History Books

The best books on The Dreyfus Affair and the Belle Epoque

recommended by Ruth Harris

The Man on Devil’s Island by Ruth Harris


The Man on Devil’s Island
by Ruth Harris


The Belle Epoque combined a preoccupation with the noblesse of the old regime with the seeds for modernism, says Oxford history professor Ruth Harris, author of an award-winning book on the Dreyfus affair. She picks the best books on a golden period in France before the outbreak of World War I.

The Man on Devil’s Island by Ruth Harris


The Man on Devil’s Island
by Ruth Harris

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When and what was the Belle Epoque?

The Belle Epoque is the period preceding World War I, from around 1900 until 1914. Rather than a distinct period in history, it’s more a characterisation of an age that is not yet destroyed by the horrors of war. There’s technological growth, mass consumer culture but it was still a time of innocence before the bloodletting began. It should be remembered that Europe had not experienced a major, long-lasting conflict since the Crimean War in the 1850s, so it was an epoch of extraordinary peace and prosperity characterised by a great cultural, commercial and economic effervescence.

In terms of the arts it seems to be a golden age – burlesque, Fauvism, Impressionism. There was a real sense of joie de vivre.

You can look at it in two ways. The Belle Epoque – which I will talk about more when we come on to the books – is an era that combines a nostalgia for and preoccupation with the old regime and noblesse, while at the same time providing the seedbed for all the modernist currents that we associate with the 20th century. During the Belle Epoque there are successive trends such as Impressionism, Expressionism and Fauvism – it’s an era of successive “isms” because of the great growth in both elite and popular cultural consumption. For example, we associate the Belle Epoque not only with avant-garde innovation, but with the popular culture of Montmartre, the Folies Bergère and the decadence of absinthe drinking and cabaret. This was a culture of leisure that attracted Bohemians as well as working-class people.

The Belle Epoque, or beautiful era, also had its dark side, notably the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s and early 1900s. Can you remind us of the details and its wider significance?

What happened was very simple. There was a Jewish army captain called Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongly accused of spying for the Germans in 1894. He was convicted because his handwriting happened to have a slight similarity to that of the real spy, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. He was court-martialled and publicly paraded in the courtyard of the military academy to cries of “Death to the Jews” and then sent to live in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island [in French Guiana] for the rest of his life.

Within a year and a half there was increasing evidence that he wasn’t guilty. But rather than bringing him back, retrying him and finding the real culprit, the army embarks on a long conspiracy. Those who are seen as supporting Dreyfus – the Dreyfusards – are depicted as anti-militarist and part of an international, often capitalist Jewish conspiracy to undermine France from within. This battle between the Drefusards and anti-Dreyfusards goes on for a long time. Dreyfus is eventually returned to France for a second trial in 1899, but is convicted once again, and is only truly rehabilitated in 1906. The affair turns France into two bitterly opposed camps. All kinds of political ideologies – both of the left and the right – are concretised through the course of this great national debate in which personal philosophies are implicated for many of the major protagonists. So yes, this period has a very dark side, with growing nationalism revealing strong anti-Semitic undercurrents and even racism.

Was the affair symbolic of a larger struggle between intellectuals and the old establishment in France?

I think that’s the classic view of what happened. What I try to show in my book was that this wasn’t quite the case. There’s no doubt that the word “intellectuals” became popularised during this period, but it’s not one that the Dreyfusards used for themselves because it was actually a term of abuse. It referred to those who were cerebral, puny, non-virile – basically it was an anti-Semitic Jewish stereotype. What’s so interesting is that the right-wing ideologues were just as “intellectual” as the ones they opposed on the left.

I think it’s true that there was a military establishment, but many of those who were part of it merely felt they were protecting French grandeur and honour. For them, their opponents’ concern for this Jew Dreyfus – whether or not he was guilty – meant they were not really looking after the interests of France. It’s around those issues of justice, truth and moral imperatives that the two sides fall out. What’s very interesting is that many of the early Dreyfusards were patriots and originally supporters of the French military and it was the Dreyfus affair that actually transforms their view of the military. The French military was supposed to be a republican army – it was not like the Prussian military of the Kaiser or that of Tsarist Russia, but rather was seen as the descendant of the “nation in arms” which began with the French Revolution. It was for that reason that men like Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew from Alsace, chose the military as his career. He wanted to regain his regional homeland and to fight what he and his family saw as the authoritarian Prussian menace. The affair meant that many Dreyfusards began to see the army as a potentially anti-republican institution. After Dreyfus’s rehabilitation there was a purge of the armed forces to uproot what the Republican victors saw as Catholic subversives.

