Dreyfus – the case

Marie Bastion was a janitor who drew a miserable salary cleaning the Paris offices of German military attaché Major Max von Schwartzkoppen. To supplement her income she took another job on the side – fishing discarded documents from his wastepaper baskets and handing them over to French intelligence.

France was keeping a sharp eye on Germany ever since the Franco- Prussian War of 5630/1870-5631/1871 when Prussia solidly defeated France, annexed the French provinces of Alsace and northern Lorraine, and combined the independent German states into the “German Empire,” better known as the “Second Reich,” which survived until 5678/1918. The First Reich (Holy Roman Empire) existed from the coronation of Charlemagne in 4560/800 until 5566/1806, while Hitler’s Third Reich collapsed after 12 years in 5705/1945.

On September 17, 5654/1894 Marie Bastion handed a retrieved document to the French authorities that infl uences Jewish history until this day. It read as follows:

“Having no indication that you wish to see me, I am nevertheless forwarding to you, Sir, several interesting items of information: “1. A note on the hydraulic brake of the 120 cannon and the way the part has worked. 2. A note on covering troops (some modifi cation will be made by the new plan). 3. A note on a modifi cation of artillery formations. 4. A note concerning Madagascar. 5. The draft of the fi ring manual for fi eld artillery (March 14, 1894) “This last document is extremely diffi cult to procure… I am off to maneuvers.”

From this cryptic note, referred to as the bordereau (list), French intelligence gathered that someone on the General Staff was handing over sensitive information regarding France’s latest artillery, and suspicion fell on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew attached to the French army’s general staff. He was an artillery captain, and there seemed to be a similarity between his handwriting and that of the bordereau.

On March 13, Dreyfus was ordered to the chief of staff headquarters where Commander Paty de Clam informed him: “Captain Dreyfus, in the name of the law I arrest you! You are accused of the crime of high treason!”

Failing to discover more incriminating evidence, de Clam proposed abandoning the investigation, but the Chief of Staff disagreed. Letting Dreyfus off the hook would make the army look ridiculous. To jump-start a trial, the General Staff began leaking the story to the press to stoke up public indignation, forcing a secret trial to start on December 19.

After four days of inconclusive testimony and evidence, the War Minister virtually demanded that the judges hand down a guilty verdict and the Chief Justice cowardly complied, announcing, “The court has unanimously decided to condemn Dreyfus! The court sentences Dreyfus to permanent banishment… and the removal of his rank in a public ceremony.”

The French paper, Figaro, described Dreyfus’ demoting ceremony in agonizing detail:

“The general in the front rank shouts, ‘Captain Alfred Dreyfus, you are unworthy to bear arms. In the name of the French people we degrade you.’ “Immediately, a giant, helmeted ‘hangman’ approaches the accused, and without delaying a moment rips off his fine gold insignia and the buttons of his military coat.

“The victim submits to this degradation, but lifting his arms he cries: ‘I am innocent, I am not guilty. Vive la France (long live France)!’ “Outside in the square and on the fences a surging mob shouts, screams and whistles – a storm of abuse. The ‘hangman’ bends down quickly and rips the offi cer stripes from his pants. Are these shreds of cloth falling off, or fragments of life, shards of honor? Before the ceremony, Dreyfus’ sword was removed and replaced with a sword of weak metal so that it can be broken in accordance to the ceremonial rules. The giant takes the sword from the person who was a captain, and with a sharp blow he breaks it on his knee. The pieces fall to the ground, a miserable pile of refuse.

“What more can be done to this miserable specimen after they have stripped him of everything? He will be a public exhibition and shame before his former comrades. All the courageous offi cers, the simple soldiers remain in place, and he marches before them. The crowd roars with hate as the Jewish traitor makes his humiliating march round the giant square.”

After a three months voyage, Dreyfus arrived at Devil’s Island off South America to spend his life in banishment. Napoleon III had turned this inhospitable place into a penal settlement so gruesome that only a quarter of its over 56,000 prisoners ever returned home.

Meanwhile, Dreyfus’ brother, Mathieu, was striving to get at the truth by publicizing copies of the bordereau and urging anyone who recognized its handwriting to contact him. His efforts bore fruit when a banker informed him that the writing matched that of his client, Walsin-Esterhazy. Mathieu shamed the army into trying this man by printing an open letter in the press to War Minister Billot:

“The sole basis of my poor brother’s conviction in 1894 was the undated letter (the bordereau) that suggested that documents had been transferred to the agent of a foreign power. I have the honor to inform you that the writer of this letter is Lord Walsin-Esterhazy, a major in the infantry. Esterhazy’s writing is identical to the handwriting of that letter… I have no doubt, sir Minister, that when you learn who really perpetrated the treachery for which my brother was convicted, you will immediately do as justice dictates.” However, a subsequent judge amazingly ruled that the bordereau had been written by someone imitating Esterhazy’s writing! There is evidence that Esterhazy was let off the hook because he had sent the letter to the German Attaché on behalf of French Intelligence.

Protesting this miscarriage of justice, famous French novelist, Émile Zola, publicized his famous J’accuse (I accuse) letter of January 5658/1898: “My duty is to speak out, I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the specter of the innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit…

“I accuse the War Offi ce 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 fi rst 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.

“In making these accusations I am aware that I am making myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29/7/1881 regarding the press, which makes libel a punishable offence. I expose myself to that risk voluntarily…

“My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the enquiry take place in broad daylight! I am waiting. With my deepest respect, Sir. Émile Zola, 13th January 1898.”

Zola’s goal was to reopen the Dreyfus fi asco by forcing his own trial. The military took up Zola’s challenge, pronounced him guilty, and he fl ed to England.

Even after a new War Minister demanded Dreyfus’ retrial after discovering that documents had been forged to incriminate Dreyfus, the retrial also found him guilty, although it reduced his sentence from lifetime banishment to ten years of hard labor. By this time, France was torn into two factions, Dreyfusards and anti- Dreyfusards, and due to public furor and other considerations the French Prime Minister René Waldeck-Rousseau granted Dreyfus a pardon, and he was released home.

Seven years later in 5666/1906, the army restored him to his former rank, and when people present at the ceremony cried out, “Long live Dreyfus!” Dreyfus responded, “No! Long live the truth!”

Dreyfus decided to forgive and forget, and forge on with his new life, writing to a friend:

“Let us not harbor hatred, dear Major, for all those who have used falsehoods and lies, it would be doing them too much honor. Let us despise them.

“Let us pursue our goal relentlessly, while keeping intact our dignity and our moral rectitude, and if we must lower our eyes to the level of persons of such vile and lowly conscience, let us just give them a brief glance fi lled with sadness for such misery. And we shall win, through the intangible superiority of the soul.”

Present at the Dreyfus trial and witness to the French anti-Semitism was the prominent journalist, Theodore Herzl. Although it was over a century since Napoleon guaranteed that, “Every person… is entitled to the enjoyment of all rights guaranteed in Constitution; the National Assembly herewith abrogates all restrictive laws concerning the Jews as they appeared in earlier decrees,” here was a Jew, externally no different than his fellow Frenchman, hauled before court on false charges and a target of national hate. The spectacle of thousands of Frenchmen chanting, “Death to the Jews!” after the trial shook Herzl to the core.

Herzl concluded that the Jews must have their own state to escape anti- Semitism, writing in 5655/1895 that, “In Paris, as I have said, I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.”

The effectiveness of his solution may be gauged from a glance at current headlines…

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