Why the Dreyfus Affair matters
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Louis Begley, internationally acclaimed novelist and former senior partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, has written Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, a literary and historical classic.
In a European society professing the liberalism of the 19th century, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew and loyal French army officer, was kept horrifically imprisoned on Devil's Island for treason, though the army and judiciary knew him to be innocent. He was a Jew turned by government into a thing, a thing to be broken and shackled. In his years at Devil's Island, he became a burnt-out case, a foreshadow of the Holocaust for which Europe was making itself ready, and even today he is relevant to the anti-Semitism that is gearing up in Europe and America. His gravestone's first entry after his death in 1935 is that of his 25-year-old granddaughter, Madeleine Levy. Holding a mirror to history, the stone reads, "deportation by the Germans... to Auschwitz." In 1950, France awarded her the Military Medal, the Croix de Guerre with palm, and the Medal of the Resistance.
Here is a culling of the complex facts of Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters:
In 1893, 33-year-old Dreyfus was a captain on the anti-Semitic General Staff of the French army. He was rich and intellectually bright. In 1894, a military memorandum, a "bordereau", containing French military secrets, was found in the waste basket of Maximillien von Schwartzkoppen, military attaché at the German embassy. Dreyfus's handwriting was in the cursive style taught to French school children, a style similar to the one in the bordereau. Handwriting comparisons by experts produced conflicting opinions. No motive for treason could be attributed to Dreyfus. No fact connected him to the bordereau. Nevertheless, he was arrested, as in a nightmare, for high treason. In order to gin up his prosecution, French military intelligence leaked information to the anti-Semitic press. No one yet knew that a French officer, the perfectly amoral, non-Jew, Major Esterhazay, was the traitor. The bordereau was written by him.
At Dreyfus's court-martial trial, the case began to falter. General Mercier, the minister of war, believer in the rule that the best evidence is the evidence one creates, secretly and criminally delivered to the tribunal a dossier secret in which a letter to Schwartzkoppen from the Italian military attaché referred to "that swine D." In December, 1894, Dreyfus was found guilty, sentenced to life, and suffered an infamous public degradation ceremony during which an enraged mob screamed "Dirty Jew", "Judas", and "traitor". General Mercier, having implicated the tribunal, destroyed parts of the dossier secret and bound his French officer accomplices to secrecy. In February, a prison ship took Dreyfus to Devil's Island, 34.6 acres and six miles off the coast of French Guiana. There in brutal, solitary confinement, and an obligatory silence, he was kept, ignorant of the outer world and so abused that in 1899 one government physician declared him unable to articulate and form sentences and another described him as a finished man. His sentence was all but capital. Rare is the reader who does not cringe at Begley's description of Dreyfus's suffering.
In 1895, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart became chief of the army's intelligence bureau. Conventionally anti-Semitic, he nevertheless would become Dreyfus's savior.
In 1896, Esterhazy visited Schwartzkoppen at the German embassy where Schwartzkoppen expressed dissatisfaction with Esterhazy's supply of information and threatened to end their relationship. After French army intelligence obtained Schwartzkoppen's subsequent letter to Esterhazy, Picquart compared Esterhazy's handwriting with that in the bordereau. They were identical. He informed the General Staff that Esterhazy was the traitor and urged them to correct the injustice done to Dreyfus. A general, pre-figuring the Holocaust, asked him, "Why do you care if that Jew rots on Devil's Island?" He suggested that the matter be kept secret. Picquart answered that that is "abominable" and "I will not in any event take this secret with me to the grave". Instead of following their probable impulse to bury him, the General Staff transferred Picquart to eastern France and then to Northern Africa. Unknown to Picquart, Major Henry, Picquart's deputy, forged a letter from the Italian military attaché to Schwartzkoppen in order to incriminate Dreyfus, and forged other letters to incriminate Picquart for leaking secret information.
In a nation ripped apart by the Dreyfus matter, &EACUTE;mile Zola, convinced of Dreyfus's innocence, entered the acrimonious struggle between right and left social forces. With the cunning encouragement of the General Staff, Esterhazy requested a court martial and was acquitted. After Zola's withering "J'accuse!" was published, he was tried for libel against the court martial officers, and was sentenced to one year. Picquart was cashiered from the army. Zola's conviction was reversed, he was retried, sentenced to one year, and fled to London. Major Henry's forgeries were discovered, he was sentenced to one year but served only one day during which he slit his throat with a well deserved razor. The news of his suicide caused the fleet footed Esterhazy, now cashiered from the army, to flee to England.
In 1899, the 1894 court martial judgment was reversed and Dreyfus, retried, was found guilty "with extenuating circumstances", left undescribed by the tribunal. He was sentenced to a reduced term of 10 years. Nine days later, he was pardoned. In 1904, the Court of Cassation reversed his conviction . He was reintegrated into the army as a major by legislative act, Picquart was returned as a Brigadier General, and Dreyfus was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 1907, now 47, he retired in disgust from the army as a captain, the rank he had held when arrested. The army had decided that his rank could not be increased because he had not been, as required, a major for two years, he had been pardoned but not acquitted, the five years he spent on Devil's Island were not creditable to him for the purpose of raising his rank , nor for that purpose were the more than six years thereafter spent by him to clear his name, a condition caused by the corrupt army.
In 1998, President Jacques Chirac publicly stated that Dreyfus's trials "were only pitiful masquerades" and that Dreyfus's "only crime was to be Jewish". Chirac would have been more eloquent had he spoke in memory of the 75,000 French Jews sent to their deaths by France's viciously anti-Semitic government in World War II. Accordingly, I memorialize, at random, Convoy 19 that left the Drancy transport in France for Auschwitz on August 14, 1942. Of the at least 1,015 deportees transported, 115 men were put to work and all the others, including women and little children, were gassed. I give their deaths in answer to the influence on France of the Dreyfus Affair.
Sitting alone for years on Devil's Island, Dreyfus had not known that he was at the furious center of the West's attention. Unwittingly, he became symbolic proof that modern pluralist liberalism might crack when those who govern saw their powers imperilled, as did the General Staff and France's right-wing institutions. So viewed, Begley points to the hell created by the combined stupidity and cunning of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld who created a parallel, hidden, unconstitutional world at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Base, a world of murder, torture, beatings, sexual assaults, electric shocks, water boarding, sleep deprivation, bright light bombardments, solitary confinement, CIA secret "black sites" in foreign countries, a world in which men were caged in dog crates, or were hung, their arms behind them, like crucified carcasses, or were sent for torture in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.
The Dreyfus Affair does matter, notwithstanding that Dreyfus was only one and not one of thousands. Our souls are diminished when we are indifferent to the whipped Arab hanging from beams athwart his cell in Abu Ghraib or the young Jew taken from the street and murdered recently in France by anti-Semites. To Louis Begley, who survived the Holocaust as a Polish boy living and moving about Poland for several years with his mother in that Nazi-occupied country, false identification papers in their pockets, indifference to injustice mattered much. He is silent about that history in his great book, but it must have infused the writing of it.