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The Ghosts of Alfred Dreyfus

On July 12, France will celebrate the centennial of the acquittal of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish military officer whose false indictment on a charge of treason set off a political scandal in the country.

In a certain light, it would seem that the Dreyfus Affair — and the environment in which it emerged — has long since been buried. Yet Dreyfus has remained an iconic part of the political landscape in France. Even the openly antisemitic leader of the extreme rightwing National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has taken to comparing himself with the wronged officer. Indeed, recent acts of anti-Jewish violence over the past few years have prompted direct invocations of the persecution of Dreyfus. The most horrific of these was this past January’s Affaire Halimi, in which a street gang kidnapped a young Jew of modest means named Ilan Halimi and demanded half a million euros in ransom from his single mother. When, on advice of the police, she ceased to maintain contact with the kidnappers, they tortured her son for three weeks. He was found handcuffed and naked, with burns on 80% of his body, and he died on the way to the hospital. The police denied that this was a hate crime, and the minister of the interior claimed that the kidnappers’ motives were primarily greed, not antisemitism.

But as grisly as the Affaire Halimi was, and as insensitive and incompetent as the law enforcement authorities proved themselves to be, its connection to the Dreyfus Affair is limited: Although antisemitism was a prominent feature of the Dreyfus Affair, its deepest influence was left not in the realm of ethnic tensions but in the battle for the rights of the accused — that sometimes unpopular, yet always essential pillar of any just society.

When seen from this perspective, there is little cause for celebration, as examples of affairs truly analogous to Dreyfus seem to emerge every day. Indeed, last year more than a dozen men and women from the French town of Outreau were detained on charges of pedophilia — at least one for nearly a year — before they were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Stories of physical abuse during interrogation, detention of up to a year, and the suicide of one suspect and attempted suicide of another have shaken national confidence in the judicial system that has been in place since the time of Napoleon. And even on these shores, there now exists a disturbing parallel to Dreyfus in the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Many of the detainees may have planned or carried out attacks against civilians and thereby earned this designation, though officially they are merely “enemy combatants.” But how many Dreyfuses are among the hundreds held at Guantánamo? How many prisoners have committed no other crime than having an ethnicity or religion different from that of their captors? A Supreme Court ruling late last month has annulled military commissions proposed by the Bush administration, which would have evaded the basic standards expected of courts-martial of prisoners of war. But this judgment says nothing about the legality of indefinite detention of civilians.

And so it would seem that, on the centenary of this tragic fiasco, celebrations should perhaps be replaced by a detailed rendition of the story of Alfred Dreyfus — with its maddening, byzantine turns of injustice — to remind us how far we haven’t come in 100 years.

In September 1894, a concierge and petty spy at the German Embassy in Paris discovered a military memorandum, or bordereau, unsigned and without a named recipient, containing cryptic promises of military secrets. She conveyed the document to Hubert-Joseph Henry, an ambitious commandant, who eagerly passed it on to his superiors at the Statistical Section — the division responsible for espionage — of the General Staff. One of these men, a colonel named Fabre, claimed to recognize the handwriting of the Jewish captain and, after hasty consultation with self-styled handwriting experts who came to contradictory conclusions, on October 15, Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew with expertise in artillery, was arrested for high treason.

Following two months of imprisonment, including solitary confinement, shouted accusations and other forms of psychological torture designed (in vain) to produce a confession, Dreyfus faced a closed-session court martial. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana. While there, he suffered from malarial fever, dysentery, malnutrition and severe depression. When absurd rumors of an impending rescue surfaced, his jailors had him shackled to his bed for 40 days.

In 1896, however, a new head of the Statistical Section, Georges Picquart, a lieutenant colonel, discovered evidence pointing to the real traitor. Placing letters written by a commandant in the Statistical Section next to the infamous bordereau, Picquart saw that the handwriting matched exactly. He thereby determined that the actual culprit was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a notorious hustler with chronic gambling debts. Though himself a confirmed antisemite, Picquart was horrified at the prospect that a traitor was still at large and in all probability still selling military secrets to the Germans. He confided his discovery to a few colleagues, whose help he elicited in planning a sting that would establish Esterhazy’s guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt. But these colleagues betrayed Picquart’s plan to top brass at the General Staff, who quickly transferred him to a dangerous post in Tunisia. They could not afford to have the truth of their incompetence and injustice revealed.

Meanwhile, unaware of these secret developments, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, and brother, Mathieu, pushed, first discreetly and then publicly, for a revision of the case. Henry — whether on his own initiative or in response to orders is not clear — responded by churning out forgeries designed to buttress the flimsy case against Dreyfus. By this time, information about the initial investigation had been leaked to the press. On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola published his famous “J’accuse” against the army and politicians all the way up to the President of the Republic, an act that led to his conviction for libel and consequent flight to England. Edouard Drumont, dean of French antisemitism, led the rightwing assault against the “Jewish peril” from the editor’s desk of his immensely popular scandal sheet, “La Libre Parole.” In January and February, riots against the Jews broke out in France and Algeria, and politicians running for office in the National Assembly regularly capitalized on popular antisemitism to win voters. In another travesty of justice, a court martial chose to ignore the evidence against Esterhazy and acquitted him, though he subsequently fled to Belgium just to be on the safe side. Theodor Herzl, at the time a young journalist writing from Paris, later credited the Dreyfus Affair for convincing him that the Jews were not safe in the Diaspora and that they needed their own state.

Justice was done, though belatedly and incompletely. In June 1899, thanks to tireless lobbying by the Dreyfus family and a handful of intellectuals on the left, the case was reopened. The Cour de Cassation, the highest court in France, set aside the verdict against Dreyfus and ordered a new court martial in Rennes, a quiet port city safely distant from turbulent Paris.

This time, however, the trial was to be open to spectators, including hundreds of journalists from around the world, who were shocked to see the emaciated defendant appear in the courtroom. In this public setting, moreover, the judges could not suppress the fact that they had nothing but raw prejudice against Dreyfus. In a bizarre verdict, on September 9, 1899, the military tribunal reconvicted Dreyfus under “extenuating circumstances” and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. At this point, the President of the Republic stepped in and issued a pardon, though justice seems not to have been his primary motive: Paris was the site of the 1900 World’s Fair, and it was in the interest of the gross domestic product to close the case.

But the case was not closed. Although understandably ready to accept the presidential pardon after his nightmarish ordeal, by November 1903, with strong support from a parliament now dominated by radicals and socialists, Dreyfus was sufficiently confident to petition for a retrial. Finally, on July 12, 1906, the Cour de Cassation annulled the scandalous verdict of Rennes. Shortly thereafter, Dreyfus was promoted to major and awarded the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor.

It was a much delayed stab at justice, though, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, since the Cour de Cassation was actually not legally competent to try what was essentially a military case. Only a military tribunal could reverse the verdict of a military tribunal, and no such court ever pronounced Dreyfus not guilty. In 1985, President François Mitterrand presented a statue of Dreyfus to the École Militaire. The army refused to display it, and it now stands in the Tuileries gardens. It was only in 1995, more than a century after the captain’s deportation to Devil’s Island, that the army acknowledged Dreyfus’s innocence, and then only after an official army historian had caused a scandal by publicly questioning it.

Pascal Clément, the French minister of justice, recently called Dreyfus “the symbol of all victims of Justice, but also of the recognition by Justice of its errors.” On this anniversary, then, a wish for the continued pursuit of such recognition, for the errors are still being committed.

Ronald Schechter is the Margaret L. Hamilton associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary and the author of “Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815” (University of California Press, 2003).


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