100 Years Ago: The Dreyfus Case
One hundred years ago, on October 15, 1894, a 35-year-old Jewish captain in the French artillery, Alfred Dreyfus, was called into the French War Ministry. He was asked to give a specimen of his handwriting. Moments later, he was placed under arrest for high treason. The authorities claimed that his handwriting matched the handwritten documents found in the ash can of the German Embassy in Paris. The charge was that Dreyfus had handed highly sensitive information—referred to as "the bordereau" throughout the case—on newly-developed French heavy guns to France's enemy, Imperial Germany.
This charge unleashed the case of the century. It involved anti-Semitism, the conflict between democracy and conservatism, the power of the French army over civilian rule, the influence of the Church and other issues that were explosive enough to keep the world vitally concerned for decades; the case is in fact not over yet, 100 years later.
It took five years for Captain Dreyfus to become a free man again and it took 12 years for him to be exonerated of the false, wrongful charge of treason. In those years Dreyfus had turned into a broken old man, whose sufferings made a him a true hero in his day.
We know of course that the trial—in which the words "Jew," "Jewish traitor," and "Judas" were freely hurled at the innocent Dreyfus—inspired one man, who heard these anti-Semitic outrages in court. This man was Theodore Herzl, a young Austrian-Hungarian journalist, who covered the trial for his newspaper, Die Neue Freie Presse, of Vienna. An assimilated Jew who had thought he had long escaped the "fate" of being Jewish, Herzl was shaken when he realized how deeply anti Semitism was rooted in the Christian world and that assimilation was a total failure. It made him think of ways to protect the Jewish people, and he came to the conclusion that Jews needed a country of their own through a return to Zion, our ancient homeland.
He wrote profusely on the subject, including his outstanding book Altneuland (The Ancient-New Land), which outlined Zionism. Therefore, the Dreyfus trial was providential in the way that we often find in Jewish history: a small, seemingly insignificant event, leads to momentous, historic developments for the Jewish people. Without the Dreyfus Affair there may not have been a Jewish State.
Dreyfus was a member of an old French Jewish family going back to Mulhouse (Müllhausen) in Alsace—that part of France, which had been wrested from her by Germany in the 1870-71 war of Bismarck, but which for centuries before had a German-speaking population.
Alsace was returned to France in the First World War but was taken away again by Hitler, only to be returned after France was liberated in 1944. Thus, living in a border area, the Jews of Alsace and neighboring Lorraine escaped the expulsion decrees against French Jews in the 14th century. Jewish life flourished there for centuries. Outstanding rabbis served there, including the Sha'agat Aryeh of the 18th century.
Capt. Dreyfus was a product of the emancipation, which had begun under the enlightened and democratic rule of Napoleon, that great liberator of Jews in France, Germany and Italy. That did not protect Dreyfus from the vicious anti-Semitism that his trial unleashed, egged on, of course by the Church. The public followed the line, "I have made up my mind; don't confuse me with the facts." The mass demonstrations by the anti-Semites against Dreyfus even before any evidence was presented showed how vulnerable a Jew still was in supposedly enlightened France.
Details of Dreyfus' family and its role in the history of the Jews of France can be found in the book, Dreyfus, a Family Affair, by American author Michael Burns. The legal ramifications of the trials—there was more than one trial throughout the years—can best be studied in the classic work on the case, L'Affaire, an 800-page tome by French author, Jean-Denis Bredin.
Dreyfus was sent to Devil's Island in French Guyana off the South American Coast. In inhuman conditions, including unbearable heat, he suffered greatly. His wife, who was the real heroine in the case, and his relatives worked incessantly for his release and exoneration.
The French people quickly divided into two camps—the pro-Dreyfus and the anti-Dreyfus. Even after the real perpetrator of the treason was discovered, the scoundrel Ferdinand Esterhazy, the anti-Semites did not want to admit that Dreyfus was innocent. It was Esterhazy who was the German spy and who had compromised French military capability.
And even the forger of documents in the case, an official by the name of Hubert Joseph Henry, was celebrated by the anti-Dreyfus camp as a martyr for France after he committed suicide in jail. The anti-Semites even planned to raise a monument to him. A collection for such a monument was sponsored by 350 Catholic clergymen.
