History’s new verdict on the Dreyfus case

STANLEY MEISLER, a former Paris correspondent for The Times, is the author of a soon-to-be-published biography, "Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War."

IN 1899, A BROKEN Alfred Dreyfus accepted a presidential pardon -- and its implication that he had committed treason against France. It was a matter of life or death, for Dreyfus feared that he would not survive the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island, where he had been sent after a military court convicted him of betraying his country. Those who believed that he was innocent and had called for his exoneration were deeply disappointed. “We were prepared to die for Dreyfus,” said poet Charles Peguy, “but Dreyfus was not.”

His decision to accept a pardon is one of the cornerstones of a long-standing French perception that Dreyfus is the model of a submissive victim. But on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his exoneration in 1906 and the official end of the tumultuous affair that convulsed France for a dozen years, that view may be changing. Indeed, some historians see Dreyfus the patriot, not Dreyfus the victim.

In a new biography, Vincent Duclert contends that Dreyfus was not afraid to stand up for himself. Quite the contrary. He was the “model citizen defending his right to justice,” Duclert writes, “and he was the model patriot never doubting the capacity of his country to move toward justice and truth.”


The historian goes so far as to propose that the French government transfer Dreyfus’ remains from Montparnasse Cemetery to the Pantheon, France’s temple for the tombs of its great men and women.

Dreyfus adjacent to Voltaire and Marie Curie?

The Dreyfus affair is an extraordinary tale of injustice, deceit and coverup. When a French cleaning lady working at the German Embassy in Paris in 1894 found a traitorous letter, suspicion fell on Dreyfus, the only Jew in the general staff of the French army. Investigators were so sure of Dreyfus’ guilt that they dismissed the analysis of a handwriting expert who refused to link the letter’s script to Dreyfus. When other evidence against Dreyfus proved flimsy, the army simply manufactured more.

Dreyfus was court-martialed, found guilty, stripped of his rank in a humiliating ceremony -- his sword was symbolically broken -- and hustled away to Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana in South America.

Most French generals soon realized they convicted the wrong man. They refused to admit their error out of fear that such an admission would besmirch the French army’s honor and undercut its fighting ability. When Lt. Col. Georges Picquart submitted irrefutable evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence, he was told, “What does it matter to you that this Jew remains on Devil’s Island”?

The Dreyfus affair split French society, pitting artist against artist, intellectual against intellectual. Among the Dreyfusards were Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Paul Signac and Mary Cassatt. The ranks of the anti-Dreyfusards were equally formidable, among them Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Marcel Proust used the bickering and backbiting in French society over the affair as background noise in his monumental “In Search of Lost Time.”

But it was Emile Zola who struck the most stirring and telling blow for Dreyfus. In an open letter to the French president, published Jan. 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore, the novelist detailed Dreyfus’ unjust conviction and the French army’s coverup. Zola’s attack ran across the front page under the headline “J’Accuse” in enormous type. More than 300,000 copies of the paper were sold, and French public sentiment began swinging to Dreyfus’ side.


The French generals refused to bow. When the High Court of Appeals overturned Dreyfus’ conviction, the army simply tried and convicted him again. Although he accepted the pardon, Dreyfus continued to accumulate evidence of his innocence. Then, in 1906, the high court threw out Dreyfus’ second conviction and, distrustful of the generals, refused to order another trial. Soon after, the National Assembly’s Chamber of Deputies returned Dreyfus to the army, promoting the former captain to major and awarding him the Legion of Honor.

But the Dreyfus affair still periodically roils French politics. In 1985, the socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand commissioned a statue of Dreyfus. Sculpted by the late Louis Mitelberg, it was supposed to stand in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, where a humiliated Dreyfus was striped of his captain’s rank. But the minister of defense refused to allow it to be displayed because the French army wanted no public reminders of the embarrassing affair. After three years out of the public eye and six in a little-publicized corner of the Tuileries Gardens, the statue was eventually moved to a prominent site on the Boulevard Raspail on Paris’ Left Bank on the 100th anniversary of Dreyfus’ first conviction.

Even today, said Charles Dreyfus, Alfred’s grandson, some French “still think that it would have been better to sacrifice the life of a man, though innocent, rather than undermine what they regard as the honor of the army.”

Anti-Semitism in France also continues to revive memories of the Dreyfus affair. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, for example, invoked Dreyfus’ name when a gang of youths were accused of torturing to death a 23-year-old Jewish man earlier this year. Meeting with Jewish leaders, De Villepin cited the Dreyfus affair as “the indestructible link uniting the Jews of France and the destiny of the republic.” By exonerating Dreyfus, the prime minister explained, France had wielded truth and justice to defeat rumor-mongering and specious claims of national security.

Whether such pronouncements will catapult Dreyfus into the Pantheon of French heroes alongside Zola, as Duclert proposes, remains unclear. Despite a significant campaign to move Dreyfus’ remains to the Pantheon, President Jacques Chirac is evidently not ready to order the transfer. Instead, he will lead an anniversary ceremony in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire. But as French historian Antoine de Baecque recently said, the idea of Dreyfus in the Pantheon “would have seemed preposterous a few years ago” but “will sound more sensible from now on.”