Part V: "The Era of Stupidity Is About to Begin"
(This is Part V of the series on the Third Republic. You can catch up on the previous parts here.)
After Dreyfus’s exile to Devil’s Island, France largely forgot about the particulars of the Affair. Both the left wing and right wing press declared themselves satisfied with the conduct of the government. “The trial served an exorcistic purpose. Having cast out the alien, France celebrated her salvation. Everyone rejoiced, socialists arm in arm with monarchists, and men of the Left proved, if anything, even more bellicose then men of the Right…”1 Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “In the countenancing of such slogans as ‘Death to the Jews’ or ‘France for the French’ an almost magic formula was discovered for reconciling the masses to the existent state of government and society.”2 Through this perversion of justice, the government repaired its damaged reputation in the wake of the Panama Scandal.
Dreyfus’s family did not give up. Alfred’s brother Mathieu began to work tirelessly to clear his brother’s name, visiting politicians and journalists to little avail. Desperation lead the Dreyfus family down strange paths. Mathieu visited one Dr. Gibert, a friend of the president of the Republic, Felix Faure. Gibert had become convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence; Mathieu was to learn how.
The good doctor had been performing hypnotic experiments on a somnambulist named Léonie, a 50 year old peasant woman said to have clairvoyant powers. When Dr. Gibert invited Mathieu to witness the hypnosis of Léonie, she shocked him with a detailed description of his brother. Mathieu brought Léonie to Paris and put her up in his apartment. He learned how to hypnotize her and during one her trances, Léonie revealed the existence of the secret dossier that had been illegally given to the judges, telling Mathieu, “Documents you do not know about were passed to the judges; you will see later.”3
These inspirations may not have come from the beyond. President Faure had indiscreetly told his friend Dr. Gibert that there was secret evidence in the case; Gibert passed the information to Mathieu Dreyfus. For the first time Dreyfus’s family had hope in the case: they knew he was the victim of an illegality and his case might be appealed on those grounds. Still, the Dreyfus family found few allies.
Strangely enough, it was Dreyfus’s jailers that first sympathized with his cause. The wardens at two prisons he had been held at became convinced of his innocence; one prevented Command du Paty de Clam from using “enhanced interrogation” methods and another recommended to Mathieu that he seek out a journalist to plead the case in public. Mathieu contacted Bernard Lazare, a Jewish writer who often defended anarchists, perhaps not the most likely ally for the bourgeois Dreyfus family. But Lazare became passionately engaged in the case and published the first pamphlet that declared Dreyfus’s innocence.
In the meantime, the head of the military secret service, an antisemite named Colonel Sandherr, ill with tertiary syphilis, was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Picquart. The General Staff thought Picquart reliable: he had been charged with passing the secret dossier to the judges in the Dreyfus trial and was known to have anti-Jewish prejudices. Unfortunately for them, Picquart was also honest and good at his job. He quickly discovered that Dreyfus was not the true author of the bordereau and that Walsin-Esterhazy was the real traitor and was still passing secrets to the German government. When he brought this information to the attention of his superiors, they told him to suppress it. Picquart refused.
The conspirators on the General Staff and in the secret service had to get rid of Picquart: He was reassigned to dangerous postings in North Africa. They did not stop there: they entered into collaboration with the traitor Esterhazy and began to forge documents that further incriminated Dreyfus and Picquart. When Picquart realized the General Staff was preparing to move against him, he passed what he knew about the Dreyfus case to his lawyer. Picquart’s lawyer contacted August Scheurer-Kestner, the vice president of the Senate, a rather staid and conservative figure known as a paragon of old republican civic virtue. Scheuerer-Kestner’s home became the informal meeting place of the Dreyfusard cause, and at one such gathering the movement gained the support of its most important champion: Emile Zola.
At the time, Zola was probably France’s most famous living writer. His massive Rougon-Macquart series of novels followed the lives of a family during the Second Empire; he chronicled the folly and corruption of that era through the disinterested lens of a natural scientist. The child of an immigrant, he represented modern France: liberal, republican, cosmopolitan, and rational. His novels were also bestsellers as other writers struggled, making him the target of jealous litterateurs who believed he represented both the corruption of an older literary style and France itself. Zola was already concerned with the rise of antisemitism in France, believing it a threat to the universal principles of the French Revolution, and he had written articles defending the Jews. He began to regularly publish pieces on Dreyfus’s behalf.
Zola believed he was making real progress when the government announced the court-martial of Esterhazy in 1898. Of course, it was all a set up: The trial was over in two days. Its purpose had been to introduce the forged evidence against Picquart and to acquit Esterhazy. The mob bore Esterhazy on their shoulders out of the courtroom shouting, “Hats off to the martyr of the Jews.” A furious Zola decided it was time to strike a decisive blow. Literally consumed with a fever he penned his fusillade against the government. On January 13, 1898, Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore, published “J’accuse, Letter to the President of the Republic.”
In the article, Zola indicted the main conspirators in the Army and the government. There were some small errors of fact, but Zola had to work quickly and he didn’t know all of the details yet. But in broad strokes, the story was all there: Dreyfus had been the victim of a judicial error and the Army had colluded with the real traitor to frame him and Colonel Picquart. Zola, with his bombastic rhetoric, also took aim at the broader reactionary forces that had aligned themselves against Dreyfus:
And it is a yet another crime to have used gutter press, to have let itself defend by all the rabble of Paris, so that the rabble triumphs insolently in defeat of law and simple probity. It is a crime to have accused those who wished for a noble France, at the head of free and just nations, of troubling her, when one warps oneself the impudent plot to impose the error, in front of the whole world. It is a crime to mislay the opinion, to use for a spiteful work this opinion, perverted to the point of becoming delirious. It is a crime to poison the small and the humble, to exasperate passions of reaction and intolerance, while taking shelter behind the odious antisemitism, from which, if not cured, the great liberal France of humans rights will die. It is a crime to exploit patriotism for works of hatred, and it is a crime, finally, to turn into to sabre the modern god, when all the human science is with work for the nearest work of truth and justice.4
L’Aurore sold 200,000 copies and the Dreyfusard party felt themselves reinvigorated. Truth and justice had a worthy tribune, whose words could reverberate across the world. The conservative Senator Scheurer-Kestner believed it was a mistake to bring the affair onto “revolutionary terrain,” writing in his memoirs, “The era of stupidity is about to begin…” With all of the judicial and political processes thoroughly compromised and corrupted, there was really no other avenue open to the Dreyfusards than to fight it on in public, but Scheuer-Kestner’s fears would prove to be partially justified. The counter-blow to was to be furious as well: Zola had divided France into two hostile camps, Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard, and the reaction “J’Accuse” elicited gives a foretaste of the horrors of the next century.
(In the next post, I will look at the anti-Dreyfusard ideologues, the mobs they organized, and the anti-Jewish riots in the wake of Zola’s J’accuse.)
For The Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, Frederick Brown, 204
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, 232
The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, Jean-Denis Bredin, 117
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:J%27Accuse...! (I changed the translation a bit, because it’s not very good)