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No End to the Affair

France and the Dreyfus Affair

by Douglas Johnson
Walker, 242 pp., $5.95

To a generation which has experienced the bitter debates about Hiss and Chambers and which is in the midst of searching for inconsistencies, evasions, and lost threads in the Warren Report, the Dreyfus case presents much that is familiar. On the one hand, it was an issue which forced people to decide where their basic political loyalties lay, a moral crusade in which, for both sides, the end sometimes seemed to justify exceedingly shady means. On the other hand, the intricate puzzles of the events themselves, the unanswered questions that have continued to give rise to the wildest theories, provide a challenge to the historian, the lawyer, and, indeed, to anyone who likes a mystery story. It is a story full of scandal for the sensation hunter, and of lessons for the student of political behavior.

Yet, even allowing for the intrinsic interest of the Dreyfus story and the similarity of parts of it to events in our own experience, do we really need yet another book about it? It is only a few years since Professor Guy Chapman1 gave us an excellent account of the intricacies of the actual Dreyfus case, while more recently Roderick Kedward2 has produced a useful source book for the study of the divisions of opinion produced by the Affair. True, the publication of Maurice Paléologue’s diary has started some fresh false trails, while Professor Baumont’s examination of the German archives has shown that the legend of the report from Dreyfus annotated by the Kaiser himself is as false as the Dreyfusards have always believed it to be. But these books have not substantially altered our view of the Affair. In these circumstances, Professor Douglas Johnson may well have felt some misgivings in attempting a new study of the Dreyfus case. However, he has been fully justified by the result. He has been to the French national archives and discovered some new documents, particularly the notes of two of the officers most deeply concerned in the investigation, Gonse and Picquart; he has used the unpublished memoirs of Scheurer-Kestner, the President of the Senate and the first prominent figure to take up Dreyfus’s cause: he has demonstrated from the British Foreign Office archives that Sir Edmund Monson, the British Ambassador in Paris, was somewhat foolish and illinformed (as he was in many other matters). This short book sums up the issues with great clarity and provides a well-written and absorbing narrative. It is welcome for giving to English-speaking readers an up-to-date account of the present state of the continuous controversy and for renewing discussion of the seemingly endless Affair.

IT IS SURPRISING that, after all these years and all those pages of print, there are still unanswered questions, still a shadow of doubt in the minds of some people about Dreyfus’s innocence, largely because if there really was a spy working for the Germans in the French General Staff, he has never been found. The obvious candidate was Esterhazy—the worldly, somewhat disreputable aristocratic officer, given to lies and self-dramatization, the recipient, it seemed, of one of the key documents in the case, the petit bleu extracted from the German military attaché’s waste-paper basket, and possibly the author of the bordereau itself, the list of items of information allegedly supplied to the Germans. It looked, in October 1897, as if the real traitor would be unmasked, Dreyfus cleared, and the case solved. Yet, although Esterhazy left France in disgrace and lived on in England for many years, a kindly old gentleman offering buns to the children of Harpenden, he was acquitted by a court-martial and his guilt was never satisfactorily established beyond all doubt. He himself claimed to have written the bordereau as part of an elaborate plot to deceive the Germans. As Professor Johnson shows, there are difficulties both circumstantial and psychological in his being the real traitor. Nor are any of the other candidates more convincing: Professor Johnson rules out one by one, Henry, Paty du Clam, and the other more unlikely candidates. The mystery remains unsolved.

Professor Johnson is an admirable guide to the intricacies of this labyrinth, its inhabitants, and its furnishings; his book will certainly create new amateurs of the Dreyfus case, eager for further discussion about the documents and personalities involved, as well as giving old Dreyfus hands something new to think about. He is particularly good in his reconstruction of the atmosphere in which the case was handled by the military authorities. These intelligence officers emerge as human beings, muddled, limited, and often foolish, instead of the cardboard villains or the plaster heroes of the conventional accounts. It is an analysis which suggests that intelligence agencies and secret services are neither as efficient nor as sinister as is sometimes supposed, and that the desire to avoid trouble and save face is often the main motive for their actions.

But, of course, the detective element in the story is not the main one. While we can still speculate about the Dreyfus Case and search the archives and the reports of the legal proceedings for fresh clues, the Dreyfus Affair is something different, involving an analysis of the social and intellectual forces at work in France in the 1890s. What began as an apparently simple case of espionage, which many people were relieved to think was solved by the arrest and trial of Dreyfus in 1894, then became a case of the miscarriage of justice and finally an Affaire which divided the French intellectual and social world and which had profound personal and political consequences.

