By Louis Begley, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. 249 pages, $24.
Louis Begley, an 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 imprisoned on Devil’s Island for treason, though the army and judiciary knew him to be innocent. He became a burnt-out case, a fore-shadow of the Holocaust for which Europe was making itself ready and the anti-Semitism that continues to affect Europe and this country.
Pointedly, Begley argues that Dreyfus’ ordeal is found, writ large, in “the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration committed in the course of its pursuit of the war on terror, which dwarf those of which the French army’s general staff became guilty in its implacable persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.”
In 1894, a military memorandum, or “bordereau,” containing French military secrets, was found in the waste basket of Maximillien von Schwartzkoppen, military attache at the German embassy in France. Dreyfus’ 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, who was assigned to the general staff. 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 another French officer, the perfectly amoral, non-Jewish Major Esterhazy was the traitor.
At Dreyfus’ court-martial, the case against him 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 forged dossier in which a letter to Schwartzkoppen from the Italian military attache 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 and bound his French officer accomplices to secrecy. In February, a prison ship took Dreyfus to Devil’s Island, 34.6 acres 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.
In 1895, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart became chief of the army’s intelligence bureau. Conventionally anti-Semitic, he nevertheless would become Dreyfus’ 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.
Picquart informed the general staff that Esterhazy was the traitor and urged them to correct the injustice done to Dreyfus. A general, prefiguring 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 the request was “abominable” and “I will not in any event take this secret with me to the grave.”
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 attache 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, Emile Zola, convinced of Dreyfus’ innocence, entered the acrimonious struggle between the right and left. 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 fled to England to avoid a one-year prison sentence. Major Henry’s forgeries were discovered, and he committed suicide in prison. The fleet-footed Esterhazy, now cashiered from the army, fled to England.
In 1899, the 1894 court martial judgment was reversed. Dreyfus was retried and 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.
In 1998, President Jacques Chirac stated that Dreyfus’ trials “were only pitiful Masquerades” and that Dreyfus’ “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.
On Devil’s Island, Dreyfus had not known that he was at the center of the West’s attention. Unwittingly, he became symbolic proof that modern pluralist liberalism might crack when those who govern see their powers imperilled, as did the general staff and France’s right wing institutions, or when they become fearful of outside threats such as “terrorism.”
So viewed, Begley points to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who created a parallel, hidden, unconstitutional world at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Base, a world of beatings, sexual assaults, electric shocks, water boarding, sleep deprivation, bright-light bombardments, solitary confinement and CIA secret “black sites.”
The Dreyfus Affair does matter, more than 100 years ago, and notwithstanding that Dreyfus was only one and not one of thousands. It shows that our souls are diminished when we are indifferent to the plight of Arabs at Abu Ghraib or of Jews slaughtered by anti-Semites.
Harold J. Reynolds practices law in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was the clerk of the Appellate Division, First Department, from 1985 to 1989.