How the trials of Alfred Dreyfus split an army—and then a nation.
The nightmare of Captain Alfred Dreyfus began at 8 a.m. on October 15, 1894, when the 35-year-old artillery officer arrived at the French War Ministry on Paris’ rue Saint-Dominique, as ordered, dressed in civilian clothes. There he met Major Mercier du Paty de Clam of the Statistical Section, a five-man counterintelligence division of the War Ministry that specialized in frontier surveillance and theft of classified documents. Du Paty de Clam placed his hand on Dreyfus’ shoulder and announced his arrest for the crime of high treason.
Dreyfus’ arrest initiated a scandal that polarized French politics, damaged French civil-military relations on the eve of World War I and highlighted the insecure position of Jews in French society.
Dreyfus had been a casualty of the cold war between France and Germany in the decades following the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, a conflict fought by secret agents, code breakers and letter openers in the cabinet noir of the post office. In the 1880s, the French general staff had been re-formed along Prussian-German lines, to include a Deuxième Bureau that contained a counterintelligence Section de statistiques et de reconnaissances militaries. They had their work cut out for them—the Prefecture of Police estimated that 165 German agents were active in Paris alone. When jingoistic Brig. Gen. Georges Boulanger (whose nickname was “Général Revanche,” or Revenge) took over the War Ministry in 1886, he forced a law through parliament that imposed harsh penalties for espionage and treason, and he stepped up spying efforts in Berlin and Alsace-Lorraine. The Statistical Section threw itself into the task of protecting French security, promptly drawing up a list of around 100,000 people, selected on the basis of national origin or left-wing political views, who were to be clapped into preventive detention—without right of appeal—in the event of war.
It also set out to unmask German agents, with apparent success: An archivist in the technical division of the French artillery, as well as four other military and civilian employees of the War Ministry, were arrested for espionage between 1888 and 1890. “Traitors seem to abound in the French army,” the Paris correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph had reported in October 1888. “Treason seemed to permeate the very air one breathed,” wrote historian Jean-Denis Bredin. The Statistical Section toiled in an atmosphere of nationalistic righteousness, deeply suspicious of foreigners and of Frenchmen who did not fit a national profile, especially bilingual Alsatians like Dreyfus.
Dreyfus had been nabbed on the basis of documents supplied by one of the Statistical Section’s agents, a Madame Bastian. The wife of a soldier of the Republican Guard, Madame Bastian was “a vulgar, stupid, completely illiterate woman about 40 years in age,” according to her boss. She was hired as a cleaning woman in the office of the German military attaché, Max von Schwartzkoppen. Her task was to retrieve the contents of the attaché’s wastepaper baskets, into which he regularly discarded compromising documents, and hand them over to Major Hubert-Joseph Henry at their weekly rendezvous in the church of Saint-François-Xavier. Among the treasures in Madame Bastian’s cache was an April 1894 letter between Schwartzkoppen and the Italian military attaché, Alessandro Panizzardi, that read, “Attached are 12 master plans of Nice which that rabble D. gave me in the hope of restoring relations.” Two suspects named Dacher and Dubois were cleared of suspicion before the Statistical Section came up with Dreyfus.
Dreyfus’ closed December court- martial served up an array of hearsay evidence and unsubstantiated rumors that characterized him as a gambler and womanizer who frequently traveled to Alsace. His handwriting reportedly matched that of a letter liberated by Bastian from Schwartzkoppen’s trash, which promised to deliver several reports on the reorganization and technical advances of the French artillery, as well as a missive about Madagascar, which France would conquer in 1895. Not so, insisted a handwriting expert hired by Dreyfus’ civilian defense attorney, Edgar Demange. Dreyfus explained that his trips to Alsace were to visit relatives and check on his family’s property, which included textile mills.
