“I accuse the War Office of using the press, particularly L’Éclair and L’Écho de Paris, to conduct an abominable campaign to mislead the general public and cover up their own wrongdoing.
Finally, I accuse the first court-martial of violating the law by convicting the accused on the basis of a document that was kept secret, and I accuse the second court-martial of covering up this illegality, on orders, thus committing the judicial crime of knowingly acquitting a guilty man.”
Thus spake Emile Zola in his stunning indictment of the entire governmental and military establishment in France. French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was ignominiously stripped of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony in the courtyard of Paris’ Ecole Militaire on today’s date – January 5 in 1895. Four months later, the unfortunate man, who was really guilty of nothing more than being Jewish was packed off to Devil’s Island.
“The Dreyfus Affair” Begins
“The Dreyfus Affair” which would go on to tear apart French society in the closing years of the 19’th Century began on October 15, 1894, when Captain Dreyfus, the first Jewish-French officer ever to serve on the General Staff of the French army was arrested on suspicion of spying for Germany. Although the evidence against Dreyfus was flimsy – an offer to turn over French Military secrets was determined on the basis of handwriting evidence to have been written by Dreyfus – rabid anti-semitism within the French military establishment lead to his conviction in a court-martial, and his subsequent life sentence on Devil’s Island in French Guyana. This was initially greeted well by the public. However, two years later, Col. Georges Piquart who was Chief of Army Intelligence discovered new evidence that implicated Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, a neglectful officer who was frequently absent from his post. A coded paper- the “petit bleu” was found with more details of the treason and was addressed to Esterhazy.
The French Military Cover-up in “The Dreyfus Affair”
But the military command refused to admit their initial error, instead opting to cover the whole matter up. Piquart was silenced, and they refused to re-open the case. The whole matter began to break into the public press, with charges and counter-charges being thrown in every direction. France was torn into two factions- those who believed in the innocence of Dreyfus, and those who did not. This placed the poor Dreyfus himself at the center of an intense political struggle. Those who were pro-Dreyfus were anti-clerical liberals, who wanted France to stay a Republic, while those who were against him were generally pro-royalist conservatives. It got to the point that Dreyfus himself and his guilt or innocence were small matters in this political gunfight. The pro wanted the government brought down, whereas the anti were willing to resort to perjury and forgery to keep the government in place.
Dreyfus Is Finally Exonerated
(Pictured: Emile Zola)
Major Esterhazy was eventually tried and acquitted. This brought about the outraged letter to the newspaper by the famous French writer Emile Zola – “J’accuse!” Zola was charged with libel for his troubles, and sentenced to prison. He managed to dodge the gendarmes by fleeing to England. Major Henry, who as it turned out had forged much of the evidence against Dreyfus wound up committing suicide. Esterhazy followed Zola into British exile. A pro-Dreyfus man became Prime Minister and Dreyfus was retried. This time he was found “guilty, but with extenuating circumstances”. This left the public in an even greater outrage. Finally, the President of France – Emile Loubet – stepped in and pardoned Dreyfus. But by this time the scandal had become much too large and calls for the total exoneration of the captain were coming in from all over the country,indeed from around the world. At long last, the man was granted a new trial, and in 1906 he was completely acquitted and restored to his former rank.
The Aftermath – The French Army…..HA!
But for a full decade France had been torn apart by the controversy. The right was ultimately done in not by the original mistake, but by their repeated and extended attempts to cover it up. The left came to political power as a result. The French Army had viewed itself as being the finest in Europe. Exactly how it came to that self-view remains mysterious. THAT venerable and brave but dubious institution went on to follow up it’s stellar showing in the Franco-Prussian War with an even more ridiculous performance in World War One during which Dreyfus served well, albeit mostly behind the front lines. He died in 1935. As to the Royalists – well happily for France and the world, Louis Napoleon (The “June Days”, the “Mexican Empire”, the Franco-Prussian War after which he was captured at Sedan) proved to be their last and final hurrah.
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“An Incomplete Educatio” by Judy Jones, and William Wilson Ballantine Books, New York, 1987