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Still Wandering

More than a century after false charges were leveled against him, the unquiet ghost of Alfred Dreyfus continues to roam the streets of Paris

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“Hommage au Capitaine Dreyfus,” in the Square Pierre Lafue. (Thomas A. Bass)

Down the street from my Paris apartment, in a vest-pocket park filled with students eating their lunches and mothers sitting beside baby strollers, stands the outsized statue of a military man, ramrod straight, eyes forward, as he salutes the world. The statue is a bit of a joke, modeled from gobs of clay that still show the artist’s hand prints after being cast in bronze. The statue is twice the height of a normal man. The head, peering out from under a kepi that sits on it like a lid, is too small. The feet are too big and flat. The chest is puffed out. Most noticeable are the oversized hands, particularly the right hand, which grips the upright hilt of a broken sword, the symbol of an officer broken in rank.

Whenever I see the old soldier, in memory of his sufferings and as a mark of respect, I raise a hand to my forehead and call out—much to the embarrassment of my children, who pass this park every day on their way to school—“Je vous salue, Capitaine Dreyfus.”

The oddity of the statue is exaggerated by the fact that it doesn’t seem to belong here. The Square Pierre Lafue, named after a Parisian journalist, is really little more than a traffic circle planted with banks of shrubbery and a few trees. It floats like a green island at the intersection of two narrow streets, Rue Stanislas and Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, while facing the wider Boulevard Raspail. The statue looming over this small square is a caricature of military honor, a three-dimensional scribble. The work was designed by the political cartoonist Louis Mitelberg, who signed his work—inverting the first letters of his last name—TIM. Dreyfus is saluting because that’s what soldiers do. They follow orders, no matter how criminal or stupid these may be.

While trying to figure out why Dreyfus was here, I learned that his presence is a historical accident. Mitelberg had been commissioned to design a sculpture for the courtyard of the École Militaire, where Dreyfus had been degraded. If Hommage au Capitaine Dreyfus had been installed in its rightful place, Dreyfus would be saluting his fellow officers and the army that tortured him. But the army was on to Mitelberg and his subversive sense of humor. They wanted no cartoons of soldiers holding broken swords. They vetoed the placement of TIM’s statue at the École Militaire, and, after that, Dreyfus was sent wandering around Paris, looking for a home. Anyone who sees Dreyfus standing on this leafy traffic island can sense that the Jew is still wandering and that the memory of his famous affair still divides France.

***

Down the street from Mitelberg’s statue, at the corner of Raspail and Rue du Cherche-Midi, is the site of the military prison where Dreyfus was incarcerated after his arrest. A plaque on the lawn announces that the Prison Militaire du Cherche-Midi stood here from 1853 to 1964. Modeled on the prison in Auburn, N.Y., which was among the first to experiment with solitary confinement, Cherche-Midi held other famous inhabitants, including Resistance fighters during World War II. Many were tortured and killed here, and then later their cells were occupied by members of the Abwehr, German military intelligence, whose headquarters was located across the street in what is now the Hotel Lutetia.

The prison was torn down to make way for the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, a think-tank for French historians and other scholars. The building was condemned recently for asbestos contamination. A homeless Russian and his German shepherd have taken up residence on an open porch, where they sleep at night in cardboard boxes. The lawns are overgrown with weeds, out of which rises a grim memorial to Dreyfus and the other prisoners held unjustly at Cherche-Midi. Meant to resemble the dolmans and menhirs of Celtic burial sites, seven blocks of black granite lie scattered on the ground, with five more blocks of granite standing upright beside them.

For a dozen years, from his arrest in 1894 until his rehabilitation into the army in 1906, Dreyfus and his affair rocked France to its revolutionary root. Partisans lined up on either side, fighting duels, rioting in the streets, and bringing down one government after another. Degas, Renoir, and Cézanne proclaimed his guilt. Pissaro, Cassatt, and Monet defended his innocence. The affair began in September 1894, when Marie-Claude Bastian, an Alsatian cleaning woman, who was actually a French intelligence agent working at the German embassy in Paris, brought to Col. Jean Sandherr, head of the Section Statistique, the anodyne name for French counter-intelligence, a note, written on onionskin paper, that she had fished from the wastepaper basket of German military attaché Lt. Col. Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen. Torn into six pieces, but easily reassembled, the note, henceforth known as the “bordereau,” or receipt, offered for sale to the Germans technical manuals and other information about France’s 120 mm Baquet howitzers. We now know that the information in the bordereau was fluff of little value, much of it already known, about a weapon that France would soon be retiring. In fact, this breach of security may actually have been a ruse, a piece of disinformation intentionally planted in von Schwartzkoppen’s inbox. Sandherr alerted the French minister of war that the army had a traitor in its midst, and the search was on.

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Judy May says:

No matter how many times I read this sordid bit of French history, it still shocks and overwhelms. I didn’t know about this statue, but will certainly find and salute it myself should I ever be in Paris again.

Thank you, Mr. Bass, for a really great article. Like many others, I’m sure, I knew of the Dreyfus Affair but not many of the details. It should be required reading in all French high schools…But I’m sure it will never be.

Harold L. Orbach says:

When I first visited Paris in 1963, the prison was still there and appears on the Leconte map book of Paris I carried with me then and on later occasions. Many times on later visits I had occasion to meet at La Maison de Sciences de L’Homme with colleagues, the last in 2004 That
Dreyfus is still an issue in Paris — and France — was shown by the commemorative exhibit and conference at the famous L’École normale supérieure of rue d’Ulm, 16 Nov — 31 December 2006, marking the centenary of Dreyfus’ rehabilitation in 1906, followed by the book “Savoir et engagement” which collected the writings of its faculty and students who wrote about the Dreyfus case and lists the names of those who were “engaged.”
There also is a full free video available on line of the conference. But no mention is made of the lonely statue so well described by Professor Bass.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

The movie J’accuse starring Jose Ferrer as Dreyfus is true to the story described in this superb article.

Why is it…everytime I read something like this, I just start bawling!

No single article can cover so sprawling a saga as The Dreyfus Affair, but I would add that the personal heroism of Alfred’s brother Mathieu and his wife Lucie should not be neglected. They waged a long and difficult campaign not merely to prove Alfred’s innocence but, in effect, to keep him alive during those years of torment on Devil’s Island. As for the affair being required reading in French high schools–learning about the Affair should be required reading for all of us in “free” democratic countries who cherish the rule of law. The Affair provides crucial lessons about the need for disinterested civilian oversight of the military; the need for the public to reserve judgment in the face of so-called overwhelming evidence against a minority defendant–Jewish, black, gay, or Muslim; and the special role a free press can play in assuring that our courts live up to the noble ideal of equal justice.

thanks for this well written and informative piece.

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Still Wandering

More than a century after false charges were leveled against him, the unquiet ghost of Alfred Dreyfus continues to roam the streets of Paris