After two days of testimony in a dreary courtroom in an old convent beside the Cherche-Midi prison, Demange concluded confidently that the Statistical Section had no case against his client. He was correct, but that failed to save Dreyfus. The court-martial preferred to accept the assurances of Henry, who swore on a crucifix that Dreyfus was a traitor and that French intelligence could prove it. Among the damning pieces of evidence given to the court in secret—a violation of judicial protocol—was a telegram sent by Panizzardi to Rome on November 1, when news broke of Dreyfus’ arrest. The Bureau du chiffre, the code-breaking service of French intelligence, had intercepted and deciphered the message. The final line read, “If Captain Dreyfus has not had relations with you, it would be wise to have the ambassador deny it officially to avoid press comment.” Unfortunately, the code breakers, initially baffled, had added the phrase, “our emissary has been warned.” Four days later the correct translation was brought to the Statistical Section with the last phrase taken out. It made no difference, as du Paty de Clam had manufactured a completely bogus version of the telegram:
Captain Dreyfus arrested. The Minister of War has proofs of his relations with Germany. Parties informed in the greatest secrecy. My emissary is warned.
“This telegram,” du Paty de Clam proclaimed, “is, for me, the pivot of the affair.” It was enough to convince the court. On the night of December 22, as the accused stood stiff and emotionless in the candlelit courtroom, Dreyfus was sentenced to military degradation and deportation. He was then ordered to pay the costs of his own court-martial.
This gross miscarriage of justice occurred at an important intersection of French, Jewish and European history and was to have momentous repercussions. By opting to put Dreyfus on trial, the army had placed itself in the midst of political and cultural clash in a Republic founded on the principles of the Revolution: love of justice vs. the religion of patriotism. Dreyfusards, those convinced of his innocence, insisted that a state prepared to sacrifice the principles of justice on the altar of national security compromised its moral mandate and jeopardized its legitimacy, the very bedrock of what today is called national security.
Those convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt, the anti-Dreyfusards, argued that raîson d’état far superseded in importance the fate of one man. The army was a symbol of national unity, the very expression of the nation. To question the mission of the intelligence services, and thus challenge the integrity of the army, was not just disloyal but perilous, as it threatened to undermine the very institution upon which France’s survival depended, particularly in the armed camp Europe had become since 1871. The interests of the republic and the army must come first.
During this period, humiliations, like executions, were performed in public. Those who gathered on Jan. 5, 1895, in the courtyard of Paris’ École Militaire under a gray winter sky to witness Dreyfus’ official disgrace saw a slight, pale man whose glasses and pencil mustache gave him the appearance of a midlevel functionary rather than an officer. But Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl noted that the captain maintained a thousand-yard stare as a stern General Paul Darras, on horseback, held a sword over Dreyfus’ head and pronounced him “no longer worthy of bearing arms…in the name of the people of France,” the cue for a huge sergeant major of the Republican Guard to rip decorations, epaulettes and even the trouser stripes from Dreyfus’ uniform, before breaking the captain’s sword over his knee. Right-wing polemicist Maurice Barrès declared the ritual, carried out amid drumrolls and anti-Semitic taunts from the crowd, more satisfying than watching the blade of the guillotine pop a head into a basket. More thoughtful observers, however, traced their doubts about his guilt to Dreyfus’ shouts of innocence as he was paraded around the courtyard.
The treason charge made no sense to Dreyfus himself. Sure, the purloined letter had been about the artillery, his combat arm. But the spy also promised a report on Madagascar, about which Dreyfus knew nothing. And, as he told the court, he had no motive for betraying his country. His saddest childhood memory was the Prussian march into his native Mulhouse in 1870. His Francophile family had elected in 1872 to emigrate to France rather than remain German subjects in Alsace.
