'The Patriotic Forgery' and the Failed Coup
Part VIII: The Plot Unravels and the Republic Is Forced to the Brink
(This is Part VIII of the series on the Dreyfus Affair. If you want to catch up please check out the previous episodes in the archive. Please note that this post contains some very disturbing antisemitic language and imagery.)
The Brisson government had re-opened an investigation into the Dreyfus case with the express purpose of proving the Captain’s guilt. In order to accomplish this, the minister of war, Godefroy Cavaignac, had his staff examine the secret dossier of evidence compiled by the Bureau of Statistics. Cavaignac’s investigators quickly discovered that a letter purportedly from the German military attaché Colonel von Schwartzkoppen and his lover in the Italian embassy Colonel Panizzardi that referred explicitly to "a Jew” was a crude forgery. Colonel Henry, Picquart’s replacement as head of the secret service, admitted he had forged the note in order to save his superiors from further worry. Henry was arrested and shortly thereafter killed himself, without giving up the high-ranking conspirators in the Army.
This discovery should have ended the Affair, but the stiff-necked Cavaignac declared, "I remain convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt” in his letter of resignation to the president of the Republic. Cavaignac still nourished hopes of riding the political wave of anti-Dreyfusism into higher office. Esterhazy took the opportunity to slip out of the country. Now the anti-Dreyfusards would swing into furious action, seemingly gaining strength as their connection to reality dissolved.
The Assumptionists spread the story in La Croix that Henry had been killed by the Jews. Charles Maurras invented the most striking conceit, which would quickly be adopted in the whole of the anti-Dreyfusard press: “[T]he energetic plebeian” had created a “faux patriotique,” a “patriotic forgery,” meant to preserve the public good. Maurras turned Henry into a martyr. Rhetorically addressing the dead hero, he wrote: “You should know that there is not a drop of this precious blood, the first French blood spilt during the Dreyfus Affair, that is not still warm wherever the heart of the nation is beating.”1
The right wing press vehemently attacked the Dreyfusards for “celebrating” the death of Colonel Henry as a victory and in the most sentimental possible terms portrayed them as cruel to his poor widow. Édouard Drumont put out a subscription in La Libre Parole to assist Henry’s widow and to create a monument to the fallen Colonel. Drumont received 25,000 subscriptions, bringing in some 131,000 francs. The subscribers came from a cross-section of French society from generals, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses to doctors, lawyers, academics to poor country priests and laborers. The notes attached to their contribution reveal a deluge of violent and grotesque antisemitic fantasies: a cook offered to “roast the Jews”, another contributor offered that his own flesh be used to a make a stew to poison the Jews. There were proposals to use Jewish body parts to make objects ranging from violin strings to carpets.2 Thoughts of total extermination were pervasive. Truly, a revolting carnival of perversion in the heart of respectable society.
In the street Jules Guérin and Paul Dèrouléde were marshaling their forces. Guérin’s butcher squads were seen roaming Paris with clubs and iron bars. Guérin was now in the pay of the Duke of Orleans, perhaps still nurturing hopes of returning his household to the throne. Dèrouléde, a deputy himself, organized an unruly demonstration in front of the Palais Bourbon, where parliament met. Inside the chamber, Dèrouléde demanded the resignation of Brisson and provocatively called the minister of war General Chanoine to the tribune; Chanoine resigned, threatening the government in the process. Brisson demanded a resolution upholding the supremacy of civilian rule, which passed with the support of the entire republican bloc from moderates to Socialists. But Brisson then lost a vote of no confidence: the Nationalists had brought down the government of the left.
