June 5, 1899 J’Accuse

At best, the passionate denunciation of anti-Semitism left in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, “l’Affaire”, would ennoble and elevate French politics.  At worst, the episode revealed and hardened divisions within the French state which would weaken the nation into 1914, and beyond.

alfred-dreyfus-trial-affair-france-001.jpgIn the late 19th century, Europe was embarked on yet another of its depressingly regular paroxysms of anti-Semitism, when a French Captain of Jewish Alsatian extraction by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was arrested, for selling state secrets to Imperial Germany.

At this time the only Jewish member of the French Army General Staff, the “evidence” against Dreyfus was flimsy, limited to an on-the-spot handwriting analysis of a tissue paper missive written to the German Embassy.

“Expert” testimony came from Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the crackpot theory of Anthropometry, the “measurement of the human individual”.

No handwriting expert, Bertillon opined nevertheless, that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the sample, articulating a cockamamie theory he called “autoforgery” to explain the differences.

Dreyfus-Affair-Postcard (1)Chief Inspector Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam, himself no handwriting expert, agreed with Bertillon. With no file to go on and despite the feebleness of the evidence, de Clam summoned Dreyfus for interrogation on October 13, 1894.

Dreyfus maintained his innocence during the interview, with his interrogator going so far as to slide a revolver across the table, silently suggesting how Dreyfus might put an end to his ordeal.

Du Paty arrested Dreyfus two days later, informing the captain that he was to be brought before a court martial.

Despite the paucity of evidence, the young artillery officer was convicted of handing over State Secrets in November 1894, and sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent nearly five years.

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Dreyfus stands before his court-martial, 1894. H/T Britannica.com for this image

A simple miscarriage of justice elevated into a national scandal two years later, when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart found evidence that French Army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as involved in espionage, and it was his handwriting on the letter which was used against Dreyfus.

Esterhazy was brought to trial in 1896.  Picquart’s discovery being inconvenient for his superiors, the Lt. Col. was sacked, and later arrested.  Then-Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, he who discovered the letter in the first place, suppressed some pieces of evidence, and invented others.

Esterhazy was acquitted on the second day of trial. The military dug in, accusing Dreyfus of additional crimes based on false documents, as indignation at the obvious frame-up, began to spread.

j'accuseMost of the political and military establishment lined up against Dreyfus. The public outcry became furious in January 1898 when author Émile Zola published a bitter denunciation in an open letter to the Paris press, entitled “J’accuse” (I Blame).

Zola’s accusations against the Ministry of War would earn the writer a trial and conviction for libel, resulting in a year in prison and a fine of 3,000 francs.

Liberal and academic activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case. On June 5, 1899, Alfred Dreyfus learned of the Cour de cassation, (French Supreme Court’s) decision to revisit the judgment of 1894, and to return him to France for a new trial.

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Lieutenant Colonel Henry at Emile Zola’s trial for libel

What followed nearly tore the nation apart. “Dreyfusards”, those seeking Dreyfus’exoneration such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, pitted against authoritarian anti-Dreyfusard characters such as Édouard Drumont, publisher of the virulently Jew-Hating newspaper La Libre Parole.

By New Year’s eve 1898, Hubert-Joseph Henry had become ‘Faux Henry”, his forgeries discovered.   Halfway to the bottom of a bottle of rum, Henry took out a pen and wrote “I am like a madman”.  He then took out a shaving razor, and slit his throat.

For Dreyfus, the new trial was a circus.   The political and military establishments stonewalled.  One of two attorneys for the defense was shot in the back, on the way to court. The judge dismissed Esterhazy’s testimony, even though the man had by now confessed to the crime. The new trial resulted in yet another conviction.  Dreyfus was sentenced to another ten years in the Guiana penal colony.

This time, Dreyfus was set free with a Presidential pardon. A good thing it was, too. The man would not have survived another ten years in that place.

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80,000 men were sent to the “Bagne de Cayenne”, the French penal colony at Devil’s Island, during the 100 years in which the place operated as a penal colony. Only one in four, ever made it out.

