Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

By Louis Begley
Yale University Press. 272 pp. $24
Oct. 11, 2009

Chapter One

"if they haven't been ordered to convict him, he will be acquitted this evening"

At nine o'clock on Monday morning, October 15,1894, a French artillery officer serving as a trainee with the army's General Staff reported to the Ministry of War building on rue Saint-Dominique, in the aristocratic faubourg Saint-Germain of Paris, obeying an order delivered to his apartment the preceding Saturday. It had summoned officer trainees to an inspection by the General Staff. The morning hour was unusual; inspections routinely took place in the evening. So was the requirement that the officer be in mufti. To his surprise, on arrival he was met by Major Georges Picquart, who said he would escort him to the office of the chief, General Charles Le Mouton de Boisdeffre. The officer's surprise was compounded when he realized that neither the general nor any other officer trainee was present. Instead, he saw an officer who introduced himself as Major Armand Mercier du Paty de Clam and three unknown civilians. Du Paty explained that the generalwould be back shortly and, pleading injury to his right hand, asked the officer to take down a letter, which he dictated from a document that would soon become infamous as the bordereau (account). The letter finished, du Paty drew himself up to his considerable full height, put his hand on the officer's shoulder, and bellowed: "In the name of the law, I put you under arrest; you are accused of high treason." The civilians pounced on the officer and searched him.

The artillery officer was, of course, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who became in the decade that followed one of the best-known men in Europe, if not in the world. The three civilians were the chief of Sûreté générale, the police attached to the Ministry of the Interior, which was often entrusted with political tasks; his secretary; and Félix Gribelin, the archivist at the Section de statistique (Statistics Section), the intelligence and counterintelligence unit of the General Staff. Concealed behind a curtain and watching the proceedings was Major Joseph Henry, also of the Statistics Section. Henry took over after the arrest and escorted Dreyfus to the military prison on rue du Cherche-midi, a very long street on the Left Bank that stretches from the sixth to the fifteenth arrondissement.

So it happened that with only one exception the principal actors of the drama about to commence were all onstage for its first act. Missing was Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy. Also off-stage, but waiting in the wings, were the top brass: General Auguste Mercier, the minister of war; Boisdeffre; Arthur Gonse, deputy chief of staff; and Lieutenant Colonel Jean Sandherr, chief of the Statistics Section, who reported to Gonse. Over the course of the next five years, the three generals would inspire, encourage, dictate, and sanction by their authority the illegal and often bizarre actions of their subordinates.

The events leading up to the arrest have been related many times. On July 24, 1894, Major Esterhazy, a French officer, offered to sell important French military secrets to the German military attaché in Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen. Esterhazy was a descendant of the illegitimate French branch of the ancient and illustrious Austro-Hungarian family, which had never acknowledged the French offshoot. An amoral sociopath, Esterhazy lied, intrigued, and swindled obsessively. He was chronically in debt; his wife, a French aristocrat who had married him over the vehement objections of her family, had found it necessary to take legal measures to protect her small personal fortune from his depredations. Schwartzkoppen had hesitated about the wisdom of employing a French officer as a spy, but, concerned about important opportunities he might otherwise miss, he had consulted his superiors in Berlin. With their approval, he accepted Esterhazy's offer. According to Schwartzkoppen, in the course of an hour and a half's subsequent conversation at the embassy on September I, Esterhazy told him much that was of interest and gave him an artillery manual and memoranda he had written on the subject of the new short 120-millimeter cannon being developed by the French, French troop positions and modifications in the battle order of artillery units, and plans for the imminent invasion and colonization of Madagascar. The delivery of these documents was memorialized in the bordereau, which was unsigned and undated and written on onionskin paper. The reference to the 120-millimeter cannon was particularly important because a huge effort was being made by the French military to develop a weapon that would erase the advantage in artillery ordnance that had contributed to Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Shortly after its receipt by the attaché, the bordereau reached the Statistics Section through "la voie normale" (usual channel). This euphemism referred to Madame Marie Bastian, a cleaning woman at the German Embassy who was in the pay of the Section. One of her daily duties was to empty Schwartzkoppen's wastebasket and throw the contents into the furnace. Instead, she delivered any papers she found in it to a representative of the Statistics Section. Most frequently this was Major Henry, one of whose tasks was to deal regularly with the large and motley clan of corrupt servants, concierges, and double agents employed by the Section.

