Fellow historians and others may recoil at the sins I commit here. I propose to draw lessons from history through an apparently inappropriate historical analogy: comparing the Dreyfus Affair, an old story (1894-1906) concentrated mainly on one individual and one country, with current developments in Iraq and their implications for American and world history.
This effort would be absurd were it my intention to discuss the broad skein of historical causality and consequence supposedly linking these two cases. My purpose, however, is to illustrate how events can be significant not mainly for their broader historical impact, but simply for what they are in themselves—for what they tell us about the essential human qualities of the actors involved and the society in which they live. At the time and ever since, most people have believed the Dreyfus case important for its impact on French history. It really had but modest impact; its chief historical importance lies in what it revealed about fin-de-siècle France. Most believe today that the unfolding Iraq story is crucial for the broad consequences it has had and will have on American, Middle Eastern and world history. Perhaps. But the war in Iraq, too, may turn out to be important above all for what it is, for what it tells us about the United States today.
An Abbreviated Affair
The Dreyfus Affair began in 1894 when the intelligence service of the French Army, called the Statistical Section, discovered that some French officer was selling military secrets to Germany's military attaché. Suspicion centered on a Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. A sloppy investigation and defective court-martial procedures led to Dreyfus' conviction and imprisonment on Devil's Island.
Dreyfus' claims of innocence and his family's and friends' efforts kept his cause alive, but this would not have availed had not the treasonous activity continued and a new head of the Statistical Section, Major Georges Picquart, ultimately become convinced that another officer, Count Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin-Esterházy, was the real culprit. Picquart's investigations prompted a concerted Army cover-up, however, during which his subordinate, Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, forged and falsified documents to bolster the case against Dreyfus. Meanwhile, Picquart's superiors tried to silence him by bribes, threats, reassignment and, when none of that worked, with dismissal, arrest and imprisonment.
Nonetheless, as more evidence seeped out incriminating Esterházy and exonerating Dreyfus, the case became a cause célèbre that split France into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard camps. Before long, the question of Dreyfus' innocence or guilt became entangled with the hottest issues then dividing Frenchmen—Catholicism versus anticlericalism, militarism versus anti-militarism, conservative nationalism versus radical republicanism.
Public pressure finally forced the government to bring Esterházy to...