The Dreyfus Affair: metaphor and reality in public history

By Daniel Adamson (@DEAdamson9)

The Pyrrhic Wars; the crossing of the Rubicon; the witch hunts; the sinking of the Titanic. Modern parlance is littered with examples of historical events that have accrued a metaphorical value superior to the weight of their historical realities. In public spheres, there is more interest in deploying historical events for what they symbolise, rather than what they actually were. The Dreyfus Affair is one such case in point. In 1894, the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, having been accused of passing classified documents to the German military. Protracted division and debate subsequently embroiled French society, as competing parties contested the validity of Dreyfus’ conviction. Eventually, in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated upon retrial and the identification of the true culprit (Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy).

Public interest in the Dreyfus Affair has again been piqued by the premiere at the 2019 Venice Film Festival Roman Polanski’s new cinematic portrayal of the Dreyfus Affair, entitled “An Officer and a Spy”.  However, recent media coverage has suggested that the currency of the Dreyfus Affair in a modern context is primarily symbolic, rather than historical. In other words, twenty-first century engagement with the Dreyfus Affair is derived mostly from what the Affair represented, as opposed to what actually happened. As a symbol of miscarried justice, the Dreyfus Affair has become a metaphor for social iniquity that has been applied to a number of different public situations.

Whilst there may well be a place for the use of informed historical parallels in modern society, contextualised historical assessment can help to identify examples of where connotation has overlapped with historical accuracy. The Dreyfus Affair provides an intriguing case study in this regard. Politically, whilst the Dreyfus Affair had a mildly divisive effect on the French Parliamentary system, these consequences were not significant enough to justify George Clemenceau’s claim in 1899 that France was “on the brink of civil war”[1].  In fact, whilst the governmental reforms of 1906 are often cited as a consequence of the Dreyfusian liberalism of the late 1890s, the graduated tax reforms and pension structure decrees announced in 1906 had been planned as early as 1893, almost a year before the beginning of the Affair. Furthermore, this drive for greater ‘droits des travailleurs’ was most probably fuelled by the fact that over fifty Socialists were members of the French Parliament between 1894-1906, rather than any reactionary ideology to the Dreyfus Affair itself.

Following the conclusion of the most poisonous aspects of the Affair in 1898, French politics swiftly returned to a state of “peace and quiet”[2], and the French Parliament was not sufficiently weakened by the crisis to require the convalescence necessary of Alfred Dreyfus himself. Inconvenienced by the Affair, President Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau was keen to move on from the events of the previous decade, declaring “The incident is closed. Think of the future”[3]. Such a decisive move away from the Affair and its political ramifications meant that the effects of the crisis in the years immediately following 1898 were minimised.

The contemporary cultural context of the Dreyfus case might explain its perceived impact on fin-de-siècle French society. The Affair coincided with an epoch of unprecedented journalistic quality, and the case provided a story model on which many authors and reporters alike could capitalise. Undoubtedly, France’s developed newspaper readership accentuated the true effects of the case, as a 1 million readership – in contrast to just 75,000 in Italy – could allow the spread of arguments and reactions to the Affair on a larger scale[4]. Therefore, whilst the ramifications of the Affair only affected a minority of the French population, such widespread media made its impact appear much wider.

The way in which the presence of the Dreyfus Affair in modern discourse hinges primarily on its symbolic value – as a metaphor for miscarried justice – has emphasised how public history can often be more preoccupied with what the past represents, rather than what actually happened. In reality, the tangible impact of the Dreyfus Affair on French society at the time was limited. However, its retrospective cultural impact on societies around the globe is far greater. This divergence is in no way to be dismissed. Use of the past to inform and illustrate modern situations is both a natural and healthy method for the public to grapple with the present. Rather, historians could best be tasked with promoting greater awareness of cases where metaphorical deployment of history has overlapped with literal understandings. In reality, this is best achieved through detailed historical contextualisation. In this way, genuine misappropriations of the past might more easily be identifiable.

Image: Capitaine Dreyfus à son procès (1894), made available via WikiCommons license.


[1] Quoted M.Larkin, Church and state after the Dreyfus Affair, (1974), p.80

[2] E. Cahm, The Dreyfus Affair in French society and politics, (1966), p.180

[3] Quoted ibid.

[4] J. Brennan, Reflection of the Dreyfus Affair in the European press 1897-1899, (1998) p.481

Daniel Adamson is currently a PhD student at Durham University, researching portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust.

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