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The Lesson of the Dreyfus Case

Another book about the Dreyfus Affair? What could possibly justify loading another volume upon that already over-crowded shelf? The simplest answer is the timelessness of the story. It is a morality tale.

One day in 1894 a charwoman in the German embassy in Paris, who works for French intelligence, finds in the military attaché’s wastebasket a paper indicating that a French officer is leaking military secrets to the Germans. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer in the French General Staff, is wrongfully accused, and the villains (in this case, senior intelligence officers) make the accusation stick by forging additional documents. Adding illegality to forgery, they show them secretly to the court-martial, but withhold them from the defense. As the hero rots on Devil’s Island, only his wife, his brother, and a few outsiders maintain their belief in his innocence.

Their unfolding discovery of the truth, and their efforts to persuade others of the hero’s innocence, lead them through years of dramatic twists and turns. Their best efforts are fruitless against routine, the weight of a res judicata, and the prestige of the Army and its nationalist and clerical allies. But chance encounters and the enemy’s blunders help them. So, ironically, do moments when some officers of straightforward virtue, unaware of the cover-up, unwittingly blurt out revelations. Finally, after twelve years of struggle, justice triumphs. The appeals court annuls Dreyfus’s two court-martial condemnations. But instead of living happily ever after, the heroes fall to squabbling among themselves. Purists such as Charles Péguy feel that Dreyfus himself and his closest advisors have sullied the pure passion of the first days by making political deals and compromises along the way.

Jean-Denis Bredin has told this story with a precision, passion, and vivid sense of character that show why he is one of the most celebrated trial lawyers practicing in France today.1 If one is limited to a single book about the Dreyfus case and its consequences, this should be it.

Villainy and heroism appear in a remarkably pure state in the Dreyfus tale. The judicial rights of an accused man stand on one side, raison d’état on the other. And the man in this case (unlike the victims of comparable judicial travesties in the United States, such as Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and even Sacco and Vanzetti) seems beyond doubt to have been totally innocent of any act even remotely related to the accusation.2 That makes the initial choice of Dreyfus as the suspect all the more blatant a case of prejudice, and the subsequent ever-widening cover-up all the more blatant an abuse of raison d’état.

The Dreyfus tale thus lends itself all too easily to reductionism or bombast. That Bredin manages to be both passionate and exact is his first outstanding virtue. He is admirably free of the baroque conspiracy theories that sprout so luxuriantly on both sides of this case. He refuses to suppose that all mysteries must be soluble by logical construction.3 He is willing to admit that many details remain unexplained, even after close study of the dossier. Major Henry, the forger of documents used to incriminate Dreyfus, may have been “suicided” by someone else, but Bredin doubts it. Other senior officers may have been selling secrets to the Germans, but the evidence is simply lacking. Unlike most pro-Dreyfusards, Bredin concedes the possibility that the Chief of Staff, General Boisdeffre, in whom Dreyfus had an unwavering faith, may not have been party to the cover-up at the beginning; he also does justice to nuances of opinion within the Catholic Church and to the courageous minority of clergymen who refused to run with the anti-Dreyfusard pack. Bredin’s expert eye retains only what the evidence shows beyond doubt. The tale is all the more terrible told with restraint.

Bredin has a skilled trial lawyer’s feel for character and for telling detail. Perhaps the faithful brother Mathieu is almost too good to be true, and the infinitely corrupt real spy, Major Count Walsin-Esterhazy (even his name was an invention), almost too melodramatically evil. Many of the officers involved in the cover-up are credible and recognizable to any student of Watergate as cynical team players. Colonel Picquart, the whistle blower whom the conspirators also attempted to destroy by forged documents, is understood in all his complexity as both upright and rigid. Bredin has inevitably taken a special interest in Dreyfus’s two incompatible lawyers. The elderly traditionalist Edgar Demange wanted to argue the case on narrowly technical grounds, limit himself to awakening a saving doubt, placate the Army, and take the government’s proposed compromise settlements. He clashed with the young, flamboyant Fernand Labori, who was passionately committed to arguing the case in broad civil libertarian terms and fighting for total victory. Dreyfus and his family preferred Demange.