The Dreyfus family, indeed all French Jews, owed much to France and the enlightened principles of the Revolution era. The French Revolution had liberated his grandfather Abraham Israel Dreÿfuss, who pushed a peddler’s cart through the villages along the Rhine, from the ghetto to which hitherto all Jews were confined. This emancipation had allowed Alfred’s father, Raphaël, to enter the mainstream of French commerce, progressing from textile salesman to mill owner. Raphaël placed his two youngest sons, Mathieu and Alfred, in French schools. While Mathieu graduated into the family business, Alfred passed the exhausting examinations for the École Polytechnique, was commissioned into the artillery and in 1890 married Lucie Hadamard, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Paris’ leading diamond merchants. The following year he joined the coveted general staff corps, a sure ticket to senior command. In Alfred’s mind, patriotism based on gratitude to France for liberation and opportunity, wealth and brilliant career prospects combined to erase any motive for treason. Why, he had asked the court-martial, would he betray the country he loved for money he did not need to jeopardize a career that was all but assured?
The consequences of Dreyfus’ conviction might never have been realized were it not for Mathieu Dreyfus’ dogged campaign to clear his brother’s name by enlisting politicians like Georges Clemenceau and writers of the stature of Bernard Lazare and Émile Zola to expose the frame-up and make it a matter of public debate. Had his Vienna newspaper assigned Theodor Herzl another story, what event as dramatically poignant as Dreyfus’ disgrace might have germinated his idea of Zionism? The fact that suspicion fell upon Dreyfus at all combined bad luck, bad faith, unbelievably sloppy detective work and a clutch of antiSemitic officers in the Statistical Section. Had the court-martial judges tossed out the case, there would have been no affaire.
By 1898 when Zola finally threw down the gauntlet in an incendiary article entitled “J’Accuse…!” in which he blamed the high command and the Statistical Section for railroading Dreyfus, the right in France had been working for at least a decade to leverage “integral nationalism”—characterized by aggressive militarism, radical right-wing ideology and anti-Semitism—to mobilize public sentiment against the rising tide of socialism. Mass circulation dailies like La Croix and books and pamphlets published by La Bonne Presse preached that Protestants, Freemasons and Jews were the historic enemies of France, a view given a dubious intellectual respectability by a new generation of gifted right-wing nationalist polemicists led by Barrès and Charles Maurras. Above all, they lionized the army as the sword of revenge and contrasted the nobility of a life of soldierly sacrifice with the venality and corruption that characterized political life in the Third Republic.
That such malevolence would be directed at a people who numbered barely 86,000 in a population of 40 million was so absurd to most Jews that they chose to dismiss the anti-Semites as deranged fantasists bypassed by political and social progress. French Jews considered themselves model citizens—successful, prominent, patriotic—as did German and Austro-Hungarian Jews. They were also discreet, conforming their habits and mores to those of their nation. Reform synagogues adopted such Christian practices as vestments for the rabbi, flowers on coffins, organs, hymns and sermons. Every Jewish service included the “Prayer for France.” The Jewish mission was to embellish French culture.
But the very things that, in his own mind, placed Dreyfus above suspicion, made him untrustworthy in the minds of those who regarded such assimilation as a threat to the nation and who believed that Jews were a stateless, cosmopolitan clan whose loyalties were for hire and who, in fact, were an alien race (an idea that gained new adherents in an era of vulgarized science). The arrival of a wave of 120,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Russian pogroms that began in 1881 gave anti-Semitism a boost throughout Central and Western Europe. Rabid Jew baiter Édouard Drumont, whose newspaper La Libre Parole broke the story in November 1894 that a Jew had been arrested for treason and that “all the Jews” were behind him, insisted that France had a “Jewish problem.”
The Dreyfus case might have dropped into oblivion had it not been for three factors: First, Drumont’s newspaper continued to harp on Dreyfus’ crime and spread rumors of his escape attempts from Devil’s Island. Second, Mathieu Dreyfus kept working to revoke his brother’s conviction. He commissioned Jewish pamphleteer Bernard Lazar to write L’affaire Dreyfus; une erreur judiciaire. Published in Brussels in November 1897, Lazar’s tract argued that the handwriting on the letter was a red herring and that Dreyfus’ conviction had been based upon the Statistical Section’s illegal evidentiary maneuvers. Lazar became an ardent convert to Dreyfus’ cause and rallied prominent Jews to his defense, including lawyer Joseph Reinach and writers Marcel Proust and Anatole France. But what Mathieu really needed was the name of the actual traitor.
