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The Dreyfus Wars

They were fought on several fronts.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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To this wide-front confrontation, between secular and Catholic France, militaristic and socialist France, republican and monarchist France, and to some extent urban and rural France, we owe the coinage of the vague but indispensable term “intellectual.” I had always thought this to have been invented purely as a term of abuse by the conservative partisans of la France profonde, but it seems that it was briefly employed in a positive manner by Georges Clemenceau, to describe the number of independent-minded thinkers who had rallied to the cause of Dreyfus after Zola had used Clemenceau’s pages in L’Aurore to publish his unforgettable open letter, J’Accuse. It was only after this that Maurice Barrès, the much admired novelist, had written a smoldering and sinister essay entitled “The Protestations of the Intellectuals,” in which he opined that “Jews and Protestants aside, the list called the ‘list of the intellectuals’ consists of a majority of fatheads, and then of foreigners—and finally of a few good Frenchmen.” (Many were those who jeered that Zola himself was of Italian origin.) It was left to those thus attacked to adopt the term—as had those once denounced as “impressionist”—as their own self-definition. 

By this stage, the actual question of Dreyfus’s guilt was more or less an irrelevance. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, another Alsatian as it happens, had lived up to his billing as an intelligence officer and discovered that Dreyfus’s handwriting in no way matched the scrawl on the German embassy paper. Probing only a little further, he was to find that the incriminating letter was an exact replica of the script of Commandant Walsin Esterhazy, a Flashman-style rogue and plunger and Jew-hater whose numerous duels, adulteries, and corruptions kept him permanently in need of funds.

It should all have been over at that point. But one of the many merits of this scrupulous and well-written book is to remind us how obscenely protracted the whole business was. Repatriated from Devil’s Island in a jittery and emaciated state after four years of maltreatment and isolation, Dreyfus was subjected to a second court-martial in the city of Rennes—a virtual provincial capital of the extreme religious right—and once again convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. So obvious was this travesty that he received a presidential pardon at the end of 1899. But it was not until July 1906 that the Court of Appeals annulled the Rennes verdict and opened the way for Dreyfus’s reinstatement in the ranks. In the course of that seven-year interval, Zola had died (or quite possibly been murdered, though Harris does not even discuss this possibility), the political left had won the legislative elections, and the National Assembly had passed a law on the separation of church and state. 

Quite possibly, then, had the anti-Dreyfusards not been so brutishly intransigent, the lasting damage to their cause might have been more limited. They really didn’t know how to give up: When Zola’s ashes were finally transferred to the Panthéon as late as 1908, a reactionary fanatic opened fire during the ceremony and hit Dreyfus in his arm. The would-be assassin was later acquitted. French justice was still partially blind in the right eye. On the very eve of the First World War, the great Jean Jaurès was shot in the back by another ultranationalist.

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