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The Dreyfus Tragedy


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At nine o'clock on the morning of October 15, 1894, a tallish man in mufti presented himself at the French War Office. No one would have taken him for a soldier - much less for an officer attached to the French General Staff. He stooped slightly, wore pinc-nez and had the air rather of an unimportant civil servant than a member of the swaggering French military caste of those days. His voice, as he told an attendant he had reported for a general inspection, had a marked Alsatian accent; his manner was not authoritative, and he left no impression of personality behind him. He gave his name as Captain Dreyfus, and was shown into the office of Commandant Picquart of the General Staff.

Dreyfus was surprised not to see any fellow-probationers, because these inspections were generally held in groups. He was not an imaginative man, though, and he chatted unsuspectingly to the commandant before being taken into the office of the Chief of the General Staff. Here he saw a man he knew slightly, Commandant du Paty de Clam, who told Dreyfus the Chief of Staff, General de Boisdeffre, would arrive shortly. Meanwhile, as Paty de Clam had hurt his finger, would Dreyfus be so good as to take down some letters to his dictation? A little surprised, Dreyfus took up a pen and began to write. As he writes, the others in the room move closer. De Clam is at his elbow, eyes fixed attentively on Dreyfus's right hand, he dictates:

paris, October 15, 1894.

"Dear Sir, - I must request you urgently to return papers which I sent you before I went on manoeuvres. I will remind you that I am referring, in the first place, to the hydraulic recoil-buffer for the 120mm. gun, and its use in the field...."

Dreyfus had got thus far, his matter-of-fact mind a little perturbed at the unusualness of the whole proceeding, when he was startled by de Clam's voice, vibrating in an incongruously dramatic manner:

"Why, what is the matter with you? You're trembling!" Supposing this was a criticism of his orthography, Dreyfus looked at the writing. It was perfectly firm. If he had been trembling, it must have been the cold. He told de Clam so. A few more words dictated, then, suddenly, a change of voice. "Captain Dreyfus, I arrest you in the name of the law. You are charged with high treason."

For a moment Dreyfus stared, uncomprehending. To the men standing round he looked unprepossessing; the stammered denials did not convince. They seized hold of Dreyfus and searched him. He cried desperately, "Take my keys, go to my flat and open everything. I am innocent!"

His voice rose to a shriek; he lost all control. Du Paty de Clam moved away a bundle of papers from a corner of the table and pointed to a revolver purposely concealed there beforehand. In the utter abandon of his despair the accused man cried out:

"Put a bullet through my head!"

Du Paty de Clam, stepping backward, answered, "It is not for us to kill you."

Dreyfus's hand moved towards the weapon. The hysterical despair of the Jew with centuries of persecution and pogrom behind him had not spent itself yet. But before his fingers closed over the trigger, Dreyfus with a great effort collected himself and, turning on his accusers, for the first time spoke calmly, defiantly, "No. I will live to prove my innocence."

At that there stepped from behind a curtain, where he had been listening to the interview, Commandant Henry, of the Intelligence section. He took Dreyfus in charge.

The Court-Martial of Dreyfus began at Cherche-Midi on December 19, 1894. The evidence against him was scanty and rested on the disputed opinions of graphologists. The case was that Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, had communicated military secrets to a Paris representative of a foreign power. A simple charge with ramifications behind it that were anything but simple. In 1894, a quarter of a century after the German invasion and the Paris Commune, France was in that state of febrile disequilibrium that characterised most of Europe forty years afterwards. Outside her borders, fear and mistrust of Germany - in some quarters, thirst for revenge on Germany; within her borders, distrust of the Jews as a disruptive, internationalising element, fear of another commune. Accordingly France was in danger of being crushed under a military dictatorship, subjected to an ideology in which the end - the all-powerfulness of the French army - -justified all methods and means; in which individual justice must be sacrificed to political expediency. The efficacy of the French army's efforts to maintain its hegemony led to the degradation of Dreyfus "in the interests of France"; the insufficiency of these efforts led to his rehabilitation in the interests of humanity.

