The Most Shameful of Stains
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One hundred years ago tomorrow, Alfred Dreyfus stood before the high court of appeal in Paris as the chief justice pronounced the words he had been waiting to hear for almost 12 years. “Given that, in the final analysis, of the accusation against Dreyfus there is nothing that remains standing,” the judge declared, “the Court annuls the verdict of the Court-Martial [that] condemned Dreyfus to ten years of detention and dishonorable discharge from the Army … [and] declares that it was wrongfully and by error that the conviction was pronounced.” So, not with a bang but a whimper, ended the scandal that had convulsed France and transfixed the world — the saga of of injustice, prejudice, and courage that we still remember as the Dreyfus Affair.
By July 12, 1906, in fact, the Dreyfus Affair had largely receded into history. Not until the court of appeal officially cleared Dreyfus could he regain his military rank; after the verdict, it was quickly restored to him by act of parliament, and he was awarded the Legion of Honor. But the fact of his innocence had been established, practically if not officially, in September 1899, when he was given a presidential pardon and set free after five years of captivity on Devil’s Island.
The pardon was an official acknowledgment that Dreyfus was not the German spy the army had accused him of being, nor the “Judas” the right-wing press and anti-Semitic mobs had called him. But the very fact that Dreyfus had to be conveniently pardoned, rather than fairly acquitted, showed how deeply the Dreyfus Affair had corrupted French justice and society. Indeed, from 1897 to 1899, the Affair cast doubt on the very survival of the French Republic, and laid bare tensions that were to destroy European democracy in the 20th century.
Few events in modern history have been written about as copiously as the Dreyfus Affair. Whole libraries have been devoted to unraveling the mysteries of the case, which was like a spy novel come to life — complete with forged documents, anonymous veiled ladies, duels of honor, and suicides that looked like murders. Many of the participants and eyewitnesses, including Dreyfus himself, wrote detailed memoirs. But in an even more fundamental sense, writers and writing are what turned the Dreyfus case, a legal process, into the Dreyfus Affair, an ideological battle. More than the courts or the government, it was newspapers that drove the Affair from beginning to end, and some of its major heroes and villains were journalists.
Chief among the villains was Edouard Drumont, editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole, who whipped up popular fury against the “traitor” Dreyfus. “The affair of Captain Dreyfus … is only an episode in Jewish history,” he wrote. “Judas sold the compassion and love of God. … Captain Dreyfus has sold our mobilization plans to Germany.”Thanks to Drumont and other anti-Dreyfusards, belief in Dreyfus’s guilt soon ceased to have anything to do with the facts. It was transformed into a symbol of a whole set of values — patriotism, obedience, Catholic piety, hatred of Jews and foreigners — which many Frenchmen proudly and violently embraced. For the anti-Dreyfusards, acknowledging that Dreyfus was not guilty meant conceding that the army had erred — worse, that it had conspired to convict an innocent man.This a good Frenchman could never admit; ergo, anyone who defended Dreyfus was by definition a traitor, and very likely in the pay of a shadowy “Jewish syndicate.”
Against this hateful and obscurantist tide the Dreyfusards rose to defend, not just Dreyfus himself, but their vision of a just and honest society.The most famous and effective Dreyfusard was Emile Zola, whose open letter to the president of France, “J’Accuse,” has become a byword. Published at the beginning of 1898, when the prospect of justice for Dreyfus had seemingly disappeared for good, “J’Accuse” was more than a recitation of the facts of the case. It was a deliberate act of libel, whose peroration is a series of personal accusations: “I accuse Lieutenant Colonel du Paty de Clam of having been the diabolical workman of judicial error. … I accuse General Mercier of having made himself an accomplice …in one of the greatest iniquities of the century,” and so on down the list of France’s leading military men, including the minister of war and the army chief of staff.
