Book Review: “Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair” — More Relevant Than Ever

By Roberta Silman

We should take courage from this splendid work about how truth and justice triumphed over stupidity and prejudice, and how much the loyalty and love and determination of one remarkable family could accomplish 130 years ago.

Alfred Dreyfus, The Man at the Center of the Affair by Maurice Samuels. Yale University Press, 209 pages, $26

History is always more easily unraveled in hindsight. At the time it occurred, the sensational case of Alfred Dreyfus, the Alsatian Jew who was wrongly accused of spying for the Germans “divided the French nation and riveted the world.” Those are the words of Maurice Samuels, the author of this new book, which is a recent addition to the Yale University Press series, Jewish Lives. The Dreyfus Affair hovered over the 20th century and is often regarded as a precursor to the Holocaust; many historians and philosophers have weighed in — some sensibly, some wrongheadedly. But that this famous example of the scourge and reach of antisemitism would be so relevant right now could hardly have been predicted in 1894. Yet, here we are.

In addition to being a distinguished professor of French at Yale, Samuels is a marvelous historian. His new book — complete with meticulous notes and index — covers the whole sordid business from beginning to end and beyond. It is both succinct and wide-ranging, written in precise, elegant prose, and with such a strong narrative thread that I read it in one sitting. Lots of scholars can tell a story; to make it matter so deeply is a rare gift. This is a beautifully researched work that is essential for old hands who think they know all there is to know about Dreyfus, as well as the young, who have a vague notion of who Alfred Dreyfus was. They have heard Emile Zola’s famous “J’Accuse” used in all kinds of ways, including comic, but have no clue of the connection between the cry and this enigmatic Jewish soldier. I was especially glad to see Samuels include and even challenge some of the divergent works about Dreyfus and his place in French society, set forth by such eminent thinkers as Michael Marrus, Leon Blum, W.E.B. Dubois, Hannah Arendt, and, most recently, Louis Begley.

In his brilliant introduction Samuels states his case:

Although antisemitism was not the sole factor leading to Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, it was the critical one. And it was also critical to why his case divided the French nation. There had been other cases of military espionage, and of wrongful conviction, before Dreyfus, and there have been many since. None turned into an affair. French people cared so deeply about this case — primarily, if not exclusively — because Dreyfus was a Jew.

And then, a few pages later he goes on:

Without question, the Dreyfus case became an affair because the Dreyfus family possessed the resources to make it one. They spent more than a million francs in their twelve-year struggle for justice. The family members — Dreyfus himself, but also his wife and brother — were also able to mobilize sufficient cultural capital to arouse the sympathy and outrage of Parisian intellectuals. How many victims to similar — or worse — injustice languished in prison, their plight unknown and unremarked because they lacked such resources? How many continue to do so today? 

The book has seven chapters: The Soldier, The Arrest, The Prisoner, The Affair, The Climax, The Reaction, The Aftermath. As the story unfolds Samuels gives us important context: the history of the Alsace region where the Dreyfus family became rich making textiles, how French Jews became citizens after the 1789 revolution, and why a shy, somewhat aloof younger son would aspire to the military with the support of two older siblings, his sister Henriette and his brother Mathieu. We are drawn into the story of his marriage to the sturdy, God-fearing, and very rich Lucie Hadamard and their close family life, his unflinching pride in being Jewish without actually being a believer (and not the self-hating Jew he has been called by Arendt), and how Alfred’s arrest galvanized an already antisemitic French press, led by the infamous Edouard Drumont, to argue for a conviction although the evidence was shaky.

Through salient quotations from his letters and diary, we experience the excruciating conditions Dreyfus endured for five years on Devil’s Island. That was not only testament to his determination to live, but also, as Samuels argues, an “indication of his continued belief in a more just and honorable world, one that only his daily struggle could bring about.” And while Alfred was waging his daily struggles, the movement to free him was growing in strength back in France, largely because of the efforts of Lucie and his brother Matthieu. We learn about the enmity that grew between the Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. We hear about Zola and we are present at his trial. But the writer was famous and non-Jewish. What about the eminent Jews and their Press? In tracing their supposed passivity, Samuels convinces us that their attitude was more complicated than has been thought, that while their behavior “underscored the need for a Jewish state,” prominent Jews concluded that they had to be more clandestine in their efforts on behalf of Dreyfus. We learn of the journalists for Dreyfus and against him; we see how the dots connect to the parallels between the 1890s and the 1930s, when Leon Blum writes his Memories of the Affair. Yet, because Samuels is in such absolute control of his material, the narrative is never confusing.

Indeed, the fight that ensued between those for Dreyfus and those against him is eerily close to the very fight we are enduring in this country right now. The Dreyfusards desired an inclusive, pluralistic society where “Jews and other minorities would enjoy full equality,” while the anti-Dreyfusards wanted “France for the French, excluding Jews, “even those Jews, like Dreyfus, whose families had lived in France for centuries.” I must confess that most of what I knew about Dreyfus’s ordeal was from Proust, who described the enmity between the factions — some in his own family — superbly in his great novel Remembrance of Things Past.  But, as with most fiction, even great fiction, that is not the whole story.

Alfred Dreyfus in the Villemarie Garden, Carpentras 1899-1900. Photo: Dreyfus Family Collection

Now I know, because of this lucid and engaging book, why it took so long to achieve justice; the despicable twists and turns of how the French army had framed Dreyfus, then covered it up; the motives of the various characters; the extraordinary number of actors on both sides in this compelling drama; and how the persistence of his family played such a large part in finally achieving justice for this unlikely hero whose dignity and pride was sometimes misconstrued as coldness. I was also fascinated by the chapter called The Reaction, how this ordeal of one French family resonated not only in France but around the world — from the shtetls of eastern Europe to the Lower East Side. How it pushed the cause of Socialism, and how it “had helped to redefine the nature of Jewish identity for the modern age.”

Dreyfus was freed in the middle of 1899 and reunited with his family at his sister’s home in Carpentras. In 1906 he was reinstated in the army, but not to the rank he deserved. “Rather than compromise his dignity, Dreyfus resigned from the army on June 26, 1907.” Yet he rejoined during the First World War and fought next to his son and regained some of his former rank. After the war he lived in Paris and took his daily walk in Parc Monceau — he mostly read and collected stamps. But Dreyfus was always a liberal politically and took a keen interest in “the Jewish Question.” He died in Switzerland in 1934 while on vacation after emergency prostate surgery. He was 75. He had lived to see eight grandchildren born. Yet, despite the family’s wealth and privilege, his favorite grandchild was killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Others suffered, as well. Moreover, “demonizing Dreyfus remains a potent dog whistle” for the far right in France. Will it ever end?  Probably not.

Yet we should take courage from this splendid work about how truth and justice triumphed over stupidity and prejudice, and how much the loyalty and love and determination of one remarkable family could accomplish 130 years ago. Here is a guide that could serve as a spur to action as we face the challenges of 2024. Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair is exactly what we need right now.

Roberta Silman is the author of five novels, a short story collection, and two children’s books. Her latest, Summer Lightning, has been released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review) is in its second printing and is available on Amazon. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at, and she can also be reached at

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  1. kai maristed on May 29, 2024 at 8:03 pm

    An illuminating review of an important biography. I admit I started in with some unease, wondering whether my recent play, Paul and Emile, in which the Zola-Dreyfus relationship is a fatal catalyst, would find itself on the right side of scholarship. Luckily it seems fairly all right. The pervasive street violence of antisemitism, in part whipped up by ‘Black’ (highly conservative) Catholics, is ‘accused’ in the play was well..

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