The men chiefly concerned in the arrest of Dreyfus were General Mercier, Minister for War; General de Boisdeffre, Chief of the General Staff; Colonel Sandherr, Director of the Statistical Section of the Ministry of War; the Marqus du Paty de Clam, and Commandant Henry. In the heat of the Dreyfus controversy, and afterwards, these men have been stigmatised as various kinds of devils - -Jew-baiters, paralytics, occultists, plain stage-villains and (poor du Paty de Clam) even novelists. But when the shouting and tumult dies the only relevant fact is that they belonged to the military caste. To these men France's present danger was Germany. In the given circumstances - the memories of 1870 - one can understand them not realising France's ultimate danger - themselves.

At first all these men really did believe that Dreyfus was guilty, though they were prejudiced against him, no doubt, because he was a Jew. The arrest came opportunely for Mercier whose prestige had sunk very low. It had been known for some time that important French military secrets were being given away to Germany and that the source of information must be an officer enjoying access to confidential material.

About the end of September, 1894, the Intelligence Section unearthed a valuable clue. It came, apparently, from the wastepaper-basket of the German military attache, Major von Schwartzkoppen. A Mme. Bastian, the char at the German Embassy, was in the habit of passing on her scavenging to Colonel Sandherr and his staff. She delivered her finds in a paper cornet, which disclosed on this occasion an unsigned, undated letter addressed to Schwartzkoppen and written on thin, transparent paper. It was torn into four pieces. Commandant Henry stuck these together, and it then appeared that the document was a covering letter, what the French call a bordereau.

"Having no news as to whether you wish to see me, I send you in any case some interesting information:

  1. A description of the hydraulic recoil-buffer of the 120mm. gun and the manner of operating it.
  2. Details concerning covering troops. (The new plan contains some changes.)
  3. Details of some changes in Artillery units.
  4. Something concerning Madagascar.
  5. The projected Field Artillery Manual of March 14, 1894.

"The last-named document has been very difficult to secure, and I only have it for a few days. The Minister has sent a certain number to Corps, for which they are responsible. Every officer in possession of a copy must return it after manoeuvres are over. So if you will copy out whatever is of use to you and have the original ready for me, I will collect it. Or perhaps you would prefer that I should copy out the whole thing and send it to you. I am now going on manoeuvres."

Who had sent this letter? Certain facts seemed plain: the gunnery details were taken to show the author must be an artilleryman. Then the variety of information indicated he must be a Staff probationer, for other officers were more or less specialised, and only a probationer on the General Staff could in a short time have collected information about war formations, artillery manuals, Madagascar and mobilisation plans. These deductions narrowed down the field of inquiry to such officers who were at the same time gunners and probationers - in fact, only four or five officers in the French army. It was a simple matter to collect specimens of each one's handwriting. One specimen seemed to tally pretty closely with that of the bordereau. Captain Dreyfus was under suspicion.

The handwriting of the document, together with his behaviour at the War Office before Du Paty de Clam, was the whole case against Dreyfus. Attempts to collect further evidence against Dreyfus while he was in prison pending court-martial were fruitless. Du Paty de Clam visited the prisoner frequently, made him write sitting down, standing up, with a glove on; hinted at "mitigating circumstances"; suggested Dreyfus might have been counter-spying - giving comparatively valueless in exchange for important information. Dreyfus mechanically reiterated he was innocent and knew nothing about the bordereau. Far from evidencing his guilt, his behaviour in prison convinced the prison Commandant, Forzinetti, of his innocence. Dreyfus in his cell was frenzied; he bruised and gashed his face by beating it against the walls, raved, shrieked. The Commandant, a shrewd psychologist, recognised the reaction in a certain type - under the tonelessness of the man there was racial excitability and a certain masochism.

Forzinetti was asked by General de Boisdeffre, Chief of Staff: "Forzinetti, you are a judge of men and you know a guilty man when you see him. What do you think of Dreyfus?"

"Since you have asked me, sir," the Commandant replied, "I must answer you. I think that you are on the wrong track. Dreyfus is as innocent as I am."

