The Dreyfus Affair pops up time and again when reading French books from the end of the nineteenth century. I’ve recently been reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which the characters keep discussing the Affair and anyone who has read anything about Zola will realise that Zola played a significant part in the Affair. Up to now I’ve just read around the Dreyfus Affair and have only been aware of the bare bones of the story; but the topic is a fascinating story in its own right and I thought it was time to read more on the subject.
‘The Dreyfus Affair’ by Piers Paul Read, I feel, is directed towards the general reader and Read gives as much background information as possible; he starts off by taking us back to the French Revolution. This seems a bit excessive at first but it’s useful because Read shows how during the revolutionary period full civil rights were extended to Jewish people, how the Catholic church came under attack and how the aristocracy were treated, er, harshly. He then proceeds to sketch out the Franco-Prussian war and the effect that this French defeat had on the French psyche. Although a lot of this may be already known by the reader it is useful because with these early chapters Read is mainly attempting to explain how and why the anti-Dreyfusards were so aggressively opposed to Dreyfus and the Dreyfusards; they saw the conservative, Catholic-centred French society under attack from Jews, protestants, money-men, Germans, intellectuals, deviants and the like.
Throughout the narrative the Dreyfusards have to battle against an extremely anti-Semitic press led by Édouard Drumont and his paper La Libre Parole. The paper does not just attack the Dreyfusards but also the army if it is seen to be too lenient towards the Jewish people. Drumont believes that Jews are all part of a ‘syndicate’ which includes Protestants, Free Masons, bankers etc. and which is out to take control of France and enslave Catholics. Anyone who is lenient towards Jews are soon accused of being on the syndicate’s payroll.
I don’t intend to describe every detail of the Dreyfus Affair as it gets very complicated, but it starts out quite simply: a note is retrieved from a wastepaper basket in the German embassy that suggests that a French officer is passing military secrets to the Germans; they soon narrow the list of likely officers down until they get to Dreyfus and when they compare his handwriting to the note it looks similar enough for them to arrest Dreyfus. Du Paty, who ends up being one of the main villains in the whole story, is an amateur handwriting expert and it is his persistance that drives the case against Dreyfus. When more experienced handwriting experts look at the evidence they don’t quite agree. With so little evidence it is uncertain why General Mercier decided to continue with the prosecution of Dreyfus. Read suggests that he may have been frightened of La Libre Parole finding out that he’d dropped a treason case against a Jew, or it may have been that he wanted to appear as a strong leader. Read doesn’t believe that at this stage the prime motive for advancing the case was anti-Semitic, as such.
On 15th October 1894 Dreyfus was officially arrested. Dreyfus declares his innocence throughout and those hoping to prosecute him have nothing more to go on than the comparison of his handwriting with that on the note. This is, for me, the first time where the military missed an opportunity to exit from the debacle. At this stage even du Paty suggests that if the evidence is too weak then they must let him go. So what do they do? Well, General Mercier basically fabricates a ‘secret dossier’ on Dreyfus. But why? Read suggests that it was Mercier’s fear of the anti-Semitic press and of losing prestige amongst his colleagues that drove him to do this:
The die was cast. If Mercier were now to free Dreyfus, he would be accused, as in the case of Schulmann, of being in the pay of the Jews. He would also lose face with his cabinet colleagues, particularly the Foreign Minister Hanotaux, who had advised him to drop the case against Dreyfus.
So Dreyfus was convicted of treason after the dodgy handwriting ‘experts’ had declared that the difference in styles was due to Dreyfus deliberatly disguising his style. Major Henry had stated that a ‘respectable person’ had accused Dreyfus and when this was still not enough to convict him they brought out the secret dossier which was viewed in private. Dreyfus was shipped off to Devil’s Island where he would live virtually in solitary confinement for five years.
We now enter the next stage of the Affair. Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu now spends all his time to try to prove his brother’s innocence but with little success. Meanwhile another officer, Picquart comes across a new piece of evidence, a petit bleu telegram, again from the German embassy, that has the exact handwriting as the original note and Picquart can prove that the real culprit was Major Esterhazy. So, this is another chance for the military to put things straight. Do they? No, they ship Picquart off to Tunisia to get him out of the way and fake some more documents.
Luckily enough the information is leaked and Mathieu gets to know the name of the real culprit and kick up a fuss. The military protect Esterhazy, even though they now know that he’s the traitor, and Esterhazy has to attend a court martial – he’s found to be not guilty of course! And Picquart is arrested and sent to prison for passing on military documents. So we now have two innocent men incarcerated and the guilty man protected by the military and shipped off to England. Read states:
It was clear that, whatever the evidence and however the clear the reasoning, the French were unwilling to accept that they were being deceived by the leaders of the one institution that retained their respect – the army.
This was on 10th January 1898 and on 13th January Émile Zola entered the fray with his open letter to the French President, called J’accuse..! Read says that ‘given that much of what he wrote was inevitably conjecture, Zola’s pamphlet was a remarkably accurate summary of the Dreyfus Affair.’ Accurate and explosive; it sparked anti-Semitic riots across France and resulted in Zola going to trial for defamation. He was found guilty, of course, though he was allowed to appeal the decision. He lost the second trial and left for England – this period is covered in Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England: A Story of Exile.
From hereon events proceed at a blistering pace and it’s quite confusing, so in summary: Cavaignac the new War Minister tried to put an end to the Dreyfusard cause but Henry’s forgeries were uncovered and Henry committed suicide; the President Faure died and Loubet was elected; the secret dossier was dismissed as a fake.
In the end Dreyfus was recalled to attend a second court martial in Rennes on 7th August 1899. This was surely the military’s last chance to redeem itself. But no luck, Dreyfus was re-convicted of treason but with ‘extenuating circumstances’. His sentence was for ten years. The prime-minister, exasperated at the military’s decision, ended up offering Dreyfus a pardon which he reluctantly accepts as he’s still technically guilty of the crime. This compromise that basically satisfies no-one appears, with hindsight, to be just what is needed to defuse the situation; it’s a bodge but it allows things to settle down for a while.
It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was declared ‘not guilty’ by the Supreme Court. He died in 1935.
In trying to write a review of a book on the Dreyfus Affair I’ve found it difficult not to just recount the actual story. But the book is very readable and well-researched and although the author states in the introduction that there has been little new evidence since the 1970s on the subject there is something to be said for a new book for the general reader and this is a brilliant introduction.