The Magazine

Why Captain Dreyfus?

The shame and redemption of France.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who happens to like Jews. 

French political cartoon

Mary Evans Picture Library / Everett Collection

            —Old saying 

Was the Dreyfus Affair, which in 1894 caused an innocent man to be sent to live in solitary and barbarous conditions in a tropical climate for five years, an act of arbitrary injustice or an act of anti-Semitism? Or is this, as the philosophers say, a distinction without a difference—injustice and anti-Semitism in this case amounting to one and the same thing? The world has known more than a reasonable share of both injustice and anti-Semitism, so why did the Dreyfus Affair cause nearly worldwide reverberations in its day, and why does it continue to hold interest, now more than a century later, in our own?

A vast number of books have been written on the Dreyfus Affair, among them Alfred Dreyfus’s Five Years of My Life, an account of his arrest, court-martial, and imprisonment on Devil’s Island, one of the Salvation Islands off the coast of Cayenne in French Guiana. Two movies have been made on the subject: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) starring Paul Muni, and I Accuse! (1958) starring and directed by José Ferrer. The English writer Piers Paul Read, author of books on the Andes survivors, the Knights Templar, Alec Guinness, and of numerous novels, has now written a comprehensive account of the Dreyfus Affair in all its labyrinthine twists and turns. His book is a reminder of the intrinsic fascination of all that befell the hapless Captain Dreyfus. 

The Affair began in 1894 with the discovery of the bordereau, or the letter torn into six pieces, by a maid in the pay of the French government in the wastebasket of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris. Pieced together by the Statistical Section, the department of the French Army responsible for military intelligence and national security, the bordereau, beyond doubt, was written by a French officer. Its author promised to provide information on a new French cannon, notes on modifications of French artillery formations, a proposal for a new firing manual for field artillery, and a few other items. 

Who wrote it? The Statistical Section got on the case straightaway. Because of the nature of the material which the author of the bordereau offered the Germans, the traitor (it was thought) had to have been an officer with experience in artillery. He also must have had a connection with the General Staff. A run through the list of officers who matched these qualifications turned up one Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer currently working as an intern with the General Staff. That Dreyfus was Jewish and hence considered not a true Frenchman but a foreigner was, as Eugen Weber calls it in France, Fin de Siècle, “frosting on the cake.”

Dreyfus was born in 1859, the youngest child of seven, to a successful textile manufacturer from Mulhouse, in Alsace. In his success, Dreyfus’s father Raphael increasingly parted from the Jewish ways of his past and attempted to Frenchify himself. After the German victory over France in 1870, in which the Germans took over Alsace, Raphael chose to retain his French citizenship. He sent Alfred to the College Chaptal, an elite private school in Paris. 

The young Alfred Dreyfus’s ambition was to gain entry through the examination system into the École Polytechnique, which would pave the way for a career as an officer. This he accomplished, as he did all else that was required for promotion in the French Army. Not least of the ironies of the Dreyfus Affair is that Alfred Dreyfus was a passionate patriot who viewed the French Army as a nearly sacred institution. 

An expert horseman and a quick study in finance and scientific military matters, Dreyfus became a model soldier. Normally shy, he was less so when putting forth his own ideas. Because of this, among the more traditional officers, Dreyfus was viewed, according to Piers Paul Read, as “pushy.” Nor was camaraderie his forte, for he tended to disdain the company of fellow officers, living happily within his family—his wife and two young children—in their plush apartment on the Avenue du Trocadéro in Paris. Dreyfus was well off to begin with; his wife’s dowry made him rich. Considered aggressive, standoffish, and wealthy, Alfred Dreyfus was a perfect target for French anti-Semitism. 

Read does an excellent job of setting out the alignments of fin de siècle French society: the modernists versus the traditionalists, the still-strong Catholic institutions under attack from Protestants, and secularists struggling for dominance in education and elsewhere. Economic crisis and the recent defeat at the hands of the Germans added a strong streak of xenophobia to French life.

In the spirit of the Revolution, most laws discriminating against Jews were erased in 1791. Napoleon, viewed as a friend by the Jews, removed what restrictions remained. Even though Jews flourished in France—certainly at the upper, or Rothschild, level—anti-Semitism among Frenchmen remained a dormant virus waiting to break out.

Perhaps alone among all Frenchmen, Alfred Dreyfus scarcely thought himself Jewish. Although he married a Jewish woman in a religious ceremony, he otherwise observed no Jewish practices. In later years, despite his own painful experience, he failed to see the point of Zionism. When, after his court-martial for treason, he was formally degraded in the courtyard of the École Militaire, the buttons torn from his coat, the stripes ripped from his trousers, the marks of his rank removed from his cap and coat sleeves, his sword broken over the knee of the adjutant of the Republican Guard, a crowd looking on screaming “Traitor” and “Dirty Jew,” Dreyfus himself tells us in Five Years of My Life that he cried out: “Soldiers, an innocent man is degraded! Soldiers, an innocent man is dishonored! Vive la France! Vive l’armée!”