But the Dreyfusards were also turning into a mass movement: the Socialists, usually divided into numerous factions, rallied to the cause. The League of the Rights of Man called for resistance to the nationalist mobs in the streets and mass meetings numbering in the thousands took place across Paris. Dèrouléde’s troops invaded these rallies and battled the Socialist workers. But now they were often outnumbered and thrown back.3
A chance event would alter the balance of power. Felix Faure, president of the Republic, a committed anti-Dreyfusard and the principal target of Zola’s “J’Accuse,” died suddenly. Rumors circulated that he had died in the arms of his young mistress, leading to the inevitable conclusion that she was a Jewess who had murdered him. The president of the Senate, Émile Loubet, a proponent of revising Dreyfus’s trial, received the support of the Radicals and Socialists and he was elected by the vote in both chambers.
Jules Guérin and Dèrouléde mustered their troops. The plan was to use the funeral of Faure to launch a coup: they would convince the General at the head of the military procession to march on the presidential palace and they would support his column with their Ligues. Dèrouléde, draped in his deputy’s sash and with his pockets packed with cash and gold coins, waited to intercept the column as the parade ended. He rushed up to General Roget at the head of the troops, declared, “Follow us, my general, have pity on the Nation and save the Republic. To the Elysée, General.”4 He grabbed a hold of the reins of Roget’s horse, but the General thrust him aside and ordered his troops back to the barracks. Dèrouléde and his men attempted to block his path; he grabbed the horse’s reins again and was dragged inside the barracks, now a prisoner. Guérin retreated with his men to “Fort Chabrol” a former Masonic lodge that he had converted into his headquarters.
The coup ended in comic failure. The prosecution of the conspirators, too, was farcical: they insisted that they had intended to incite the people and Army in a coup against the Republic, the prosecutors would only charge them with minor offenses. Dèrouléde arranged to bribe the jury and was quickly acquitted. He declared his willingness to undertake another coup.5 But the Cour de Cassation published its judgment, based on the revelation of the Henry forgery, that Dreyfus should face another court-martial. This meant he would return to France.
The Army, despite not cooperating with the coup, was still making disturbing noises about “defending its honor.” Nationalist gangs still roamed Paris. The Republic remained in danger. A massive demonstration took place in Paris, numbering nearly 100,000, who marched won the boulevards and sang the Marseillaise. The prime minister ordered a massive police presence. “Seemingly indifferent when the Republic was under threat, he demonstrated extraordinarily zeal when it was being defended,” writes Jean-Denis Bredin.6 Fights broke out between demonstrators and the cops. Blamed for the violence, Depuy’s support collapsed; He lost a vote of no confidence.
In Depuy’s place, the center-left Waldeck-Rousseau formed a government. For the first time he brought a Socialist into the cabinet: Alexandre Millerand, minister of commerce. But his chosen minister of war, Gallifet, had been instrumental in repressing the Paris Commune and the decision to enter the cabinet immediately fractured the Socialist ranks. The self-declared revolutionary Socialists split off, denouncing the “compromises and deviations.” Still, Waldeck-Rousseau vigorously and rapidly pursued his “politics of Republican defense.” He removed the prefect of police and the public prosecutor, reassigned or retired generals, and reestablished strict civilian control of the military.
Waldeck-Rousseau then acted against the anti-parliamentary Leagues, instructing the new prefect to investigate whether the street demonstrations had been organized in concert. The evidence was somewhat scant, but this did not stop Waldeck-Rousseau. He presented the case to parliament in the most dire possible terms. The government rounded up the principal Nationalists including Dèrouléde. Guérin attempted to retreat into his “fort,” where he held out for days, before finally being arrested.
The next target was the religious orders. Waldeck-Rousseau pursued legal action that would dissolve the Assumptionists and proposed a law requiring candidates to public office attend at least three years of secular public schooling.
With the dawn of 1899, Fortune appeared to have turned decisively in favor of the Dreyfusards, but politics would soon prove to still have the upper hand over justice.
Jean-Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, pp. 337-338
Ibid., pp. 351-352
Ruth Harris, Dreyfus, pg. 388
Bredin, pg. 373
Harris, pg. 389
Bredin, pg. 386