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The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France


The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France

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    Available in PDF Format | The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France.pdf | English
    Ruth Harris(Author)

Winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2010 and the 2010 National Jewish Book Award for Biography

Ruth Harris writes beautifully and engagingly on a moment in French history that polarized society and undermined the French state; the repercussions of which were felt up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

At the end of September 1894 a charlady stole an undated and unsigned letter from the wastepaper bin of the German military attaché in Paris. Torn to pieces but stuck back together by French intelligence, this document contained French military secrets. By the middle of October a Jewish captain in the army called Alfred Dreyfus was accused of being its author. As it turned out, he was entirely innocent, but at the time few questioned the verdict of the subsequent court martial, nor the unanimous decision to sentence him to a life of penal servitude. Public opinion was outraged, and the War Minister, General Auguste Mercier, asked for the reintroduction of the death penalty so Dreyfus could be guillotined. Although the request was turned down, Dreyfus was still subjected to special conditions: rather than going to New Caledonia like other transported convicts, he was sent to the much harsher Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana, and condemned to solitary confinement in murderous conditions. The French authorities did not expect - and probably did not want - him to survive.

So undisputed was Dreyfus' conviction that no one had any inkling it would be queried, let alone that the case would become the scandal that nearly brought down the French state. It changed the political course of the nation and transformed the way the country viewed itself and was viewed by others.

Winner of the WOLFSON HISTORY PRIZE 2010 and 2010 NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY (Prizes and awards)An extraordinary study of the affair as a tragic drama that swept up a man, his family and friends, and more widely French society and the French state. (Robert Gildea The New York Review of Books)A triumph of research and analysis. (Max McGuinness The Irish Times)Ruth Harris offers us one of the most thorough and eloquent accounts of this turbulent episode. (Gavin Bowd Scotland on Sunday)With the aid of copious illustrations, helpful chronology and a list of leading characters, [Harris] offers a compelling account of incidents (Malcolm Cook BBC History)Ruth Harris' minutely detailed examination of the rich mulch from which the Dreyfus case sprouted its fleurs du mal, adds a new level of learning to the affair that defined 20th-century France (Nigel Jones Telegraph)a highly imaginative, deeply-researched inquiry into the battle over Dreyfus which revels in paradox and complexity. (Michael Marrus TLS)"Harris is a first-rate narrative historian... What marks Harris's contribution is her formidable research skills, her exceptionally wide general and historical reading, and her always interesting eye for the revealing anecdote or pen portrait." (Carmen Callil The Guardian)"Scrupulous and well-written...Harris is to be thanked for the care and measure of her sifting and weighing, and for the deep historical perspective that she brings to the undertaking." (Christopher Hitchens The Weekly Standard)

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Book details

  • PDF | 560 pages
  • Ruth Harris(Author)
  • Penguin (7 April 2011)
  • English
  • 5
  • Biography
Read online or download a free book: The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France

Review Text

  • By Basileus on 24 March 2013

    "The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France" by Ruth Harris tells the story of France during the "Dreyfus Affair", the famous political scandal that polarized France at the turn of the twentieth century and haunted it for decades to come. The main events of the Affair function as the glue of the story, with the protagonists on both sides of the fault line taking centre stage and shaping the political, social and cultural landscape of "fin de siècle" France.Harris is convincing in her conclusion that the Affair was not a straightforward struggle between right and wrong or the political left and right, but a result of the unique context in France at the time. She is immaculate in dissecting, analyzing and assessing the many dimensions that made the Dreyfus Affair so intense that it stirred almost everybody in France to choose sides. Truth and justice versus tradition and honour, Catholicism versus secularism, republicanism versus monarchism, thought versus feeling, socialism and internationalism versus nationalism and anti-Semitism were all played out during the Affair against the backdrop of revanchism towards Prussia for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the war of 1870. The writer explains all these dimensions by describing the complex, emotional dynamics between persons, groups and ideas that powered the Affair. The not so surprising outcome is that many key-players joining the bandwagon of this cause célèbre were driven by less than principal motives and were full of ambiguity in their own convictions."The Man on Devil's Island" is well researched and Ruth Harris shows how erudite she is in the subject matter. Yet, as fascinating this story is, this is not an easy read and I found myself struggling through parts of the book. The dynamics in the relationships between key-players are described in minute detail hampering the readability of the story. This is aggravated by the fact that the majority of the main characters (with Zola and Clemenceau being exceptions) are for the general reader obscure at best. All in all, "The Man on Devil's Island" requires perseverance from the reader and is not suitable for a novice looking for an introduction of the Dreyfus Affair.

  • By Daniel Brouiller on 8 July 2010

    This book is not only a definitive account of the Dreyfus affair, but a sweeping and panoramic description of the political, social, religious and philosophical currents of fin-de-siecle France.The author's main thesis is that both the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard camps were both broad coalitions comprised of individuals with very varied beliefs, ideas and values - and hence - reasons for becoming involved in the affair. The corollary of this being, that there were, as a result, tensions within the two groupings themselves.This broad thrust of the book, therefore, is supported by detailed examination of the personal ideology of each of the main players. Typically,Ruth Harris describes their background, or upbringing,in order to further explain the nature and reasons for the beliefs that they came to hold. This, in turn, enables the reader to fully appreciate why they took the stance that they did in the Dreyfus affair and to evaluate their individual contributions.This does mean that the book is broad in its outlook, comprehensive and detailed. If you are looking for a more straightforward historical narrative of the affair, you might find this book heavy going. If, on the other hand, you are interested in 19th century French history generally - and the whole melting pot of ideas prevalent at the time - then you will find it wholly fascinating and engaging.The chapters leading up to Dreyfus's imprisonment on Devil's Island and those that deal with events after his return to France for the second trial tell the story chronologically in the form of fairly gripping narrative. The main part of the book, however, covering the period of Dreyfus's exile,introduces the key players on both sides of the campaign, in a series of themed chapters, exploring the main currents of ideas (e.g. right-wing Nationalism or the significance of differing religious ideas within the Dreyfusard camp).Rich, compelling and fascinating, I really enjoyed this book and hope that the above information will be helpful in enabling you to decide whether to buy it or not.

  • By Francis A on 21 January 2011

    If you want to understand French history from the late 19th century until today this is an invaluable book. Between-war politics, the 1940 collapse, Vichy, Algeria, de Gaulle, 1968 right through to the current tensions over Muslim immigration - all are clearer having read about the social and political backround to the Affair. As others have said, there is not actually a lot about Dreyfus himself (painted as fundamentally not very interesting) nor about his incarceraration, and even his trials are somewhat sketchily covered. But the real story of how and why the Affair had such a huge impact on French thought and poltical activity is superbly researched and explained.

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