The enemies of Dreyfus represented the old, conservative military establishment. They could not admit to the corruption and dishonesty in their ranks, which the Dreyfus trial uncovered. Therefore they hung onto their charges no matter how discredited they were. It took the courageous journalist and writer, Emile Zola, to rally most of France in support of Dreyfus with his famous manifesto, "J'Accuse." This manifesto was published in L'Aurore, the newspaper of the fiery liberal, Georges Clemenceau, who later led France to victory as its prime minister during World War I.
He condemned the conservative military establishment for using Dreyfus as its scapegoat for combating democracy and freedom. He showed that there were two Frances: one which was heir to the old royalist past of France; the other, the heir of the glorious French Revolution in 1789. It was thanks to Zola that Dreyfus was finally exonerated.
The two Frances are still visible today. I have met Frenchmen who until this day believe that Dreyfus was a German spy. That was, incidentally, also the belief of many outstanding artists and painters of the impressionist school, whom we treasure today for their art. In fact many of them, including Renoir, Monet and Cezanne, were hardened, vicious anti-Semites.
But what was the real object of the espionage accusation? As in other such sensational cases, the real core accusation is forgotten.
Has anybody ever asked what the Watergate burglars were looking for in the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington? All the attention was on the obstruction of justice, cover-ups, etc. But how is it that the real purpose of that infamous break-in was never investigated?
Books published later give a slight hint at the truth: the Watergate burglars looked for compromising documents relating to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba during the Kennedy administration. Nixon wanted to prove that the disaster of that invasion was the doing of Democrats. Another explanation offered by these books is that Nixon wanted to remove documents embarrassing to the Republicans that the Democrats could use in that fall's presidential election.
But until this day nobody has bothered to find out the precise reason for the break-in! And yet this scandal caused the first-ever resignation of an American President.
What were the secret documents that the Dreyfus case was about? This has only come to light in a flood of books that have appeared in Europe, especially in connection with the centenary of the case.
France had developed a secret weapon: a formidable piece of artillery with an enormous range. The French army wished to keep news about it from the Germans and, in fact, wished to give the Germans the impression that France was impotent against superior German cannons.
The secret French weapon was called "Cannon No. 75." When the anti-Semites found themselves thwarted in their attempts to pin the writing of treasonable documents about this gun on Dreyfus, they came up with another canard. Dreyfus still had family in Alsace, the province west of the Rhine river, which Germany had occupied. Dreyfus visited his relatives there from time to time. The anti-Semites claimed that he went to that part of Germany in order to meet with German military personnel and to hand over secret information. That charge, too, proved baseless.
Dreyfus wrote down his personal reflections on his tragic fate in his book, Cinque Annees De Ma Vie (Five Years of My Life), published by him in 1901. It is characteristic of the French anti-Semites that once the Nazi regime of Marchal Pêtain in Vichy was in power, they persecuted any descendants of Dreyfus, many of whom were sent to death camps.
Alfred Dreyfus had mercifully died in 1935 before the Holocaust, but his widow, Lucie, had to flee her beloved native land. Pêtain stood for the discredited military establishment of old, which briefly had a vicious revival through him. He took out his revenge on the Jews, who—to the chagrin of the anti-Semites—had been proven innocent French patriots.
Actually, it must be remembered that the Dreyfus case came up only 70 years after Napoleon's death. Napoleon, too, suffered the animosity of the old guard from the French aristocratic world of the military and of the Church. Napoleon stood for emancipation of the Jews, enlightenment and democracy. The conservatives held it against him that he had instituted a Sanhedrin in Paris to give the rabbis of France a platform from which to address the needs of their newly won freedom.
The fruits of emancipation were promptly wrested from the Jews again, as soon as Napoleon fell. His emancipation of the Jews in northwestern Italy, for example, was not only canceled, but the walls of the ghetto were again raised around the Jewish communities there. Capt. Dreyfus, who was a product of Napoleon's emancipation and a graduate of the supreme French academic institution—the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique—was a thorn in the eyes of the Catholic Church and of the reactionary military.
Fortunately for the honor of French Jews, all Jews there stood firmly for Dreyfus' innocence. By contrast, today in the Dreyfus case of this century—the Pollard case—Reform and assimilationists among us unfortunately have refused to take up Pollard's cause. It says a lot about the destructive influence of Reform Judaism.
Let us, therefore, learn a lesson from the Dreyfus case: history will honor his memory and also the memory of all who defended him, but will dishonor those who fought against him or who failed to speak up for him. Jewish history will have the same to say in the Pollard case. The Dreyfus centenary is, therefore, a timely milestone in our history for reflection and re-dedication to the Jewish destiny.
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