair, calls to mind none of the many books on the subject but instead The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’s epic 1969 film about French collaboration and resistance during the Nazi occupation. Like Ophuls, Harris has produced a history sensitive to historical limits. She unravels decisions made in the swirl of experience, fraught with contradiction, accident and incoherence and governed by emotion as much as reason, by prejudice as much as principle. Although her sympathies lie with Dreyfus and the Dreyfusards, the band of left-wing politicians, journalists, intellectuals and artists such as Émile Zola who campaigned for the captain’s acquittal, Harris rejects the Dreyfusards’ enduring script of a triumphant battle of light against darkness, which she says makes for "good rhetoric but poor history."

The history told in Dreyfus is untidy. We learn that many Dreyfusards "championed the Jewish captain not because they had clear proof of his innocence" but because they believed that the Jesuits, loathed for their connections to royalists and the army, "were responsible for his conviction." We learn too that radical Dreyfusards balked when pressed by confreres to make tactical compromises to bolster the defense of their namesake: upholding the purity of Republican principles trumped the vindication of Alfred Dreyfus. The civic religion of Republicanism did not immunize Dreyfusards from the fanaticism that afflicted their foes on the right. In Harris’s view, it’s because of the rude persistence of Republican absolutism in France today that "right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education. Where else in the Western world would the wearing of headscarves produce such ire and even national legislation?"

For all that Harris chronicles the fragility of Dreyfusard alliances and the clash of Republican principles, her account of the Dreyfusard campaign does not dilute its achievements. For a dozen years the Dreyfusards fought against the perfidy, calumny, paranoia and violence practiced and abetted by the anti-Dreyfusards. Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, a senator for life from Alsace and the first politician to publicly defend Dreyfus’s innocence, took to wearing "a kind of chainmail under his clothing in case he was attacked." (Harris’s eye for the vivid detail gracefully complements her analytical rigor and is one reason her book is a pleasure to read.) In 1906, after Dreyfus, having been released from Devil’s Island and granted a new hearing by a military tribunal, was court-martialed again, the Dreyfusards persuaded President Émile Loubet to exonerate him. Had the Dreyfusards secured justice? Harris thinks not. Their "campaign succeeded only because the Cour de cassation, the high court, used an obscure prerogative to take the case away from the system of military justice, which did not admit its error." With the case out of the military’s hands, Loubet was free to act, though only to a degree, for his pardon of Dreyfus did not rescind the military’s guilty verdict. "The end of the Affair produced no clear conclusion and no real justice, merely a political truce," Harris writes. Yet for all their tactical blunders and character flaws, the Dreyfusards did not fail. Their cause was just, their principles sound. It was France that failed Dreyfus, and them.

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Among the many aspects of the Iraq War that have remained out of sight to Americans is the plight of Iraq’s refugees. The exodus of nearly 2 million Iraqis after the 2003 American invasion is the largest displacement of people in the Middle East since the Nakba. Sunnis, Christians, Shiites and members of smaller secular and religious minorities, the overwhelming majority of them middle-class professionals from Baghdad, have fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Europe and beyond. Deborah Amos’s Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East (PublicAffairs; $25.95) is a harrowing account of the pain and anguish suffered by the Iraqi Sunni diaspora in the Middle East. Especially perverse is a legal hurdle faced by exiles seeking asylum in the United States. Amos reports that Iraqis who have "paid ransom for the release of a loved one who had been kidnapped by a militia or criminal gang" have been barred from relocating to the United States by the Patriot Act, which considers "the paying of ransom in such cases—regardless of the circumstances—as constituting ‘material support’ for terrorists." Iraq’s exiles have been left stranded by their putative liberators between a decimated past and a future not yet born.

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