At the outset, the General Staff and its minions genuinely believed that, in Captain Dreyfus, they had their traitor. The Affair became morally interesting when doubt about Dreyfus’s guilt crept in. The case against him was never more than circumstantial. No convincing motive was ever adduced. The handwriting experts brought in to compare Dreyfus’s handwriting with that of the bordereau were divided. The court-martial was exceedingly improper in its procedural arrangements. When all doubt dissipated and those in charge of the case for the army learned, definitively, that Dreyfus was not the traitor but that the bounderish Commandant Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy was, they were too heavily invested in Dreyfus’s guilt to retrench and recant. The Dreyfus Affair then entered the stage of cover-up, the longest-lasting and most notorious the world has known. 

Found guilty by court-martial, Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island, the site of a onetime leper colony. There, he endured conditions in which he was fortunate to elude insanity from isolation or death by disease. He was sequestered in a stone hut, four meters square, separated by an iron grate from the warders (eventually there were 13 of them) sent to guard him. The guard was noisily changed every two hours, preventing him from extended sleep. From this hut, he had a vision of the sky and sea—until a high fence was built around it cutting off his view. No conversation with his guards was permitted, even during the brief period he was allowed out for exercise. Along with bread and water, he was given uncooked food—raw meat, dry vegetables—to prepare for himself. Vermin such as ants, mosquitoes, and spider crabs were a perpetual problem; humidity was overpowering. He developed tropical fever. At one point, when it had been rumored in the European press that he had escaped, the authorities ordered him to be double-shackled to his bed at night, causing sores and extreme discomfort. He taught himself English and read Shakespeare, though Montaigne was his great mainstay. The thought of suicide played at the back of his mind. What kept him alive was the hope of restoring his honor. 

Admirable though Dreyfus’s endurance was under these conditions, he is not otherwise an impressive hero, or even an especially attractive man, as Reid and other chroniclers of the Affair show. Until quite late in the day, he never thought to blame the men who exiled him to Devil’s Island, but seems instead to have believed, somehow or other, that no malice had been intended and a great blunder had been made. With the exception of his exclamation of innocence at the time of his degradation, he was invariably found wanting at dramatic moments during his various trials. Resentment, let alone anger, was not in his makeup. Even after being released from Devil’s Island, he was, as Reid writes, “uncomfortable in the role of martyr.”

“I hate all this moaning about my suffering,” he told Julien Benda. Heroic only in his resignation, passive in his response to events, and not notably perceptive, Dreyfus was an unlikely candidate for the man whose fate would divide a country. Dreyfus was “not much hated by his enemies and not much loved by his friends,” wrote D. W. Brogan in his Development of Modern France. “Had he not been Dreyfus,” asked Leon Blum, an Alsatian Jew who would thrice be prime minister of France, “would he himself have been a Dreyfusard?” The chances are, most likely not. 

Dreyfus’s case would have been forgotten, its victim left to languish in his island inferno, if his family, especially his brother Mathieu, had not persisted in trying to discover the true traitor and in arguing that the verdict against him had been obtained by illegal means. The Dreyfus case turned into the Dreyfus Affair only when Émile Zola entered the lists and, in the January 13, 1898, issue of Georges Clemenceau’s paper l’Aurore, published his instantly famous “J’accuse,” which argued that the conviction of Dreyfus had been ordered by the General Staff. Zola named the officers who had orchestrated the frame-up: General Auguste Mercier, minister of war; General Raoul François Charles le Mouton de Boisdeffre, chief of the General Staff; Commandant Ferdinand du Paty de Clam, Dreyfus’s interrogator and tormentor; and the rest. Until Zola, the French were satisfied with the verdict against Dreyfus. “In a nation distrustful, with good reason, of its rulers,” D. W. Brogan wrote, “the conviction of Dreyfus was consoling. .  .  . In an age of corruption and weakness, one institution [the army] had shown its vigilance.” 

The force of Zola’s “J’accuse” was to argue that this institution, too, was corrupt—deeply so.

As befits a good novelist, Piers Paul Read provides brilliant portraits of the several villains in the Dreyfus Affair. Chief among them are the Jew-hating editor of La Libre Parole, Édouard Drumont; the politician Godefroy Cavaignac; the true spy, Commandant Esterhazy; Lieutenant Colonel Hubert Joseph Henry, forger, liar, and bootlicker; and, above all, General Mercier, who used the entrapment of Dreyfus to strengthen his own political position, arguing in defense of the cover-up that the repute of the French Army was more important than the fate of a single Jew.

Heroes were fewer. Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu was relentless in his attempts to exonerate his brother, and Dreyfus’s wife stood by him even after being presented with public revelations of her husband’s infidelity. Bernard Lazare, a Jewish journalist ardent in his hatred of anti-Semitism, wrote in defense of Dreyfus. Dreyfus’s first lawyer, Edgar Demange, was steadfast in his support of his client at the cost of risk to his practice and good name. A senator named Auguste Scheurer-Kestner came into knowledge of the forgeries and other shenanigans of the officers in the Statistical Section, and called for a reopening of the case at a point when it took courage to do so. Zola, of course, was a key player, even though his own novels (as Read points out) are studded with crudely anti-Semitic characters. 

