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Home Uncategorized Lying for France

Lying for France

Patrick O’Connor
The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History, by Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury Publishing, 416 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1408801390 Piers Paul Read’s book on the Dreyfus Affair joins the many others which have dealt with this pivotal episode in modern French history. It cannot be said that Read sheds new light on the subject; but he does not claim to do so. Indeed he notes with apparent approval the view expressed by the French historian Marcel Thomas in 1960 that “it would be vain to hope to solve in an entirely new way a ‘mystery’ which, in fact, has no longer been a mystery for quite a time”. As a novelist, Read seems to have been attracted by what he describes as “the intriguing nature of the story itself”. The vast majority of those who have written about the matter have come from what might be described as the Dreyfusard side. Read, himself a devout Catholic, notes that Catholic historians have tended to shy away from the issue, presumably because of the predominance of Catholics among the anti-Dreyfusard faction. He is interested in exploring the significance of the affair for the Catholic Church and suggests that it “is intelligible only if it is seen in the context of the ideological struggle between the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire”. Read’s novelistic skills enable him to tell a compelling tale in which character is well delineated. The fact that the story is relatively well known and that his contribution adds nothing that is new does not diminish the value of his work. He devotes his first sixty pages to setting the context which, for him, makes the affair intelligible, to explain, although by no means to justify, the position taken by so many Catholics on the affair. He begins with the 1789 revolution, which not only overthrew the monarchy but also led to severe persecution of the Church and, for a time, the official rejection of religion. The Church was a target both because it owned a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth and because it was seen as closely aligned with the aristocracy, from whose ranks indeed sprang the entire hierarchy. Persecution ended under Napoleon, who negotiated a concordat with Pope Pius VII in 1801. However, the effects of the preceding decade were not erased. The Church, having suffered alongside…



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