The Mystery Surrounding the Dreyfus Affair
A.P. European History
April 4, 1999
The Dreyfus affair was the result of many unfortunate circumstances, not the planned premeditated intervention of the French Army. It was the outcome of reasonable suspicion, acted on by contempt, some circumstantial evidence, and instinctive prejudice. However, the intentional army coverup, and shady courtroom procedures, were responsible for suppressing important evidence and keeping an important French Army officer incarcerated in hellish conditions.
Alfred Dreyfus was born into a wealthy Jewish family on October 9, 1859 in the town of Mulhouse located in the province of Alsace, under French rule. However the Dreyfus family moved after the Franco-Prussian War in order to remain French citizens. Dreyfus choose a Military Career, and entered the E cole Polytechnique in 1878. As a young officer, Dreyfus was competent and hardworking, although not brilliant or popular. In 1889, Dreyfus attained the rank of artillery captain, and was assigned as a trainee to the general staff.
On July 20, 1894, a French officer, Marie Charles Ferdinand Walstin-Esterhazy, offers to sell secret French military files, to the German military attache, Lieutenant Colonel Max von Schwartzkoppen. Esterhazy left a note, or bordereau as it came to be known, for the German attache in his mail box, but it was retrieved by a French agent. It ended up in the hands of Colonel Sandherr, who torn it to pieces, to make it appear that Lt. Col. Had Schwartzkoppen read the letter and torn it up. The cleaning maid retrieved the evidence. Typically, Lieutenant Colonel Hubert Henry would be in Paris, and this treasonous information would have gone straight to him, but that day he was on leave. Colonel Henry, was a friend of Esterhazy’s, might have recognized the similarity between the two hand writings, but be as it may it was the first of several unfortunate circumstances that, resulted in Dreyfus’s conviction.
This was, supposofly, not the first evidence of French treason. Another note was found written by the Italian attache to Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Panizzardi, to Schwartzkoppen. In this letter, Panizzardi referred to an agent by “Scoundrel D.” Officers frantically searched the files of officers that might have access to some of the highly classified material mentioned in the letter. They quickly came across the name of Alfred Dreyfus. This would be the second unfortunate circumstance. The coincidence that Alfred’s last name started with the letter D. Dreyfus’s writing samples were scrutinized by Major Marquis Du Paty de Clam who was indecisive. Major Marquis, summoned a handwriting expert from the Banque de France, who was equally uncertain. On October 15, 1894, Dreyfus was summoned by Major Du Paty to appear at headquarters, wearing civilian clothes. Major Du Paty dictated from the bordereau, and Dreyfus was order to write it down. Dreyfus did so calmly, except for some shaking due to the coldness of the autumn day. Major Du Paty became infuriated by his calmness, and believed it was a facade to conceal his guilt. Dreyfus was immediately arrested for treason, by Minister of War General Auguste Mercier. Dreyfus instinctively pronounced his innocence. Later Major Du Paty de Clam offered him a gun to commit suicide, but Dreyfus would not, saying that he would live to prove his innocence and vindicate his honor.
The third unfortunate set of circumstance was the fact that Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew, and not a popular officer. At age thirty six Dreyfus was of medium height, with brown hair, and a toneless voice, and distinguished only by his rimless pince-nez eyeglasses. Dreyfus’s lack of friends and odd appearance left him in a vulnerable position. Dreyfus was stiff, cold, and almost unnaturally correct. His demeanor, the opposite of flamboyant, seemed to be the perfect cover for a spy.
The 1890’s was a period of widespread and hostile anti-Semitism in France. Hatred toward the Jews was financed by Royalists, Nationalists, Jesuits, and Catholic officials running deep into the most respectable districts. France was still suffering from her defeat by the Germans in 1870, in which Alsace and Lorraine was lost. In 1892, the Panama Canal Scandal broke which revealed that 104 deputies were involved in the taking of illegal bribes, causing the company to go bankrupt. Several of the leading players involved in the scandal were Jewish bankers, and French resentment towards the Jews increased when many French investors lost their money. Because of Dreyfus’s religion, the French people and officers found it easier to accept his guilt as the scapegoat.
For two months, Dreyfus was held in prison, without visitational rights, while the army built it’s case. Dreyfus was so committed to the honor of France and it’s officers, he was sure they would not fabricate evidence and would soon realize the mistake and release him. Meanwhile, the Dreyfus home was searched and Major Du Paty questioned his wife, and warned her not to speak to anyone concerning Alfred. The army did not find anymore incriminating evidence and lacked a motive. Gen. Mercier realized that the case against Dreyfus was circumstantial at best. Mercier knew that Dreyfus would not normally have access to some of the sensitive material mentioned in the bordereau. He also knew that Dreyfus was not scheduled for any army maneuvers at that time, as it was said it the bordereau. The only piece of hard, truthful evidence was the unsigned bordereau, and the expert handwriting commission was divided as to who the real author was. General Mercier understood a conviction would be based upon one of two things: a confession or indisputable handwriting identification.
