The French Revolution started in 1789. The changes it worked were not fully accomplished until 1906. Only then did France finally determine that it preferred democracy to autocratic rule; that it preferred the rights of the individual over the rights of the State; that it accepted the separation of Church and State. The catalyst for this final phase of the French Revolution was the Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus was a Captain in the French Army. He was pompous, snobbish, unfriendly and (unforgivably) he was Jewish. A powerful undercurrent of anti-Semitism ran through French society in the 19th Century, and especially in the army and the Church. Although Jews were formally tolerated, the attitude to them, was set by the Catholic Church which was openly anti-Semitic.

By 1894, Dreyfus had a reputation for hard work and stiff manners. He was devoted to the army and to his family.

In September 1894, Madame Bastian retrieved a piece of paper from a wastepaper basket in the German Embassy. Madame Bastian was a cleaner and a sometime informer for the Statistical Section (military intelligence). The note suggested that there was a spy in the French Army. She gave the note to her contact, Major Henry, who had previously received a note from the same source referring to “the scoundrel D”. Major Henry’s Minister for War, General Mercier, urged Henry to find the traitor before the matter became a public scandal.

In late September 1894, another document came to light. It listed a number of military matters which the writer would soon provide to the (German) addressee. This document was the famous bordereau which would shake France to its foundations.

A quiet witch-hunt began. On 15 October 1894, Dreyfus was called to the Ministry of War. Major Du Paty – a bizarre, melodramatic fop – asked Dreyfus to take some dictation. He explained that he had injured his hand. The text he dictated was loaded with phrases from the bordereau. Dreyfus’ handwriting was nothing like that of the bordereau. Nevertheless, Du Paty arrested Dreyfus on a charge of treason because (as he later explained) Dreyfus’ hand had trembled whilst he was writing.

The Ministry of War cast about for other evidence of Dreyfus’ guilt. Unfortunately, news of his arrest was published in La Libre Parole on 1 November. That anti-Semitic newspaper sealed Dreyfus’ fate, because the army was now compelled to make good its case against Dreyfus if it was to avoid public humiliation. Major Du Paty recruited a self-styled handwriting expert – one Bertillon – who declared that Dreyfus was the author of the bordereau.

Bertillon’s evidence at Dreyfus’ court martial was little short of bizarre. The reason the writing in the bordereau did not look like Dreyfus’ writing, he said, was that Dreyfus had trained himself to imitate the writing of others! Observers reported to the Minister, General Mercier, that the trial was not going well. It seemed certain that Dreyfus would be acquitted. Mercier’s political instincts told him that more was needed if he was to avoid serious political embarrassment. Major Henry and Major Du Paty realised that, if Mercier was in trouble, their careers were threatened. So they put together a file of documents – mostly forgeries – and gave the file secretly to the Judges. Du Paty hinted darkly to the Judges that the national interest was vitally threatened by these documents.

And so it was that Counsel for Dreyfus summed up only on the matter of the bordereau, and did not realise that the Judges had access to a dossier of apparently damming evidence.

Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in exile on Devil’s Island. He was effectively in solitary confinement: his guards were his only human company, and they were forbidden to speak to him. There he remained for years, oppressed by the tropical heat and the injustice of his circumstances. For years his wife and his brother tried to enlist help. For years they met blank resistance.

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Help came from an unlikely quarter. The head of the statistical section was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Picquart. Picquart had attended the court martial and had reported to General Mercier. He had been convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt because of what Major Henry had told him. He was now Major Henry’s commanding officer. In March 1896, Picquart received an intercepted message from the German Military Attaché addressed to a French Army officer, Major Count Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy. Picquart wondered what business Esterhazy could possibly have with the German Military Attaché.

Not long after, in August 1896, Esterhazy applied for a post on the general staff. When Picquart saw Esterhazy’s letter he recognised it as the handwriting of the bordereau. He retrieved the dossier which, as he knew, had been shown secretly to the Judges of the court martial. He immediately recognised that most of the documents in it were forgeries or were loaded with unattributed hearsay. When he told the Minister of War that it was clear that the wrong person had been convicted he was told plainly: the Dreyfus case is closed. When he protested that Dreyfus was innocent, he was told that that was irrelevant. When he said he could not go to his grave with such a terrible secret, he was sent on a series of lengthy missions first to the Eastern Front and then to increasingly dangerous parts of Africa. It was a long time before Picquart realised that he was in exile.

