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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)

Founded in 1871, after France’s disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the French counter-intelligence agency—not to be confused with France’s main intelligence agency, the Deuxième Bureau—was a crackpot outfit of assassins, spies, and clairvoyants good at forging documents and faking evidence in court martial and other legal hearings. Reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s former CIA operatives who specialized in dirty tricks, they were the Plumbers of their day. After the Plumbers were caught breaking into the headquarters of Nixon’s Democratic opponents in the Watergate Hotel, the president was forced to resign, and his operatives were convicted for their crimes. But imagine a different scenario. What if the Plumbers had succeeded in their dirty tricks? What if the U.S. military had lined up behind them and the courts had started convicting people on fake evidence, sending them to prison for life? What if the Plumbers, for a dozen years, had led a reign of terror against Jews and other people inscribed on Nixon’s “enemies list”? When the country finally realized what was happening and tried to recover from this trauma, people would have felt that something had gone terribly wrong with the judicial system and government, which had failed to protect them. Such was the effect of the Dreyfus Affair.

After Sandherr’s death from a stroke, the Section Statistique was put under the charge of Maj. Armand Mercier du Paty de Clam, who was directed to find the spy responsible for leaking the bordereau to the Germans. An anti-Semitic Catholic royalist who interviewed witnesses under hypnosis, du Paty was an amateur graphologist who believed in spiritualism, table rapping, and other forms of the occult. Three years later, when Émile Zola published his famous essay “J’Accuse,” which exposed some of the fake evidence on which Dreyfus had been convicted, Zola blamed the “whole demented torture of Dreyfus” on du Paty de Clam. Dreyfus was “the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the ‘dirty Jew’ obsession that is the scourge of our time,” Zola wrote.

When he became a “person of interest” to the Section Statistique, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a 35-year-old married father of two children, who lived in a well-appointed apartment on the Avenue du Trocadero while working as a trainee at French army general staff headquarters. Born in 1859, in Mulhouse, in the Alsatian region annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war, Dreyfus was the youngest of nine children fathered by a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer. Alfred and one of his brothers received French educations, but the rest of the family spoke Yiddish at home and conducted business in German. Graduating as a sub-lieutenant from l’École Polytechnique, the elite military engineering school in Paris, and then trained as an artillery officer at Fontainebleau, Dreyfus had gone to the War College for another two years of training. The only Jewish officer on the army general staff, Dreyfus was beginning a brilliant career, save for one blot on his record. He had finished ninth in his class at the War College, only because his grades had been lowered by an examiner who said, “Jews were not desired” in the army. Dreyfus and another Jewish officer lodged a protest with the director of the college. Their grades remained unchanged, and the protest was later counted against Dreyfus.

Whether he was set up by French counter-intelligence as the fall guy or fingered as a Jew or targeted as the hapless victim of an investigator desperate to find a leaker, Dreyfus was secretly charged with treason on Oct. 15, 1894 and thrown in Cherche-Midi Prison, where du Paty interrogated him night and day. Du Paty’s hare-brained schemes for shaking a confession out of Dreyfus included locking him in a mirror-lined room, sleep deprivation, and waking him suddenly in the middle of the night with a bright light shined in his face. Word that Dreyfus had been charged with treason was leaked to the public by one of France’s anti-Semitic newspapers, La Libre Parole. This ignited a violent campaign against traitorous Jews, particularly the German-speaking population that was scapegoated for the loss of Alsace and other territory to Germany. Like the rest of the rogues in the Section Statistique, du Paty began forging documents, and his vendetta against Dreyfus endured for decades. In 1944, du Paty’s son Charles was appointed commissioner of Jewish affairs in the Vichy government. His job was to apply Nazi racial theories in France while pauperizing French Jews and deporting them to German concentration camps. One of the Jews whom the Vichy regime deported was Alfred Dreyfus’ granddaughter Madeline, a Resistance fighter responsible for hiding Jewish children in the French countryside. Madeleine Dreyfus was gassed at Auschwitz in 1944.

Captain Dreyfus was not the author of the bordereau. It was not in his handwriting. (This was proof of nothing more than “self-forgery,” said du Paty.) Dreyfus had not confessed, and no evidence linked him to the crime, save for a homoerotic love letter between military attaché von Schartzkoppen and his Italian counterpart, which referred to someone whose name began with the letter “D.” On Dec. 22, 1894, after a court martial at which most of the so-called evidence was presented in secret, Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of French Guyana. First he had to undergo the grim ceremony that marked his being broken in rank and expelled from the army.

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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