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Lying for France

Patrick O’Connor

The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History, by Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury Publishing, 416 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1408801390

Piers Paul Read’s book on the Dreyfus Affair joins the many others which have dealt with this pivotal episode in modern French history. It cannot be said that Read sheds new light on the subject; but he does not claim to do so. Indeed he notes with apparent approval the view expressed by the French historian Marcel Thomas in 1960 that “it would be vain to hope to solve in an entirely new way a ‘mystery’ which, in fact, has no longer been a mystery for quite a time”.

As a novelist, Read seems to have been attracted by what he describes as “the intriguing nature of the story itself”. The vast majority of those who have written about the matter have come from what might be described as the Dreyfusard side. Read, himself a devout Catholic, notes that Catholic historians have tended to shy away from the issue, presumably because of the predominance of Catholics among the anti-Dreyfusard faction. He is interested in exploring the significance of the affair for the Catholic Church and suggests that it “is intelligible only if it is seen in the context of the ideological struggle between the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire”.

Read’s novelistic skills enable him to tell a compelling tale in which character is well delineated. The fact that the story is relatively well known and that his contribution adds nothing that is new does not diminish the value of his work. He devotes his first sixty pages to setting the context which, for him, makes the affair intelligible, to explain, although by no means to justify, the position taken by so many Catholics on the affair. He begins with the 1789 revolution, which not only overthrew the monarchy but also led to severe persecution of the Church and, for a time, the official rejection of religion. The Church was a target both because it owned a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth and because it was seen as closely aligned with the aristocracy, from whose ranks indeed sprang the entire hierarchy. Persecution ended under Napoleon, who negotiated a concordat with Pope Pius VII in 1801. However, the effects of the preceding decade were not erased. The Church, having suffered alongside the émigré aristocracy, developed ever closer links with it and saw the Republic not so much as the guardian of liberty, equality and fraternity as the author of the atrocities to which it had been subjected.

At the same time as the republic was persecuting the Church, it was removing discriminatory laws against Jews. Revolutionary France was the first European country to do this and as the troops of the republic and Napoleon moved eastward through Europe they were seen as liberators by Jews living in those territories. After the removal of the laws which denied them equality, Jews in France made great strides during the nineteenth century, being especially successful in business and finance. From the days of the Roman Empire there were Jews in the Rhineland and French Jews, like their co-religionists in other countries, experienced uncertain fortune through the centuries. However, Jews from outside France, and notably from Eastern Europe, now began to see France as a hospitable environment and an escape from the difficulties that they were experiencing in their native lands. They were eager to seize the opportunities in a country with a booming economy. Inevitably, their success was not always appreciated by Catholics finding it hard to reconcile themselves to the new order created by the Revolution.

After the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war, it seemed for a few years that the return of a monarchical regime would be a strong possibility. The main debate was over whether this should be a legitimist one or an Orleanist one. Discussions dragged on and the Third Republic was established on a provisional basis, pending a final decision. New elections however changed the balance in parliament and the possibility of a restoration of the monarchy faded with an increase in republican strength in the National Assembly.

The establishment of a system of universal state education was considered one of the great achievements of the First Empire. However, in 1850, the state monopoly had been removed and this was followed by the development of Catholic schools, run by religious orders, mainly the Jesuits and Assumptionists. Secular republicans saw the Church as a source of bigotry and were horrified at the prospect of children being raised in an atmosphere inimical to the values of the revolution. From 1879 onwards, a government led by Jules Ferry legislated to ban Catholic clergy from teaching in either state or religious schools and to dissolve unauthorised religious orders, also introducing further impediments to Catholic involvement in the workings of the State. Read notes that six of the ten members of the Ferry cabinet were Protestants and that the new exclusions did not apply to either Protestants or Jews. Catholics were gradually shut out from positions of importance in the French administration and saw that they were being replaced by Protestants or Jews.

Excluded from the administration, many Catholics turned to careers in the army. Traditionally a military career had been attractive for the sons of the aristocracy; now, with other avenues increasingly closed to them the attraction, if anything, increased. Progress in such a career could be good for those with the best connections. Yet when the army was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, it became clear that it needed to be reformed if it was to compete with that of its belligerent neighbour. Measures were taken to emphasise merit and to make the organisation more professional, including the reintroduction of compulsory military service. Many Republicans saw in the aristocratic and Catholic influence in the army a threat to the Republic; many Catholics saw it as an area which still remained relatively free of domination by Freemasons, Protestants and Jews.

In the atmosphere of unfinished business after the Franco-Prussian war, the army worried about spies. Alarm bells rang when paper, recovered from the wastepaper basket of the German military attaché, was found to contain classified French army information, including details about weaponry. The nature of the information led the investigators to think it likely that the source of the document would have had links with the Artillery Division and the General Staff. Quickly, attention turned to Alfred Dreyfus, a thirty-five year old intern at the General Staff who was a captain in the Artillery.

