Statue Needs a Home : The Dreyfus Affair--It Never Dies
A new bronze statue of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a colossal faceless figure ramrod tall and clutching a broken sword, stands in a suburban foundry these days while government officials agonize over where to set it on permanent view.
Several sites have been proposed but rejected, and there is talk now of putting it up in the Palace of Justice in Paris. But not every official involved has given approval, and it may take at least six months before a final decision is made.
The hesitation reflects history. Hardly anyone in France still believes that Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer unjustly convicted twice by the army of treason at the end of the last century, was guilty. Yet troubling traces of the divisions that rent French society in that era still persist.
Statue Is a Victim
The statue’s sculptor is Louis Mitelberg, best known in France as a political cartoonist who uses the pseudonym TIM. Mitelberg believes that his statue has fallen victim to a permanent division in French society between what he calls “revolution” and “monarchy.”
“There has always been the feeling that there are two ways of running the country, the democratic way and the authoritarian way,” he said in his office at the news magazine L’Express.
“This case is still a matter of uneasiness--even though our army is now a republican army. There still is a feeling that since Dreyfus was proven innocent, why should we go back and bring up the case again.”
Jean-Denis Bredin, a lawyer and novelist whose history of the case, “The Affair,” became a best seller in France two years ago and soon will be made into a television series, carried the point about the permanent division in society one step further.
Case Remains Sensitive
Talking in his law office recently, Bredin said, “These divisions exist in every one of us. We French have an internal division between being Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard.”
The case is still so sensitive that many people wonder why the previous Socialist government ever came up with the idea of a statue in the first place.
“Dreyfus was an innocent victim. He was not a hero,” said Mavis Gallant, the Canadian short story writer who has been working on a book about the case for more than a decade. “I think that the appropriate thing would be to just put a plaque on the house where he lived.”
The Dreyfus affair that began in 1894 embittered France and set, as they came to be known, Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards against each other for at least a decade in dramatic and tragic conflict.
The case came to symbolize many currents to many French and many outsiders as well: the virulence of anti-Semitism, the arrogance of the army, the power of the state, the influence of intel1818583924who supported the Republic and those who yearned for a monarchy.
“Families were so divided,” said Gallant at her Paris apartment, “that I know the case of some family members who dug up the bodies of their closest relatives from a family cemetery and buried them in another cemetery so they would not have to lie with relatives from the other side.”
The starkest image of the case in modern minds is probably that of novelist Emile Zola feverishly writing his indictment of the army high command for keeping Dreyfus imprisoned even after all evidence made it clear he was innocent.
Support From Zola
The article was published across the front page of a Paris newspaper with the famous headline, “ J’accuse .” Zola, convicted of slander in 1898, fled to Britain. But the article helped create a swell of public opinion that finally led to Dreyfus’ release from the penal colony of Devil’s Island, off French Guiana, and the reversal of his conviction.
France has divided often in the 20th Century in titanic, bitter struggles. The conflicts between the left and right in the 1930s, between the Free French of Charles de Gaulle and the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Petain during World War II, between those who wanted to keep Algeria French and those who faced reality in the 1950s are the most terrible examples. The Dreyfus case has always seemed to set the pattern for these conflicts.
The case has been so controversial, in fact, that in 1939 the French government banned the Hollywood movie, “The Story of Emile Zola” starring Paul Muni, and in the 1970s, the government television kept a documentary about the case off television screens.
The latest echo of the controversy came in 1983 when then-Minister of Culture Jack Lang presented a list of 10 names from French history and asked Mitelberg to create a statue of one of them. Lang intended to both revive official sculpture and honor heroes neglected by previous rightist governments.
“I chose Dreyfus,” said Mitelberg. “I thought that no one else was going to pick that statue.”
Mitelberg also proposed that the Ecole Militaire, the postgraduate officers school in Paris, serve as the site for the statue, and Lang agreed. It struck both as a fitting symbol of rehabilitation: Dreyfus had been stripped of his rank in a humiliating ceremony on the grounds of that school in 1895.
But the army was outraged.
“It seemed like a provocation--sticking the symbol of the sin of the army right in the midst of the army,” said author Bredin.
Reflecting the military rage, Charles Hernu, then minister of defense, refused in 1985 to allow the Ecole Militaire to be the statue’s home.
Hernu, a Socialist like Lang, obviously did not like the idea of sounding like an anti-Dreyfusard in public. So he claimed that he was turning down the Ecole Militaire as a site because it was foolish to put the statue where few people would see it. But no one accepted this excuse.
