A nation accused

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 6

A nation accused

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 6

A nation accused

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 6

The Dreyfus Affair inflamed France. Louis Begley investigates a lost confession from the man at the heart of the scandal

There is nothing about the Dreyfus Affair that is straightforward, and nothing that is not heartbreaking. The story is well known. In December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, and a trainee with the Army General Staff in its intelligence section, was convicted by a military tribunal of treason: selling military secrets to the German military attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel von Schwartzkoppen.

The conviction was obtained on the basis of a torn-up piece of paper on which was listed information that had been sold to the Germans. This piece of paper had been retrieved from Schwartzkoppen's wastebasket by a charwoman, and sold to the General Staff. The handwriting was mistakenly attributed to Dreyfus, but the real author was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a sociopathic and spendthrift infantry officer accustomed to preying on friends and women.

This list alone – known in France as the bordereau – was not enough to secure a conviction. The Minister of War, General Mercier, and the high command of the General Staff therefore resorted to conduct that was criminal under French law: perjured testimony and secretly placing before the military judges forged documents and a memorandum arguing that they established guilt. The tribunal sentenced Dreyfus to life imprisonment in a fortified enclosure. Not satisfied with that, Mercier pushed a law through parliament that allowed Dreyfus to be imprisoned on Devil's Island, a penal colony on a tiny arid island off the coast of French Guiana. From March 1895, he was held there in solitary confinement, for a time shackled at night to his bed. Then, in June 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France to face a second court martial. The 1894 judgment had been reversed. Once again, the top brass pressed for and obtained a guilty verdict. By now a gravely sick man, Dreyfus accepted a presidential pardon in September 1899. In June 1906, the legal nightmare ended. Dreyfus was fully exonerated by the highest civilian court, promoted to the rank of major, and made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

How could a brilliant officer, rich, married and the father of two small children, fall under suspicion of selling secrets to the German attaché? How could such a man become the subject of persecution by General Mercier? Why was the high command so dogged that – in order to convict him, to maintain the fiction of his guilt and to keep him on Devil's Island – they lied, committed felonies and ultimately allied themselves with Esterhazy, the real traitor?

The suspicion fell on Dreyfus unquestionably because he was the only Jew on an otherwise Catholic, mostly aristocratic and viscerally anti-Semitic General Staff. Once Dreyfus had been accused, it became necessary to convict him in order not to lose face. That same imperative led to the commission of crimes in which no fewer than three generals were implicated, crimes that were only part of a relentless cover-up.

Astonishingly, even through his first trial and his imprisonment on Devil's Island, Dreyfus never lost faith in the French Republic. He believed a mistake had been made that his hierarchical superiors would sooner or later correct. His letter to the Minister of Colonies from the prison on Île de Ré is a perfect example. This letter is offered at auction with Esterhazy's confession and a draft of Émile Zola's 'Lettre à la France' at September's sale of Fine Books and Manuscripts at Bonhams New York. In the letter, Dreyfus begs to be spared transit through yet another prison where prisoners will look on him with the contempt a traitor deserves. Being innocent, he asks only that the real culprit be sought and brought to justice.

Great faith in the French Republic was typical of French Jews of his class and education. Fully emancipated by the French Revolution, they had succeeded brilliantly as financiers, scholars, high civil servants and even soldiers – in 1889, the army had five Jewish generals. The other side of the coin was the rise, during the 1890s, of a virulent form of racist anti-Semitism grafted onto the traditional Christian kind. With the Dreyfus Affair as its focus, this prejudice would cause a bitter breach in France that has never been fully healed.

A series of improbable missteps and coincidences, combined with the determination and energy of the Dreyfusards (family, friends and allies convinced of Dreyfus's innocence), brought about the unmasking of Esterhazy, which was finally achieved in 1897. The handwriting on the bordereau was recognized as his; another document (le petit bleu), a telegram retrieved by the same charwoman from Schwartzkoppen's wastebasket, revealed dealings between the military attaché and the spy.

The General Staff rallied to Esterhazy's defense through a variety of shameless maneuvers and granted his request for a court martial before which he would "clear his reputation". He was tried for treason, and on January 11, 1898, the tribunal acquitted him, bowing to orders from on high, as Émile Zola wrote two days later in his famous letter to the president of the French Republic, 'J'accuse'. In it, Zola called the acquittal a slap in the face of France – and courted a libel action to force the submission of new evidence on behalf of Dreyfus in open court.

Eight months later, cashiered for habitual misconduct, and faced with prosecution for fraud, Esterhazy fled first to Belgium and eventually to England. There he remained until his death in 1923 in Harpenden, where he had lived under the alias Count Jean de Voilemont. Perennially destitute, he lived off his "capital" – interviews and selling to newspapers what he claimed were revelations of the sordid underside of the Affair.

Paul Ribon, mentioned in Esterhazy's letter dated August 5, 1899, was a French journalist who had interviewed Esterhazy and received many of his fabulations. The addressee of the letter is unknown. The military tribunal to which Esterhazy claims he intends to send a deposition may be the tribunal that retried Dreyfus in Rennes from August 8 to September 9, 1899. Esterhazy was summoned to testify but didn't appear, and such a deposition, were it ever in fact received, played no role in the guilty verdict delivered against Dreyfus, a verdict heavily influenced by the generals. Captain Brô and l'homme de paille ('the straw man') referred to in the memorandum mentioned in Esterhazy's letter, belong to the mindboggling lexicon of Esterhazy's lies.

Nor did the bitter consequences of the Dreyfus Affair end even there. Émile Zola is one of France's four or five greatest novelists. In the 1890s, he stood at the apex of his success: his election to the next vacant chair at the Académie Française was all but assured. However, rightist and nationalist opposition to overturning Dreyfus's conviction was bitter and violent. To espouse Dreyfus's cause as Zola did in open letters, including 'Lettre à la France', written a week before 'J'accuse', exposed Zola to immense personal and professional risk. His ploy worked and he was brought to trail for libel on February 7, 1898, but – found guilty – fled France for temporary exile in England rather than serve his time in jail. He was stripped of the Legion of Honour.

Probably, he paid for the cause not only with exile and disgrace, but also with his life: Zola died in 1902 in his bed, asphyxiated by fumes from a stove. There had been many calls for his assassination, and credible evidence points to the bedroom chimney having been blocked by an extreme rightist roofer. In 'Lettre à la France', Zola calls on the people of France to become once again a nation of humanity, truth and justice, and to reject the rage against Dreyfus incited by the gutter press, the reactionary teachings of the church and the scourge of anti-Semitism. It is perhaps the noblest of Zola's great open letters, as bold and uncompromising – as the draft manuscript at Bonhams shows – as the hand of its author.

Louis Begley's account of the scandal, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, was published in 2009. His most recent novel is Kill and Be Killed.

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