This is an excerpt from “Conspiracy of Letters,” by Liel Leibovitz, an Amazon Kindle Single Tablet Magazine published this week. To buy the full story, visit Amazon. You do not need a Kindle to read the full piece after purchase. Any computer, e-reader, tablet, or mobile device will do.
Paris of the 1890s was for lovers and coveters, seekers of pleasure and discoverers of new forms of expression, men and women of great passions and greater appetites. The same applied to visitors.
“My dear friend,” wrote one resident foreigner, a German military attaché, to his Italian counterpart, “what has become of you? I came to see you at 2 p.m. and they told me it is very rare for you to show up at the office in the afternoon. Are you in love? Are you sick? I work a lot and then go to the theater in the evenings with people who don’t really interest me.” Then a few more pleasantries, and then a note on military plans the two, master spies, had intended to purloin.
But espionage could wait. The two men were lovers. In beautiful and playful French, smutty and punning, they penned dispatch after dispatch, avowing their friendship and lust. The Italian took to calling the German his dog of war, signing his letters “war bitch.” Not to be outdone, the German grasped for an animal nickname and came up with the pussycat.
“My big cat,” he wrote to his lover, learning that the Italian had come down with the flu, “my little brother, stop crying. You’re my big cat.”
A year or two into their affair, there was no longer any need for cats and dogs. Now signing off with the feminine versions of their names, the two officers wrote directly from their groins.
“My dear big buggerer,” mused the Italian, “I send you some special Italian cookies that always stay hard, even when you make them moist a few times! They say they’re good to dip in your coffee. Yours, buggerer second class.” And a while later, more plainly: “When will you come over and bugger me?”
To the uninitiated, these letters may have passed off as just another erotic torrent in a decade and a town thick with them. Then again, until very recently, the uninitiated never had the chance to read the correspondence between the two amorous men with the twirling mustaches. Their letters were kept in a secret file buried in the French army’s archives, located in a massive 17th-century castle just outside of Paris. They were key bits of evidence in the greatest scandal of the era, a case of treason and lies that would reshape the face of France and draw the battle lines along which the looming 20th century would fight its bloody wars. Printed here, with few exceptions, for the first time, these letters were intercepted by the French intelligence, sometimes forged, and eventually used to make a case against an innocent man, a wealthy and idealistic and brilliant Jewish captain named Alfred Dreyfus.
Everything was ordinary on the morning of his arrest. He woke up in his vast apartment in the Eighth Arrondissement, far up the river from where the poorer Jews huddled down by the Hotel de Ville. His servants were awake, his horses, presumably, asleep: He would not be riding them that morning through the Bois de Boulogne, a frequent daily pleasure he took before reporting to duty, as a note had arrived on Saturday demanding that he show up at the Ministry of War for a general inspection at nine a.m. sharp. The note had irritated him. Nine seemed much too early for a routine check usually conducted at midday. Another line, asking that he report for duty in civilian clothes, made little sense; for a long time now, his mornings involved sliding into the stiffly pressed uniform of a captain in the French army. Still, he paid it little mind. He was a very fortunate man, and such minor irritations were inevitable and best forgotten.
He kissed his wife and his daughter goodbye, and his son, Pierre, almost four, walked him to the door. It was a habit of theirs, one that he cherished, and he promised the boy he’d see him later that evening. With that, he headed out to the boulevard. It was a twenty-five or thirty-minute walk to army headquarters, and the morning was too fine to resist, one of those perfect Parisian fall mornings in which, as he would later describe it in his diary, the rising sun was driving away the thin mist and “everything foretold a beautiful day.”
They were key bits of evidence in the greatest scandal of the era, a case of treason and lies that would reshape France
He walked briskly, passing the Eiffel Tower, barely five years old, and crossing into the Left Bank. Realizing he’d arrived much too early, he slowed down and circled the building a few times. It was cold, and his hands were trembling. He walked in, expecting to find his colleagues—inspections were always a group exercise. None were there. Instead, he was greeted by major Georges Picquart, one of his teachers at the War Academy, who told him the chief of the General Staff, Raoul Le Mouton de Boisdeffre, was waiting. When they entered Boisdeffre’s office, however, he saw three men he didn’t know, all in civilian clothes, and one man he did, Armand Mercier Du Paty de Clam, wearing his Major’s uniform, a golden monocle in his right eye, and a white glove on his right hand.
Springing from his chair and stretching to a formidable height, Du Paty de Clam spoke, sounding as if he was choking. “The General is coming,” he said. “While waiting, I have a letter to write, and as my finger is sore, will you write it for me?” The Captain had no reason to refuse the request, however strange, and the white glove seemed to suggest that Du Paty de Clam’s hand was indeed injured. He sat down at the small table, and complied as Du Paty de Clam insisted he first fill out the standard inspection form. Then, he took dictation, the tall major hovering above him, watching his every move. His hands, still chilly with the morning’s frost, trembled a bit. Du Paty de Clam interrupted.
“You tremble,” he said.
“My fingers are cold.”
This pacified the major, but just barely. He resumed dictating the letter, his tone growing more hostile with each line, brusquely urging the captain to pay attention to his penmanship. To distract himself from Du Paty de Clam’s strange and abrasive behavior, the captain did just that, taking care with each letter, writing slowly and deliberately. Soon, the dictation was over. He remained seated, awaiting further instructions. Then, Du Paty de Clam began to shout.
“In the name of the law, I arrest you,” he shrieked, placing his hand on the captain’s shoulder. “You are accused of the crime of high treason.” The three men in civilian clothes, silent observers to the scene, leapt to life, pouncing on the seated man and searching his pockets roughly and unapologetically. “Take my keys, open everything in my house,” he cried out to them. “I am innocent.” But the civilians weren’t listening, and neither was Du Paty de Clam. All they did was talk of treason. He tried to reason with them, to ask for some proof of his alleged crime, but they dismissed him, saying that the accusations against him were too overwhelming to question or doubt. They seemed to thoroughly believe this line of argument; they repeated it again and again.
He was confused. When a Commandant, hidden behind a curtain the whole time, emerged to escort him to the military prison on the rue du Cherche-Midi, he professed innocence and expressed outrage and struggled to make sense. His ramblings would later be used against him in court. Then, it was on to solitary confinement, where he trembled and cried and howled and demanded, in vain, that he be allowed to send word to his wife. Late each night, Du Paty de Clam would arrive, theatrically shoving a lamp in his face, demanding his confession, and making a host of accusations that were sheer fiction. In his more lucid moments, the captain comforted himself by thinking that he’d soon be brought to trial, and that given the opportunity to present his case to a military tribunal, he’d soon be acquitted and sent back to his apartment, to his family, to his horses, to his furniture with the straight lines in the style of ancient Greece. Like Athens, he thought, the French republic, too, was a seat of reason and justice. It would soon be over, he thought, just a few days more. It was October of 1894, and Alfred Dreyfus still had hope.
Enjoy this preview? Read the rest at Amazon.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.