In 1899, Captain Alfred Dreyfus had become, “the most famous man in the world,” according to a British journalist (vii).  Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery officer who was also a French citizen and was wrongly accused of treason in 1894.  He received a court martial and was exiled to Devil’s Island.   His wrongful conviction and trial became known as the “Dreyfus Affair” and has since shaped political and social ideas around the world.  In France and the Dreyfus Affair, Michael Burns chronicles the narrative of the Dreyfus Affair and summarizes the main issues and debates.  He shows the struggle between “the individual and the state, civilian government and military authority” in a concise text which is designed to introduce students to the “broad outlines and significant legacies” of the affair (4).

      Burns’ documentary history is divided into eight chapters which highlight excerpts from memoirs, newspaper articles, and letters and offers students a plethora of sources to examine.  Burns also includes photographs from Dreyfus’s trial, of his wife Lucie and their son Pierre, of the infamous bordereau and a powerful image of his Dégradation on 5 Janvier, 1893.

jewish mus dreyfus
Dreyfus, Jewish Museum, Paris

     In the first section, Burns recounts the unfair targeting of the Jews in the nineteenth century.  He explains that there was evidence that the civil war of 1789 remained unresolved.  Citizens who were pro-Dreyfus, Dreyfusards, had faith in the modern, secular state and felt they had a “duty to question”(ix).  On the other hand, those who were anti-Dreyfus wanted stability in a nation that was “plagued by social upheaval and threats of enemies without and within”(vii).  In addition, Burns explains that the Jews became targets of criticism at the end of the nineteenth century due to the collapse of banks and Marxist sentiments which considered Jews as “huckstering capitalists who had profited from the century’s political, industrial and financial revolutions”(6).

     The next few chapters relate the discovery of the bordereau which led to Dreyfus’s arrest, interrogation and conviction.  They also include the details of Esterhazy, another French officer who was under suspicion of treason and was possibly the actual author of the bordereau. This revelation led to a great conundrum; to prove that Esterhazy was guilty and Dreyfus was innocent would mar the reputation and prestige of the army.  According to Bernard Lazare, who wrote an article “A Judicial Error” supporting Dreyfus, “The army, when it judges, must be infallible” (77).

    Burns turns his attention to Dreyfus’s supporters in Chapters 5 and 6.  J’Accuse, Emile Zola’s letter to the French President in January, 1889, led to anti-Semitic riots as well as a trial for Zola.  Following this manuscript, L’Aurore published the names of 1500 supporters of Dreyfus who were referred to as “intellectuals”. Voltaire, Hugo and Sand, and other intellectuals, also rallied to his defense which led to Dreyfus’s new trial.  Burns also includes the appeal from Alfred’s wife Lucie, and relates the political turmoil which continued to split the government.

     In Chapter 7, Burns recounts the pardon from the government extended to Dreyfus as well as the news of the case around the world.  Zola’s Fifth Act is included and Burns states that it “touched on themes-the global reputation of France and the nation’s regeneration” which struck a timely chord (162).

    The last chapter chronicles Dreyfus’s reinstitution and rehabilitation into French society. He spent his later years in quiet seclusion with his family in Paris.  His wife Lucie and their children and grandchildren would once again face the anti-Semitism and persecution of Hitler as they spent years on the run and in the Resistance; their granddaughter Madeleine would die at Auschwitz.

     Bernard Lazare described the reason for Dreyfus’s unfair conviction:” Because he was a Jew he was arrested…because he was a Jew, the voice of justice and truth could not be heard in his favor…” (77). This is not just a story about the facts of inhumanity.  Burns humanizes this story of the Dreyfus Affair by showing Alfred Dreyfus as a man with a family, a soldier fighting for his country, a citizen held in prejudice for his race, a suffering prisoner who was wrongly accused, convicted and lived a miserable existence in exile.


Burns, Michael.  France and the Dreyfus Affair:  A Documentary History.  New York:  Bedford/ St. Martins.  1999.


Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (