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Third Republic 1892-1906 - The Dreyfus Affair

Late in the nineteenth century the bitter anti-Semitic prejudice, which was so marked in mediaeval times, again broke out in Europe. It did not spring directly, as of old, from religious antipathy to the Hebrew people, but rather from jealousy of their commercial success. Edouard Drumont's book "Jewish France" signaled the rise of modern anti-Semitism, attacking Jews for capitalism, radicalism, and other "modern problems." The French socialists hated the capitalist wherever found, but most of all they hated the Jewish capitalist. They violently denounced him as an intriguer, a usurer, and an extortioner. He was, they declared, "a man without a country," who was moved by avarice, but never by patriotism. Of the population of France, over 30,000,000 were Catholics, 700,000 Protestants, 54,000 Jews, and 7,000,000 of no declared religion.

In the midst of these attacks, a series of abusive articles entitled "The Jews in the Army" appeared in the Paris Litre Parole in May, 1892. For some time there had been a "leakage" in the military secret-service department. Suspicion fell upon Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer. Churchmen attacked him as a Jew and as an enemy of Christian France. He was arrested in 1894 and charged with treasonable correspondence with a foreign power - presumably with Germany. Dreyfus was sentenced to be publicly degraded, to be expelled from the army, and to be imprisoned for life on Devil's Island.

Anarchist attacks on society and government culminated in the summer of 1894, when an Italian anarchist fatally stabbed President Carnot as he was driving through the streets of Lyons. Casimir-Perier quietly succeeded (1894) to the office left vacant by the death of Carnot. He resigned the next year, and Felix Faure was elected (1895) to fill his place.

In 1894 the military side of the agitation was revived by the arrest of a prominent Jewish staff officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, on a charge of treason. From the beginning the hand of the anti-Semite was flagrant in the new sensation. The first hint of the arrest appeared in the Libre Parole; and before the facts had been officially communicated to the public that journal was busy with a campaign against the war minister, based on the apprehension that, in conspiracy with the Juixríe and his republican colleagues, he might exert himself to shield the traitor. Anti-Semitic feeling was now thoroughly aroused. Panama had prepared the people to believe anything; and when it was announced that a court-martial, sitting in secret, had convicted Dreyfus, there was a howl of execration against the Jews from one end of the country to the other, although the alleged crime of the convict and the evidence by which it was supported were quite unknown. Dreyfus was degraded and transported for life amid unparalleled scenes of public excitement.

The Dreyfus Case registerd the climax not only of French, but of European anti-Semitism. It was the most ambitious and most unscrupulous attempt yet made to prove the nationalist hypothesis of the anti-Semites, and in its' failure it afforded the most striking illustration of the dangers of the whole movement by bringing France to the verge of revolution. For a few months after the Dreyfus court-martial there was a comparative lull; but the highly strung condition of popular passion was illustrated by a violent debate on "The Jewish Peril" in the Chamber of Deputies (25th April 1893), and by two outrages with explosives at the Rothschild bank in Paris.

Meanwhile the family of Dreyfus, absolutely convinced of his innocence, were casting about for the means of clearing his character and securing his liberation. They were wealthy, and their activity unsettled the public mind and aroused the apprehensions of the conspirators. Had the latter known how to preserve silence; the mystery would perhaps have been yet unsolved; but in their anxiety to allay all suspicions they made one false step, which proved the bcgin- ningoftheirruin. Through their friends in the press they secured the publication of a facsimile of a document known as the Bordereau-a list of documents supposed to be in Dreyfus's handwriting and addressed apparently to the military attaché of a foreign power, which was alleged to constitute the chief evidence against the convict. It was hoped by this publication to put an end to the doubts of the so-called Dreyfusards. The result, however, was only to give them a clue on which they worked with remarkable ingenuity.

To prove that the Bordereau was not in Dreyfus's handwriting was not difficult. Indeed, its authorship was recognized almost on the day of publication; but the Dreyfusards held their hands in order to make assurance doubly sure by further evidence. Meanwhile one of the officers of the general staff, Colonel Picquart, had convinced himself by an examination of the dossier of the trial that a gross miscarriage of justice had taken place. On mentioning his doubts to his superiors, who were animated partly by anti-Semitic feeling and partly by reluctance to confess to a mistake, he was ordered to the Tunisian hinterland on a dangerous expedition. Before leaving Paris, however, he took the precaution to confide his discovery to his legal adviser.

