The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair divided French society more than any issue since the Revolution poisoning the body politic and making any reconciliation between Left and Right impossible. The barely latent anti-Semitism it highlighted laid bare French pretensions to homogeneity and social harmony making a mockery of the values of Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite it even being suggested that the schism it caused contributed directly to France’s early capitulation in World War Two.

The man who was at the centre of the controversy, the focus of such vitriol, and latterly a cause celebre was born Alfred Dreyfus on 9 October 1859, from the city of Mulhouse in the region of Alsace along the border with Germany.
His father, Raphael, was a successful Jewish textile manufacturer who conducted his business affairs in Yiddish and spoke German as a first language as indeed did most of Alfred’s eight siblings, and though the family fled to Paris following the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and the German annexation of Alsace it seemed to many that they were barely French at all.

That doubt would ever be cast upon his loyalty never entered the mind of the young Alfred who as a French patriot had determined upon a military career at an early age burning as he did, along with many other educated Frenchmen, with the desire to avenge the humiliation of 1870-71 but though Jews had been fully assimilated into French society since the time of the Revolution to many they remained an alien presence in the country and were not to be trusted.

Latent anti-Semitism was rife, and few among Dreyfus’s fellow Officers were to be unaware of his Jewish background.

By 1894, he had risen to the rank of Captain of Artillery and was highly regarded as a devoted and efficient Officer whose diligence and hard work earned its reward when he was assigned to the General Staff. His career appeared to be on an upward curve but all this was soon to change.

In September 1894, Marie Bastian, a French cleaner at the German Embassy who was paid to rummage through the rubbish of the enemy retrieved a bordereau, or list, from the waste-paper basket of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German Military Attache.

Taken to Major Hubert-Joseph Henry of French Counter-Intelligence the scraps of paper though faint, torn in two, and partially burned were able to be pieced together and appeared to indicate the willingness on the part of a French Artillery Officer on the General Staff to sell secrets.

It began:

“Being without information as to whether you desire to see me, I send you nevertheless monsieur, some interesting information.”

It went onto discuss the development of the new long-recoil French field gun, the testing of which had been held in the utmost secrecy and the army’s future long-term strategic plans:

“This document is exceedingly difficult to get hold of, and I can have it at my disposal only for a very few days. The Minister of War has distributed a certain number of copies among the corps who are responsible for them.

Each Officer holding a copy is required to return it after manoeuvres.

Therefore if you glean from it whatever interests you, and let me have it again as soon as possible, I will manage to obtain possession of it. Unless you will prefer I have it copied.”

It was signed D.

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Despite its obvious significance, Henry did not report on it or take it to a higher authority for a number of days but when he eventually did and a formal investigation was ordered suspicion immediately fell upon the Jew Dreyfus, the German from Alsace.

Despite the fact that there was no firm evidence to implicate Dreyfus in the writing of the bordereau other than the signature ‘D’ and putting aside the implausibility that someone undertaking espionage would so seek to identify themselves, the French Minister of War Auguste Mercier wanted a swift conclusion to the case.

So regardless of a lack of motive and Dreyfus’s own fervent patriotism often expressed in his desire that war be renewed with Germany to retrieve the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and expunge the previous humiliation from the collective memory few in the army doubted his guilt. He was after all a Jew, a man of an alien race that felt no ties of loyalty to the country that gave him succour.

The army believed that they had unearthed the culprit, or at least the man that would take the blame, but nevertheless they at first trod cautiously as they sought the evidence that would secure a conviction.

Dreyfus was not informed that he was under investigation until 9 October and even then guardedly. He took the news calmly perhaps believing that his name had simply fallen within the parameters of a general inquiry but not long after this the facts of the case were leaked to the press which rounded on Dreyfus condemning him in the Court of Public opinion long before he was convicted in a Court of Law.

On 15 October, during a meeting with General Mercier he was curtly informed that he was under arrest for espionage and was to be charged with treason.

It was expected that he would admit his guilt but presented with a loaded revolver he declined to use it instead he denied everything.

Personally wealthy which caused no little resentment he had never been popular considered arrogant, aloof, and distant.

Though the evidence against him was flimsy and circumstantial at best, experts could not even agree that the bordereau had been written in his hand, there were all too many people willing to believe him guilty and indeed wanted him to be guilty.

On 28 November, before he came to trial General Mercier provided an interview to the press in which he openly declared Dreyfus to be guilty of betraying his country, the facts spoke for themselves.

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On 22 December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was brought before a Military Tribunal to face Court Martial.

The trial was a sham, the evidence against him contrived, but the verdict never in doubt. He was found guilty of colluding with a foreign power to betray his country and sentenced to life imprisonment.

On 5 January 1895, he endured the humiliating ordeal of being publicly stripped of his rank, the epaulettes torn from his shoulders, his sword snapped before his eyes. It was later reported that on his journey to the ceremony he had admitted his guilt – it was a lie.

On 15 February he was transported to serve a life sentence on the old penal colony of Devil’s Island in French Guyana. Besides his guards he was its only inhabitant. It had been re-opened especially for him.

As far as the Army was concerned that was that, an embarrassing scandal had been averted.

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In April 1896, Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, who had recently been appointed Chief of Army Intelligence, discovered that the bordereau had in fact been written by an Officer of Hungarian descent, Major Ferdinand Wilsan Esterhasy. Despite being an outspoken anti-Semite himself Picquart was an honest and patriotic man who wanted to see the traitor punished not an innocent man who had become the victim of a cover-up and the convenient scapegoat of fevered public imagination.

Bringing this to the attention of his superiors he was warned not to proceed further with his revelations or make accusations he could not substantiate but he refused to let it lie only to find his further investigations impeded at every turn by Major Hubert Henry, who was a close friend of Esterhasy’s and whom it would transpire had forged the documents that had secured Dreyfus’s conviction.

