The Rising Celebrity and Modern Politics
The Dreyfus Affair
by Anya Rous
Relations between the Jews and non Jews in Modern
France were good. In 1791, Jews living in France were granted French
citizenship which was much more than communities of Jews in other
countries could say. Some found their way into the civil and military
services. On the whole, they felt comfortable in French culture.
They even had a Sanhedrin, or a separate high court, under Napoleon
III. Despite these privileges, Jews could
not enjoy complete comfort. Indeed they were awarded emancipation
in the hopes that they would assimilate. As one man said
in the debates on emancipation, To the Jews as individuals--
everything; to the Jews as a group-- nothing. They must constitute
neither a body police nor an order; they must be citizens individually.1
The Jews were logical suspects; they didnt have a homeland,
was their allegiance to France really that strong? Cautious of the
fragility of their state, many Jews intended to do what was wanted
of them. Jewish schoolss textbooks espoused patriotism to
France. Many refrained from political activity as a collective,
or as a member of a religo-ethnic minority. It was in
this way that Alfred Dreyfus worked his way up to the top ranks
of the French Army, hoping to dispel stereotypes that connected
him to the often deprecated Jewish community.
In September 1893, Alfred Dreyfus, head of the Statistics Section
of the French army, knew not what lay ahead of him. Within one year
he would be convicted of a crime he did not commit. Within six he
would be returned to Devils Island, the penal colony off the
coast of South America,2
where he would spend his next ten years of life after proclaimed
guilty in his retrial. Had he known there wouldnt have been
much he could do, for evidence of his innocence was available around
the same time he was convicted.
At the end of a long day in the middle of September in 1894,
the armys cleaning lady emptied the trash bins that stood
beside the army officers desks, and found a
piece of paper that indicated that French military secrets had been
sold to Germany. This information had been entrusted to Captain
Alfred Dreyfus as a high officer, and though his handwriting didnt
match that on the paper, he was immediately incriminated for the
crime. Dreyfus was the only Jew in the army department, and was
therefore suspect. Evidence was fabricated to further suggest Dreyfuss
guilt. A superior officer publicly humiliated Dreyfus as his medals
were torn from his coat, his red sash ripped, and his sword split
in two. After a predictable trial, Dreyfus was sent to Devils
Island to serve his sentence.
The destiny of Dreyfus changed dramatically when two men entered
his life. The first, however unlikely, was the French anti-Semitic
officer, Colonel Georges Picquart. Picquart became head of the Statistics
Section, and began suspecting another officer of Dreyfuss
alleged crime. Further investigation showed that the actual culprit
was Major Esterhazy, but the government protected him. The unearthing
of Esterhazys guilt advanced both the cognizance of Dreyfuss
innocence and the malfeasance of the trial.
The public learned of this news when Emile
Zola, a writer aforeknown for his social consciousness, wrote
"JAccuse" on January 13th, 1898. Zola had previously
written a number of articles on Dreyfuss innocence, but "JAccuse"
took the public by storm. Zola condemned the fervent and unjust
actions of the French military and government by naming specifically
those men who had directly and indirectly framed Dreyfus and covered
up evidence about Esterhazy. The government became more intent on
retaining Dreyfus at Devils Island, as acknowledgment of his
innocence admitted their own guilt. Within a month Zola was tried
and found guilty for libel, and Picquart dismissed from the army.
Zola fled to England.
Meanwhile, the country literally divided in two. Half of the
country may not have favored the governments decision
to convict an innocent man, but thought that the honor and pride
of the army, government, and therefore all of France deserved maintaining
above anything else. (However, this in no way ignores the staunch
anti-Semitism of many French people. It should be remembered that
there were a number that believed that the Jews deserved to be scapegoated
for all of the countrys problems.) This group was dubbed the
anti-Dreyfusards and was comprised, to name a few, of the conservatice
parties, the army, the church, and artists Edgar
Degas and Paul Cezanne. The other half, lead by Emile
Zola and politician Jean Jaures, criticized the injustice and
corruption of the regime. Both groups were well organized.