For Dreyfus, the next set of unfortunate circumstances occurred when General Mercier, drastically changed the whole perspective of the case. Colonel Henry became fearful that his friend, Esterhazy would be named as the true culprit, so Henry leaked the story to a anti-Semitic newspaper, La Libre Parole. Due to the lack of evidence and motive, the War Department planned on releasing Dreyfus. This was all changed on November 1, 1894 when La Libre Parole accused Mercier of being a Jewish sympathizer, and that he was being paid off by the syndicate of international Jewry. Suddenly Mercier realized that if Dreyfus was freed, his position as Minister of War, would be in danger and worse, possibly, the government itself. In response to La Libre Parole’s accusation, Mercier summoned the military editor from the newspaper Figaro. Here he stated he had “proofs that cried aloud the treason of Dreyfus” and he reiterated Dreyfus’s “guilt with absolute certain.” The power and meaning of Mercier’s words were instantly recognized, for it changed the whole affair. Even before the trial, Mercier tied the army to Dreyfus’s guilt, and secured the army’s stand on the case. Mercier’s words were interpreted even further by the many influential and biased newspapers of turn of the century France. Cassagnac, the royalist editor, wrote in L Autorite , ” If Dreyfus is acquitted, Mercier goes”and since Mercier works for the government, “If Dreyfus is not guilty then the government is.”
The first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus started on December 19, 1894 in Paris. It can be said that Dreyfus’s fate was sealed in the first Court session, when the court voted to have the sessions in camera, with all public and press restricted. Such abnormal proceedings, which have long been held in disregard in France and other Western countries, were allowed due to the nature and dealings, of top secret military information which were entirely unsubstantiated,. This becomes the first, but not last controversial courtroom ruling. The second day of court found Lt. Col. Henry testifying that in March, a respectable officer told him that another officer was committing treason. Henry then said, that in June the same person named the traitor as Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus became emotional and demanded to know who his accuser was. Henry responded with a smile, ” There are secrets in an officer’s head that even his cap must not know.” The second irregular courtroom decision was to uphold Lieutenant Colonel Henry’s vail of secrecy. He would not have to disclose the name of the officer, but merely to swear on his honor he told the truth. On the third day, the expert hand writers testified, but they were not very convincing, and sentiment seemed to lay with the accused. Mercier, truly believing that Dreyfus was guilty of treason, had planned for just this situation. General Mercier ordered Major Du Paty to hand the presiding judge, Colonel Maurel, an envelope containing forgeries, (such as the Panizzardi letter) irrelevancies, and hearsay all implicating Dreyfus as the culprit. This came to be known as the “secret file” or dossier secret. This then became the third illegal, and disgraceful courtroom conduct, because the contents of the dossier were never revealed to Dreyfus’s attorney, Charles Demange, which discredits the whole trial and renders it illegal. General Mercier fully realized the consequences of his actions, and paid for it. Dreyfus’s defense attorney, closing statements lasted for three hours, in it which he contended that the prosecution did not even bother to offer a motive, which they said it was not up to them to supply one, but that the vague similarity of the bordereau and Dreyfus’s handwriting was reason enough to convict. The judges then went to their chambers, where unknown to the defense, and in open violation of French law, they opened the secret file. The deliberations lasted one hour and the verdict was unanimous, Dreyfus was guilty. Later that day on the site of his condemnation, a victory mob gathered yelling anti-Semitic remarks everywhere.
Among the crowd was the Paris correspondent for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, Theodore Herzl. He was so disturbed by the crowd that he when he returned home he wrote Der Judenstaat, an essay whose sole purpose was the “restoration of the Jewish state.” Within eighteen months, Herzl organized the first Zionist Congress, made up of two hundred delegates from fifteen countries. Suddenly the Dreyfus affair took on a whole new purpose, which the Jewish people have been waiting for eighteen hundred years.
Two weeks later, Alfred Dreyfus was humiliated, by being stripped of his medals and uniform, and made to walk down a line of officers, who looked on with disgust.
In the summer of 1895, Lieutenant Colonel George Picquart, was appointed chief of the Intelligence Bureau of the General Staff. Picquart accepted Dreyfus’s guilt, and did not examine the case. After about eight months he stumbled on an unsettling coincidence one day in March of 1896. Picquarts’ officers brought him a letter, written by Colonel Schwartzkoppen to a French infantry officer, Esterhazy. This letter, known as petit bleu, was a major catalyst for Picquart and his renewed investigation. The more Picquart thought about the letter the more intrigued he became. He re- opened up the Dreyfus file, and to his shock he found nothing but forgeries, and rumors. Picquart investigated further, and came to the conclusion that the real traitor was an Infantry Major named Walsin Esterhazy. Esterhazy seemed a much better candidate for a spy. He drank, whored, was a bad father, and had gambling debts. He brought his findings to the Chief and Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Generals Boisdeffre and Gonse. Picquart soon realized, due to Boisdeffre and Gonse’s unwillingness to either prosecute Esterhazy or release Dreyfus, that the French Army’s honor was at stake. He