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Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus




Alfred DreyfusSome men have greatness thrust upon them. If the proof of greatness consists in having ones name made familiar throughout the world, Captain Alfred Dreyfus has attained this eminence. The trials through which he has passed have been the latest test of French civilization, of the French sense of justice, of the capability of the French people for self-government. The courts martial to which he was subjected have been shown to be a travesty of justice. The boasted motto of the republic-" Liberty, Equality, Fraternity "-is a hollow sham. Yet, thanks to the power of the opinion of the civilized world, the unfortunate victim, after degradation and five years' torture, has been permitted to escape.


Alfred Dreyfus was born in Alsace of a wealthy Jewish family. It has sometimes been said that he was originally a Protestant but this error arose from his statement at his trial that his father was an Alsatian protestant. Meaning one who protested against the annexation of Alsace to Germany in 1871. All the family adhered to France, and Alfred regularly entered the French military service. The army has always been strongly imbued with Catholic feeling and is prejudiced against Jews. Under the republic the youth of the Bonapartist and royalist families have eagerly sought military positions to testify their devotion to their country, and have avoided civil office. :Many of them are violent Anti-Semites, and others are unwilling to associate with Jews. Dreyfus was studious and ambitious, inquisitive and taciturn. When it was believed that information about secret military matters was being communicated to Germany, the unpopular Jew was at once suspected of being the medium.


In October, 1894, Captain Dreyfus was arrested secretly on the charge of having furnished to a foreign government information about French military secrets. This charge was based on a bordereau which had been stolen from the wastebasket of the German embassy in Paris. Out of five experts in examining handwriting, two declared it not to be the writing of Dreyfus, th ree declared it written by him in a disguised hand. A bordereau is a list or statement of articles furnished. In this case the bordereau enumerated several items of information about shells, tactics, mobilization of troops and other military matters, and offered to supply more if called for. It subsequently appeared that other documents were shown to the court martial without the knowledge of the prisoner. This was done on the plea of keeping them concealed from foreign governments. Colonel du Paty de Clam had intimidated Madame Dreyfus into silence about her husband's arrest, so that two weeks had passed before the public knew that an officer was under trial. On December 22d the prisoner, who had constantly professed his innocence, was condemned to degradation from the army and to perpetual imprisonment. General Mercier, the Minister of War, controlled the proceedings of the court. On January 15, 1894. Dreyfus was publicly degraded, his epaulets being torn from his shoulders and his sword broken in the presence of his fellow-soldiers. He was transported to the Isle du Diable (Devil's Island), a barren, hot, unhealthy place, about 100 miles from the coast of French Guiana, where he was confined in a spacious wrought-iron cage. His guard of veteran soldiers were forbidden to speak to him. This cruel barbarity the persecuted victim endured for five years.


But his brave wife, instead of dying of a broken heart, sought to secure her husband'::,. vindication. His brother Mathieu also exerted himself to ascertain the truth of the mysterious case, and spent half his fortune in the investigation. They came to the conclusion that Major Walzin Esterhazy, a man of distinguished family, but of personally bad character, had written the bordereau. Mathieu Dreyfus made this charge publicly in November, 1897, and on the 28th of that mouth the Figaro published fac-similes of Esterhazy's letters to Mme. de Boulancy, showing the similarity of the handwriting to that of the bordereau. There had been also some investigations made in the war office by Colonel Pic· quart, who was connected with the general staff and had become chief of the secret intelligence office. His inquiries convinced him that some of the documents which had been regarded as the most unquestionable proofs against Dreyfus were forgeries and that others were in the handwriting of Esterhazy. But his superiors were offended at his suggestions, and he was ordered to Algeria out of the way. He was succeeded by Colonel Henry, a more pliable officer. M. Scheurer-Kestner, vice-president of the Senate and a man of the highest probity, then told other officials that he was convinced of the innocence of Dreyfus. The question was brought up in the Chamber of Deputies all December 4, 1897, and General Billot, Minister of War, declared" on his soul and conscience ,. that Dreyfus had been legally and justly condemned.


