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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 realizing that he stood no chance of joining the general staff, Dreyfus resigned from the military in June 1907. He was called back to active duty as a reserve officer, fighting in the Great War, from 1914 to 1918. He commanded a battery of French 75 mm artillery at Verdun. Dreyfus’ son Pierre served as a lieutenant and later as a captain in French 75 mm batteries on the Western Front. Dreyfus’ two nephews also fought as artillery officers in French 75 mm regiments. They both died in the war. Alfred Dreyfus died quietly in bed on July 11, 1935, on the 29th anniversary of his official exoneration.

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A year later, Léon Blum became the first Jewish prime minister of France. Five years later, anti-Semitism became the official policy of the government, as collaborationists in the Vichy regime helped to deport 76,000 French Jews, including Dreyfus’ granddaughter, to Nazi death camps. Today, France once again has a head of state, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is Jewish, at least according to Vichy’s definition.

Jack Lang, minister of culture in the Socialist government of Francois Mitterand, commissioned the statue of Dreyfus in 1985. The commission went to Mitelberg, a Polish Jew who had been studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts when World War II broke out. Mitelberg fought in the French army for two years before being captured. He escaped, twice, from Nazi concentration camps, walked across Russia, and eventually made his way to England, to meet up with Gen. Charles DeGaulle’s army in exile. Mitelberg designed his 12-foot-high sculpture of Dreyfus and cast it in bronze, before learning that the commanding general of the French army had vetoed its placement at the École Militaire. The statue was rejected by a half dozen sites, until finally, in 1988—the same year that Dreyfus’ tomb was desecrated in the Montparnasse cemetery—the sculpture was installed in an out-of-the-way corner of the Tuileries Gardens. Unfortunately, even this obscure location in the old royal garden was too public for a statue whose style has been described as “peculiar” and “troubling.” People also complained about the statue being “too political.” So, after six years of uncomfortable residence on the Right Bank, Dreyfus was carried across the river and reinstalled in October 1994 in the Square Pierre Lafue.

Presiding over the statue’s rededication was Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, who delivered a stirring speech about how the Dreyfus Affair had “cut like a steel blade through French society, dividing it into two irreconcilable camps.” The affair “speaks in a loud voice to our hearts and consciences,” he said. “Why? Because it consists of a triple scandal: the scandal of injustice, the scandal of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and the scandal of a nation divided. To this day, these menaces continue to weigh on the European continent and on France itself.”

Soon after its reinstallation in the 6th arrondissement, TIM’s statue was defaced. It was spray-painted in yellow paint, with the word “Traître” written on the base. In 1995, 101 years after the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair, the French military officially conceded that Dreyfus was innocent. Gen. Jean-Louis Mourrut, chief historian of the army, speaking before an audience of 1700 rabbis and other notables, acknowledged that the Dreyfus Affair was a “military conspiracy,” based on fake evidence, against an “innocent man.” Mourrut’s remarks were prompted by another scandal the previous year, when the army’s historical journal published an article that questioned Dreyfus’ innocence, saying that this was merely “the thesis generally accepted by historians.” After an outcry from France’s Jewish community, Mourrut’s predecessor had been fired, and the general was forced to step forward to make amends.

In 2006, Jacques Chirac, then president of France, made another speech commemorating the Dreyfus Affair. The occasion was a state ceremony at the École Militaire marking the centenary of Dreyfus’ rehabilitation into the army. Invited as guests of honor were the living descendents of Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola. The event took place in the cobblestone courtyard where Dreyfus had been stripped of rank. It was a somber affair, with Chirac reminding everyone that “the combat against the dark forces of intolerance and hate is never definitively won.” What was odd about the ceremony, as noted in the press, was the fact that Dreyfus himself was missing. For 20 years, he had been cast in bronze, waiting to get back into this courtyard. But even on this state occasion, he was kept standing outside near the old Cherche-Midi 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

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