Alfred Dreyfus was born October 19th 1859 in Alsace. Little did he know in his childhood days that his name would appear in all the world’s encyclopaedias for something he hadn’t done!
In 1882, in early manhood, Dreyfus entered the École Polytechnique having decided on a military career, and by 1889 had risen to the rank of Captain. He was hard-working and conscientious, which aroused the jealousy of his fellow officers. What is more, he was a rich man, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, and worst of all (to them) he was a JEW. And in France there was a great deal of anti-semitism in those days. It was as rife as in Germany and Russia.
In 1894, when Dreyfus was rising towards the peak of his career in the War Ministry, a certain letter fell into the hands of the French General Staff. It was addressed to Colonel Max von Schwarzkoppen, the German military attaché, and contained a list of military secrets which were being offered for sale to the Germans.
There was little to go on that could lead to an arrest, but being a very serious matter, someone had to be found. It was reasoned that the culprit must have been a junior gunnery officer who had served in several camps before joining the General Staff. Because of the jealousy amongst his fellow men, and the fact that he was a Jew, Dreyfus was picked on to be the culprit. They compared his handwriting with that on the letter, and found it to be very similar. He was arrested on October 15th of that year, and brought before a Court Martial.
The legal proceedings were highly irregular. He vigorously denied complicity. There was solittle evidence to go on that it looked as though Dreyfus would have to be acquitted. They had co-opted the assistance of handwriting experts, who had expressed considerable doubt about the letter being the work of Dreyfus. What is more he was found to have a first-class military record. Someone in the police force thought he had found evidence of him being a gambling man, but this was also proved to be untrue – it turned out to be another man of the same name.
The Court was just about to conclude the case and acquit Dreyfus, when Commander Hubert Joseph Henry appeared. He was Chief of Intelligence in the War Office, and had conducted the preliminary enquiry. In his hand was a sealed packet, which he handed to the judges. Inside the packet were papers that proved Dreyfus’ guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. The main item was an ‘intercepted’ letter from the Italian military attaché, Panizzardi, to his German counterpart, von Schwarzkoppen. It referred to the traitor in the French War Office as’that dirty dog “D”‘.
On December 22nd Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on the infamous “Ile du Diable”. The “Devil’s Island” was situated off the coast of French Guiana in the South Caribbean Sea. It used to be a leper colony, but that very year had become a French penal settlement. It was somewhat less than one square mile in area, and anyone sent there might just as well consider themselves dead.
Although Dreyfus had persistently argued his complete innocence, and even after sentencing, his family continued their campaign for his acquittal, there was a great deal of anti-semitic feeling at large in France, and it was aired in the press of the day. Dreyfus came to be the symbol of supposed disloyalty amongst the Jewish population.
If that was the end of the story, it is doubtful whether any record of it would have remained, other than in some obscure French military journal. But after about two years, in 1897, it became apparent to the General Staff that French military secrets were still being passed to the Germans. The Dreyfus file was re-opened, and the new investigating officer was Colonel Georges Picquart, who probed rather too intensely for the likings of some of his senior officers, who removed him from his job and arranged for him to be posted to Tunisia. They were of the opinion that the honour of the French Army was of greater importance than the fate of one Jewish officer.
This whole affair was made absurdly complicated by the activities of two men. Colonel Picquart had unearthed evidence that clearly indicted Major C.F.Esterhazy as having forged the original documents that brought Dreyfus to trial. This new evidence cost him his job. And then during the quietness that followed, the other culprit decided to do a little ‘rearranging’ of the documents, remove some of the Dreyfus papers, and tamper with the Panizzari letter, (which he had himself written,) in order to cover up his own guilt. This was none other thanCommander Henry. But in this act he brought about his own undoing, because Picquart had taken the precaution of photographing all the documents. It was not long before the forgery came to light, and Henry was arrested. When the case came before the court he confessed to the act and was put in prison, where on 31st August 1898, he committed suicide.
Because of this new evidence, Major Charles Ferdinand Esterhazy was brought before a court martial but strangely enough, acquitted.
Meanwhile, the French novelist Emile Zola had taken an intense interest in the this case, being convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence. Using the power of his pen he wrote an open letter about the case, which was headed “J’Accuse,” even going so far as to accuse the court martial who had acquitted Major Esterhazy. This resulted in a libel case, which Zola lost. He was given a year’s imprisonment and fined 3,000 francs.
At the time of the Zola letter, which was read by some 200,000 people on the day of its publication, the Dreyfus case had attracted widespread public attention, and had split France into two opposing camps. The “anti-Dreyfusards” saw it as an attempt to undermine the authority of the country’s military, and opposed any new trial. On the other hand, the“Dreyfusards” saw the issue as one of principle, of the freedom of the individual pitted against the military authority with little hope of assistance. Amid uproar in Parliament the government was pressed by the Nationalists to bring Zola to trial, which resulted in his sentence.
From 1898 to 1899 the Dreyfusard cause gained strength. A new ministry, led by RenéWaldeck-Rousseau, took office in June 1899 and resolved to bring the affair to an end. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island for retrial, and appeared before a new court martial in Rennes on August 2nd 1899.
On September 9th the court still found Dreyfus guilty, but pardoned him. Dreyfus accepted the act of clemency, but reserved the right to do all in his power to establish his innocence. Esterhazy had already panicked after the Henry exposure, and had fled to Belgium, and then London.
Eventually a new trial was granted in 1904, a civilian court of appeal. Dreyfus was found to be not guilty, and all previous convictions were reversed. On July 22nd 1906 he was restored and re-instated by a parliamentary bill, and decorated with the Legion of Honour.
After further short service in the army, in which he attained to the rank of major, he retired to the reserves. Apart from his active service during World War I, when he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, commanding an ammunition column, he faded into obscurity, dying on July 12th 1935 in Paris, at the age of 76.
The Dreyfus Case, or “l’Affaire” as it came to be called in France, was an important landmark in the history of the Third Republic and of modern France. From the turmoil of which it was the centrepiece, emerged a sharper alignment of political and social forces, leading to such drastic anticlerical measures as the disestablishment of the church from the state in 1905, and to a cleavage between right-wing nationalists and left-wing antimilitarists that haunted French life until 1914 or even later.
On each side were mobilised France’s most eminent literary men, and the violent controversy destroyed the cohesion of French life for more than a generation after. A conjunction of mistaken loyalties, repeated stupidities, base forgeries, and excited extremisms inflamed the situation into a national crisis.
At best it evoked a passionate repudiation of anti-semitism, which did France honour; at worst it revealed and intensified a chronic internal division that was to be a major source of national weakness.
But there is another reason why Dreyfus has been included in this study. Another man was in France at the time of the Dreyfus trial, and the effect it had on him was so great that it led to a completely new thrust to his life. This was none other than Dr Theordore Herzl, about whom we must speak in the next chapter.