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