Part IX: Dreyfus Returns to France
I’ve been focusing quite a bit about the social and political forces in France, but I’d like to return to the man at the center of the Affair, Captain Alfred Dreyfus himself. At this stage in the Affair he was largely forgotten as an individual. “We were no longer fighting, wrote Léon Blum, the future first Socialist and Jewish prime minister of France, “for or against Dreyfus, for or against revision; we were for fighting for or against the Republic, for or against militarism, for or against the secularism of the State.”1
Dreyfus had very little idea he had become a symbol of a political struggle over the nature of French nationhood. His mail on Devil’s Island was intermittent and often tampered with. The island, 30 miles from the coast of French Guiana, had been an active penal colony during the Second Empire, but by the time Dreyfus arrived had mostly fallen into disuse. (The colony of Guiana itself was sparsely populated: France had repeatedly failed to settle it.) His isolation was total. Dreyfus was confined to a 12’ x 12’ hut, with barred doors and windows. It provided no relief from the humidity and heat, which could go as high as 104° Fahrenheit. Nor did it provide much shelter from the torrential rains of the wet season. Dreyfus’s room was illuminated day and night, so that he could remain under constant observation by an armed guard; guards were forbidden to speak to Dreyfus. During the day he was permitted to wander a small plot of land; a palisade was erected to prevent him from seeing the ocean. A request to be allowed to go for a swim was denied. He made himself a makeshift grill from scrap metal in order to cook the raw meat that was part of his rations; his “pot” was also made from scrap metal. A request for a plate was denied. At night he was shackled to his bed; insects crawled over his skin making it impossible to sleep. Most prisoners on Devil’s Island died from malaria; Dreyfus often shivered uncontrollably from high fevers, and for a time subsisted only on milk, unable to eat solid food. Dreyfus’s family and some of his supporters realized that if he remained much longer on Devil’s Island he would surely die. On June 9th, 1899, the cruiser Sfax picked up Dreyfus from Devil’s Island and returned him to France, where he would see his wife Lucie for the first time in five years.
The Cour de Cassation had annulled Dreyfus’s conviction and ruled another court-martial should take place. It was legally possible for the prime minister Waldeck-Rousseau to drop all the charges against Dreyfus. This was the course that the Socialist minister of commerce Alexandre Millerand and Joseph Reinach, Waldeck-Rousseau’s friend and one of the principal Dreyfusards. But it was decided that the trial should go forward. Gallifet, the minister of war, believed an acquittal was a foregone conclusion and the trial was an opportunity to embarrass the corrupt old generals. But Waldeck-Rousseau realized that a favorable verdict from a military court remained a remote possibility. He had pursued a vigorous policy of “Republican defense” against the military, the leagues and the Church, but remained concern about maintaining national unity. Under Waldeck-Rousseau’s reforms, the brass had been reshuffled, but it was not yet totally politically reliable and the Army remained committed to its institutional preservation and “honor,” its furious defense of caste privilege that was one of the sources of the whole Affair. As he judged the vagaries of the political landscape, Waldeck-Rousseau’s initial aggression gave way to prudence.
The trial was to take place at Rennes, in Brittany. The small city became thronged with journalists, both national and international, and partisans of both sides. But Zola, Clemenceau, and Reinach remained in Paris to avoid provoking violence; the decision deprived the Dreyfusard camp of their most gifted rhetorical and political champions. Tensions were brewing on Dreyfus’s defense team: his lawyer Edgar Demange, a conservative Catholic who had remained with him since his first trial in 1894 wanted to pursue a limited strategy focusing on acquittal. Fernand Labori, a brilliant and flamboyant advocate, held the brief for the Dreyfusard cause as much as for Dreyfus the man, and wanted to use the trial go on the offensive against the Army.
