The French are not men

Michael Wood

  • Lettres à la marquise: correspondance inédite avec Marie Arconati Visconti by Alfred Dreyfus, edited by Philippe Oriol
    Grasset, 592 pp, £19.00, March, ISBN 978 2 246 85965 9

The event was ‘foreseeable and scandalous’, a wonderful combination in its way, and we might apply the phrase to many incidents in our world. I didn’t find it in yesterday’s newspaper, though. The historian Marcel Thomas uses it in his remarkable book, published in 1989, on Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man who was the spy that Alfred Dreyfus wasn’t. Thomas is thinking of Esterhazy’s acquittal in 1898. Why would a French military tribunal find a guilty man innocent? What was the point of this ‘ritual theatre’, as Frederick Brown calls it in For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (2010)? The questions immediately call up another: why would an 1894 tribunal have found an innocent man guilty of the same crime?

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