Dreyfus’s handwriting was compared with that in the document found in the office of the military attaché. While there were similarities, those who examined the incriminating document were not unanimous in the belief that the hand was that of Dreyfus. Nevertheless, the investigators rapidly settled on his probably guilt and he was placed under arrest on October 15th, 1894. Dreyfus protested his innocence and in the following days resisted repeated attempts to persuade him to confess. On October 31st, a news agency carried a report that an officer suspected of having communicated some unimportant but confidential documents to a foreign power had been arrested. On the following day, La Libre Parole, a virulently anti-Semitic newspaper which had been established by Edouard Drumont, a notable anti-Semite, carried the information that a Jewish officer had been arrested for high treason. Drumont saw himself as a defender of Catholicism in France and assumed the task of exposing the disloyalty and corruption of the Jews. While Drumont’s views were rejected by the higher clergy, there is no doubt that he had his admirers among the rank and file: it is estimated that almost a third of the anti-Semitic books published in France between 1870 and 1894 were written by Catholic priests.

One of Drumont’s targets was the increasing presence of Jews in the army. There was a widespread view among conservatives that one could not depend on the loyalty of Jews. For them, the Jewish sense of a Jewish nation was incompatible with a true patriotic loyalty to France and the presence of Jews in the army placed the country at risk. Jews within the military, or those in positions of authority seen to be protecting Jews, attracted Drumont’s fire. Coincidentally, two of those involved with the Dreyfus case at this stage had already been attacked by Drumont for protecting Jews. One was the minister of war, General Mercier, and the other the military governor of Paris, General Saussier. Either of these could have halted the case. Neither did, even though Mercier was told that there was not enough evidence to proceed, and Saussier is on record as saying that he did not believe that Dreyfus was guilty.

Mercier was determined to proceed and Saussier, for his own reasons, did not prevent him. In view of the paucity of the evidence against Dreyfus, efforts were made to improve it and the major role in this exercise was taken on by Commandant Hubert Joseph Henry, who was third-in-command at the Statistical Section, the section responsible for military intelligence. To please his masters, Henry set about the task of embellishing the available evidence and forging new evidence.

Dreyfus’s court martial opened on December 19th, 1894. In order to ensure a conviction the judges were shown a secret dossier, purporting to contain further evidence of Dreyfus’s guilt, which it was claimed was too sensitive to be shown in open court. The fact that this dossier was not shown to the defendant or his lawyers, who were unaware of its existence, surely rendered the trial invalid. Nevertheless, Dreyfus was declared guilty and sentenced to deportation for life.

On January 5th, 1895, Dreyfus had to endure a ritual degradation in the courtyard of the École Militaire, where he was paraded in front of contingents from different branches of the armed forces, had the insignia and epaulettes torn from his tunic and his ceremonial sword broken in two. On February 21st, he left France for Devil’s Island, one of the Salvation Islands, in the Atlantic approximately fifteen kilometres off the coast of French Guiana. Dreyfus was the only prisoner on the small island and saw only his guards. Here he was to spend the next four years of his life, cut off from any information on the efforts being made in France to have his conviction reviewed. He could write to his wife and receive letters from her but they were subject to censorship.

Dreyfus saw himself as the unfortunate victim of an error and fully expected that when this became clear he would be released. Rather pathetically, he pinned most hope on General Boisdeffre, the chief of the General Staff, whom he trusted, but who was in fact one of those most resolutely opposed to any reopening of the case. Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu was from the beginning tireless on his brother’s behalf and spent considerable sums of money in keeping his brother’s case in the public eye. His task was not an easy one. At the beginning even Jews believed that Dreyfus was guilty and did not wish to become involved. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, was among these. On the other side of the debate, readers of La Libre Parole and La Croix (a crudely anti-Semitic newspaper established by the Assumptionists which at its peak had a circulation of four million copies) were told that people such as Alfred Dreyfus were a danger to the army and the nation. They were also told that the international Jewish syndicate would spare no efforts, fair or foul, to secure his release.

In spite of the difficulties, Mathieu Dreyfus’s tireless efforts gradually made progress. He hired a journalist called Bernard Lazare to prepare a document exposing the judicial error committed by the 1894 court martial and to counter the efforts of the anti-Dreyfusard La Libre Parole, the Petit Journal and the Assumptionists’ La Croix with their large circulations throughout France. Lazare produced a pamphlet which claimed to demonstrate that the charges against Dreyfus were without foundation. Émile Zola was at this time one of the most famous novelists and journalists in France. He too had at first assumed that Dreyfus was guilty but over time became convinced of his innocence. In a famous open letter to the French president, which was published in the newspaper L’Aurore on January 13th, 1898 under the heading “J’Acccuse …!”. Zola set out the reasons why the charges against Dreyfus did not stand up and named names, among them those of the minister of war and others in the high command who were resisting a review of the case. He also named an army officer called Esterhazy.