The surprise hero was Commandant Georges Picquart, who succeeded to the head of the Statistical Section and, though an anti-Semite, hated lies and injustice more than he hated Jews. He came to Dreyfus’s defense by calling out his fellow officers for sending an innocent man to prison, and doing all in their power to keep him there even after they knew he was innocent. The army’s case against Dreyfus began to unravel when Picquart, as the new head of the Statistical Section, discovered another letter from a traitor to von Schwartzkoppen—this one sent from Esterhazy, a dissolute with an extravagant wife, heavy debts, and a half-ownership in a bordello. At first, Picquart thought that Esterhazy was a second traitor, but a review of the dossier on Dreyfus showed that Esterhazy’s handwriting was identical to that of the bordereau on which the conviction of Dreyfus was based. When Picquart brought this to his superior, General Charles-Arthur Gonse, he was told to stow it: “What does it matter to you if that Jew stays on Devil’s Island?” Gonse asked. Picquart is supposed to have answered: “What you’re saying is vile. I don’t know what I will do, but of one thing I am certain—I will not take this secret to the grave.” 

As the case against Dreyfus unraveled, Read lucidly keeps track of its threads. Most of these were legal. Zola was sued for libel by the officers sitting as judges in Dreyfus’s court-martial. Found guilty, he was deprived of his Legion of Honor and forced to depart for England lest he go to prison. (He spent a year there, and returned with the fall of the government under which he had been sentenced.) 

Owing to the pressures exerted by his family and the group of intellectual sympathizers known as Dreyfusards, Alfred Dreyfus was finally offered a second trial. His five years on Devil’s Island appeared to have aged him by 20 years. At this second trial, held in the provincial town of Rennes, he was again found guilty, but his sentence was shortened from life to 10 years. World opinion, stirred up by the Dreyfusards, was appalled at this outcome. French politicians were worried that, because of the international reaction, the Paris Exposition of 1900 would be boycotted. To prevent this, President Émile Loubet pardoned Dreyfus on the grounds of his ill health, thinking that by doing so he had put the Affair to rest. 

A pardon was not, however, an acquittal, and Dreyfus and his family would not settle for less. The Dreyfusards, in fact, thought Dreyfus’s accepting a pardon an act of selling out. In Five Years of My Life, Dreyfus claims that he accepted the pardon because his brother Mathieu 

told me that my health, already greatly shaken, left little hope that I should be able to resist much longer under the conditions in which I should be placed; that liberty would allow me more easily to strive for the reparation of the atrocious judicial error of which I was still the victim, since it would give me time, and time was the only object of my appeal to the Military Tribunal of Revision.

Dreyfus’s full rehabilitation came in 1906, almost 12 years after he had been sent off in disgrace to Devil’s Island. Not a military but a civil court composed of combined chambers declared his court-martial annulled, and in the words of the judges, “given that, in the final analysis, nothing remains of the charges made against Dreyfus,” he was innocent. “An announcement of their judgment,” writes Read, “was to be posted in Paris and in Rennes and was to be inserted in the Journal Officiel as well as in 50 Parisian and provincial newspapers chosen by Dreyfus.”

“I had never doubted,” Dreyfus claimed, “that justice and truth would eventually triumph against error, deception, and crime.” 

An extraordinary story, with a cast of characters and plot worthy of a great novel by Balzac, the Dreyfus Affair (as the English historian of France Douglas Johnson writes) “has everything.” But what is its significance? People find in it what they are looking for. Hannah Arendt, who devoted a chapter to the Dreyfus Affair in her Origins of Totalitarianism, claimed that “the case of the unfortunate Captain Dreyfus had shown the world that in every Jewish nobleman and multimillionaire there still remained something of the old-time pariah, who has no country, for whom human rights do not exist, and whom society would gladly exclude from its privileges.” Arendt goes on to denote how few French Jews were among the Dreyfusards who came to Dreyfus’s defense. 

The Dreyfus Affair, as Read and others before him point out, marked the rise of the intellectual as a figure in public life. Without Émile Zola, Alfred Dreyfus would have been left to moulder on Devil’s Island. Without Anatole France, Henri Poincaré, Claude Monet, Clémenceau, Charles Péguy, Marcel Proust, and the other Dreyfusards, Dreyfus’s cause would not have been kept alive. The historian Theodore Zeldin holds that “the Dreyfus Affair was important, perhaps above all else, in giving the intellectuals a sense of their mission, and in confirming their importance.” Read notes that it was during the Dreyfus Affair that the term “intellectual” first came into general use. 

The Dreyfus Affair posed the question of whether it would be worth sacrificing the already-shaky stability of a major institution, the French Army, to remedy the hypothetical injustice done to an individual. The injustice, of course, turned out to be not in the least hypothetical, and the reaction to it on the part of the French is as good a guide to understanding a nation, in its rich complexity, as history has provided. Only in France could such an injustice have been perpetuated. But then, only in France could its resolution have divided a nation.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit.