The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France by Ruth Harris - review by Frederic Raphael

Frederic Raphael

An Affair To Remember

The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 542pp £30

Horace was right, ‘Bis repetita placent’: people like to hear the same stories all over again. Why else should Ruth Harris add yet another volume to the fat library of material, ancient and modern, on the Dreyfus Affair? Her justification has to be either that she has new evidence or that her style will refresh the topic. Only a crackpot, counter-factual version of the Affair could argue that Dreyfus really was guilty and that the ‘Jewish lobby’, in a proto-typical form, perverted the course of justice. A more refined malice would merely wish that ‘the Jews’ had never succeeded in procuring Dreyfus’s vindication, since the consequences weakened France’s national unity and self-confidence. They also loosened the authority of the Catholic Church and made scepticism – the occupational tic of ‘intellectuals’ such as the 1930s philosopher, Alain – into a contagious anti-clerical attitude. 

Harris is not tempted to any melodramatic revisionism. She takes it for granted that Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason in 1894 and that he was rightly pardoned – after a second court martial conviction – five years later (his conviction was formally annulled only in

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