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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)

Zola’s trial marked the turning point in the Dreyfus Affair. Picquart was brought out of the desert to testify. Esterhazy’s best friend at the Section Statistique, Lt. Col. Hubert-Joseph Henry, accused Picquart of lying, and the two men fought a duel with rapiers, in which Henry was wounded in the wrist and arm. (Zola would also fight a duel over the affair.) Henry was busily leaking yet more forged evidence, but later that year, when his handiwork was discovered, he was arrested and thrown in prison. In his jail cell, he penned a letter to his military superior saying, “I absolutely must speak to you.” He added cryptically, admitting his guilt: “You know in whose interest I acted.” He was halfway through a bottle of rum and mid-way through a letter to his wife, writing, “I am like a Madman,” when he jumped up and slit his throat with a straight razor. A fund was established, with 250,000 subscribers, to aid Henry’s widow and son, “whose father was killed by the Jews.” Another agent in the Section Statistique met an untimely death, supposedly hanging himself from a window frame. Even the man whom Zola described as the “diabolical” mastermind of the Dreyfus Affair, du Paty de Clam, ended up being forced to retire from the military at half pay.

Esterhazy disappeared from Paris on the day that Henry slit his throat. He made his way to England and lived there in exile, writing articles for the French anti-Semitic press and receiving a pension, from unknown sources, until his death in 1923. He was never investigated or charged with any crimes. When Esterhazy later admitted that he was the author of the bordereau, he claimed to have written it under orders from Sandherr, while working as an agent for French counter-intelligence. Support for this claim appeared in 1994, when French military historian and army reserve officer Jean Doise, after 40 years of research, published Un secret bien gardé: Histoire militaire de l’affaire Dreyfus, or A Well-Kept Secret: The Military History of the Dreyfus Affair. By examining the affair’s roots in counterintelligence, Doise was able to explain what had long been mysterious about the affair. Why was an infantry officer selling artillery manuals to the Germans? Why did the army fabricate a case against Dreyfus and persist in scapegoating him for so many years? Why was Picquart packed off to the desert and put in prison? Why was Esterhazy—the real culprit—allowed to slip out of France and continue living happily in England? Dreyfus, in his autobiography, published posthumously, raised the same question: “There is still the need to explain how a low level infantry officer such as Major Esterhazy could have had access to so much detailed and diverse technical information.”

Doise argued that Esterhazy was a double agent disguised as a traitor, tasked with planting disinformation. He was peddling “secrets” about the technologically obsolete 120 mm Baquet howitzer, which the French army was about to replace. Selling old secrets and framing Dreyfus to make this information look important was a ruse designed to keep the Germans from discovering France’s real military secret, the development of the new quick-firing 75 mm field gun. The French 75 was ahead of its time technically. The Germans and Americans did not produce a field gun that matched its performance until 20 years later, on the eve of World War I. In fact, in 1918, the U.S. Army simply adopted the French 75 as its own and began building the gun under license in the United States. Doise argued that Esterhazy’s bordereau was merely one among many ruses designed to keep the Germans in the dark. Dreyfus was sacrificed for reasons of state—or, as we say today, for national security.

Whether the Dreyfus Affair was rooted in French military intelligence or Esterhazy’s venality, whether it was diabolically clever or bureaucratically stupid, everyone agrees that Dreyfus was innocent of the charges leveled against him. After the double coup de théâtre of Henry’s suicide and Esterhazy’s flight into exile, the case against Dreyfus collapsed. In June 1899, his conviction was reversed by a civilian appellate court. The minister of war dispatched the frigate Sfax to Devil’s Island to carry Dreyfus, still in chains, back to a secret hearing in Rennes. Once more, he played perfectly the role of the honorable soldier, ramrod straight, unemotional and calm as he received the verdict, “Guilty!” His penalty, this time, was 10 years in prison.

Dreyfus at his second trial is reported to have looked a bit like Rip Van Winkle. “After five years of physical and mental torture,” said a witness, he was disoriented during the proceedings and “had difficulty realizing the situation.” The examination of Dreyfus was “without interest; he confined himself to denials” and “preserved an entirely military attitude, the exaggerated correctness of which did not win much sympathy,” said another witness. By the end of the second court martial, after one of Dreyfus’ lawyers had been shot in the back by an unknown assailant who fled the scene, the army had lost its grip on the narrative of the treacherous Jew. Ten days after the military verdict, the French president annulled Dreyfus’ punishment, and the army was ordered to free him. He retired with his family to the south of France, then Geneva, and finally returned to Paris, where he remained excluded from the army and legally dishonored. By 1906, after five years in prison and another seven years spent trying to clear his name, Dreyfus finally got his case heard by the French supreme court, which declared him innocent. The next day, the French National Assembly ordered Dreyfus reinstated in the army and promoted to commander of an artillery squadron, or major. A week later, Dreyfus was honored with a dress parade in a courtyard of the École Militaire—though not the courtyard in which he had been broken in rank—and awarded the Legion of Honor, while the Catholic daily La Croix lamented “the traitor’s reintegration into 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