Harassed by their anxieties, the conspirators made further communications to the newspapers; and the government, questioned and badgered in parliament, added to the revelations. The new disclosures, so far from stopping the Dreyfusards, proved to them, among other things, that the conviction had been partially based on documents which had not been communicated to the counsel for the defence, and hence that the judges had been tampered with by the Ministry of War behind the prisoner's back. So far, too, as these documents related to correspondence with foreign military attaches, it was soon ascertained that they were forgeries.

In this way a terrible indictment was gradually drawn up against the Ministry of War. The first step was taken towards the end- of 1897 by a brother of Captain Dreyfus, who, in a letter to the Minister of War, denounced Major Eslerhazy as the real author of the Bordereau. The authorities, supported by parliament, declined to reopen the Dreyfus Case, but they ordered a court-martial on Esterhazy, which was held with closed doors and resulted in his acquittal. Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy (1847-1923), a French officer with a bad record and a worse character, fled to London and there publicly confessed through the columns of the London Chronicle (1899) that he wrote the memorandum for which Dreyfus was suffering punishment. It was his sale of French military secrets to the Germans that was uncovered and pinned on Alfred Dreyfus.

It now became clear that nothing short of an appeal to public opinion and a full exposure of all the iniquities that had been perpetrated would secure justice at the hands of the military chiefs. When the Dreyfus affair was stirring all France, a new journal called L'Aurore, edited by Clemenceau, made its appearance. It was devoted to proving Dreyfus innocent. Clemenceau thus got back into the active world of French affairs. Because of Clemenceau's tireless defense of Dreyfus, Zola published in his paper his scathing denunciation of conditions, "J' Accuse." Zola, the famous novelist, had come to the conclusion Dreyfus was innocent. He forthwith addressed a remarkable letter to President Faure," in which he boldly accused the first court-martial of having illegally condemned Dreyfus on secret evidence.

On behalf of Dreyfus, Emile Zola, the eminent novelist, formulated the case against the general staff of the army in an open letter to the president of the republic, which by its dramatic accusations startled the whole world. The letter was denounced as wild and fantastic even by those who were in favor of revision.

The fictional pictures presented by Zola as early as the 1870s were realistic beyond anything that had been known hitherto in French literature. The ugly side of life was presented with a descriptive fullness and a boldness of vocabulary from which French masters of realism had always shrunk. Zola, of course, was attacked as well as praised. In defending himself he claimed to have ushered in a new literary school, which he called 'naturalistic* His novels were described by him and the followers whom he soon gathered about him as 'documents' intended to give to the public a complete picture of French contemporary society. Had Zola died before the year 1898, lie would be remembered solely as a literary character. The date which marks the beginning of his career as a public man is that of the letter to President Faure by which he threw himself into the thickest of the fight connected with Alfred Dreyfus.

The anti-Semitic party and the advocates of militarism declared that the Jews were trying to clear Dreyfus, and that the honor of the country and of the French army was at stake. They denounced the proposed reopening of the case, and a Parisian mob gathered in the streets, shouting " Death to Zola!" and "Down with the Jews!" Zola was tried for defamation of the military judges, and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment; he escaped the latter penalty by fleeing to England.

A re-examination of the documents in the case by M. Cavaignac, then Minister of War, showed that one was undoubtedly forged. Some months later, Colonel Henry, who had succeeded Colonel Picquart as chief of the military secret-service department, confessed that he had forged one of the principal documents which had been privately used to convict Dreyfus. He did it, he said, "for the good of the country." A few days after he made this confession he was found dead in his Mont Valerien cell with his throat cut. It was given out that he had committed suicide.

The French government resolved that, whatever might be the political risk, a new trial should be ordered. The anti-Semitic press and the majority of the army officials did everything in their power to stop it. Dreyfus was accordingly brought back to France (1896) and summoned to meet a new court-martial. Contrary to expectation, that tribunal found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to five years' imprisonment. The anti-Jewish party and the army hailed the result with cheers.