In the middle of June, 1899, Zola returned from England, Dreyfus
sailed to France for a retrial and Picquart was freed all in the
space of four days. Progressives peacefully marched at Longchamps
to welcome Dreyfus home. The attack of the police on the crowd sheds
light on the events that were to follow. The presiding judges
prohibition of new evidence and the stature and eloquence of the
prosecuting attorneys further diminished Dreyfuss chances.
He returned to Devils Island.
In the beginning of April 1902, the army began investigations
of documents in the War Office. On hearing this news, Dreyfus
requested another appeal. In July of 1904, ten years after Dreyfus
was first accused of high treason, the Court of Appeals decided
to pardon Dreyfus of all charges. The next day the French Parliament
voted to give Dreyfus back his job as captain of the army and all
his honors as well.
The following is an article from the Moday Review, a Times Literary
Supplement, from June 5th 1998. It describes well the effect of
the Dreyfus Affair on the French. Robert Tombs wrote this peice
called, "The Dreyfus Affair Revisited."
Never before but also never since, were such emotions aroused
by the judicial fate of an obscure individual. Why was it Dreyfus
who came to occupy this niche in history? Any attempt to answer
these questions honestly immediately forces an immersion into
the politics and culture of the time. The Dreyfus Affair mobilized
conservatives as well as radicals, but in different ways in different
places. In contrast to the reaction within France, sympathy for
Dreyfus was strong among conservatives in Britain, Germany, the
US, Italy, and even Russia. The British royal family, the German
Kaiser, and the King of Greece were pro-Dreyfus. In France, and
in her Latin and Catholic neighbors, the Dreyfusards were left-wing,
anti-clerical, anti-military; while anti-Dreyfusards in France,
Latin, and Catholic countries shared the French Right's obsession
with Jews, Freemasons, and Protestants. Outside France and its
sphere, the anti-Dreyfusards were usually extreme nationalists
and/or Catholics and/or anti- Semitic. The affair split the French
intellectual world of the time: Cezanne, Degas, and Renoir were
anti-Dreyfus, as was the filmmaker Melies; senior faculty at colleges
and universities in France were pro-Dreyfus, while junior faculty
were anti-Dreyfus. Dreyfus himself was not really much of a Dreyfusard.
The pro-Dreyfus socialist Charles Peguy said: "We were willing
to die for Dreyfus. But Dreyfus was not willing to die for Dreyfus."
Tombs concludes with the suggestion that one significant element
of the Dreyfus Affair was that it posed an important question
for the French: Who is French? 3
The repruccusions and memories of the Dreyfus Affair continue. The
government never seemed to get over this piece of history. In 1995,
one-hundred and one years after Dreyfus was first sentenced to a
long term in Devils Island, the French armys historical
service officers, General Jean-Louis Mourret admit for the first
time publicly that a terrible mistake had been committed.4
Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus.
NY: George Braziller, 1983.
Kleeblatt, Norman L. The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice.
Berkely: University of California Press, 1987.
In Kleeblatts anthology:
Hyman, Paula E. The French Jewish Community from Emancipation
to the Dreyfus Affair.
from the Web:
Wake Forest University http://www.wfu.edu/~sinclair/dreyfus.htm
Georgetwon University http://www.georgetown.edu/guieu/libproj.htm
The site of the Georgetown University Centennial Conference:
The Dreyfus Case: Human Rights vs. Prejudice, Intolerance and
Demonization is an excellent source for more documents. In particular
look at the one by Ori Stoltz and Norman Kleeblatt at http://www.georgetown.edu/guieu/Docstop.htm
THE MONDAY REVIEW, A Free Weekly News Digest of Intellectual
Affairs at http://www.tao.ca/wind/rre/0454.html
Beyond the Pale, an online exhibit of antisemitism all over
the world. This is a really great and comprehensive site at http://www.friends-partners.org/partners/beyond-the-pale/english/25.html
1 Hyman, Paula E. The
French Jewish Community from Emancipation to the Dreyfus Affair.
3 The Monday Review 18 May
98, The Times Literary Supplement 1 May 98, at http://www.tao.ca/wind/rre/0454.html
4 Painton, Frederick. A
century Late, The Truth Arrives. http://www.wfu.edu/~sinclair/dreyfus.htm