When the agitation for and against revision became violent towards the close of 1897, Premier Meline and General Billot declared that the matter was chose jugee a thing decided, not subject to appeal unless new evidence should be discovered. They denounced those who discussed the case as attacking the honor of the army. Some of the leaders of the army had attached special importance to letters of Colonel Von Schwarzkoppen, the German attached , to Colonel Panizzardi, which referred to the" canaille de D." as having furnished plans of a French fortress, and mentioned that D. had brought" a number of very interesting things." It was also charged that Dreyfus had, on the day of his degradation, confessed to Captain Lebrun-Renaud that if he had handed over documents to a foreigner it was in order to get more important ones in return. This, however, Dreyfus denied on his later trial, claiming that his words had been misunderstood. In fact Captain Lebrun-Renaud, at the time, told his superior officer that Dreyfus would not confess. At the end of 1897 all who were opposed to the Republic, on whatever grounds, whether Monarchists, Bonapartists, Clericals or Socialists, all who looked to the army to restore to France a strong, authoritative government, were united in declaring Dreyfus guilty.


Nevertheless the charges against the villainous Esterhazy had been so constantly repeated that it was found unavoidable to bring him before a court marshal. His character and circumstances had shown him to be a more likely subject for treasonable practices under pecuniary temptation, than Dreyfus, and his handwriting was remarkably like that of the bordereau. Picquart had made this discovery and while: he was away in Africa attempts were made to implicate him in dishonest efforts to blast Esterhazy's character. However, Esterhazy was brought to trial in January, 1898, and after a brief session he was acquitted. The Parisian public were already excited over the case, but the excitement was intensified to fever heat when the great novelist Zola came to the front with his famous letter to Presideut Faure. It began with the words, "J'accuse" (I accuse) and charged Lieutenant colonel du Paty de Clam and other high army officials with lying, perjury and the grossest injustice in the condemnation of Captain Dreyfus, and demanded for him a new trial. It also declared that the second court martial acquitted a guilty man at the bidding of superior officers. Zola's bold step had been taken to secure an opportunity to bring before a civil court the evidence which had been collected. But when Zola was tried for criminal libel he was not permitted to introduce this evidence. The whole trial was a travesty of justice. The generals in full uniform menaced the judges and threatened to resign if Zola should be acquitted. Being adjudged guilty, Zola was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a fine of 3000 francs. The public received the result with frantic delight. Zola, however, appealed and when the court at Versailles condemned him again, in July, he left France.


But in the trial in February Colonel Picquart declared that in the secret dossier bundle of official papers communicated to the court martial there was at least one forged document. In June the ministry of M. Meline fell, and M. Brisson formed a new cabinet, with M. Cavaignac as minister of war. In July Cavaignac made a public declaration of the guilt of Dreyfus, basing this belief on a certain document. But on the next day Colonel Picquart wrote to M. Brisson, offering to prove that the document cited was a forgery. He also fought a duel with Colonel Henry and wounded him, but refused to fight with Esternazy as being a traitor. After further agitation Colonel Henry was arrested in August, and confessed that he had forged the document by order of his superior officers in order to fasten the guilt on Dreyfus, whom they regarded as a traitor. Henry then committed suicide, and on the same day General Boisdeffre resigned as chief of the general staff. A few days later Cavaignac, feeling that he had been entrapped by the deception of his subordinates, resigned the war portfolio. Colonel Picquart was imprisoned for a time on charges of slander, but was finally released. His probity has become conspicuous as the drama has advanced. Esterhazy, who had fled from France, now confessed that he had written the bordereau.


