The Dreyfus Affair divided French society more than any issue since the Revolution, it brought latent anti-Semitism to the fore, poisoned its body politic, saw reconciliation between political left and right become impossible, made a mockery of the values of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, and was to indirectly contribute the France’s early capitulation in World War Two.
It laid bare French pretensions to homogeneity and social harmony and the controversy refuses to go away continuing to resonate in France even to this day.
Alfred Dreyfus was born on 9 October 1859, in 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 some 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.
“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.
Despite its obvious significance, Henry did not report on it or take it to a higher authority for a number of days. 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.
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 instead he denied everything.
Presented with a loaded revolver he declined to use it.
He had never been popular with his colleagues considered both arrogant and aloof and too good to mix with them socially.
He was also personally very rich which caused a great deal of resentment.
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, and indeed want 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 beyond any reasonable doubt of betraying his country.
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 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.
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 anti-Semitic 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 such accusations but 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 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.
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, and he needed it.
He had 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 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 validity.
In early 1897, Picquart presented his evidence to Dreyfus’s lawyers.
Informed of this and in an attempt to pre-empt any future proceedings against him Esterhasy demanded a private hearing behind closed doors to clear his name.
The subsequent trial was a sham.
One of those on the Military Tribunal was Major Henry who guided them to an acquittal.
Esterhasy was permitted to retire to England and awarded with a pension.
When news of this leaked out violence broke out in Paris and on the streets of many other major cities.
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 unpicking the evidence against him in a series of booklets he published.
Mathieu refused to remain silent on his brother’s innocence and unjust imprisonment and although his campaigning was greeted mostly with hostility he was heard.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
This did not exonerate him of the charges, however.
Alfred Dreyfus had suffered terribly during his five years of incarceration on Devil’s Island.
For most of the time he had been kept in solitary confinement where he was chained to his bed each night, and with no one to talk to he had virtually lost his power of speech.
The terrible heat made it almost impossible to sleep, he was frequently ill, 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, died on 21 May in Harpenden, England.
He was never brought to account for his treason and was, despite all the evidence against him, to continue to exclaim his innocence and blame Dreyfus and the on-going Jewish Conspiracy.
He supplemented his military pension up until his death writing for anti-Semitic journals.
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.
He was 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.
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.