This segues nicely to your first choice, J’accuse. Before we talk about this open letter, can you remind us who Emile Zola was and why he was such an important literary figure?

Emile Zola was basically the father and the greatest protagonist of naturalism in letters. The reason he’s so interesting is that he has been sanctified as the ultimate hero of Truth and Justice. But actually for the Dreyfusards, he was a very ambiguous champion. He was considered by many lovers of French literature to be the ultimate pornographer for novels that described sexuality and violence, and was consequently vilified for having introduced all kinds of reductive, scientific and experimental ideas into fiction. His belief in the power of heredity and milieu focused attention on deterministic forces and undermined the potency of free will in human action. Moreover, his own personal morality worried many Dreyfusards. He famously had two homes – one containing his childless wife and the other his mistress and two children.

Please tell us about J’accuse.

J’accuse is an open letter he wrote in 1898 in the newspaper L’Aurore, just after the real culprit in the Dreyfus affair, Esterhazy, was acquitted of spying. J’accuse is an extraordinary polemic in which he deployed all his formidable literary talent. In it he accuses the military of a cover-up and cites a number of individuals. What’s interesting about the letter is that it does have a number of errors. Zola wasn’t particularly concerned with the details and was, in fact, rather a late convert to the Dreyfusard cause.

More than 300,000 copies of J’accuse were printed, so many that it caused a paper shortage in the capital. It caused a great storm and almost immediately Zola is charged with defamation. He is found guilty and has to escape into exile in England. But it’s at this moment that the Dreyfus affair really takes off, and reveals its peculiarly combustible mixture of literary polemic, popular journalism and the mass public agitation. It’s very interesting that Zola, a man who’s famous for depicting crowd scenes, goes to his trial and is surrounded by people who are trying to attack him. He’s amazed because he finds himself no longer writing about the unthinking nature of group activity, but becoming the sacrificial victim in a mob scene. Frightened to death, he calls them “the cannibals” and realises that demagoguery and anti-Semitism are real dangers to democracy. Zola is distinguished among the Dreyfusards because at the centre of his advocacy is a real struggle against anti-Semitism – for many this is not the case. He had anti-Semitic traces in his writing prior to the affair, but he came to reject it profoundly and work towards a cure for this malady in French society.

On to your second choice, Cyrano de Bergerac. Can you remind us of the play’s plot?

It is set in the 17th century. Cyrano de Bergerac is the play’s hero, a cadet – a nobleman serving as a solider in the French army – and he’s deformed, with a nose so enormous that people come from far and wide to view his “protuberance”. He falls madly in love with his cousin Roxane, who is witty and leaned, but because of what he believes to be his outward ugliness he cannot proclaim his love for her. Instead, an extraordinary triangle emerges. Christian de Neuvillette, who like Cyrano is a cadet, is absolutely beautiful but very inarticulate. What Cyrano does is lend him his words and between them they become the perfect man. But it’s Christian not Cyrano who takes the prize with Roxane not realising that she has fallen in love with the wrong person and it’s only at the end of the play, many years after Christian dies in the siege of Arras, that she comes to grips with this fact and understands that her real devotion should be for the ugly Cyrano.

I think it’s interesting that Cyrano has a big nose. I don’t know if this was subliminal, but the fact is that a big nose was one of the most important features in the caricatures of Jews. This is something that’s not widely discussed but it’s very interesting that this was the deformity that Rostand picks on to create a great hero who, in this regard, departs from the classical model.

Why did this play capture the public imagination to the extent that it did?