Chance provided that in November 1897, when a banker named de Castro invited Mathieu to his club on the Boulevard Montmartre. On the table of a private room, de Castro placed a facsimile of the letter, published on November 10 by Le Matin. Beside it he placed letters from one of his clients, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. The handwriting matched, as did the motive. Esterhazy was a gambler, perpetually in debt, reduced to scams, deceptions and pimping to make ends meet. He was also an intelligent, well-connected, decorated veteran of the Franco-Prussian War and the 1881 French invasion of Tunisia, with a volatile, unpredictable temper. Even his superiors feared him, which would make it difficult to lay a glove on him.
Mathieu had his traitor. What he did not know at the time was that the Statistical Section and senior politicians had suspected for months that they had convicted an innocent man—the third factor that kept the case alive.
When Major Georges Picquart, a witness to the 1894 court-martial, took command of the Statistical Section the following July, he set out to determine whether Dreyfus, by then on Devil’s Island, had other contacts or accomplices. He discovered that Esterhazy was in contact with the German attaché and that his handwriting matched that of the letter. It was not a message Picquart’s superiors cared to hear; they worried that Mathieu’s tireless investigation might eventually implicate them and the war minister, General Auguste Mercier, in a wrongful conviction. So, in December 1896, they sent then–Lt. Col. Picquart to the Tunisian desert, assigning him the bogus mission of surveying North African fortifications.
Believing that his life was in peril, Picquart started to talk. Returning to Paris in June 1897, he confided his suspicions of Esterhazy’s guilt to a friend close to senate Vice President Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. On July 13, 1897, following a meeting with Picquart’s contact, Scheurer-Kestner concluded: 1) Dreyfus was innocent; 2) Esterhazy was guilty; 3) the War Ministry knew this but was working to keep Dreyfus on Devil’s Island; and 4) that he had no proof of any of this, so for the moment he must keep silent.
On Nov. 15, 1897, Mathieu Dreyfus denounced Esterhazy to the war minister. It did him no good. Esterhazy had been tipped off by du Paty de Clam and Henry, who coached him on how he should behave. That something was brewing became apparent when, on October 31, Le Matin wrote that Scheurer-Kestner considered Dreyfus innocent. Esterhazy’s January 1898 court-martial, ironically in the same room in which Dreyfus had been convicted, was a whitewash. Handwriting experts produced by the army swore Esterhazy could not have written the letter. Mathieu was humiliated and Picquart threatened for having leaked secret information. Outside, an agitated mob chanted: “Death to the Jews! Long live the army!” After two days’ testimony, the court sprung Esterhazy and declared that Dreyfus had been “justly convicted.” The crowd screamed, “Vive l’armée!” and burst into a spirited rendition of “La Marseillaise.”
Esterhazy’s acquittal proved a Pyrrhic victory for the anti-Dreyfusards, as more people questioned the evidence and the affair built up steam. This was blood in the water for out-of-office politicians like Georges Clemenceau, who smelled a potential scandal that might loosen the grip of the center-right over the Republic and swing the political dynamic. Clemenceau’s decision to publish Zola’s “J’Accuse…!” on the front page of his newspaper L’Aurore on Jan. 13, 1898, took the affair from the courtroom to the street. Couched as an open letter to French President Félix Faure, the article accused by name the high command and members of Dreyfus’ courtmartial of orchestrating his wrongful conviction. Three hundred thousand copies flew off the newsstands in a matter of hours.
That day, Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, heretofore disdainful of what he had characterized as a “bourgeois quarrel,” rose in parliament to say that the Republic was in danger of falling under the spell of generals. Even moderate politicians were questioning the government’s handling of the affair. People began to take sides—justice and the Jews vs. security and the army. Anti-Semitic demonstrations that had been largely contained in French towns exploded in Algiers, where four days of rioting destroyed the Jewish quarter.
