The Dreyfus Affair in its time shook the French nation: political parties, families alike were drawn into it either for or against. So much heat and passion that it caused was an indication of the clay feet of the Third Republic. The whole edifice would ultimately collapse in 1940 where the Republic would go down infamously. (It took only six weeks in the May-July for her to crumble before the invading German army.)
In order to understand L’affaire Dreyfus we need to look into the Panama scandal of 1888 where the issue was not about so much about the corrupt politicians or newspaper publishers but the Jews who were among the promoters. ( In the press the scheme was touted as some sort of Titanic that would not sink. Those who were in high positions and opinion makers drove gullible backers to invest in it. When the scandal finally burst into headlines it was found three of promoters were Jews.) Immediately a wave of anti-semitism broke out.
Well Capt.Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew. In 1894 this 35 year old probationary officer on the Genera Staff was found guilty by court martial of treason. The charge was that he had turned over military secrets to a foreign power. He was dishonorably discharged and was sent on life imprisonment in Devil’s island.
The sole piece of evidence produced by prosecution was so flimsy that the War minister had to use some illegal skullduggery to procure conviction of the Jewish captain. Before his trial by the military court he was convicted hundred times over by the Parisian press. In separate interviews to two of the leading newspapers in France, Le Figaro and Le Matin the War Minister categorically (without a shred of solid evidence) stated of Dreyfus’s guilt. French press in those days was as bad as the muckraking press of today. Think of the News of the World scandal that is going around these days. It was infested with venality and crass partisanship of publishers that gave the news a twist to suit their own self-intersts. (Any reader of Balzac would note the press was as black as they were depicted in his novels.) Commented the Catholic daily La Croix,’Dreyfus is an agent of international Jewry which has decided to ruin the French people’. Before the four day trial was completed General Mercier in the War Ministry cooked up a secret file and presented it to the Judges which was illegal since defence were not informed. The intention was clear: Dreyfus must be declared guilty by legal process!
Having succeeded the hapless officer was publicly humiliated and sent to Devil’s Island where the oppressive heat of the day and night was apt to wear out the health of any man. Dreyful at the start were confined for twenty-four hours in a small hut and ankle strapped in double chains to an iron bar across the foot of his cot. There was no way of escaping the remote island off the coast of South America but was a torture calculated to finish off the Jew!
Six months after the trial Major Georges Picquart took charge of the head of the counter-espionage of the Deuxieme Bureau. He was entrusted with the task of looking into the motives and the Major Picquart could not find any. Besides he found quiet a few evidences to attest to the miscarriage of justice. When the Rightist elements got wind of suspicion the question asked was,’ Of what significance was the life and honor of one individual compared to that of la patrie? There were many whose moral values were more universal and all embracing than what the Right faction had appropriated to themselves. (Somewhat like the Right wing in America who look down on the liberals.) Among the radical Republican politicians there was Georges Clemenceau, socialist (Jean Jaures) and writers such as Emil Zola, Anatole France and a poet Charles Peguy and intellectuals.
In the ensuing years of the trial of Dreyfus the identity of the real trial began circulating and the suspicion fell on Major Esterhazy. Col. Picquart found his handwriting identical to the single incriminating evidence of the bordereau (which carried itemized new weapons acquired by the army.)
Owing to clamor for justice and fair play the Dreyfus case was again heard at the court where Major Esterhazy wanted his name to be cleared. On January 11, 1898 the judges heard him and in a matter of three minutes was unanimously acquitted.
Colonel Picquart who stubbornly had unearthed whatever evidence he could to prove the miscarriage of justice was arrested the next day.
On the following day Emile Zola wrote a scathing letter addressed to the President and it was published in Clemenceau’s paper L’Aurore.
Just when the powers that be thought L’affaire Dreyfus was put to rest one of the leading novelists of the day had raked it up again.
Zola at this time was at the height of his fame and his penchant for causing controversy was no whit lessened. He was acclaimed in and abroad and he was not to be silenced. He was rich and famous and had no need for publicity. Yet he put his all on the line for an ideal. In J’ accuse! he accused the generals by name and for the despicable frame-up and for letting the real traitor go scot-free. His language was violent and frontal attack of the government, savage. In closing he dared the Army or the government to haul him before the courts for defamation.
The challenge was picked up and the government moved to prosecute Zola. Their line of attack was to avoid opening the Dreyfus case but only on the part where he had accused the Army had ordered acquittal of Esterhazy. The sensational case lasted two weeks and the jury took less than an hour to find the writer guilty. He was given a year in prison and fine of 3000 francs. Worse still the mob went on a rampage ‘Death to Zola, Death to the Jews! so went the cry. They wanted to lynch him.
Three days later Colonel Picquart was dismissed. Quietly the verdict against Zola was quashed on technical grounds. A new trial was ordered but Zola made good of his escape to London.
Note: on hindsight we can say that the whole wheels of the government had come unstuck and the Army, the Press, the Church were dancing around the crater of a volcano.
Jean Jaures a great human being and a socialist of brilliant mind was shot dead while he was sitting in his customary seat at at a cafe, Le Croissant. It was just as the first world war broke out. His assassin was a Right winger who suspected he may speak out against the general mobilization following the declaration of the war. The heat of the partisanship that so viciously polarised the Right and the left and manifested during the Dreyfus affair had claimed another victim. Clemenceau will go on to become a great arbiter and voice in the international politics for the French nation.
(ack: the Collapse of the Third Republic-William S. Shirer)