By naming names, Zola intended to force Dreyfus’s persecutors to sue him, thus allowing him to address the case in a courtroom. A popular and wealthy novelist, Zola knew that his “J’Accuse” could cost him his career and even his freedom — as, in fact, it nearly did.After being convicted of libel, and almost killed by an angry mob, he was forced to flee the country. He accepted that risk in order to see justice done to a man he had never met: “It is my duty to speak; I will not be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the specter of the innocent man who is atoning, in a far-away country, by the most frightful of tortures, for a crime that he did not commit.”Without the courage of Zola and other Dreyfusards — including the proto-Zionist Bernard Lazare, the poet Charles Peguy, the journalist-politician Georges Clemenceau, and the young Marcel Proust — Dreyfus would surely have ended his life on Devil’s Island.
Appropriately enough, the case that would inspire so much impassioned writing began with a scrap of paper. In September 1894, a cleaning lady at the German Embassy in Paris handed over to French intelligence some papers she had retrieved from the wastebasket of the German military attaché. Among them was a bordereau, or memorandum, addressed to the attaché by an unnamed French officer, who offered to hand over five secret documents, including information about the new 120 mm gun and a copy of the artillery firing manual.
When the French spymasters in the section of statistics read the bordereau, they quickly assumed that it must have been written by an artillery officer on the general staff. Of the possible suspects, only Captain Alfred Dreyfus was seriously considered — because, one of his accusers later testified, he was “the only one we could think of who had not made a good impression.” When they compared the handwriting of the bordereau to Dreyfus’s, they were immediately convinced of his guilt, and secured a report by a handwriting expert to back up their conclusion. (Another expert, who denied that the handwriting was Dreyfus’s, was ignored.) The section of statistics had its man — a man whose guilt was all the easier to believe because he was a Jew. “I should have realized,” exclaimed the head of the section when Dreyfus’s name was mentioned, as though a Jewish officer would naturally be a traitor.
Once the accusation was made, Dreyfus’s trial by court martial was a mere formality. Just to make sure there was no slip-up, however, Colonel Henry of the section of statistics forged several incriminating documents, which were secretly passed to Dreyfus’s judges as confirmation of his guilt. He was duly convicted and sentenced to exile on Devil’s Island, where he would spend the next five years in a brutal, miserable captivity. Before leaving France, he was stripped of his rank in a humiliating ceremony, where mobs of onlookers shouted “Death to the Jews” and “Death to Judas.” Among the journalists covering the event, as fate would have it, was the young Viennese reporter Theodor Herzl, whose experience of the Dreyfus Affair helped to convince him of the urgent need for a Jewish state.
A scrap of paper sent Dreyfus to Devil’s Island; another scrap started the process that would bring him back. In March 1896, French intelligence received another delivery of waste paper from their cleaning lady-spy. This batch contained the document that would become famous as the petit bleu — a 19th-century version of e-mail, which could be sent by pneumatic tube anywhere in Paris. The petit bleu was written by the German military attaché to one Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, and left no doubt that Esterhazy was actively selling secrets to the Germans. The new head of the Section of statistics, Major Georges Picquart, followed up this lead by securing a sample of Esterhazy’s handwriting — which, he was astonished to find, was an exact match for the bordereau attributed to Dreyfus.
Picquart was no liberal — he was, in fact, an anti-Semite himself, as well as a loyal military man. But he was shocked to find, when he brought this new evidence to the attention of his superiors, that they wanted him simply to ignore it. “What business is it of yours if this Jew is on Devil’s Island?” one general asked him. Picquart insisted on pressing the matter, to his own great cost. A cabal of officers implicated in the Dreyfus fraud got him transferred to Algeria, and finally had him sent to prison on trumped-up charges.
The path from the discovery of the petit bleu to Dreyfus’s pardon, three years later, was fantastically complex, full of unlikely twists and turns. Colonel Henry and others in the War Ministry actively conspired to shield Esterhazy, the real traitor, who was acquitted in a joke of a trial. But Henry’s forgeries were finally exposed, and he committed suicide in his jail cell. (The fact that the razor found in his hand was closed led to much speculation that Henry had, in fact, been murdered — one of many lingering enigmas in the Affair.) The accumulating scandal, and the explosive intervention of Zola, led the high court to order a new trial for Dreyfus in 1899 — a trial that the Dreyfusards assumed must result in acquittal.