On September 5,1898, Madame Dreyfus wrote to the minister of justice, appealing for a revision of her husband's case. General Zurlinden, the new minister of war, opposed it, and when the cabinet agreed to grant it, if legal complications would permit, resigned his place. The cabinet wished to refer the question of revision to the criminal section of the Court of Cassation, the highest tribunal in France, but the consent of the Chamber of Deputies must be obtained. More than one cabinet was formed and resigned, before this could be accomplished. At last on February 10, 1899, the examination of the Dreyfus case with a view to revision was committed to the full Court of Cassation. On June 4th the president of that court, M. Ballot-Beaupre, reviewed the findings of the court-martial of December, 1894, and declared them contrary to justice. They were therefore annulled, and the accused captain was ordered to appear before a new court-martial to meet at Renues. On June 6th Dreyfus left Guiana for France, knowing but little of what had been done for or against him during his absence. He even ascribed his release to General Boisdeffre, who had been one of the most active of his persecutors. Before he arrived in France a new cabinet had been formed under M. Waldeck-Rosseau, with General de Gallifet as minister of war. The latter is a royalist in sentiment but was favorable to revision of the Dreyfus case. The other members of the cabinet are pronounced republicans.


Captain Dreyfus was landed in France with great secrecy and was taken to Reunes on July 1st. He wore a captain's undress uniform. He was worn and wasted with his fearful sufferings, and on account of his weak health was confined to a milk diet, yet he was cheered by the presence of his wife and brother, and was encouraged by Messieurs Demange and Labori, the lawyers who had undertaken his defense in the new ordeal. This trial began on August 7th before seven officers, the president being Colonel Jouaust Rennes, once the capital of the province of Brittany, is a picturesque, sleepy old town, still dominated by the royalist and Catholic traditions of the past. Here there was little likelihood of the invasion or demonstrations of republican or socialist mobs. Whatever feeling might be manifested would probably be adverse to the prisoner. When the trial began in the old court-house four generals occupied prominent positions in front of the court From first to last they showed their approval or disapproval of the proceedings, interrupted the witnesses, and silently directed the judges; there were also a large number of journalists from America as well as from all parts of Europe. By their full reports the whole world was admitted to the solemn trial on which the fate not merely of the accused, but of the French government, might depend. The determination of the army to secure a second conviction was evident throughout the proceedings. The witnesses for the prosecution were encouraged, while those for the defense were rebuked. But the bold Labori was persistent in his severe cross-examination, and exposed the falsehood and malice of the witnesses against Dreyfus. When the success of his efforts began to be manifest, the pistol of the assassin was employed to remove him. He was shot early in the morning when he had just left his lodgings, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to carry off the papers he was carrying. Though severely wounded he recovered rapidly and was able to resume his labors in court. The trial lasted over a month. The hopes of the friends of Dreyfus were at times raised high, for the evidence against him seemed futile and worthless. The generals and their allies, however, by furious declamation and assertion of their belief, tried to make up for the missing proofs. Towards the end it became evident that they had succeeded. M. Labori made a last desperate effort to obtain testimony from the Emperor of Germany and the King of Italy that their governments had had no intercourse with Dreyfus at any time, but these sovereigns could not interfere in matters of the internal government of France. Their foreign ministers had already made, as far as possible, official and unofficial declarations of the innocence of Dreyfus. Once again official denial was made in the newspapers of his being known as a spy or secret agent, but the court took no notice of this declaration. On September 9th Captain Dreyfus was again convicted of communicating important secret information to a foreign power. As the vote stood five for conviction and two for acquittal, the full penalty of twenty years' imprisonment was not inflicted. The period of ten years was adjudged sufficient, the ceremony of degradation was remitted, and the members of the court also joined in a recommendation of the prisoner to mercy.


There had been fears that if the trial were concluded on Saturday, there would be a riotous outbreak in Paris on Sunday. But the news was received without excitement. Throughout the wide world the sentence was almost unanimously condemned as contrary to the evidence and facts of the case. The Minister of War, in announcing the result to the army, declared It The incident is closed. n But the President and Cabinet found it prudent to pardon the twice-convicted defendant. He was released on Wednesday, September 20th, and went with his faithful wife to the south of France to recuperate after his fearful sufferings. He still asserted his determination to strive for the restoration of his honor.


The world has not yet rendered its final verdict on the amazing conduct of the French people and government in this memorable case.

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