Most of us know the Dreyfus case but do we all know that one of the finest writers and thinkers in the French language played an important role in its eventual outcome.
Alfred Dreyfus was born in Alsace region of France. As one of the smallest regions and situated in the east on the west bank of the Rhine on the border with Germany, its location inevitably meant that the Alsace was subject to territorial acquisition through much of history.
Dreyfus was born a Jew in 1859 some years after the lifting of French imposed constraints on Jewish habitation of the region and at a time when some degree of stability had returned to the Alsace until the Franco-Prussian War (1870) at the end of which the Alsace region was incorporated into the new German Empire. This was achieved by conquest but also the Alsace became an exceptional holding of the Kaiser and unlike other regions of Germany, was administered directly from Berlin. A curious situation arose when The Kaiser abdicated leaving the Alsace with no head of state. It was an opportunity that the Alsatians used to push through a drive for independence. Self rule didn’t last long. In effect the Alsace was re-incorporated into the French administration as facilitated by the Treaty of Versailles.
As a Jew, Alfred Dreyfus experienced the turmoil of war and the relocation of his family but became enamoured of a Military career where his allegiance was squarely with France. He entered military school at eighteen and later, the French army as a commissioned Sub-lieutenant receiving promotion to the final rank of Lieutenant-colonel (with honours) of the Artillery division but not before enduring the ordeal of being accused a traitor.
At the point in this serviceman’s history when some clue to his fate as an accused and convicted traitor is sealed, it can be said to have emerged when he attained the position of being the only Jew on the Chief of Staff. He had enjoyed an excellent record and his intelligence and hard work were acknowledged until a General Bonnefond awarded him low marks in an examination with reference to Dreyfus’ ‘likeability’. Dreyfus and one other Jew, Lieutenant Picard appealed to the Director of the School. With a known dislike of Jews, General Bonnefond’s decision was upheld.
This appeal was unfortunate in the event of his later being accused of treason. Dreyfus was accused of passing sensitive information to Germany…; his earlier consternation at being assessed by Gerneral Bonnefond in negative terms came to the fore. General Bonnefond was right; he had had his suspicions and now everyone could see; Dreyfus was venting a grievance perhaps or seeking revenge for being awarded low marks… this is the kind of thing that weighs against an accused. He was convicted of treason in a secret courts-martial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island, the notorious facility for convicts in French Guiana. He was stripped of his honour publicly in a service involving ripping his braid, buttons and insignia from his uniform and breaking his sword. This is a public degradation with a large crowd crying abuse from behind locked gates. Dreyfus protested his innocence and swore his allegiance to France but he was removed to the notorious conditions of Devils Island.
France was divided on its opinion of Dreyfus’s guilt. The information and facts of the case that were reported kept Dreyfus in the minds of the people and French society until two years after his conviction, the new Chief of Intelligence Lieutenant Picquart, uncovered evidence that the real traitor had been a General Esterhazy. Documents were forged to preserve Dreyfus’ conviction and Lt. Picquart was sent to the deserts of Tunisia to silence him. Dreyfus had supporters however, and upon the publication of leaked information, Esterhazy was tried but found not guilty in a secret courts-martial upon delivery of which he fled the country. Piquart was sentenced to 60 days imprisonment for leaking the information. Reports of a coverup led to serious debate about anti-semitism and the founding principles of the Republic that is equal rights for all citizens. It wasn’t until 1899 that the President of France, Emile Loubet pardoned Dreyfus. He was released from prison but a mere pardon did nothing to restore his honour. The conditions at Devils Island had fashioned an almost broken man and all the more a tragedy when he was to be tried, convicted and found guilty again.
What became known as the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ would not have received due attention had his supporters not kept faith. We should remember that conviction was secured in a secret court and the Government of the day was clear that it would not consider further evidence and try the case again. There was very little to be done. Emile Zola, among others, had taken a keen interested and kept faith with Dreyfus. Emile Zola risked a great deal to bring about a sensational situation that it was hoped would see Zola in court to answer charges of defamation. The means by which this was achieved was a well thought out plan to publish and be damned.
In collaboration the Editors of the French daily paper ‘L’Aurore’ it was agreed that the paper would publish Zola’s accusations (anti-semitism and obstructing justice) against senior officials within the French army. Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ appeared on the front page as an open letter to the President of France, Felix Faure. According to plan Zola was served with notices charging him with criminal libel. The risk was great but taken for the opportunity to bring the facts of the Dreyfus case before the court and the public.
In 1899, Zola was found guilty and removed from the Legion of Honor. He fled to England without having had time to pack any personal possessions rather than serve a prison sentence. He was allowed to return to Paris some months later as the Government fell.
As mentioned above, Dreyfus had been granted and accepted a pardon even though the terms involved accepting guilt when the alternative had been that he would face a retrial which was certain to maintain his guilt. Zola commented: ‘The truth is on the march and nothing shall stop it.’ Dreyfus was eventually, fully exonerated in 1906 and resumed his command post in the French army and served during the first world war though he had suffered appallingly whilst in prison.
There are a number of outstanding features surrounding the Dreyfus Affair. There is fundamentally the establishment of respect for the voice and power of the intellectuals in shaping society’s thinking and a determination in an atmosphere of military might. There is the Catholic national paper, La Croix, apologising for anti-semitic comments that it had published and the issue of a people entrenched in the idea of holding their Government to fundamental principles of basic laws and freedoms and political liberalisation.
Emile Zola who was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning in his home. Attempts had been made on Zola’s life in the aftermath of the scandal and apparent contempt for Military leaders, giving rise to suspicions that his enemies had sought to finish him. Many years after Zola’s death a Parisian roofer confessed, on his death-bed, that he had blocked the chimney to Zola’s apartment for political reasons. A later investigation by the journalist Jean Borel claims Zola had been murdered.
With my view of stories as the people of the cities of the world found in the pages of books I have developed a keen interest in the Alsace. I know that the region is proudly situated between the upper Rhine (and near the wonderful city of Baden, Germany) and the Black Forest. I know of its architecture (medieval and renaissance) and countryside and Strasbourg wherein we find the official seat of the European Parliament and Molsheim, home of Bugatti Automobiles, where Ettoire Bugatti realised his now legendary sports cars. I have resolved to visit.