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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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.