Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Dreyfus Affair

Carnot was succeeded by Casimir-Perier, during whose brief rule began the thrilling and mysterious Dreyfus Affair, which has been so much talked about, that it will doubtless interest you to hear a little about it. Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, officer in the French army, was one day suddenly and brutally arrested, without knowing what for. Brought before a court-martial, he was accused of treacherously selling information to the Germans, in proof whereof a paper was produced, which three experts out of five pronounced to be in his handwriting. This paper—not signed—had been found by a spy in the scrap basket of the German embassy, and was evidently the docketed outside cover of some document giving information in regard to secret military matters.

There has always been a strong prejudice in France against Jews. Besides, the French believe that the Germans were so successful in the Franco-Prussian War mainly because they were so well informed in regard to every inch of France, and as to its resources of all kinds. This knowledge, they claim, was furnished by traitors and spies, whom they have ever since been anxious to seize and punish. Almost instantly, therefore, it was generally believed that Dreyfus must be one of these base traitors,—although he protested his innocence,—a suspicion which seemed to be confirmed when, after a secret trial, he was condemned to be publicly degraded, and deported for life to Devil's Island, on the coast of French Guiana (1895).

Brought to the square before the military school, in the presence of five thousand soldiers, besides many newspaper reporters and other spectators, Dreyfus was solemnly told by the general in charge: "Dreyfus, you are unworthy to carry arms. In the name of the people of France, we degrade you!" Then the unfortunate man's sword was taken and broken, and buttons, shoulder straps, and stripes were roughly torn off the uniform he wore. Still, in spite of all this humiliation, the victim only cried: "Long live France! You have degraded an innocent man!"

Under strong escort, Dreyfus was borne off to the coast, and from thence to solitary confinement on an island, where he suffered not only from the unhealthful climate, but from harsh treatment; for his keepers believed him guilty of the basest of crimes. During Dreyfus's four years of martyrdom on Devil's Island,—he was once chained to his pallet for two months,—no news of his family, friends, or the outer world reached him. The government, however, insisted upon receiving a daily cablegram to make sure he was securely guarded, this little precaution helping to make his custody cost the nation some $10,000 a year.

Meanwhile, although Dreyfus did not know it at the time, the finding of more papers, in the same writing, in the scrap basket of the German embassy, caused General Picquart to suspect that all was not right. But when Picquart called the attention of his superiors to it, they treated him at first with contempt. After a while, however, the Dreyfus case came to the front once more, the writing this time being said to correspond exactly with that of another officer (Esterhazy). Three men—Dreyfus's brother, the novelist Zola, and a member of the Senate—now made great efforts to clear the matter up, but all they could obtain was a formal assertion from the War Office that positive proofs of Dreyfus's guilt existed. Still, when these so-called proofs were finally produced, the only important paper was discovered to be a mere forgery!

As the German and Italian governments testified that they had never had any dealings with Dreyfus, public opinion now clamored for a new trial, Zola being particularly active, and publishing a sensational pamphlet, in which he boldly accused court, war office, and government of rank injustice. On account of this pamphlet, Zola was tried for libel, and condemned to a fine and to a year's imprisonment. The latter penalty he evaded by secretly leaving the country, while his friends attended the government sale of his effects, and cleverly bidding against each other as they had previously arranged, contrived that the first object auctioned off—a cheap table—should cover the whole amount of the fine, thus, of course, preventing any further disposal of the author's property.

Still, the sensation caused by the trial of so prominent a literary man, eventually brought about the result that Zola wished,—namely, an order to try the Dreyfus case over again. While the victim of this mysterious plot was crossing the ocean to stand a second trial, another officer (Henry) confessed that he had forged the papers on the strength of which Dreyfus had been branded as a traitor. This officer was soon after found dead in his prison; where some claim he committed suicide, while others insist that he was basely murdered.

The new Dreyfus trial was held (1899), like the first, by army officers. Just at its most critical point, the prisoner's lawyer was shot at and wounded so seriously that for eight days he could not appear in court. While nothing was really proved against Dreyfus, the prejudice of the army against him was so great that he was again pronounced guilty, "with extenuating circumstances," and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment, the five spent on Devil's Island being half of the penalty. Once more, the prisoner loudly protested that he was unjustly condemned,—a statement which the president (Loubet) and his ministers must have credited; for he was shortly after pardoned and allowed to rejoin his family, a free man, although sorely broken in health and still bearing the stigma of traitor.

This "pardon," however, could not satisfy Dreyfus, who, as soon as he recovered sufficient strength, so successfully renewed his efforts to clear his name from the brand of treachery to France, that he was publicly reinstated in the army (1906), although he no longer had the strength to serve as a soldier. At the same time Picquart was proved to have acted so honorably that he was advanced to the rank of brigadier-general and two years later was appointed Minister of War.

This Dreyfus affair exerted a wide influence upon French politics, people vehemently siding for or against him, the army, and the government, in turn. But it now seems clearly proved that Dreyfus was unjustly accused of the crime of some other man, known and shielded by those in authority.