The Third French Republic (1870-1914) was no stranger to political scandals. One of these scandals, the famous “Dreyfus affair”, shook 19th century French society to the core and its reverberations filtered across a Europe beset by political and nationalist rivalries. This scandal has since entered the political lexicon as a cipher for abuse of power and unjust judicial processes yet it is unclear how many people today are aware of the basic facts underpinning the story.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an esteemed and efficient Jewish military officer in the French army. When it was discovered that an unknown traitor had been passing military secrets to the German army during the Franco-Prussian war, the military establishment closed ranks to lay the blame on Captain Dreyfus. The only evidence offered was a piece of paper with handwriting which was claimed, incorrectly, to be his. He was found guilty of treason and exiled on Devil’s Island off French Guyana where his inhumane treatment would have left lesser men for dead. Another military officer, Colonel Georges Picquart, had traced the real culprit, a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, but Esterhazy was acquitted after a brief trial.

The acquittal of Esterhazy prompted the brave intervention of the French novelist, Emile Zola. Zola’s famous “J’accuse” article in the press in 1898 set out the reasons why Dreyfus was innocent of the charges laid against him and, controversially, declared that the army had acted illegally in charging Dreyfus. After a second trial and a timely intervention from the President of France, Emile Loubet, Dreyfus was finally cleared of all charges in 1906. He was subsequently reinstated into the French Army and regained his promoted rank although failing health hastened his discharge from the army. He died in 1935.

There is much to commend in Louis Begley’s book. His narrative is polished and he offers many interesting details about those who played a part in this tragic story. What is particularly helpful is the ‘cast of characters’ and ‘chronology’ which are found at the end of the book. These sections deserve reading first as they offer the key information and basic data of the wider story and will allow Begley’s rich narrative to be understood more deeply.

A curious feature of this book is the parallel Begley initially draws between the Dreyfus affair and the prisoners held by the American Government in Guantanamo Bay. Begley is not sympathetic to the Bush administration and has a touching confidence in President Obama’s ability to bring this situation to an end. One is left with the impression at the start of the book that the storyline will be split between the Dreyfus affair and the Guantanamo Bay situation. The juxtaposition between Dreyfus and Guantanamo, although robustly drawn in the first few chapters, soon peters out and the reader is left slightly unsure as to the reasons why his obvious dedication to the cause of the Guantanamo prisoners is left hanging.

However, given the title of the book we need to ask why the Dreyfus affair matters today. In essence this historical event is a poignant case study of the fragility of what we deem today as civilized behaviour and of the thin line between order and chaos which runs through society.

Familiar and tragic themes in European history permeate this story: anti-Semitism, military recklessness, abuse of power and victimization of the innocent are, sadly, not issues which are found only in history textbooks but pop up continually on news bulletins today. What we learn from the Dreyfus affair is the long-term effect that political scandals can have on wider society. As a result of this scandal, France became increasingly polarized along political lines between those on the Monarchist and nationalist side who thought Dreyfus guilty, or at least did not want to gainsay the military establishment, and those on the Republican side who were passionate about individual rights against the power of the establishment. This division in French society was not dissolved with the end of the affair and its echoes were found in some elements of the Vichy regime of Marshall Petain in France during World War Two.

Louis Begley has written a fine book on an affair the finer details of which remain unknown today to all except dedicated historians. Perhaps this book will inspire other novelists to broaden the scope of their writing and embrace the genre of historical writing while retaining, like Begley, the novelist’s ability to write with pace and verve.

Those who wish to know more about the Dreyfus affair can listen to a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time Website. The link is inserted below. The archive of this site is a treasure house of intelligent discussion on political, cultural, literary and historical themes.

Leonard Franchi is a member of the Department of Religious Education at the University of Glasgow.