Zola had gotten the trial he sought, and it gave the Dreyfusards a 15-day forum to rally their base, to point out the flimsiness of the case against Dreyfus and to present Picquart, former head of the Statistical Section, as a star witness. (Zola himself was later convicted of criminal libel and fled the country rather than serve the year in prison imposed by the court.) In July 1898, Picquart was arrested for communicating secret information. However, during a review of documents in the Dreyfus dossier, the letter to Italian attaché Panizzardi that referred explicitly to Dreyfus was determined to be a forgery. Evidence pointed to Henry, who had clearly produced it to bolster the solidity of the original accusation. This news was a blow for the anti-Dreyfusards. The chief of the general staff resigned, and Esterhazy fled to England. A day after being placed under arrest, Henry slit his own throat in jail.
The affair appeared at an end. Yet War Minister Godefroy Cavaignac insisted the turn of events did nothing to alter the fact of Dreyfus’ guilt. His successor, Émile Zurlinden, also believed Dreyfus guilty. Nevertheless, in May 1899, following an exhaustive investigation, the Court of Criminal Appeals announced that Esterhazy was the author of the letter (a fact Esterhazy himself confessed to an English reporter), revoked Dreyfus’ 1894 conviction and ordered a new court-martial.
On July 1, 1899, Alfred Dreyfus arrived off the French coast on a warship and was taken to Rennes, the capital of Brittany, where the retrial was to be held. The small provincial town was soon besieged with soldiers, participants and spectators. Those who saw Dreyfus found it hard to believe he was only 39. He was pale, wracked with malaria. After 52 months of solitary confinement on a tropical island, he appeared confused and bewildered by events swirling around him.
The court-martial, which opened at 6:30 a.m. on August 7, was little more than a replay of the 1894 trial. Spectators heard the same acte d’accusation, as there had been no new official investigation of the original evidence. The same witnesses offered the same circumstantial and hearsay evidence long since discredited. As the defense had no access to the documents that allegedly proved Dreyfus’ guilt, it was reduced to denials, the discrediting of witnesses and pleas of reasonable doubt. This was a weak strategy in a court-martial dominated by Mercier, chief of the general staff at the time of Dreyfus’ 1894 conviction. “In this affair, there is certainly someone who is guilty, and that someone is either him [Dreyfus] or me,” Mercier told the court. “As it is not me, then it is Dreyfus.” He seated himself next to the prosecuting officer, Major Louis-Norbert Carrière, and proceeded to cross-examine witnesses. No officer of the court had the rank, or the courage, to call him out of order, especially after a parade of senior generals took the stand to state categorically that Esterhazy, despite his own confession, was not the guilty party.
On September 9, by a vote of 5-to-2, the court-martial found Dreyfus guilty, albeit with “extenuating circumstances,” and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Many in Mathieu Dreyfus’ camp wanted to appeal, but Dreyfus’ health was precarious. Anyway, War Minister Gaston Alexandre Auguste de Galliffet convinced French President Émile Loubet that a new trial would deliver the same ruling.
Ten days later, Loubet remitted Dreyfus’ sentence. It was the only possible solution. But no one was satisfied: To the anti-Dreyfusards, a traitor had been released and the army and its generals impugned. Dreyfus’ decision to accept the pardon split the Dreyfusards, to whom the captain seemed ungrateful, eager only to resume a normal life. “We were prepared to die for Dreyfus,” recalled poet Charles Péguy, “but Dreyfus wasn’t.”