But even when the second court martial heard the evidence exonerating Dreyfus, loyalty to the army prevailed over loyalty to the truth. After a circus of a trial, during which Dreyfus’s lawyer was shot in the back (the would-be assassin was never caught), he was, incredibly, convicted a second time — leading Zola to observe that even “Jesus was condemned but once.” Only then did the President of France intervene with the pardon that set Dreyfus free. Five years had passed since his first trial, and it would be another seven before he was fully and formally exonerated. In the meantime, he lost his rank, his health, and what mattered to him more than anything, his honor.
The greatest irony of the Dreyfus Affair is that there was no greater believer in the honor of France and its army than Alfred Dreyfus. Throughout his imprisonment, as he was starved, sickened, and shackled to his bed with iron chains, he continued to trust that the army would give him justice — the army he had served his whole life and viewed as the guardian of France. The letter Dreyfus wrote to his wife on the day of his degradation captures his attitude: “In their place,” he wrote about the mobs who jeered him, “I could not have contained my contempt for an officer who I had been told was a traitor. But alas! there is the tragedy. There is a traitor, but it is not I!” He could not imagine that his superior officers would not requite his loyalty — that they would actually conspire against him, driven by anti-Semitism, fear, and a fanatical vision of “my country, right or wrong”
One hundred years later, the Dreyfus Affair has lost none of its power as a human drama. But its moral and political legacy is no less vital. Its first lesson, which Herzl learned (and Dreyfus himself never did), had to do with the failure of Jewish emancipation in Europe. No European country had granted its Jews legal equality earlier than France, or prided itself more on the power of its secular, republican ideals. Yet even in France, anti-Semitism had the power to pervert justice, excite violent mobs, and almost overthrow the government. There were anti-Jewish riots in many cities at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, and a wave of killings in French Algeria; the poisonous Drumont was elected to parliament. The French fascists of the 1920s and 1930s, and the collaborators of Vichy, were direct ideological heirs of the anti-Dreyfusards. As Hannah Arendt put it in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” “the Dreyfus Affair in its entirety offers a foregleam of the twentieth century.”
Second, the Dreyfus Affair established the ambiguous power of intellectuals to shape political events. Indeed, the very word “intellectual” gained currency for the first time thanks to a Dreyfusard petition published in 1898. Titled “Manifesto of the Intellectuals,” it was signed by a long list of writers, artists, academics, and scientists. The idea that men and women who make their living with their minds have a special obligation to pursue truth and justice, and that their opinions are especially deserving of a public hearing, has been central to political discourse ever since. Zola’s role in the Affair, in particular, was truly noble, showing the power of the intellectual to successfully oppose governments and armies.
Yet it is useful to remember that there were intellectuals on both sides of the Dreyfus Affair. The novelist Maurice Barrès was one of the chief anti-Dreyfusards, notable for his vehement nationalism and anti-Semitism; his comrades included major writers like Pierre Loti, Alphonse Daudet, and Paul Valery. Intellectuals could be passionate about bad ideas as well as good ones, as the 20th century was amply to confirm. Conversely, the heroic self-sacrifice of Picquart proved that one does not have to be fluent about justice to be intensely devoted to it.
Finally, and most important for us today, the Dreyfus Affair showed what disasters can result when national pride, or even national security, is allowed to prevail over truth and law. At least in the beginning, the men who persecuted Dreyfus were sincerely convinced that they were acting in the best interests of France. They thought that, in order to defend their country against the agents of a vicious enemy, the usual legal safeguards could be dispensed with. As the United States decides, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision, how to deal with captives held for years without trial at Guantanamo Bay, we would do well to remember the sentiments with which the Times of London greeted the first Dreyfus trial, more than a century ago: “The more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice.”