Book Review: 'Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters' by Louis Begley

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Sunday, October 11, 2009


By Louis Begley

Yale Univ. 249 pp. $24

Does the case of Alfred Dreyfus -- a French artillery captain falsely imprisoned for treason in 1895 -- prefigure the plight of Guantanamo Bay detainees? Louis Begley, an attorney, novelist ("About Schmidt") and Holocaust survivor, thinks so, but offers scant evidence in this slim, dry procedural commemorating L'Affaire that divided France for a decade.

Like Muslims denied fair hearings after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dreyfus was a reliable patsy for corrupt army officers humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war. His "accusers could say to themselves that he was a man without a country and, like all Jews, a traitor by nature," Begley writes. Beyond that, the analogy teeters. Persecution of Jews has been around for centuries, while anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States has arisen only in the past 50 years because of wrongheaded U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, both groups have suffered, but not commensurately or for identical reasons. Begley fears that the crimes of the Bush administration, like the injustice perpetrated against Dreyfus, may "disappear under the scar tissue of silence and indifference." But his hope that such violations are a thing of the past is couched in misguided optimism over Obama's inauguration and over detainee trials that have yet to materialize.

-- Justin Moyer moyerj@washpost.com

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