In December 1900, the government, eager to put the affair behind it, issued a blanket amnesty that covered infractions linked to the affair. Dreyfus was granted an exception to pursue his case for exoneration. When War Minister Louis André assumed office in 1902, following elections that threw power to the Radicals and their Socialist allies, he set out to restore the army’s reputation by proving Dreyfus’ guilt beyond doubt. Instead, he found that the case against Dreyfus was a miasma of biased testimony and false documents and that evidence favorable to Dreyfus had been withheld. He forwarded his conclusions to the justice minister in October 1903, prompting Dreyfus’ request for a vacation of the Rennes conviction. Subsequent investigations by the Surêté led to the arrest of a primary witness against Dreyfus, as well as three officers of the Statistical Section. On July 12, 1906, the United Appeals Court repealed the Rennes verdict by a unanimous vote and finally declared Dreyfus innocent.
On July 22, 1906, in the courtyard of the École Militaire, where Dreyfus had been disgraced nearly a dozen years earlier, he was reinstated into the army, promoted to lieutenant colonel and decorated with the Légion d’honneur while his wife, Lucie, watched from a window above.
Dreyfus continued to live quietly, a hero unequal to the prominence of his cause. He survived an assassination attempt in 1908 (the accused assailant was acquitted) and later served as a lieutenant colonel of artillery in World War I. Dreyfus died in the summer of 1935, five years after his brother Mathieu.
The Dreyfus affair impacted French politics, intelligence and civil- military relations, as well as the fate of Jews in Europe and beyond.
It pushed politics in France to the left, as the Socialists, whose rhetorical loyalty had heretofore been to class rather than nation, rallied to the Republic and made common cause with the Radicals. By forming the core of the Dreyfusards, intellectuals had asserted their role as the moral conscience in public life, to keep the state honest and ensure that individual rights were not nullified by arguments of raîson d’état. But intellectuals had also given a new, strident voice to the right, emphasizing religion and defending Maurras’ assertion that “a true nationalist puts his country above everything.”
The Statistical Section’s attempts to deceive not only the courts but also the government were to have baleful consequences for French civil-intelligence relations. The intelligence community had provoked the most significant political scandal in modern French history. And for what? There was no smoking gun. The section was dissolved, its officers scattered or retired and its counterespionage functions delegated to the Sûrété Général of the Interior Ministry.
When Dreyfusards exposed the Statistical Section as no more than “a common fake factory,” in the words of Hannah Arendt, ready to commit perjury in support of its own twisted notions of patriotic mission or to further their own interests, intelligence would become an object of controversy within the state. The role of intelligence is to “reduce uncertainty,” but poor civil-intelligence relations would make it difficult for France to discern its greatest national security threat in the early 20th century—Germany.
The army, expanded and pampered in the early decades of the Third Republic, had acquired a corporatist spirit (particularly within the general staff) that ran counter to the principle of democratic civilian control. France had been militarized, and the army had become a cult. There were discipline problems, even mutinies, in the ranks. As pay stagnated and the quality of military life declined, morale bottomed out and many officers resigned, while applications to Saint-Cyr declined in number and quality. Many argued that the poor French adaptation to challenges posed by World War I had their roots in Dreyfusard retribution and fears of a politically powerful military.
Finally, the role of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair has been a subject of debate among scholars. Some argue that antiSemitism was a consequence of the affair rather than its cause. But most agree that Dreyfus became a prime suspect precisely because, as a Jew and an Alsatian, he was accorded an ambiguous status in France that mirrored the uncertain position of assimilated Jews in continental Europe.
To Theodor Herzl, Dreyfus’ disgrace had cast doubt on the “emancipatory contract” forged between the Revolution and French Jews in December 1789, whereby Jews were admitted to society in return for accepting the values and culture of the host nation. In other words, Judaism was to exist only as a religion, not as a nation. Herzl concluded that the fate of Jews in any country hinged on the values and intentions of those in charge—and that could change quickly. Jews could only be secure in a truly Jewish nation state. Thus, it may be said that Zionism itself was born in the courtyard of the École Militaire on a bitterly cold January morning in 1895.
For further reading, Douglas Porch recommends: France and the Dreyfus Affair, by Douglas Johnson; The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, by Jean-Denis Bredin; and A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe, by David Vital.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.