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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)

On the morning of Jan. 5, 1895, Dreyfus was picked up at Cherche-Midi by a military convoy that trotted down the Rue de Babylone toward the Champ de Mars. At one end of the parade ground stood the newly constructed Eiffel Tower. At the other end, in a courtyard of the École Militaire, were massed the thousands of troops that had been brought into the city to watch his humiliation. Outside the courtyard, held behind police barricades, was an agitated mob yelling for vengeance.

It was a cold, clear morning, reported the New York Times in its account of this “intensely humiliating punishment of a convicted officer.” Captain Dreyfus’ regiment, the 39th, was among the first to arrive, at 8:30 in the morning. At 9:00, Dreyfus was led into the courtyard. He marched with his sword in his right hand to the center of the square, where he stood at attention. An adjutant of the Republican Guard read the verdict of the court martial. Then the presiding general said, “Dreyfus, you are unworthy to carry arms. In the name of the people of France, we degrade you.”

The adjutant walked up to Dreyfus and took his sword. With a quick, sharp movement, he broke it across his knee, throwing the pieces on the ground. Then he cut the buttons and military insignia off Dreyfus’s uniform and threw these on the ground. “Vive la France!” shouted Dreyfus. “You have degraded an innocent man. I swear that I am innocent.” The rest of his words were drowned out by the rolling drums and the shouts of the crowd yelling, “Death to the traitor!” “Down with the Jews!”

In what is called a “Parade de l’Exécution,” Dreyfus was marched along the four sides of the square. When he reached the reserve officers who were shouting, “Down with the Judas!” Dreyfus stared at them through his eyeglasses and replied, “You are cowards.”

In front of the journalists assembled in the courtyard, he said, “Tell the whole of France that I am innocent.” The crowds outside were “almost delirious,” as they kept shouting “Death to the Jews!” The streets were lined with more people hurling abuse as the convoy carried Dreyfus back to Cherche-Midi.

Dreyfus had been prepared for the ceremony the previous day, when a tailor came to his cell and removed all the buttons and stripes from his tunic and trousers. They were replaced with a single stitch, which allowed them to be pulled off easily. A bladesmith had filed his sword nearly in half, preparing it to be broken with a single gesture. Dreyfus’ degradation may have been a piece of theater, but everyone played his role so perfectly, and the ceremony was so visceral and shocking, that its repercussions shook France for decades.


Chained and manacled, Dreyfus was shipped to his desolate island in the Atlantic, where he was the sole prisoner. His cell had been altered to prevent him from seeing the ocean that surrounded him. Hearing a false report that Dreyfus planned to escape, his guards locked him at night in “la double boucle,” which forced him to lie flat on his bed, immobilized under iron bars. While Dreyfus was rotting on Devil’s Island, wracked by fever and losing his voice during four years of solitary confinement (he spoke after this in a hoarse whisper), the scandal surrounding his conviction was growing into the affair that divided France, with Zola and the Dreyfussards on one side and the clerical anti-Semites on the other. The unforeseen hero in this phase of the affair was Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, who became head of French counter-intelligence in July 1895, two months after Dreyfus had taken up residence on Devil’s Island.

The case was so rotten with irregularities that the minister of war put Picquart in charge of investigating the situation. An anti-Semite, like the rest of the Section Statistique, Picquart was also an honest man. He discovered almost immediately, simply by looking at the handwriting, that the real traitor who had written the “bordereau” was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. An infantry major in the French army, Esterhazy was well-known to the Section Statistique. In fact, he was a former member of the group, who may still have been working for them as a double agent masquerading as a traitor selling secrets to the Germans.

By mid-1896, Picquart had fingered the traitor. He submitted his findings to the general staff. The evidence was incontrovertible. The bordereau, in Esterhazy’s hand, was written on the same onionskin paper that he used to correspond with his stock broker and mistresses. A paid agent of the Germans was serving as a French military officer, while an innocent man was rotting on Devil’s Island. Instead of being rewarded for his work, Picquart was transferred into the farthest reaches of the Sahara desert in southern Tunisia. Later, he was imprisoned, supposedly for revealing state secrets, after a court martial that involved more forged “evidence” from the Section Statistique.

Word of Picquart’s findings was leaked to the public. Esterhazy demanded a court martial to clear his name. After a secret hearing at Cherche-Midi in January 1898, Esterhazy was acquitted unanimously. He was greeted outside the prison by a cheering crowd, which proclaimed him a national hero, as anti-Semitic riots broke out in Paris. Esterhazy’s court martial was what provoked Zola into writing “J’Accuse,” which appeared in the first issue of Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper, L’Aurore (“The Dawn”), on Jan. 13, 1898, two days after Esterhazy’s acquittal. Zola was charged with libeling the French government and put on trial amid large crowds of demonstrators, most of them against Zola. He was convicted, appealed, and then fled into exile in England, rather than spend a year in prison and pay a fine of 3,000 francs. The publisher of L’Aurore was also fined and sentenced to prison.

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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