OR WERE THE POLITICAL consequences so profound? Professor Johnson implies that they have been exaggerated, and there are moments when he seems to be near denying there was a Dreyfus Affair at all; he seems to suggest that it was inflated by a few interested individuals into an issue about which the majority of Frenchmen had no strong feelings. He is careful not to take sides, and he will annoy the Dreyfusards, who, I am glad to say, are still numerous, by his suggestion that the methods of Dreyfus’s supporters were often as discreditable as those of his opponents. “Nothing,” he writes, “is more striking than the similarity that exists between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards. If the anti-Dreyfusards attack Dreyfus because he is a Jew, the Dreyfusards do not hesitate to point out that Esterhazy is a foreigner. If the anti-Dreyfusards denounce the Jews and ‘the Syndicate,’ the Dreyfusards write about the anti-Republican clerico-military syndicate….”Moreover, he rightly points out that neither in the elections of 1898 nor in those of 1902 did the Dreyfus affair play a great part. The government of Waldeck-Rousseau which proceeded to the revision of the Dreyfus case was formed in a Chamber whose composition differed little from that in which Méline, as Prime Minister, had declared “Il n’y a pas d’affaire Dreyfus.” Most politicians, as Professor Johnson says, regarded the Affair as an embarrassing distraction from the proper day-to-day business of politics. Those political figures who played an active part were men like Clemenceau, seeking a way back to political prominence after a period of eclipse or, like Jaurès and Scheurer-Kestner, genuinely prepared to put their sense of justice before political expediency.

Nevertheless—and it is to this aspect of the Affair that Professor Johnson might have devoted more attention—French politics after 1900 were not the same as before. Perhaps even without the Affair, the new forces—socialists demanding reform, syndicalists calling for direct action, a new right-wing anti-democratic nationalism represented by the Action Française, a renewed movement among the Radicals for the final separation of the Roman Church from the French State—these would have begun to make themselves felt; but there seems little doubt that the Dreyfus experience accelerated these developments. While it is true that the Republic was not in danger as a result of the Affair—there was no organized right-wing force capable of exploiting the atmosphere of tension in Paris—the crisis forced many Frenchmen to decide what the Republic in fact meant to them personally. During the previous decade many people had become disillusioned with the politics of the Third Republic and with a parliament whose members had been tainted by the Panama scandal and which was once described by Clemenceau, with that contempt for his political colleagues characteristic of him, as “une chambre de sous-vétérinaires.” And they were prepared to contrast what seemed to be the present shabbiness with the past splendors of France. The mood among some of the younger people was admirably caught in Maurice Barrès’s novel Les Déracinés and it is easy to see how the foundation of the Action Française and Barrès’s own breach with his literary friends were precipitated, if not ultimately caused, by the Dreyfus Affair. But on the Dreyfusard side there was an upsurge of feeling in favor of the Republic, a remembrance of what the Republic was supposed to mean in terms of justice and the Rights of Man.

MOREOVER there were very good practical reasons why many people should support the Republic and rally to the Dreyfusard cause as a symbol of that support. Since Jules Ferry had reformed the school system in 1882 for example, every village schoolmaster had a vested interest in the continuance of the republican regime which had given him his job. Many Jews, such as the young Léon Blum (whose Souvenirs sur l’Affaire written many years later still give one of the most vivid accounts of what the Dreyfus crisis meant to an intellectual) saw in the republican regime not only a safeguard against the growing threat of anti-Semitism, all too visible in the popular press and in the pronouncements of the anti-Dreyfusards, but also a possibility, in a lay and secular state, of emancipation and assimilation in a society which would free them both from the bondage of strict Jewish observance and from the danger of being second-class citizens, as the Jews still were in several other European countries. Furthermore, the Radicals who had, since the days of Gambetta in the Seventies, seen clericalism as their main enemy, were confirmed in all their suspicions by the role of the Church and some of its members in the Dreyfus Affair. There is a sense in which the revision of the Dreyfus verdict made the disestablishment of the Church inevitable. Once a government specifically declaring itself a government of republican solidarity had been formed, it was committed to dealing with the question of the Church, the more so as the passions aroused by the Dreyfus case had put an end to the brief period of ralliement when it looked as though some at least of the French Catholic hierarchy and their flock would come to terms with the republican regime.

The Dreyfus Affair provides a moment at which we can catch the forces dividing French society at work, even though it may be that only a comparatively small and articulate section of the French people was in fact involved. It is this that gives the Affair its permanent historical interest. But to understand this aspect, a detailed account of each stage in the development of the Dreyfus case is indispensable, and it is this that Professor Johnson has provided.

  1. 1

    The Dreyfus Case. A Reassessment. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1955

  2. 2

    The Dreyfus Affair. Barnes & Noble, 1963.

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