But truth was not so easily suppressed. Soon Esterhazy’s involvement became known. An inquiry into his guilt was actively subverted by Major Henry, whose prime concern now was self-preservation. Henry kept Esterhazy informed of all developments and advised him how to respond. He made sure that the question of Dreyfus’ guilt was separated from the question of Esterhazy’s guilt. Experts were found who would say that Dreyfus had learned to forge Esterhazy’s handwriting.

Esterhazy was court-martialed but was ultimately acquitted, and his acquittal was greeted with cries of “Vive Esterhazy, down with the Jews”.

Emile Zola, offended and disturbed by the affair, wrote an open letter to the President of the Republic. He sent a copy to the newspaper L’Aurore. In the letter, he levelled a series of blunt accusations at General Mercier, the Judges of Dreyfus’ court martial, the Judges of Esterhazy’s court martial and other named officers in the French Army. The accusations were plain and powerful:

“I accuse General Mercier of having made himself an accomplice in one of the greatest crimes of history …

I accuse General Billot (Mercier’s successor as Minister of War) of having in his hands decisive proof of the innocence of Dreyfus and of having concealed them …

I accuse the (Dreyfus) court martial of having violated all human rights in condemning a prisoner on testimony kept secret from him …”

“J’accuse” identified the field of battle: Protect the army, or uphold individual rights; the dominance of the Republic or the dominance of the Church; Christianity versus “the Jewish conspiracy”. It provoked anti-Semitic rioting throughout France. But it also provoked a growing concern about Dreyfus’ trial, which ultimately led to a re-trial.

Together with George Clemenceau, Zola forced France to face the fraud which had been worked in Dreyfus’ court martial. For his troubles, Zola was charged with criminal libel. During the trial, the Generals swore confidently that Dreyfus was guilty, and asserted that the security of France was at stake. The press published the names and addresses of the jurors in the case, and reiterated the Generals’ message. Not surprisingly, in these circumstances, Zola was convicted.

In August 1897, the crucial document – part of the secret dossier on which all the Generals had based their confident evidence of Dreyfus’ guilt – was shown to be a forgery. Major Henry, in his passion to convict Dreyfus, had glued together the pieces of this damning document. That in itself was not uncommon, in a trade where documents were garnered from wastepaper baskets. But the watermark of the different fragments of the document were inconsistent. When confronted with this fact, Major Henry confessed that he had forged the document. He was arrested and committed suicide in prison. Esterhazy fled to England.

Eventually, Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island. In August 1899 he was tried again for treason. The prosecution evidence – specifically that of General Mercier and various army officers – was laced with vague allegations that Dreyfus (being Jewish) was unreliable. At the end of the trial, most observers thought an acquittal was a foregone conclusion. But the Judges held, 5 to 2, that Dreyfus was guilty of treason “with extenuating circumstances”. What this meant was far from clear, but what it signified was that Dreyfus could expect a presidential pardon. He received his pardon on 19 September 1899.

The Prime Minister of France, Waldeck-Rousseau, embarked on a series of reforms designed to reduce the political power of the army and the Church. He granted an amnesty to all principal actors. Dreyfus refused an amnesty for himself, because he wished to continue trying to clear the stain from his name.

Waldeck-Rousseau’s reforms dealt with the root cause of the Dreyfus affair, and France regained the respect of democratic nations. In 1905, the separation of Church and State was effected by statute. In 1906, an appeal court quashed Dreyfus’ second conviction, and Dreyfus and Picquart were reinstated in the army. Zola was already dead; Clemenceau become Prime Minister of France in 1917.

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Zola, Clemenceau and Picquart were the true heroes of the Dreyfus affair. They all suffered terribly for the roles they played. Dreyfus never showed either concern or gratitude for them. He was the only direct participant who understood nothing of the significance of the affair which bears his name.
Julian Burnside