It came out as the Dreyfus affair was just heating up, and it quickly became a play around which the French could unite at a time when the affair was tearing them apart. What people loved about Cyrano de Bergerac is that it seemed to display a distinctive French quality – panache. The play’s emphasis on verve and wit that overcame adversity enabled men and women of often different values to identify with particular aspects of Cyrano’s character. Cyrano asserts an aristocratic sense of noblesse that appealed to the right. At the same time, he is a remarkable swordsman and dueler, which both artistocrats and republicans endorsed in this period as a virile manner in which to settle disputes. He is also characterised by an independence of thought and a refusal to be patronised, a quality which attracted him to the left. In this, he seemed to resemble the early “intellectuals” of the affair.

What’s also really important about the play is the era in which it is set. It’s France of Louis XIII and the ancien regime, before the great centralisation of Versailles and the Sun King. It also depicts a France that successfully beats the superior Spanish forces. This victory confirmed a French sense of grandeur in the 1890s,when they were still smarting from defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871.

So virtually all the French love this play, but at the same time it was something which inadvertently revealed Dreyfus’s insufficiency by comparison. Dreyfus was as obsessed as the play’s author Rostand with conceptions of honour. But whereas Cyrano is absolutely eloquent, Dreyfus was stolid, spoke French with a lingering German accent, was inarticulate and lacked any theatrical presence. When he finally comes back in 1899 for his second trial, he has lost some teeth and has problems speaking after living in solitary confinement for almost five years. People were so disappointed with Dreyfus. They wanted a Cyrano, but what they get instead is Dreyfus – a Jew who is not rooted in the soil of Gascony like Cyrano but somebody who lacks verbal virtuosity and appeal. Instead they pair Cyrano with Georges Picquart – an army officer who submitted evidence to his superiors showing Esterhazy’s guilt – who was dashing and brilliant and, importantly, not Jewish.

Your next pick is a historical novel, Stone’s Fall, which moves backwards in time.

I’m going to confess right away that this is a novel written by my husband. The reason I chose it is that I know it so well and that he would be the first to say that much of it was taken from ideas that I have been thinking about for the last 25 years, and which he had rendered in fictional form.

Stone’s Fall starts off in London and then it goes back in time, first to the crisis at Barings Bank in Paris in the 1890s and then to Venice in the 1860s, prior to Italian unification. What the book shows is the enveloping crisis of World War I and its European-wide context, hence the three countries it’s set in. Above all, it really reflects long and deeply on the underside of the fin de siècle and the Belle Epoque.

We have mutual protagonists, John Stone himself and, ultimately, his wife Elizabeth. They are both in business. She is first a spy and then an elegant courtesan, with all her illustrious so-called “shareholders”, who support her in extreme elegance in Paris – in other words each day one of the “shareholders” pays for the sexual favours and cultural cultivation that she can bestow. John Stone is an industrialist modelled on the great armaments manufacturer Basil Zaharoff, whose wealth and influence was so enormous it was said to have had an important impact on the foreign policy of many European states. What he did was sell arms to a number of countries, thereby triggering an arms race in which he could never be the loser.

I can’t tell you the ending because that would spoil the story, but only by following it to the novel’s climax do we find out that Stone’s fall is all about the question of degeneration and primal transgression. At the end of the 19th century people became obsessed with hereditary degeneration, a naturalised vision of the Christian belief that the sins of the fathers would be revisited on the sons. In the book these questions of degeneration and transgression are interwoven into the most intimate aspects of the protagonists’ lives, above all Stone, who thinks that with the calm manoeuvrings of capital he can control the diverse elements of his empire like so many strings of a marionette. He is deluded in this fantasy of control. There are forces of attraction towards sexual violence and violence more generally that lead to his downfall. The greatest transgression in the novel is World War I itself – the ultimate transgression that leads to the unleashing of new technological weapons on European populations.

Your next choice is the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse. Please tell us more.

I think this is an extraordinary biography – the story of a late bloomer whose career only really takes off when he’s 35. It interests me as a professional historian because it puts its finger on the cross-currents of culture in this period. As I mentioned earlier, on the one hand we see in France the continued preoccupation with the old regime, which was so evident in the massive acclaim for a play like Cyrano de Bergerac. On the other, there were these avant-garde artists like Matisse who would break with the form of many classical conventions.