Ferdinand Esterhazy had come to the notice of Commandant Georges Picquart, who had become head of the Statistical Section of the army. More material from the waste paper basket of the German military attaché convinced Picquart that there was still a spy at work even after Dreyfus’s trial and imprisonment and through surveillance and more handwriting comparisons Picquart concluded that Esterhazy was the guilty party. Further comparisons with the original note used as evidence against Dreyfus led Picquart to the conclusion that Esterhazy was guilty also of the deeds for which Dreyfus was serving time on Devil’s Island. When, however, he sought to persuade his hierarchical superiors to undo the wrong which had been done to Dreyfus he found an unsympathetic audience: it was made clear to him that for the sake of the reputation of the army there could be no question of reopening the affair. Picquart was asked to keep quiet and, when he responded by saying that he would not take this secret to the grave, his superiors had him moved and sought to discredit him. Henry once again displayed his talents as a manufacturer of evidence. Picquart was posted to Indochina and later himself accused of forgery, charged with imparting information to a civilian and imprisoned. Although he spent over a year in confinement the charges were eventually dropped.

Zola’s naming of those involved in the effort to block a review of the Dreyfus case and his identification of Esterhazy rather than Dreyfus as the guilty party led to his being charged with defamation. After two trials he was found guilty but avoided prison by fleeing to England. Zola’s involvement can at this stage be seen as a game changer. His open letter in L’Aurore, which was followed by anti-Semitic rioting, and the manner in which his trial was handled brought the Dreyfus issue to a wider audience. The British ambassador, although by no means convinced that Dreyfus was innocent, expressed his disgust at the manner in which the trial was managed, calling the proceedings “discreditable”. Zola had hoped that his trial would allow for further ventilation of the Dreyfusard cause. However, the charge against him was narrowly focused and the judge disallowed any questions likely to broaden out the issue. Appeals to the patriotism of the jury and for support for the army were successful.

Nevertheless, the unravelling of the high command’s position continued. Godefroy Cavaignac, the minister of war, in seeking to reaffirm Dreyfus’s guilt, revealed to the National Assembly the existence of three secret documents which, he claimed, proved that he was a traitor. The cat was now out of the bag and Picquart pointed out that those documents were inaccurate and that one was in fact a forgery. Esterhazy’s nephew, in dispute with his uncle, revealed that he had forged telegrams. While the government was now aware of Esterhazy’s guilt, the priority, as far as it was concerned, was to avoid damaging the army by reopening the Dreyfus case. Cavaignac, though a convinced anti-Dreyfusard, was regarded as a man of integrity and when his own staff discovered further evidence of forgery, he himself extracted a confession from Henry who was arrested. Henry then committed suicide and Boisdeffre resigned.

On June 3rd, 1899 the Combined Chambers of the Cour de Cassation (France’s court of last resort) quashed the verdict of December 22nd, 1894 and ordered a new court martial. On June 30th, Dreyfus arrived from Devil’s Island to the military prison at Rennes. His second court martial opened on August 7th, 1899. Amazingly, considering the revelations which had emerged since 1894 he was again found guilty, albeit with attenuating circumstances, which were not explained. The seven military judges of middle rank appeared overawed by the great people who spoke for the prosecution and who appealed to their sense of patriotism. Dreyfus’s case was also not helped by disputes between his legal representatives.

By now, public opinion had shifted and international comment on the outcome of the second court martial was highly critical; there were murmurings about a possible boycott of the forthcoming Exposition Universelle of Paris. While there was no question at this stage of a return to Devil’s Island there were fears that Dreyfus’s health could not withstand further incarceration. When the government offered a pardon it was accepted. This involved Dreyfus dropping his appeal against the Rennes verdict. The acceptance created considerable conflict among the Dreyfusards, since many of his most ardent supporters including, notably, Picquart, felt that he should have held out to be exonerated by his peers in a court martial. Dreyfus had to wait until July 12th, 1906 before being finally declared innocent when the Cour de Cassation annulled the court martial. This was followed by reinstatement in the army and the award of the Légion d’Honneur.

