Paris Finally Finds a Place for Dreyfus Statue

Times Staff Writer

Honoring a delayed debt to a soldier it disgraced almost 100 years ago, France on Wednesday put up a controversial bronze statue of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris.

More than two years after the 12-foot-high statue was finished, a crane lifted it onto a pedestal in a clearing surrounded by luxuriant trees. The statue had been gathering dust in a foundry while politicians argued about where to put it.

This controversy was looked on as no more than a mini-affair. But it troubled many French people, for it reflected the deep feelings they still have about the rancorous “Dreyfus Affair” that divided France at the turn of the century.


Sculptor Louis Mittelberg, a gentle, 69-year-old man with white hair, wearing a field jacket, darted in and out among workers to get a closer look at the enormous example of his handiwork and to pose near the statue for French television cameras. The monument will be dedicated today.

“I am very happy,” Mittelberg told a reporter, “but I always had confidence that this would happen some day.”

Commissioned in 1983

The Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand commissioned Mittelberg in 1983 to create a statue as part of a program of monuments to neglected heroes of France.

Mittelberg, a Polish-born French artist best known as the editorial cartoonist TIM of the newsmagazine L’Express, was handed a list of 10 possible subjects and asked to choose one. “I chose Dreyfus,” Mittelberg said later. “I thought no one else was going to pick that statue.”

The story of Dreyfus is one of the most dramatic in French history. The conservative, strait-laced Dreyfus, an innocent victim, suddenly found himself a symbol of hate and injustice in 1894 when the army high command falsely accused and convicted him of passing military secrets to the Germans. The 35-year-old officer was stripped of his rank and sent to a prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.

Prejudice Led to Suspicions

The suspicions about Dreyfus were based mainly on prejudice against him, for he was both Jewish and a native of German-speaking Alsace. When the high command realized that its evidence against him was flimsy, it manufactured false evidence. Army officers entangled themselves ever more deeply in their lies. In their eyes, salvaging the honor of the army was far more important than justice and the life of a man.


France divided into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards during this emotional period of intense nationalism and anti-Semitism. The most famous supporter of Dreyfus was the novelist Emile Zola, who fled to England after a court convicted him of slandering the army in a newspaper article entitled “J’accuse.”

Public opinion eventually led to the release of Dreyfus, a presidential pardon, a court declaration of his innocence and his return, for a while, to the army. But the army never reversed its court-martial.

Broken Sword

The statue, which Mittelberg completed more than two years ago, displays a tall, ramrod-straight soldier holding a broken sword in front of his face. The broken sword symbolizes the humiliation of Dreyfus.

Originally the statue was to stand on the grounds of the Ecole Militaire, the military academy where Dreyfus was stripped of his rank after the court-martial. But the army rejected the monument. For some officers, the statue would have been too much of a reminder of old military shame.

When the conservative government of Premier Jacques Chirac came to power in 1986, it moved so gingerly and hesitantly in searching for another site that it became paralyzed. No site was found until President Mitterrand was reelected last May 8 and appointed a Socialist government to take the place of the Chirac government.

The Socialists quickly decided to put the statue in the Tuileries, a park where many Parisians stroll on Sundays, often encouraging their children to push toy sailboats across a pond with long sticks. The Dreyfus statue was put up about 100 feet from a statue of Leon Blum, a former Socialist premier, and, on the other side, about 100 feet from a massive nude statue by the famous French sculptor Aristide Maillol.

Mittelberg would have preferred that the statue be placed opposite the Palace of Justice in Paris, where the High Court of Appeal finally set aside Dreyfus’ conviction in 1906. But the sculptor said he is pleased with the Tuileries site.

A Man of Honor

“It is a place where the French and tourists, and their children, will encounter a man who never dishonored his uniform or his country,” he said.

The sculptor tried hard not to betray any emotion as workers fitted the statue, held up by lines from a crane, onto a concrete pedestal.

When the statue was finally in place, a group of journalists, friends and tourists broke into applause. Mittelberg turned to his wife, Zuka, a Los Angeles-born painter, and embraced her.

He flicked some tears from her cheeks with a finger, but his own eyes were moist as well.