Saturday 18 January 2014

The Dreyfus Affair - and the rotten political class in the France of the 1890s

In the last week I have been enjoying “The Dreyfus Affair” by Piers Paul Reid – the most readable account of it I have read to date, easier going than “The Affair” by Jean-Denis Bredin. This appalling miscarriage of justice not only victimised an innocent man, and unleashed a sickening wave of Anti-Semitism in France, but also exposed the widespread and unmitigated moral squalor of the political classes of the time.
The affair began in November 1894 with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a talented General Staff officer of Jewish descent, was accused of having betrayed French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. The leakage of secrets was real but Dreyfus was innocent in the matter. The initial investigation was perfunctory to say the least, with a strong predilection for assuming guilt, not least because of strong Anti-Semitic prejudice. On the basis of flimsy and poorly evaluated evidence, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island off French Guiana. Here he spent almost five years in solitary confinement in appalling conditions of mental stress and physical privation. Prior to deportation from France Dreyfus was subjected to ritual humiliation in front of assembled troops, his badges of rank being torn from his uniform and his sword broken before him.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus's ritual humiliation

Even from the beginning many – including the governor of the prison in Paris where he was initially detained – were convinced that he was innocent, as were his wife Lucie and his brother Mathieu. The latter began a campaign to prove Dreyfus’s innocence, one that took off slowly but gained momentum.
Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light that identified a French Army major named Ferdinand Esterhazy as the real culprit. It was now that the most scandalous part of the affair commenced. Unwilling to admit that the initial conviction was wrong, senior military figures colluded in forgery of documents that “proved” that Dreyfus had indeed been guilty. With their support, and with suppression of new evidence, Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted by the court martial that he demanded to clear his name.
Divisions in society - and even in families - over Dreyfus's innocence or guilt
Knowledge of the court martial's framing of Dreyfus, and of the associated cover-up, began to spread, chiefly owing to J'accuse, a vehement open letter published in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 by the novelist Émile Zola. Pressure built up to a level that ensured that Dreyfus was brought back to France in 1899 for another trial. 
Zola's open letter - which proved somewhat of a two-edged sword
The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (now called "Dreyfusards"), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the anti-semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free.
Dreyfus's Second Trial
Eventually all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. In 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. He served throughout World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

What is particularly impressive about Piers Paul Reid’s account of the Affair is that he does not treat it as a scandal in isolation. He puts it in the context of the intense and bitter rivalries that had riven France from the First Revolution onwards, between Monarchists and Republicans, Right and Left, Catholics and Anti-Clericals, Conservatives and Radicals. The sheer nastiness of these squabbles, the petty – and not so petty – humiliations each group tried to impose on the others when opportunity allowed and the venom with which innumerable vendettas were followed makes for very distasteful reading. These conflicts built to a climax in the years prior to WW1, during which there was somewhat of a period of national union, but once peace was restored the same hatreds and feuds reasserted themselves. The ultimate climax was to be the split between Vichy and Free French supporters after France’s defeat in 1940 and some echoes still reverberate.

In Reid’s account there are very few heroes, other than Lucie and Mathieu Dreyfus and a handful of others. On both sides of the Affair many of the characters – including Zola – were ethically compromised individuals who seemed lacking in scruples, compassion and generosity of spirit. Many used the Affair to further ends other than establishing the guilt or innocence of the victim. The so-called “Belle Epoque” had a rotten foundation.

Board game of 1898 based on the Affair, with illustrations of the main players
One of the ironies of the story is that the lies, forgeries and subterfuges that were undertaken to “prove” Dreyfus’s guilt, when his innocence was known, were allegedly “to protect the honour of the French Army”. One can only wish that senior officers had paid less attention to such concerns and more to addressing the realities of modern warfare. French military doctrine – if it can be glorified by such a name – went no further than “offensive á l'outrance”, consisting of human-wave attacks on defended positions by infantry clad in ludicrous quasi-Napoleonic uniforms of blue coats and red trousers. The price was to be paid in blood. In August 1914, the first month of WW1, the French Army suffered some 210,000 casualties in less than two weeks of actual fighting. This included 4,778 officers, being about 10% of the total French officer strength.
French lambs to the slaughter 1914 - “offensive á l'outrance”in the age of the machine gun
Quite coincidentally, my reading of Reid’s book coincided with accusations about ridiculous, undignified and indeed farcical, behaviour by the current French President. This seems faithful to the grand tradition established, unfortunately rather tragically, by his predecessor at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. This gentleman, M. Félix Faure, had the misfortune to die suddenly from apoplexy in the Élysée Palace on 16 February 1899, “at a critical juncture while engaged in sexual activities in his office” (as delicately phrased in Wikipedia) with a lady not his wife.

One cannot but feel that France deserves better – now as well as then.

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