In spite of this damaging discovery the war office still persisted in believing Dreyfus guilty, and opposed a fresh inquiry. It was supported by three successive ministers of war, and apparently an overwhelming body of public opinion. By this time the question of the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus had become an altogether subsidiary issue.

As in Germany and Austria, the anti-Semitic crusade had passed into the hands of the political parties. On the one hand the Radicals and Socialists, recognizing the anti-republican aims of the agitators and alarmed by the clerical predominance in the army, had thrown in their lot with the Dreyfusards; on the other the reactionaries, anxious to secure the support of the army, took the opposite view, denounced their opponents as sans patrie, and declared that they were conspiring to weaken and degrade the army in the face of the national enemy. The controversy was, consequently, no longer for or against Dreyfus, but for or against the army, and behind it was a life-or-death struggle between the republic and its enemies.

The situation became alarming. Rumors of military plots filled the air. Powerful leagues for working up public feeling were formed and organized; attempts to discredit the republic and intimidate the government were made. The president was insulted; there were tumults in the streets, and an attempt was made by M. Déroulède to induce the military to march on the Elysée and upset the republic. In this critical situation France, to her eternal honor, found men with sufficient courage to do the right. The Socialists, by rallying to the Radicals against the reactionaries, secured a majority for the defence of the republic in parliament.

Zola had dared the French Government to prosecute him. Prosecution was begun, however, and his trial by jury in Paris lasted from February 7 to February 23, 1898. Zola was convicted of libeling the military authorities, and sentence was passed upon him imposing a fine of 5000 francs and six months' imprisonment. Zola appealed to the Court of Cassation, which on April 2d quashed the proceedings and ordered a new trial. This new trial took place at Versailles in July, and Zola was again condemned, but meanwhile he fled to England, where he remained hidden till June 4, 1899.

The agitation Zola had started was taken in hand by others, notably M. Clemenceau, M. Reinach and M. Yves Guyot. In August 1898 their efforts found their first reward. The president of the Republic remitted the sentence and set the prisoner free. President Faure died early in 1899, probably as the result of the strain imposed upon him by the Dreyfus case. He was succeeded by Emile Loubet. Later, the fear arose that a revival of the Dreyfus case might alienate the army and endanger the stability of the Republic. To prevent further discussion and further appeals to courts, the legislature passed an amnesty bill (1900), making it impossible to bring criminal prosecution against any one connected with the affair. The Dreyfus case showed the peril to which France had exposed herself in exciting a bitter race prejudice and in fostering a militarism which, while it lasted, hesitated at nothing to make itself feared and to maintain its own selfish supremacy.

Brisson's cabinet transmitted to the Court of Cassation an application for the revision of the case against Dreyfus; and that tribunal, after an elaborate inquiry, which fully justified Zola's famous letter, quashed and annulled the proceedings of the court-martial, and remitted the accused to another court-martial, to be held at Rennes. Throughout these proceedings the military party fought tooth and nail to impede the course of justice; and although the innocence of Dreyfus had been completely established, it concentrated all its efforts to secure a fresh condemnation of the prisoner at Rennes. Popular passion was at fever heat, and it manifested itself in an attack on M. Labori, one of the counsel for the defence, who was shot and wounded on the eve of his cross-examination of the witnesses for the prosecution.

To the amazement and indignation of the whole world outside France, the Rennes court-martial again found the prisoner guilty; but all reliance on the conscientiousness of the verdict was removed by a rider, which found "extenuating circumstances," and by a reduction of the punishment to ten years' imprisonment, to which was added a recommendation to mercy. The verdict was evidently an attempt at a compromise, and the government resolved to advise the president of the republic to pardon Dreyfus. This feeble conclusion did not satisfy the accused; but his innocence had been so clearly proved, and on political grounds there were such urgent reasons for desiring a termination of the affair, that it was accepted without protest by the majority of moderate men.