That had been as well the trajectory of the bordereau, which came into Henry's hands on September 26 along with a batch of other documents. It had been torn into pieces, but because it was in French-unlike most documents from Schwartzkoppen's wastebasket-Henry was able put it back together without the help of his German-speaking colleague Captain Jules Lauth. The bordereau's importance was apparent to him as soon as he had read it. The next day he showed the reconstituted document to his chief, Sandherr. The range of secrets being sold led Sandherr and his General Staff colleagues to assume that the traitor must be a knowledgeable insider working at the ministry. There had been other recent leaks of secrets that had seemed to emanate from there, and the Statistics Section had been investigating them without success. The bordereau underscored the vital importance of finding the traitor.

The new investigation was conducted with almost clownish incompetence. The handwriting on the bordereau was compared with the handwriting on other intercepted documents in the Section's files. It did not match any of them. What's more, none of the heads of the four General Staff departments recognized the handwriting as belonging to one of their junior officers. As a result, after a little over a week, the effort to identify the author of the bordereau was about to be abandoned. The situation changed dramatically on October 6 when, like a demon ex machina, Lieutenant Colonel Albert d'Aboville returned from vacation. Newly promoted, he was pleased with the opportunity to show off, and promptly announced that he had found the solution that had eluded his colleagues. It consisted in zeroing in on the profile of the culprit. According to d'Aboville, in order to be able to provide data relating to the cannon, the author had to be an artillery officer. Moreover, because of the variety of the other subjects enumerated in the bordereau, he had to be someone familiar with the entire spectrum of the General Staff's work. In d'Aboville's opinion, this narrowed the field to officer trainees because they rotated from department to department and became familiar with the work of each. Although cockily self-assured, d'Aboville was wrong: Esterhazy was an infantry officer serving with a line regiment whose knowledge of the subjects enumerated in the bordereau was limited and superficial. This had not deterred him from addressing them; he wrote well and with brio and was accustomed to making his readers think he knew more than he did.

A list of trainees was produced, and the name Dreyfus immediately stood out. As an artillery officer trainee, he fit d'Aboville's specifications. Moreover, both d'Aboville and his immediate superior, Colonel Pierre-Elie Fabre, knew Dreyfus and disliked him. Fabre, in fact, had recently given Dreyfus a negative review, in which he had recognized Dreyfus's intelligence and talent but condemned his pretentiousness, unsatisfactory attitude, and faults of character. A sample of Dreyfus's handwriting was called for: it seemed to those present to resemble the handwriting on the bordereau. The resemblance should not have been surprising; at that time the slanted, highly cursive script was taught at every school. Gonse and Boisdeffre were alerted, and Boisdeffre briefed the minister of war, General Mercier. Du Paty's interest in graphology was known to his colleagues on the General Staff, and he was asked for his views. After studying the handwritings over the weekend, du Paty confirmed the conclusion reached by the group: the handwritings were identical. Dreyfus was the traitor.

Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer trainee on the General Staff, was fated to be singled out. Anti-Semitism-of the traditional religious sort, as well as economic and racial-had reached an intensity never before experienced in France. Although they had maintained correct professional relations with Dreyfus, the officers preparing to accuse Dreyfus were anti-Semites. If only for that reason, they disliked him. At the same time it must be recognized that Sandherr, his colleagues, and their superiors were not inventing a crime or looking for a Jew to be the scapegoat. The bordereau was a real document, a real traitor was at work, and it was a routine counterintelligence task of the Statistics Section to find him. That is what these officers were attempting. The superficial resemblance between Esterhazy's and Dreyfus's handwritings was likewise real. But Dreyfus's being a Jew made it easier for his fellow officers to accuse him. He was not "one of them"; according to anti-Semitic propaganda, as a Jew he wasn't really French. Therefore the stain on the honor of the General Staff of treason having been committed by a French officer assigned to it would be avoided. Dreyfus's presence on the General Staff, even if only provisional, was an anomaly-and would have been such on the general staff of any European army. In the opinion of traditionalist officers, the unfortunate aberration went to prove that the modern recruiting reforms in the General Staff, modeled on the German practice of relying on competitive examinations, had been ill advised. Under the cooptation system previously in use, a Jewish officer would never have been admitted into the precincts of the General Staff or have had the opportunity to spy on its work.