That was that. It was impossible to get up even the semblance of a case against Dreyfus. The Defence could point out that Staff probationers did not attend the manoeuvres referred to in the bordereau; that, far from showing the author of the document was an artilleryman, the gunnery details showed clearly he was not. Du Paty de Clam had had to destroy a copy of the bordereau he had made Dreyfus write out - it was too convincingly different from the original. In all likelihood the matter would have been dropped for lack of evidence, had not the arrest of Dreyfus somehow leaked into the newspaper offices. On October 29, a letter signed "Henry," giving information of the arrest, was published in the nationalistic-clerical Libre Parole. The letter was confirmed in an article in the same paper three days later. It needed only this to set all the anti-semitism in Paris aflame. A cry arose against Mercier, War Minister. Why was he hushing this up? Why no Court-Martial? Because he was in league with Jewry to devitalise and humiliate France. Mercier's position was critical. Whether or not he really believed now in Dreyfus's guilt, he saw plainly that it was a matter either of Dreyfus's condemnation or his own. It would have needed a greater man than Mercier - a very great man - to do the right thing in those circumstances.

On November 28, Mercier told an interviewer that Dreyfus's guilt was definitely established. Attacks on Mercier ceased, and he was hailed by the nationalist press as the saviour of his country.

The Court-Martial was held in camera, despite the protests of counsel for the defence, Maitre Demange. The evidence produced against Dreyfus was negligible. There was the conflicting evidence of the writing experts, there were certain tales of moral delinquencies of Dreyfus that were sifted away until a solitary, fleeting, post-marital episode was left; there was the evidence of Henry, when called a second time. This all too dutiful soldier told how a certain exalted diplomatic personage had said to him in March and again in June that the traitor was in the Second Bureau of the General Staff (Dreyfus was employed there at the time). Commandant Henry, whose rustic manner and coarse appearance were misconstrued by the court as indicative of directness and honest good sense, impressed every one when asked to give the name of his informant. "There are certain secrets," he cried, "in an officer's head which his own cap must not learn." This happy phrase delivered with proper emphasis told for a moment. But when the Court withdrew to consider its findings, defending counsel congratulated Dreyfus, and reporters waiting outside were told there was hardly a chance of a conviction.

This was also the opinion of Colonel Picquart, who was watching the case for the Ministry of War. Colonel Picquart was to play an important part later on. Another man in court, whose abject part in the tragedy had begun already, did not share the general opinion. Commandant Henry, alone of those waiting in the Court room, knew what was being divulged behind the closed doors. He, alone, was not surprised when the judges returned and a pronouncement of guilty was made against the prisoner. The sentence was degradation and transportation for life.

A formal appeal was lodged and dismissed. Then a last effort was made by Du Paty de Clam to get a confession out of Dreyfus. But all the marquis's wheedling failed. He put before Dreyfus a choice between confession and a comparatively pleasant banishment and obduracy and a life dragged out in hell's torments. Always, Dreyfus, in his dogged, rather repelling manner, repeated: "I have nothing to confess. I have nothing with which to reproach myself, not even errors of judgment. I am innocent."

Du Paty de Clam, who may honestly have believed in Dreyfus's guilt, had to confess himself beaten. As he left the cell for the last time, the marquis turned on the threshold, and exclaimed: "Man, if you are innocent, you are the greatest martyr of all the centuries."

The degradation of Dreyfus took place on January 5, 1895, in the courtyard of the Ecole de Guerre on the Champ de Mars. Before Dreyfus was led on to the parade ground, he was questioned alone by Captain Lebrun-Renault, a bragging, stupid kind of soldier. Dreyfus told how Du Paty de Clam had tried to get a confession out of him, how the marquis had intimated that Dreyfus had, perhaps, only given unimportant information to Germany in order to procure vital data in exchange. It was typical of the whole affair, in which the chief anti-Dreyfusards appear as often as not stupid rather than deliberately villainous, that Lebrun-Renault took Dreyfus to mean he had actually conveyed information to Germany. His mistake led afterwards to a serious international crisis.

Lebrun-Renault next asked Dreyfus if he was going to speak during his degradation. "Yes," Dreyfus answered, "I will make a public declaration of my innocence." The Colonel wrote this statement down and had it conveyed to General Darras, who was in charge of the ceremony. Darras accordingly arranged for a roll of drums to be sounded whenever it was seen that Dreyfus was about to speak.

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