The rehabilitation of Dreyfus, however, did not pass without another effort on the part of the reactionaries to turn the popular passions excited by the case to their own advantage. After the failure of Déroulède's attempt to overturn the republic, the various Royalist and Boulangist leagues, with the assistance of the anti-Semites, organized another plot. This was discovered by the government, and the leaders were arrested. Jules Guérin, secretary of the anti-Semitic league, shut himself up in the league offices in the rue Chabrol, Paris, which had been fortified and garrisoned by a number of his friends, armed with rifles. For more than a month these anti-Semites held the authorities at bay, and some 5000 troops were employed in the siege. The conspirators were all tried by the senate, sitting as a high court, and Guérin was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. The evidence showed that the anti-Semitic organization had taken an active part in the anti-republican plot (report of the Commission d'Instruction in the Petit Temps, ist November 1899).

A bill granting amnesty to all offenders connected with the Dreyfus case having been brought forward by the Waldeck-Rousseau Cabinet and passed by the two Houses, Zola, who had kept up his fight, returned to France, where he was received by his friends and admirers as one of the greatest and most eloquent defenders of human rights.

On September 29, 1902, Zola was suffocated by gas from a defective flue. He received a public funeral. Zola's death was ruled accidental, but unanswered questions left open the possibility that one of the many anti-Dreyfusards who regularly sent him threatening letters had murdered him.

The government resolved to strike at the root of the mischief by limiting the power of the religious orders, and with this view a drastic Association bill was introduced into the chambers. This anti-clerical move provoked the wildest passions of the reactionaries, but it found an overwhelming support in the elections of 1902 and the bill became law. The war thus definitely reopened soon led to a revival of the Dreyfus controversy. The nationalists flooded the country with incendiary defamations of "the government of national treason," and Dreyfus on his part loudly demanded a fresh trial. It was clear that conciliation and compromise were useless. Early in 1905 M. Jaurès urged upon the chamber that the demand of the Jewish officer should be gran ted if only to tranquillize the country. The necessary faits nouveaux were speedily found by the minister of war, General Andre, and having been examined by a special commission of revision were ordered to be transmitted to the Court of Cassation for final adjudication.

On the 18th of July 1906, the court, all chambers united, gave its judgment. After a lengthy review of the case it declared unanimously that the whole accusation against Dreyfus had been disproved, and it quashed the judgment of the Rennes court-martial sans renvoi. The explanation of the whole case is that Esterhazy and Henry were the real culprits; that they had made a trade of supplying the German government with military documents; and that once the Bordereau was discovered they availed themselves of the anti-Jewish agitation to throw suspicion on Dreyfus.

Thus ended this famous case, to the relief of the whole country and with the approval of the great majority of French citizens. Except a knot of anti-Semitic monomaniacs all parties bowed loyally to the judgment of the Court of Cassation. The government gave the fullest effect to the judgment. Dreyfus and Picquart were restored to the active list of the army with the ranks respectively of major and general of brigade. Dreyfus was also created a knight of the Legion of Honour, and received the decoration in public in the artillery pavilion of the military school. Zola, to whose efforts the triumph of truth was chiefly due, had not been spared to witness the final scene, but the chambers decided to give his remains a last resting-place in the Pantheon. When three months later M. Clemenceau formed his first cabinet he appointed General Picquart minister of war. Nothing indeed was left undone to repair the terrible scries of wrongs which had grown out of the Dreyfus case. Nevertheless ils destructive work could nut be wholly healed. For over ten years it had been a nightmare to France, and it now modified the whole course of French history. In the ruin of the French Church, which owed its disestablishment very largely to the Dreyfus conspiracy, may be read the most eloquent warning against the demoralizing madness of anti-Semiiism.

On July 21, 1906, Dreyfus was presented with the decoration of the Legion of Honor in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, where eleven years before he had been degraded. The affair was thus at an end, but the effects of the controversy on the political situation in France could not be undone. It produced an alliance, called the " bloc" among the republicans of all shades, including the socialists, for the purpose of reducing the political importance of the army and Church. The army was republicanized by getting rid of the royalist officers; the destruction of the political power of the clergy was by no means so easy a matter.

In sympathy with the agitation in France there was a similar movement in Algeria, where the European population had long resented the admission of the native Jews to the rights of French citizenship. The agitation was marked by much violence, and most of the anti-Semitic deputies in the French parliament, including M. Drumont, found constituencies in Algeria. The agitation had not the peculiar nationalist bias which characterizes anti-Semitism, as the local anti-Semites were largely Spaniards and Levantine riff-raff.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2017 19:41:02 ZULU