A little over a week after Dreyfus's arrest, which was still being kept secret, Sandherr visited Maurice Paléologue at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring him confidentially up to date on the most sensitive matter then being dealt with by the Statistics Section, one which had already given rise to a good deal of gossip. Paléologue was a young diplomat-he was twenty-seven at the time-with the rank of embassy secretary. He was attached to the ministry's own Intelligence Section and was the de facto representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Statistics Section and, more generally, to the General Staff. Descended from the Paléologue emperors of Byzantium, he occupied a brilliant position in Parisian society that made it possible for him to be on terms of easy friendship with his minister, the president of the republic, and many other much older men in positions of power. Paléologue kept ajournal in which he recorded Sandherr's remarks: "The officer charged with treason is a Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who has just finished a long training period in the various departments of the General Staff. That is why he could obtain so much information. In addition, his indiscreet curiosity, his constant snooping, his air of mystery, and finally his false and conceited character, 'in which one recognizes all the pride and all the ignominy of his race,' have made him suspect for a long time."

The statement that Dreyfus had been under suspicion before the discovery of the bordereau and the comparison of handwritings was an outright fabrication and illustrates the effort Sandherr and his cohort had made-and would continue to make-to validate retrospectively the charge of treason and fit Dreyfus into an anti-Semitic stereotype. The prejudice against Dreyfus, on the other hand, was real and explains why the case against him was mishandled. If Dreyfus had been a typical General Staff officer-a Catholic and an offshoot of a military or aristocratic family or a member of the solid Catholic or Protestant bourgeoisie-considerably more objective and expert scrutiny of the two handwritings, as well as a motive for the crime, would have been required before he was charged. But Dreyfus's accusers could say to themselves that he was a man without a country and, like all Jews, a traitor by nature.

The two months that preceded the trial were spent by the Statistics Section in a sometimes frantic and generally frustrating attempt to strengthen the case against Dreyfus. To the intense annoyance of the minister, General Mercier, the in-house expert employed by the Banque de France whom the Ministry consulted gave as his opinion that despite the similarities in handwriting the bordereau could have been written by someone other than Dreyfus. Alphonse Bertillon, chief of the Identification Department of the Judicial Police, whose opinion was also sought, propounded an elaborate theory of self-forgery to explain dissimilarities between the handwritings, which were both Dreyfus's: Dreyfus, he held, had altered his handwriting on purpose, copying in certain instances the handwriting of others. Of the three additional experts also consulted, all qualified to give testimony before courts, two declared that the handwriting was Dreyfus's and one that it was not. Mercier was so pleased with Bertillon's work that he arranged for him to explain his system to Jean Casimir-Perier, the president of the republic. After the visit, Casimir-Perier confided to Paléologue that this expert was not simply bizarre, he was mad: a fugitive from an insane asylum. It is difficult to believe that the president, holding that view, would have remained passive if the life of a non-Jewish officer had been at stake. The dissenting views of the Banque de France expert and of one of the experts retained subsequently did not give Mercier pause. He became convinced that Dreyfus was guilty within days after receiving du Paty's report, and his conviction remained unshakeable.

Mercier's decision to prosecute Dreyfus was not universally welcomed in the highest echelons of the government and the army. As military governor of Paris and vice president of the Conseil supérieur de guerre, General Félix Saussier was the highest-ranking French army officer. He deplored the effect on the army of accusing an officer of treason and had doubts about Dreyfus's guilt. Nevertheless, when his approval was required for the prosecution to go forward, he signed the necessary papers. Again according to Paléologue, Saussiersubsequentlyshared with Casimir-Perier his view that Dreyfus was not guilty; Mercier had once again shot himself in the foot. When asked by the president why, in that case, he had issued the order sending Dreyfus before the court-martial, he replied that the report on the investigation had left him no alternative, and besides it didn't matter-the military judges who heard the case would decide it fairly and justly. Saussier had previously advised Mercier that it might be wiser to send Dreyfus to Africa, where the French army was engaged in frequent skirmishes with hostile tribes, in the hope that he would be killed there. The minister's retort was that he would more likely come back with a promotion. Gabriel Hanotaux, the minister of foreign affairs, was also opposed to the prosecution. He feared the diplomatic consequences of revealing that an agent of the Statistics Section had been stealing documents from the German embassy and publicizing the fact that Schwartzkoppen, a German Imperial Guard officer and an accredited diplomat, was engaged in spying. Hanotaux's concerns were so strong that, at his insistence, the prime minister, Charles Dupuy, likewise of two minds about the case, made Mercier promise not to proceed with the case unless additional proof of guilt were obtained.


Excerpted from WHY THE DREYFUS AFFAIR MATTERS by Louis Begley Copyright © 2009 by Louis Begley. Excerpted by permission.
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