The Ecole Polytechnique, the military engineering school attended by Dreyfus, also rejected the statue, and Mitelberg, who completed the 12-foot-high figure earlier this year, finally proposed the Palais de Justice, where the French Court of Appeals overturned the court martials of Dreyfus.
This proposal has not aroused any public controversy. But the conservative government of Premier Jacques Chirac has been handling the matter gingerly and has so far announced nothing.
Trouble May Last
Even if the statue is finally placed and dedicated in the Palace of Justice, Mitelberg does not believe its difficulties will end.
“We will have trouble with it,” he predicted. “We will have paint on it. The National Front (the extreme right-wing party) will smear it. But that’s what the republican regime is all about. It’s freedom, and we have to be vigilant all the time.”
France, in fact, seems seized both by an obsession with the Dreyfus affair and an aversion to it. Bredin, for example, said he was surprised that his book, now translated into English and published in the United States, had achieved French sales of 150,000 copies. “The affair obviously remains in the collective memory of France,” he said.
On the other hand, Gallant, researching her history of the affair, said, “I have talked to many Jewish people who have asked me to drop the whole project.” They fear that increased discussion of the case will only stir up anti-Semitism again.
The affair began when the army high command, uncovering evidence that a traitor was betraying military secrets to the German embassy in Paris, suspected Dreyfus, a 35-year-old captain on its intelligence staff.
In an anti-Semitic and nationalistic era, the suspicion was based mainly on Dreyfus’ background: He was Jewish and came from Alsace, the heavily German-speaking province of France that was then under German control. When he was stripped of his rank, the crowd outside the Ecole Militaire shouted, “Death to the Jew! Death to Judas!”
The top officers were so sure of themselves that, when they saw that their evidence was weak, they trumped up fake evidence. When they felt that their fake evidence might be exposed, they covered it up.
The officers enveloped themselves and the army in layers of lies. Even when evidence mounted years later that the real traitor was Maj. Marie Charles Esterhazy and Dreyfus had been imprisoned on Devil’s Island off French Guiana unjustly, most officers refused to accept it.
By then, the true guilt or innocence of Dreyfus did not matter to them anyway. In their view, to agitate for Dreyfus, even an innocent Dreyfus, amounted to an attack on the honor of the army and of France itself.
The cause of Dreyfus was gradually taken up by a growing number of leftists and intellectuals who looked on the army’s attempt to put itself and the state above justice as a threat to French democracy.
Many Dreyfusards saw themselves in a battle against authoritarianism, military power and the church. The word intellectual was used for the first time during this era, first as a term of derision, then as a badge of honor for the writers and artists who supported Dreyfus.
In the end, the Dreyfusards, with the help of an honest soldier, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, won freedom for Dreyfus in what is now looked on as a victory for the power of intellectuals, the press and public opinion.
The army, however, never gave in.
Faith in French Justice
Although the French High Court of Appeal in 1899 annulled the first court martial of Dreyfus, the army found him guilty in a second court martial in 1899. Even earlier, the army had acquitted Esterhazy in a separate court martial.
Esterhazy, later dismissed from the army for “habitual misconduct” but never convicted of treason, fled from France in 1898 and settled in Britain, where he died 25 years later under a false name.
But the politicians and civilian judges knew by 1899 that Dreyfus was innocent. President Emile Loubet pardoned him immediately. In 1904, the French High Court of Appeal threw out the second court martial and declared Dreyfus innocent.
Dreyfus, who spent four years and three months in detention and returned from Devil’s Island an aged, white-haired, bony man, never seemed to waver from his faith in French justice. Many analysts insist that Dreyfus himself, had he been free, would never have joined the ranks of the Dreyfusards. Bredin, in his book, disputes this. But there is no doubt that Dreyfus, who never accused anyone of anti-Semitism in his case, believed in the army.
Symbol to Socialists
“It is funny,” said Gallant, “the way he has become a symbol to the Socialists. Dreyfus himself was very conservative.”
Dreyfus, whom Nobel Prize-winning novelist Anatole France once called “a moment in the conscience of humanity,” served in the French army during World War I and died in 1935.
Although his statue, which now languishes in the yard of the foundry of Gilbert Clementi, is new, it has the greenish-blue hue of bronze statues exposed for many years. Clementi explained that it looks that way because he has not yet put on a patina.
“Whether we use a dark or light patina,” Clementi said, “will depend on where it is put. But it is not easy to decide where to put it. The Dreyfus affair was a difficult matter for France.”