Much has been written about the case in the context of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was rife at the time and there is no doubt that it was very much in the mix once it became clear that an officer held on suspicion of treason was Jewish. This is not to say that Dreyfus was accused because he was a Jew. In view of his area of work and the type of document found at the German embassy it was understandable that he would have been among those investigated. The fact that the investigation quickly focused entirely on him would appear to have owed more to the impression that fellow officers, including superiors, had of him than to anti-Semitism. Reports, which were otherwise favourable, consistently referred to what one described as “an undeveloped character”. He was described as intelligent and gifted but also pretentious. He was also said to have a sly character, was little liked by his comrades and had an indiscreet curiosity. It is clear that he regarded himself as superior to his peers and his comfortable financial situation with a private income meant that he could live in better accommodation away from them. It would appear that he did not make friends among his colleagues and evidently had no desire to do so. Lord Russell of Killowen, who at the time of the second court martial believed in Dreyfus’s innocence, reported to Queen Victoria saying that Dreyfus “does not impress one favourably. He is mean-looking, with a hard, unsympathetic face; and so far as expression goes, I must admit that there was no openness, frankness or nobility in his expression.” As mentioned above, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, who was present at Dreyfus’s degradation, believed him to be guilty and thought his demeanour consistent with guilt. Clearly, Dreyfus did not “present” well and was unpopular. The verdict at his trial was received with virtually universal approval. At this stage, anti-Semitism was not the major factor that it became during the struggle for a review of the verdict. It is however reasonable to think that had Alfred Dreyfus not been a Jew the evidence against him would have been subjected to a more rigorous examination.

While some have suggested that the affair gave impetus to the move towards separation of Church and State in France, which became reality in 1906, it can also be argued that any effect it had was marginal. Regardless of Dreyfus, “the ideological struggle between the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire” ensured continuing strains between the Republicans, suspicious of the reactionary influence of the clergy, and the Church, which saw itself as subject to persecution by Freemasons and Agnostics. The National Assembly elected at the turn of the century was strongly anticlerical. The majority saw clericalism as a threat to progress and wished to limit even further the Church’s involvement in education as well as its perceived influence in the army. The government’s aim was increased control rather than separation. When the actual separation came it was almost as if the Vatican and the Government stumbled into it. The situation might have been different if women had had the vote but, even so, it is remarkable that the men of Catholic France elected such an anticlerical Assembly. A majority of voters apparently accepted the Republican argument that the Church was a reactionary influence. Voltaire had won the struggle.

The American writer and lawyer Louis Begley, in his book “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters”, goes beyond giving an account of the affair and wonders what lessons we can draw from it. Begley sees some parallels between the events of the 1890s and more modern ones. He draws attention to the inmates at Guantánamo Bay, some of whom, he suggests, may be guilty of minor crimes at most. They are not brought to trial because the evidence available would not be sufficient to convict them. Dreyfus was dealt with differently but the failure to produce credible evidence was responsible for the conditions of their incarceration in each case.

The most hated figure in the Dreyfus story was Georges Picquart, despised by his fellow officers for his refusal to drop his insistence that the case be reopened. Picquart, notwithstanding his own anti-Semitic tendencies, believed Dreyfus to be innocent and sacrificed his career and liberty in the interests of truth and justice. For Begley, Picquart provides a classic example of the treatment that whistleblowers who expose abuses and violations of the law can expect. He refers to cases of US army officers sidelined for criticising the conduct of the war in Iraq or for drawing attention to the mistreatment of detainees. He also cites the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an effort to find information that could be used to smear Ellsberg, who had passed on the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent because her husband had shown that claims by the Bush administration about shipments of uranium to Iraq were without foundation.

Begley does not explicitly make the point but one could also say that the Dreyfus Affair and other similar phenomena often occur when loyalty to institutions comes to be regarded as more important than respect for justice and truth. Dreyfus, though innocent, was to be kept incarcerated because the high command and others wished to protect the reputation of the army. Picquart was to be discredited, prosecuted and dismissed from the army because he placed justice and truth before that loyalty. A sense of loyalty at the expense of justice or humanity may partially explain the actions of the keepers of the death camps during World War II. It also goes some way towards explaining the discredited Widgery Report on Bloody Sunday. At a less extreme level, it could be said that examples also occur in Ireland, where a sense of loyalty can sometimes seem to win out over a sense of truth or justice where prominent members of local communities are concerned. We have seen cases where politicians and others continue to be enthusiastically supported despite the adverse judgments of courts or tribunals. This Irish variant could perhaps be described as the principle of “supporting your own”.

Piers Paul Read: The Dreyfus Affair, Bloomsbury, 2012
Louis Begley: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, Yale University Press, 2009
Maurice Larkin: Church and State after the Dreyfus Affair, Macmillan, 1974
Jacques Bainville: La Troisième République, Haeres, 1935

Patrick O’Connor is a retired diplomat.  He was Ambassador of Ireland to France from 1995 to 2001.




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