The Dreyfus Affair. I have always thought I knew what it was about. Someone was stealing secrets from the French military and handing them over to the Germans. A note incriminating its author was found in a wastebasket by a cleaning woman and the French military got busy finding someone to blame it on.
Not finding the traitor. Finding a man who could be presented to the public as a traitor. Who better to fill that role in 1890s France than a Jew. And so, with no evidence against him the French military convinced a court martial of the guilt of Alfred Dreyfus with faked evidence, with phony handwriting testimony (the one person who said the writing on the note was not Drefus' was not allowed to testify), and a secret forged document that was not revealed to the defense until years later.
What really convicted Dreyfus was public opinion on which the military relied heavily. I did not realize how electric the atmosphere was at the end of the 19th century in France. After the loss to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war that erupted popular opinion divided into the few who thought France's military was simply not as good as Germany's and the many who thought the loss was punishment from God for . . . I don't remember what. It doesn't matter.
The Roman Catholic church was in decline and struggling to re-attach its wandering former members who had been exposed to Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus and the German scholars who had been writing for decades that Jesus did not exist, that the Bible had no claim to authenticity, that Darwin had proven the Christian religion was based on lies. Mixed in with these disturbing discussions was a virulent resurgence of anti-Semitism in France. I read somewhere recently that if one were asked in 1900 to predict which country would take anti-Semitism to the extreme in the next 50 years Germany would be no one's guess. It would be France that was seen heading for trouble.
I always thought that a few French army officers were protecting the guilty man when they rigged the Drefus decision. It turns out the guilty man was rather well known: Walsin Esterhazy. He eventually confessed, though that seems not to have convinced the partisans on the right of his guilt. The French military was so deeply corrupt there were almost no honest officers to protest Dreyfus' railroading.
One man, Georges Picquart - remember his name - was put in charge of intelligence and realized Dreyfus' innocence. He went through channels trying to convince the military and the government that Dreyfus deserved a new trial. Not only did those above him not act on his evidence, he was shipped to a particularly dangerous assignment in Tunis in hopes he would be killed and when that didn't happen, he too was put on trial on false charges with faked evidence.
Dreyfus' brother and a handful of others who were sure of his innocence worked for years to bring the truth to light. Eventually, like the military, they realized this was going to have to be tried in the court of public opinion. Zola wrote his famous J'Accuse and was found guilty of libel in another corrupt court and fled to England. Slowly, and it must have been slow indeed for the innocent man on Devil's Island and his family waiting for justice, the weight of evidence became sufficient to convince many open-minded people of Dreyfus' innocence. But still nothing was done because the military and government were so corrupt and they had the weight of such intense anti-Semitism on their side that they were able to prevent the re-opening of the case.
Finally, in July of 1898 Godefroy Caviagnac was made minister of war and he realized the depth of the deception and the innocence of Dreyfus. So when the government demanded he state that there was no question of the man's guilt he resigned. So did the man who was named to replace him. And the man who was named to replace him. And slowly justice made her way, a new trial that found Dreyfus guilty, again with forged evidence, was overturned and he was freed.
Frederick Brown's book presents the issues that polarized the French public in the late 19th century - the fall of a Catholic bank, the abandonment of de Lesseps' Panama Canal, the social disruption of the Communards after the Franco-Prussian War. Even the building of the Eiffel Tower was highly contentious. Eiffel was routinely described as an outsider, as German Jew (he was third generation French and not a Jew.) Brown shows how the strong feelings, not to say hysteria, of a polarized society led to the tragedy of the Dreyfus Affair and the subsequent weakening of the French Army, leading eventually to the French Army's capitulation to Hitler and the Vichy government.