Unable to persuade Picquart to cease his investigations in December 1896, he was relieved of his duties and sent to serve in Tunisia, but it was too late the cat was out of the bag. The new evidence that had emerged which might exonerate Dreyfus had already been made public to the press and it very quickly sparked a national debate.

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The man who now found himself at the centre of the case, Major Esterhasy, was not one to inspire confidence. He was a drunk, an inveterate liar, and a rabid anti-Semite though this did not prevent him from begging Jewish financiers for money having earlier squandered the family fortune in the gambling houses and brothels of Paris, and had done the same with his wife’s dowry, she was to leave him soon after.

Needless to say he blamed everyone else for his problems. In particular he blamed the army, and the Jews, for thwarting his ambitions.

A fluent German speaker himself he told Schwartzkoppen that he was not only willing to sell military secrets for a price but that the more he paid the more he could have. Indeed, he was willing to betray his country with such alarming alacrity that the Italian Attache Panizzardi, with whom Schwartzkoppen shared the secrets, doubted that he was a French Officer at all, and it had to be arranged for Esterhasy to parade himself before him in full military regalia just to prove his authenticity.

In early 1897, Picquart presented his evidence to Dreyfus’s lawyers.

Informed of this and in an attempt to preempt any future proceedings against him Esterhasy demanded a private hearing behind closed doors to clear his name. The subsequent Military Tribunal was guided by Major Henry to an acquittal. Permitted to retire and awarded a pension Esterhasy left for England.

When news of this leaked to the public the outrage was palpable and violence erupted on the streets of Paris and elsewhere.

The Dreyfus Affair had followed hot on the heels of other controversies including the Boulanger Coup-de-Etat and the Panama Canal Scandal and to many it seemed as if the very existence of the French Republic itself was at stake.

It was to be Dreyfus’s older brother Mathieu who would prove the catalyst for his eventual release, however.

He had never for a moment believed in his brother’s guilt and carried out his own investigation while refusing to remain silent on the subject of his brother’s innocence and unjust imprisonment unpicking the evidence against him in a series of booklets he then had published.

Although his campaign was opposed with great hostility by politicians, churchmen, and newspaper editors alike he refused not to be heard.

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On 13 January 1898, the famous novelist Emile Zola published his notorious J’Accuse, an open letter addressed to the President of the French Republic.

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In it he condemned the Government and the military for their lies and the subsequent cover up. The investigation, for what it was worth, had been little more than a farce, and Dreyfus’s conviction was the result of – the dirty Jew obsession that was the scourge of our time.

He also named Major Esterhasy as the traitor and that the Army had only cleared him of all charges to save face.

In response to his letter the Authorities tried to have Zola arrested for libel but he fled to England before they could do so and J’Accuse, re-printed around the world, caused a sensation.

Zola’s intervention saw the more liberal press which had at first accepted the verdict more or less at face value begin to express doubts. his was particularly so in the pages of Le Figaro which began to actively campaign on Dreyfus’s behalf but soon ceased when a majority of its readers threatened to boycott the paper.

Soon prominent left-wing politicians such as Jean Jaures and Leon Blum, and even the liberal ex-Mayor of Paris Georges Clemenceau, that paragon of Republican virtues, began to demand a retrial.

France was by now firmly divided into two camps – pro-Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard.

The Army, the Right-Wing Press, and the Catholic Church now attacked those who were trying to exonerate Dreyfus as being Freemasons and Radicals. It was all part of a Jewish Conspiracy, they said, to destroy the prestige of the French Army.

But despite their best efforts it was becoming increasingly evident that a miscarriage of justice had occurred and in April 1899, Dreyfus was granted a second court-martial.

In the meantime Major Hubert Henry, who was under arrest for having forged documents in the case, committed suicide. The Defence had lost a crucial witness so despite the Prosecution being forced to admit to a cover up having taken place, Dreyfus was again found guilty. This time however it was decided that there were mitigating circumstances and his sentence was reduced to ten years.

France was again in tumult, would this ghastly affair ever end.

In September 1899, the French President Emile Loubet personally intervened and granted Dreyfus a pardon but while this freed him from captivity it did not exonerate him of the charges.

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Alfred Dreyfus had suffered terribly during his five years of incarceration on Devil’s Island where he had been kept in solitary confinement chained to his bed each night, and with no one to talk to he had virtually lost his power of speech. The terrible heat also made it almost impossible to sleep, he was frequently ill, the bad diet had seen his teeth fall out, and the constant boredom drove him to distraction but at least he was now free, even if according to the law he was still guilty.

Emile Zola, who’s J’Accuse had done so much to bring the Dreyfus Affair to international attention died on 29 September, 1902, from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked chimney. Given the previous attempts on Zola’s life and the divisiveness of the Dreyfus Affair murder cannot be entirely ruled out.

Ferdinand Esterhasy was never brought to account for his treason and despite all the evidence against him continued to proclaim his innocence and blame Dreyfus and the world-wide Jewish conspiracy while supplementing his pension writing for anti-Semitic journals. He died in Harpenden, England, on 21 May, 1923.

Alfred Dreyfus wasn’t cleared of all charges and restored to his position in the Army until 1906 and was to go on to serve with distinction in World War One where he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and later awarded the Legion d’Honneur.

But he had disappointed many of his more radical supporters by accepting his pardon and later his return to the army without demur, without it seemed any axe to grind.

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He died in Paris on 12 July, 1935, proud of his military service but seemingly oblivious to his notoriety and dismissive of the great scandal of which he had been central remarking as he often did that there is no smoke without fire.

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