Bredin treats the hero malgré-lui with particular sensitivity. Captain Alfred Dreyfus the person has tended to disappear behind the symbol, but in fact he fit none of the various images forced on him. This austere, withdrawn man, who wanted only to be left alone to live his life of partiotism and duty, disappointed his most militant supporters’ desire for a crusader. The anti-Dreyfusard image was even more askew: they spent a lot of time trying to invent a Dreyfus who gambled and maintained mistresses. Socialists, early on, had trouble fitting the Dreyfus case into their own political purposes. Habituated by an ancient current of leftwing anti-Semitism to equate wealthy Jews with capitalism, they grumbled that a common soldier, or a poor man, would have been shot. Bredin shows us a Dreyfus irreducible to the images of any camp, an ordinary man enduring exceptional stress in his own way. Dreyfus was not passionless; he broke up everything in his cell in his first incomprehending rage (and thereby convinced his first jailer of his innocence), and wrote extraordinary letters to his wife. He just wanted to live by the rules.

Shackled, malarial, cut off by a stockade from his view of the sea, Dreyfus revealed in his letters from Devil’s Island to his wife the convictions that kept him alive. “My body must not give in before honor is restored to us…. Dedicated to my country, to which I have devoted all my energy, all my intelligence, I have nothing to fear.” Dreyfus seems never to have doubted that the French authorities would eventually set matters right.

Beyond Dreyfus’s own case lay the Affair, one of the most spectacular mass tantrums that has ever gripped a modern nation. If Dreyfus was innocent, the Army that condemned him and, beyond it, the conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics who defended even forgery to prevent any criticism of the state, must be guilty; if Dreyfus was not innocent, a “syndicate” of Jews, freethinkers, and anti-patriots who conspired in his defense must be compounding his guilt. These widening accusations produced several dozen duels, hundreds of lawsuits whose hearings commonly degenerated into fist fights, at least one all-out brawl on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, a wave of looting and smashing of Jewish shops,4 a new mass journalism of a rare virulence, the descent of “intellectuals” (the word entered common usage at this point) into political controversy, a new breed of activist political “leagues” that experimented with techniques of mass mobilization and calculated violence. The Catholic writer François Mauriac remembered having been taught as a child that his chamber pot was called a “Zola.” Such passions lost their bite only in the 1960s when the last eyewitnesses died.

The strength of the passions surrounding Dreyfus raises problems of proportion. What turned a mere judicial error, however egregious, into a life-and-death struggle about the French republic, Army, and Church? Was this just an abscess on the surface, or does it provide some clue to the nature of the new century about to open? Bredin has sensible things to say about these larger questions, too.

The French republic at the close of the nineteenth century was particularly vulnerable to crisis. The centralization of both intellectual and official life in one crowded capital city heightened intensity. The electricity of many layers of unresolved conflict was quickly plugged into the quarrel: the obsession of the 1890s with the loss of “national energy”; fear of socialists, foreigners, and change; lack of national self-confidence after the defeat and insurrection of 1870–1871; the special position of the officer corps as outside and somehow above the regime; the illegitimacy of the Republic in the eyes of numerous Catholics and monarchists. But these special French circumstances were the result of a particular history. Were deeper structures involved, common to the entire West? Bredin resists the temptation to make cosmic cases of injustice require cosmic causes, but he offers interesting suggestions.