When Dreyfus appeared at last in court on August 7, 1899, his appearance shocked the public. He had become emaciated and pale on Devil’s Island, and had difficulty walking; still he tried to adopt a military gait, which, in his weakened state, appeared strange and automatic. Dreyfus attempted to make a great show of dignity and stoicism. Above all, he did not want to be pitied: “I had but one duty: to appeal o the reason and the conscience of the judges. It is I who have pity for the men who dishonored themselves by condemning an innocent man through the most criminal methods.”2 But he did inspire a moment of pity in an unlikely source, the arch-nationalist Maurice Barrés, who had somehow been spared during the round-ups of the anti-parliamentary leaguers and had returned to his vocation as journalist now that the part of street fighter had been played out:
The whole courtroom swayed with combined horror and pity when Dreyfus appeared..His thin and contracted face! His sharp stare from behind the pince-nez!…At that moment we felt nothing but a thin wave of pain breaking over the auditorium. A miserable human rag was being thrown in the glaring light. A ball of living flesh, fought over by the players of two teams and who has not had a minutes rest for six years, comes rolling from America into the midst of our battle. But Dreyfus had already climbed into the podium, the next station in his calvary…3
The impression of sympathy would not last long. The criticisms of Dreyfus’s demeanor and bearing, which had dominated public coverage of his degradation ceremony, returned. Dreyfus’s attempt to bear himself with dignity was interpreted as stiffness and artificiality, his voice was compared to a “phonograph.”4 He did not indulge in rhetorical flights in his own defense. “Shyness, mixed with a sense of decency and perhaps pride, produced in [him] what the French call pudeur, a modesty that rejects emotional display as a form of exhibitionism, and which [was] perceived as a kind of unimaginative heaviness,” writes Ruth Harris.5 Mathieu wrote, “my brother is incapable of histrionics.”6 Reinach: “What was needed was an actor, and he was a soldier.”7
An unknown assailant shot and wounded Fernand Labori on his way to court one day. The one man capable of the kind of performance the Dreyfusards needed was incapacitated during a key portion of the trial. When General Mercier and the whole rogue’s gallery of corrupt officers, absurdly pompous in their epaulets, spurs, sabres and mustachios, returned to declaim their standard perjuries, Labori was unavailable to give them the grilling they deserved. The examining judges were unremittingly hostile to Dreyfus and sharply barked their questions at him. Esterhazy, ensconced abroad, had admitted that he was the real author of the bordereau, but now the antisemitic press claimed their former collaborator was in the pay of the Jewish “syndicate.” It was dawning on Dreyfus’s supporters that another disaster was in the offing. The Socialist Jaurés wrote that the only solution in the case of a conviction would be revolution: “Given this irremediable moral collapse and definitive fall into stupidity, France may have no other resource than revolution.”8 The anti-Dreyfusard press threatened violent reprisals in the case of an acquittal.
The verdict was a travesty: the judges clearly understood the case against Dreyfus was nonexistent but felt the need to protect their superiors and colleagues in the General Staff. They returned a divided vote, 5 to 2, of guilty, but with “extenuating circumstances.” The judges were trying to accomplish a compromise not possible in a judicial verdict. The anti-Dreyfusard press celebrated the victory of the Army. Many Dreyfusards viewed the ambiguity of the results as clear evidence of the hand of the Jesuits.
The Waldeck-Rousseau government offered the Dreyfusards a deal: they would pardon Dreyfus in return of him not pursuing any legal appeal of the case. The government was eager to put the whole Affair to rest, to find a way to satisfy both the Dreyfusards and the honor of the army. But the prospect of a pardon, ending Dreyfus’s suffering immediately, would now begin divide and embitter the Dreyfusard ranks against one another, perhaps a hidden political benefit to the government in its apparent gift of mercy.
Jean-Denis, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, pg. 353
Ibid., pg. 404
Ibid., pp. 404-405
Ibid., pg. 405
Ruth Harris, Dreyfus, pp. 443-444
Ibid., pg. 444
Bredin, pg. 406
ibid., pg. 415