Alfred Dreyfus accepted the act of clemency, but reserved the right to do everything he could, to prove his innocence.  Final exoneration came in July 1906, when a civilian court of appeals reversed all previous convictions.  Dreyfus was reinstated to the rank of Major in the French Army, where he served with honor for the duration of WWI, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The chasm remaining between left-wing anti-militarists and right-wing nationalists would haunt French life, for years.  At best, the passionate denunciation of anti-Semitism left in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, “l’Affaire“, would ennoble and elevate French politics.  At worst, the episode revealed and hardened divisions within the French state which would weaken the nation into 1914, and beyond.

 

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June 5, 1899 – The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus affair has been called “a modern and universal symbol of injustice”.

Europe was embarked on yet another of its depressingly regular paroxysms of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, when Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for espionage.

alfred dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus

A French Captain of Jewish-Alsatian background, the “evidence” against him was almost non-existent, limited to an on-the-spot handwriting analysis of a tissue paper missive written to the German Embassy. “Expert” testimony came from Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the modern ‘mug shot’ and an enthusiastic proponent of anthropometry in law enforcement, the collection of body measurements and proportions for purposes of identification, later phased out by the use of fingerprints. Though no handwriting expert, Bertillon opined that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the sample, explaining the differences with a cockamamie theory he called “autoforgery”.

Chief Inspector Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam, himself no handwriting expert, agreed with Bertillon. With no file and only the flimsiest of evidence, de Clam summoned Dreyfus for interrogation on October 13, 1894. Dreyfus maintained his innocence during the interrogation, with his inquisitor going so far as to slide a revolver across the table, silently suggesting that Dreyfus kill himself. Du Paty arrested Dreyfus two days later, informing the captain that he would be brought before a Court Martial.Dreyfus-Affair

Despite the paucity of evidence, the young artillery officer was convicted of handing over State Secrets in November 1894.  The insignia was torn from his uniform and his sword broken, and then he was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”  Dreyfus was sentenced to life, and sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent almost five years.

A simple miscarriage of justice elevated to a national scandal two years later, when evidence came to light identifying French Army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. Esterhazy was brought to trial in 1896, but high ranking military officials suppressed evidence, and he was acquitted on the second day of trial. The military dug in, accusing Dreyfus of additional crimes based on false documents. Indignation at the obvious frame-up began to spread.

i-accuseMost of the political and military establishment lined up against Dreyfus, but the public outcry became furious after writer Émile Zola published his vehement open letter “J’accuse” (I accuse) in the Paris press in January 1898.

Zola himself was tried and convicted for libel, and fled to England.

Liberal and academic activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case. On June 5 1899, Alfred Dreyfus learned of the Supreme Court decision to revisit the judgment of 1894, and to return him to France for a new trial.french-prison-ile-st-joseph-in-french-guiana-devils-island--29946

What followed nearly tore the country apart.  “Dreyfusards” such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were pitted against anti-Dreyfusards such as Edouard Drumont, publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole.  To his supporters, the “Dreyfus affair” was a grotesque miscarriage of justice.  A clear and obvious frame-up.  To his detractors, Dreyfus came to symbolize the supposed disloyalty of French Jews, the attempt to reopen the case an attack on the nation and an attempt to weaken the army in order to place it under parliamentary control.

The new trial was a circus. The political and military establishments stonewalled. One of Dreyfus’ two attorneys was shot in the back on the way to court. The judge dismissed Esterhazy’s testimony, even though the man had confessed to the crime by that time. The new trial resulted in another conviction, this time with a ten-year sentence. Dreyfus would probably not have survived another 10 years in the Guiana penal colony. This time, he was pardoned and set free.

Alfred Dreyfus was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, and reinstated as a Major in the French Army, where he served with honor for the duration of World War I, honorably ending his service at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The Dreyfus affair has been called “a modern and universal symbol of injustice”.  The divisions and animosities left in the world of French politics, would remain for years.  The French army would not publicly declare the man’s innocence, until 1995.