Poison of Dreyfus Affair remains potent

By George Whyte, May 3, 2012

As a young student in Paris in the 1930s, Madeleine - the favourite granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus - jumped to her feet when her history teacher referred to her grandfather as "the Jewish officer Dreyfus". "No, Monsieur," she protested, "the French officer." It echoed the sentiments professed by her grandfather 40 years earlier. Madeleine was destined to pay the ultimate price of illusion and her sad fate to become a poignant epilogue to the "Immortal Affair"- the name given by her brother Jean-Louis Levy to the events and consequences of their grandfather's arrest and conviction in 1894.

The subject has recently attracted a fresh spate of publications, most notably Piers Paul Read's new book, The Dreyfus Affair - splendidly written but flawed by a strong Catholic bias - and Jacqueline Rose's Proust Among the Nations: from Dreyfus to the Middle East, which takes the reader on an engaging and far-reaching journey, with carefully selected visits to the works of Proust, Freud and many others, and leads us to her destination - a plea on behalf of the Palestinians.

When Captain Dreyfus adjusted his uniform every morning, he saw in the mirror the reflection of a proud, French officer. When he arrived at General Staff headquarters, he was perceived as a Jewish officer. He did not see, or want to see, that admission was not the same as acceptance. By misjudging the former for the latter, Dreyfus paved the way for his own martyrdom. This was the bitter lesson of the misfortunes of the assimilationist officer.

Read shares Dreyfus's illusions and, like Rose, believes that the officer's character traits and unpopularity played a role in his downfall. But how was an unwanted Jewish officer, adrift in a sea of Jesuit bigotry, to behave? Dreyfus rightly considered himself to be a loyal member of the French armed forces and, faced with such hostility around him, fell back upon his pride and adopted an aloof manner.

In contrast to Read, Stephen Wilson, in his meticulously researched Ideology and Experience, leaves no doubt that the arrest and condemnation of Dreyfus stemmed from the anti-Jewish prejudices of the French officer corps and that the antisemitism unleashed was principally a Catholic phenomenon.

When the captain adjusted his uniform every morning, he saw in the mirror the reflection of a proud French officer

Both Read and Rose accept the traditional version of the Affair: Dreyfus was a Jewish officer attached to the Bureau of Statistics, which was a cover for the Department of Army Intelligence dealing with espionage and counter-espionage. He was falsely accused and then convicted of spying for Germany, publicly degraded and banished to Devil's Island. Forgeries were created by a Commandant Henri to ensure Dreyfus's conviction, and the famous bordereau (memorandum) that Dreyfus was accused of writing was, it later transpired, written by a Major Esterhazy, a dissolute officer.

Major Piquart, who was to become head of Army Intelligence, and the writer Emile Zola took up the cause of the Jewish officer, but Dreyfus was convicted again at a second trial. The fight for his innocence lasted 12 years. The deliberate miscarriage of justice, masterminded by the army, condoned by its judiciary and fuelled by racial prejudice, combined to create "The Dreyfus Affair". Its repercussions were felt worldwide and continue to this day.

Henri, after his forgeries were discovered, was detained in Mont Valerian prison where, as the story goes, he took his own life. But did he? There were many irregularities and it is likely that it was induced suicide, or even murder. The cut-throat razor identified as the fatal weapon would not have been allowed in the prison cell. Moreover, Henri was right-handed but the razor was in his left hand.

Esterhazy was a confidant of General Sandherr, head of the section where Dreyfus worked - a rabid antisemite and a prime mover in the indictment of Dreyfus. Was Esterhazy spying for Germany? Was he a double agent? Or was he used by Sandherr to feed misinformation to the German high command?

In-depth research suggests that he was a tool of French army intelligence. He was exiled to England, where he continued to receive regular monthly payments through the local post office from a source that has never been identified. Esterhazy lived up to his dictum: "in espionage and counter-espionage nothing is as it seems to be".

Armand Charpentier and Armand Israel, in their penetrating works, Les Côtés Mysterieuse de l'Affaire Dreyfus and Les Verités Cachés sur l'Affaire Dreyfus, draw attention to the unresolved questions at the heart of the Affair. Did Esterhazy in fact write the memorandum or was it dictated to him? What did Henri know that necessitated his death? And who was the person whom he indicated in his letter to his wife Bertha just before he died: "You know in whose interest I acted". What was the "terrible secret" that Esterhazy mentioned to his daughter Everilda on his deathbed and which guaranteed his protection by the general staff. Were the two men guardians of the same secret? Was there a high-ranking "Officer X" - as suggested by the then-diplomat Maurice Paleologue in My Secret Diary of the Dreyfus Case - who was a spy and whose identity had to be kept secret at all costs?

The heartbeat of the Affair at every stage was antisemitism, which Read in his book is disinclined to recognise, despite convincing evidence. Bernard Lazare, frequently quoted by both Read and Rose, commented: "Did I not tell you that Captain Dreyfus belonged to a class of pariahs?

