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Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair

September 21, 2009

by Adam Gopnik

On a January day in Paris, in 1895, a ceremony was enacted in the courtyard of the École Militaire, on the Champ-de-Mars, that still shocks the mind and conscience to contemplate: Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artillery officer and family man, convicted of treason days earlier in a rushed court-martial, was publicly degraded before a gawking crowd. His insignia medals were stripped from him, his sword was broken over the knee of the degrader, and he was marched around the grounds in his ruined uniform to be jeered and spat at, while piteously declaring his innocence and his love of France above cries of “Jew” and “Judas!” It is a ceremony that seems to belong to some older, medieval Europe, of public torture and autos-da-fé and Inquisitions.

Yet it took place in the immediate shadow of the monument of modernity, the Eiffel Tower, then six years old, which loomed at the north end of the Champ-de-Mars. The very improbability of such an act’s happening at such a time—to an assimilated Jew who had mastered a meritocratic system and a city that was the pride and pilothouse of civic rationalism—made it a portent, the moment where Maupassant’s world of ambition and pleasure met Kafka’s world of inexplicable bureaucratic suffering. The Dreyfus affair was the first indication that a new epoch of progress and cosmopolitan optimism would be met by a countervailing wave of hatred that deformed the next half century of European history. more

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