The Dreyfus Affair occurred at a particular moment in the development of mass politics, what Carl Schorske once called “politics in a new key.” Demagogues experimented throughout Europe in the 1880s and 1890s with anti-Semitism and nationalism as the glue of a new mass conservatism. They had considerable success separating some of the working class from socialism. Over 39 percent of the subscribers to the “Henry Memorial,” a fund raised by the scurrilously anti-Semitic journalist Edouard Drumont to aid the widow of the forger, Major Henry, after his suicide, were workers or artisans who joined with priests, officers, and country gentry to send a few sous along with a few epithets.5

Bredin has the balance to see the Dreyfus Affair as far more than a milestone in the history of modern anti-Semitism. It was that, of course, and Bredin has excellent pages on its impact upon French Jews’ sense of their place in the French nation. But that was only one of the passions braided into the Affair. The group loyalty of a beleaguered officialdom, and Charles Maurras’s famous justification of Major Henry’s acts as “patriotic forgeries,” surely the baldest defense of raison d’état ever written, have no necessary connection to anti-Semitism. They are dangers in any modern state, including Israel.

Americans, at the time and since, have observed the Dreyfus Affair with some complacency. One does well to remember that even though the French military courts acted shamefully, the French civilian courts acted with judicial correctness on the occasions when they obtained jurisdiction. And less than a decade after French civilian courts had overturned two courts-martial’s sentences, a young American Jew, Leo Frank, was lynched in 1915 after a phony rape-murder conviction in Georgia. The Dreyfus Affair tells us much about France and about European mass politics at the dawn of the twentieth century; but the Dreyfus case tells us much about mankind.

Letters

Handle with Felt Gloves April 24, 1986

  1. 1

    Bredin is the law partner of Mitterrand’s justice minister, Robert Badinter, the defender of celebrities such as Paloma Picasso, a Sunday historian with works on Pompidou and Joseph Caillaux to his credit, and a star in the firmament of the present “majority.”

  2. 2

    The last serious attempt known to me to argue that Dreyfus’s innocence remains unproven, and that his supporters committed fraud and subornation of witnesses, was published in 1964 by Henriette Dardenne, daughter of War Minister Godefroy Cavaignac, Lumières sur l’affaire Dreyfus (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines).

  3. 3

    Some of the more picturesque recent plot theories include, on the pro-Dreyfus side, Michel de Lombarès, La Clef du mystère (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1972), which concludes that German counterespionage forged the initial document in order to find out whether Esterhazy was a reliable spy or a French “plant,” but that the French Army permitted Dreyfus to be framed in order to spare other high officers in addition to Esterhazy who were selling secrets to the Germans; this speculation was worked into a 1974 film by Jean Chérasse based on an even grander “hypothesis” (“for we have only presumptions”) of a “vast operation designed to discredit the…French republican regime, for the benefit of the international money powers and in particular the German cartels, and monarchist circles.” (See Jean Chérasse’s account of the film, Dreyfus ou l’intolérable vérité, Paris: Pygmalion, 1975, pp. 193, 196–198.) This is the only French film to deal with Dreyfus since eleven contemporary one-reelers by Méliès, which provoked such brawls that they were suppressed. From a pro-Army point of view, Henri Giscard d’Estaing’s D’Esterhazy à Dreyfus (Paris: Plon, 1960) maintains that the Army was legitimately concealing a complex counter-espionage operation.

  4. 4

    Stephen Wilson, “The Antisemitic Riots of 1898 in France,” Historical Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 3/4 (1972), pp. 33–39, found evidence of sixty-six acts of collective violence against Jews in metropolitan France during the two months that followed the publication of Zola’s pro-Dreyfus article “J’Accuse” in January 1898, not counting the far more serious street fighting in French North Africa. In a useful corrective, Michael Burns has shown in Rural Society and French Politics: Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair (Princeton University Press, 1984) that the quarrel was a mainly urban affair; most peasants didn’t know who Dreyfus was, or reinterpreted the Affair in local idiom.

  5. 5

    The contributor lists were gathered and published in 1899 by a pro-Dreyfus journalist (Pierre Quillard, Le Monument Henry) and are carefully analyzed by Stephen Wilson, “Le Monument Henry: La structure de l’antisémitisme en France, 1898–1899,” Annales: économies, sociétés, civilizations, Vol. XXXII, No. 2 (1971), pp. 265–291. The lists offer an occasional familiar name, such as Paul Valéry, and hair-raising samples of political scatology.

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