Dreyfus, blow by blow

I thought I knew everything about the Dreyfus Case, but George Whyte's The Dreyfus Affair, a brilliant chronological history, left me shattered.

dreyfus graphic 88 298 (photo credit: )
dreyfus graphic 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Dreyfus Affair: A Chronological History By George R. Whyte Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert Palgrave Macmillan 526pp., $170 I thought I knew everything about the Dreyfus Case, but George Whyte's The Dreyfus Affair, a brilliant chronological history, left me shattered. Thanks to the discovery of a handwritten note spirited out of the wastepaper basket of the German military attache in Paris, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of treason and sent to Devil's Island in French Guyana. The handwriting on the note was clearly that of a sleazy French officer, Major Esterhazy, but experts insisted that it was that of Dreyfus. The German attache denied that Dreyfus was the traitor, but in a lather of anti-Semitism, the conservative Catholic generals wanted to believe that the "foreigner" Dreyfus was guilty. In this way the army preserved its honor. The parade of dated entries reveals every detail of what was one of the great dramas of modern Europe; and above all the extent of the virulent anti-Semitism embedded in so many Frenchmen of all ranks and classes. The epithets in the French press at the fin de siecle read exactly like those printed in Der Angriff and Der Sturmer barely 30 years later. "Down with the Jews" was among the mildest of the headlines. Yet there were some Frenchmen who had the courage to take on both the highly conservative officers of the general staff and the great mass of French society, men like Emile Zola, Colonel Marie Georges Picquart (who discovered the link to Esterhazy), Georges Clemenceau and Ferdinand Dominique Forzinetti (governor of Dreyfus's first prison); and Jews like Mathieu Dreyfus and Edmond Fleg, the latter, in the process, becoming a Zionist and returning to his Jewish identity. At one stage Zola was forced to flee to England and eventually died in France from the fumes of his stove, the chimney of which was blocked. Deliberately, I always thought. His J'Accuse was published in Aurore by Clemenceau, then its editor; it was Clemenceau who wrote the immortal headline. The real traitor, Major Esterhazy, was a bad character in every sense, but a minor player. He fled to England and died there, protesting to the last. Lieut.-Colonel Hubert Henry, the intelligence officer who forged the note that implicated Dreyfus, cut his throat after his arrest in 1898. Retried in Rennes, far from Paris, Captain Dreyfus, until then the only Jewish officer accepted as a candidate for promotion to the general staff, was again found guilty, simply because the court martial could not bring in a verdict that would indict the army and so many of its senior officers. Dreyfus was never found not guilty. Clearly innocent, he was finally pardoned and reinstated in the army as a major of artillery. He was urged by Clemenceau not to accept the pardon, but poor Dreyfus, worn out by his experiences (including over four tortured years in solitary on Devil's Island), had had enough. He and his son later served with distinction at Verdun and elsewhere in the First World War (his nephew was killed); he died in 1935 a Lieut.-Colonel. When Clemenceau first became Premier he selected Picquart, who had been thrown out of the army, to be Minister of War, a neat slap in the faces of the generals who had sacked him. Sadly, Picquart was killed in a riding accident not long before the outbreak of war. All this is well-known, but the way Whyte unfolds the events, backed in copious notes, gives everything a shocking immediacy. Included are certain eye-witness accounts, four of them devoted to the cruel public ceremony in which Dreyfus was degraded and his sword broken. One is the famous report written by Theodore Herzl that appeared in Vienna's Neue Freie Presse. In addition, there are matchless engravings and photographs of all the protagonists, including a clutch of the blimpish generals involved in the trials. At the time Dreyfus was arrested there were over 300 Jewish officers serving in the French Army. A number fought duels with anti-Semites and one was killed. Given a huge funeral, he was buried with full military honors. Author Whyte, who is chairman of the Dreyfus Society for Human Rights, concludes his introduction with what he calls the penetrating summary of a Parisian taxi driver he had asked about the Dreyfus Affair. "Ah Monsieur," said the driver, "a strange story. It was all about a French officer accused of being Jewish."