What Matisse shows is the development of a modernist aesthetic. It’s also a very complicated one. His modernism is in some sense deeply affected by industrialisation. He comes from a textile town in Flanders and throughout his life he would collect fabric and use its exuberant colours and textures to inspire his art – that’s why the whole decorative side of Matisse is so important. He is also a northerner who initially only painted with palettes of browns, but is transformed by his wife’s Corsican heritage and his first trips to the light of the south where he considered colour anew. He develops a new colour aesthetic in Fauvism – which is the French word for “wild beast” and describes the iconoclasm of some of his works in the first decade of the 20th century. But it wasn’t just for the sake of breaking the rules: He used colour as a means of expressing his own subjectivity, and his paintings proved so powerful because of the emotion they seemed to convey.

So modernism emerges in the midst of the long summer of the Belle Epoque. The conventional view is that modernism was a complete break with the past. But I would insist – and I think that this biography shows it beautifully – that a modernist like Matisse builds on older traditions, especially in content if not in form. Like many other artists of this period, he is also influenced by empire and made paintings of women from North Africa in a very similar way to 19th century realists.

What is also interesting about Matisse is that he becomes self-consciously decorative. He didn’t necessarily want to disturb, but rather wanted a modern art form “as comfortable as an armchair”. That was very different from the view of art of his great rival Picasso. It’s interesting to reflect on how many different types there were in the melting pot of modernist aesthetics – they were not all intent on jarring sensibilities. That’s why I think this book is so wonderful. Not because it’s just an art history drooling over the beauty of the artworks of Matisse – although she does really appreciate his art – but because Spurling understands these many different cultural elements and also the intensity of his life – his insomnia, passions and fears – and how they all contributed to his artistic output.

This book marks the end of the Belle Epoque, charting the outbreak of World War I. Please tell us more.

This is a very strange book for me to choose. For many people, it is the ultimate old-fashioned diplomatic history. But it enthuses me for several reasons. First of all, it’s an extraordinary narrative. It reads magnificently and is a breathtaking horizon of events and people. Secondly, like me, she is obsessed with people. In the first chapter we have the funeral of Edward VII in 1910, which is attended by 10 European kings. She uses this funeral as a way of demonstrating  the fundamental contradiction of pre-war Europe, in which increasingly bourgeois, urban, sophisticated industrial societies remained none the less monarchical, with only France as a major Republican power. Militarism and court cultures intermingled to an extraordinary extent.

What Tuchman does so well is to document the kind of thought patterns that pervaded the many national rivalries, which was all to do with imperialism, social Darwinism, but, above all, military planning and strategy. Again, what I love about this book, and in this way there’s an affinity between Tuchman and me, is that it describes the importance of irrational forces and charts their implications. She tries to look at why the war took the course that it did and discovers the many miscalculations of the leaders at the same time as describing their utter inability to shift course. Like the soldiers in the trenches that lined the Western Front after the Battle of the Marne, decision-makers simply dug in and a generation of men were lost. Leaders, for example, couldn’t grasp that free trade wouldn’t make a short war and peace inevitable. The Germans didn’t realise that by invading Belgium they actually invited the British into the war.

I also love the book because it is a history within a history. It became an immediate bestseller when it came out in 1962 and was the bible of key Cold War politicians, particularly US President Kennedy. What interested them was how to learn not to make the same mistakes. Apparently Kennedy kept citing it during the Cuban missile crisis where he resisted the advice of the military top brass. The shadow of World War I and the terrible mistakes and miscalculations of that war were constantly on his mind. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis was probably his finest achievement in an otherwise lacklustre presidency. Rarely are there lessons in history in an obvious or reductive sense, but in this instance this book seems to have had an important influence on how a president faced a terrible crisis.

July 25, 2012

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Ruth Harris

Ruth Harris

Ruth Harris is a professor of European history at Oxford University and a fellow of the British Academy. Her book The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France won the Wolfson History Prize, the National Jewish Book Award and was a New York Times Critics Choice.

Ruth Harris

Ruth Harris

Ruth Harris is a professor of European history at Oxford University and a fellow of the British Academy. Her book The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France won the Wolfson History Prize, the National Jewish Book Award and was a New York Times Critics Choice.