The Magazine

Why Captain Dreyfus?

The shame and redemption of France.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.