"He was a soldier, but he was a Jew, and it was as a Jew above all that he was prosecuted. Because he was a Jew he was arrested, because he was a Jew he was indicted, because he was a Jew he was convicted…"

The influence of the Affair on Theodor Herzl, then a young journalist, and the mass hysteria that he witnessed at Dreyfus's degradation ceremony - referred to by Jean-Denis Bredin, in his 1986 book, The Affair, as "Judas on Parade" - and the eruption of antisemitism that followed, was profound. Herzl's transformation from an assimilationist to a Jewish visionary was eloquently described by Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday: "In Paris, Herzl had had an experience which convulsed his soul, one of those hours that change an entire existence… At the moment of Dreyfus's Degradation the thought of the eternal exile of his people entered his breast like the thrust of a dagger… If we suffer because of our homelessness, then let us build our own Homeland!"

H erzl gave his own summary of "the importance of the Dreyfus Affair, which has become an abstract symbol representing the Jew in the modern world, who has tried to assimilate into his environment, who speaks its language, approves its ideas, conforms to its spirit and finds himself suddenly exposed to violence. Dreyfus signifies a strategic position that has been fought over, is still fought over, but is already lost. Do people really believe that the devourers of Jews, who have tested their strength on the unfortunate Dreyfus, will be content with a single victim? They have acquired a taste for blood and will ask for more…"

Antisemitism, always lurking within a Christian culture, gathered pace when the writer Edouard Drumont, who was to become known as the "Pope of Antisemitism", arrived on the scene. The Catholic Church and its news organ, La Croix, had long maintained an anti-Jewish stance and the venom of Drumont would drive their bigotry to fever pitch: to be French was to be Catholic.

Drumont regurgitated all the groundless calumnies levelled at the Jews over the centuries from which a
stereotype emerged of a Judas figure, increasingly despised and increasingly embedded in the culture of Christian Europe.

Drumont went on to predict with spine-chilling accuracy: "The Jews have to be eternally blind as they have always been not to realise what is awaiting them. They will be taken away as scrap… the leader who will suddenly emerge incarnating the idea of an entire nation will do whatever pleases him. He will have the right of life and death. He will be able to employ any means that suits his purpose… He will achieve a result which will resound throughout the universe. He will return to Europe its prestige for 200 years. Who is to say that he is not already at work?"

Zola, increasingly convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice, voiced his doubts, and his articles appeared in rapid succession: "France, how have your people succumbed to such fear and sunk to such depth of bigotry? France, you have allowed the rage of hatred to lash the face of your people, poisoned and fanatic they scream in the streets 'Down with the Jews! Death to the Jews!'"

Antisemitism was at fever pitch; Zola was relentless: "A hidden poison has led us to delirum. Hatred for the Jews - there lies the guilt, the daily ritual recited year in and year out in the name of morality, in the name of Christ. Fresh minds infected by this poison declare that they will massacre all the Jews. What sorrow, what anxiety at the dawn of the next century."

Then came the bombshell - the publication of Zola's "J'Accuse". This was the roaring, front-page headline of the newspaper L'Aurore on January 13 1898. It became the watershed of the Dreyfus Affair and history's most famous plea for human rights. Zola was indicted and tried but, undaunted by the animosity around him, he concluded his testimony: "Before France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent…"

T he Dreyfus Affair was a turning point in French and European history and triggered many major developments: the strengthening of the Republic; the separation of Church and State; the power of the media and its manipulation of public opinion; Herzl's vision of a Jewish state, which he rightly predicted would be realised within 50 years. It created the conditions for the publication of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion; consolidated anti-Jewish sentiments and laid the groundwork for the excesses of Vichy France, many of whose henchmen were from the ranks of the anti-dreyfusards. Dreyfus to Drancy, the detention camp in Paris, was a straight line - 75,000 Jews were deported from France to Auschwitz - which makes Jacqueline Rose's statement that "ultimately the Dreyfus Affair was a defeat for antisemitism" incomprehensible.

Dreyfus, the first Jewish deportee, survived. Within 50 years, six million others did not. Today, condemnation of the Jew has blossomed into condemnation of the Jewish state. The former is at the root of the latter, the latter rekindles the former and although, in a unique moment of history, the injustice to one Jew became a world affair, its lessons were to remain, and still remain, unlearned.

Rose chastises Israel without acknowledging, let alone making allowances for, a nation with barely defensible borders constantly under threat of attack and even extinction. Israel is at war and it is salutary to remember how European nations behaved in similar circumstances - with inhumanity, cruelty and murder. And, some with Jewish blood on their hands, now preach morals to the country of the Jews. The hostility experienced by Dreyfus during the Affair and suffered by European Jews in its aftermath has been inherited by Israel. Antisemitism and anti-Zionism feed on each other like hungry parasites.

Transport No. 62 left Drancy on November 20 1943, its destination Auschwitz. It contained 1,118 Jews. One of them was Madeleine. She was never to return. The signpost to this tragedy was engraved throughout the centuries and unveiled at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. It still stands erect pointing in the same direction.

George Whyte is the chairman of the Dreyfus Society for Human Rights and author of 'The Dreyfus Affair – A Chronological History' (Palgrave Macmillan)

Last updated: 6:32pm, May 3 2012