In the last week I
have been enjoying “The Dreyfus Affair” by Piers Paul Reid – the most readable
account of it I have read to date, easier going than “The Affair” by Jean-Denis
Bredin. This appalling miscarriage of justice not only victimised an innocent man,
and unleashed a sickening wave of Anti-Semitism in France, but also exposed the
widespread and unmitigated moral squalor of the political classes of the time.
The affair began
in November 1894 with the conviction for treason of
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a talented General Staff officer of Jewish descentccused of having betrayed French
military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. The leakage of secrets was
real but Dreyfus was innocent in the matter. The initial investigation was
perfunctory to say the least, with a strong predilection for assuming guilt,
not least because of strong Anti-Semitic prejudice. On the basis of flimsy and poorly
evaluated evidence, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the
penal colony at Devil's IslandFrench Guiana. Here he spent almost five years in solitary confinement
in appalling conditions of mental stress and physical privation. Prior to
deportation from France Dreyfus was subjected to ritual humiliation in front of
assembled troops, his badges of rank being torn from his uniform and his sword
broken before him.
|Captain Alfred Dreyfus's ritual humiliation|
Even from the beginning
many – including the governor of the prison in Paris where he was initially
detained – were convinced that he was innocent, as were his wife Lucie and his brother
Mathieu. The latter began a campaign to prove Dreyfus’s innocence, one that
took off slowly but gained momentum.
Two years later,
in 1896, evidence came to light that identified a French Army major named Ferdinand Esterhazy as the real culprit. It was now that the
most scandalous part of the affair commenced. Unwilling to admit that the initial
conviction was wrong, senior military figures colluded in forgery of documents
that “proved” that Dreyfus had indeed been guilty. With their support, and with
suppression of new evidence, Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted by the court martial
that he demanded to clear his name.
|Divisions in society - and even in families - over Dreyfus's innocence or guilt|
Knowledge of the court martial's framing of Dreyfus, and of the associated cover-up, began to spread, chiefly owing to J'accuse, a vehement open letter published in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 by the novelist Émile Zola. Pressure built up to a level that ensured that Dreyfus was brought back to France in 1899 for another trial.
|Zola's open letter - which proved somewhat of a two-edged sword|
The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (now called "Dreyfusards"), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the anti-semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free.
|Dreyfus's Second Trial|
What is particularly impressive about Piers Paul Reid’s account of the Affair is that he does not treat it as a scandal in isolation. He puts it in the context of the intense and bitter rivalries that had riven France from the First Revolution onwards, between Monarchists and Republicans, Right and Left, Catholics and Anti-Clericals, Conservatives and Radicals. The sheer nastiness of these squabbles, the petty – and not so petty – humiliations each group tried to impose on the others when opportunity allowed and the venom with which innumerable vendettas were followed makes for very distasteful reading. These conflicts built to a climax in the years prior to WW1, during which there was somewhat of a period of national union, but once peace was restored the same hatreds and feuds reasserted themselves. The ultimate climax was to be the split between Vichy and Free French supporters after France’s defeat in 1940 and some echoes still reverberate.
In Reid’s account there are very few heroes, other than Lucie and Mathieu Dreyfus and a handful of others. On both sides of the Affair many of the characters – including Zola – were ethically compromised individuals who seemed lacking in scruples, compassion and generosity of spirit. Many used the Affair to further ends other than establishing the guilt or innocence of the victim. The so-called “Belle Epoque” had a rotten foundation.
|Board game of 1898 based on the Affair, with illustrations of the main players|
|French lambs to the slaughter 1914 - “offensive á l'outrance”in the age of the machine gun|
One cannot but feel that France deserves better – now as well as then.