Thursday, January 05, 2006

"The Affair" - The Case of Alfred Dreyfus


"The Affair" - The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. In 1894, an low ranking French army officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. He was promptly sent to the infamous Devil's Island penal colony.

The only problem with this was that he was not guilty. Investigations by his brother and by members of the French Army revealed that he had been set-up and that the real spy was someone else. Further, the High Command of the French Army knew this and was actively engaged in the coverup.

It took until 1906 but Alfred Dreyfus was finally cleared of the charges. In the meantime, he went through years of hardship on Devil's Island and in France. In the end his commission was restored and he served with distinction in the First World War. He died in 1935.

This is a fascinating story and one that demonstrates that even democratic governments can engage in conspiracies that deprive the innocent of freedom.

From the site:

The Dreyfus case underscored and intensified bitter divisions within French politics and society. The fact that it followed other scandals - the Boulanger affair, the Wilson case, and the bribery of government officials and journalists that was associated with the financing of the Suez Canal - suggested that the young French Republic was in danger of collapse. The controversy involved critical institutions and issues, including monarchists and republicans, the political parties, the Catholic Church, the army, and strong anti-Semitic sentiment.

Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure captain in the French army, came from a Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that province in 1871. In 1894 papers discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attache made it appear that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus came under suspicion, probably because he was a Jew and also because he had access to the type of information that had been supplied to the German agent. The army authorities declared that Dreyfus' handwriting was similar to that on the papers. Despite his protestations of innocence he was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial, during which he was denied the right to examine the evidence against him. The army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped him off to [life imprisonment on] Devil's Island, a penal colony located off the coast of South America. The political right, whose strength was steadily increasing, cited Dreyfus' alleged espionage as further evidence of the failures of the Republic. Ãdouard Drumont's right-wing newspaper La Libre Parole intensified its attacks on the Jews, portraying this incident as further evidence of Jewish treachery.

Dreyfus seemed destined to die in disgrace. He had few defenders, and anti-Semitism was rampant in the French army. An unlikely defender came to his rescue, motivated not by sympathy for Dreyfus but by the evidence that he had been railroaded and that the officer who had actually committed espionage remained in position to do further damage. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, an unapologetic anti-Semite, was appointed chief of army intelligence two years after Dreyfus was convicted. Picquart, after examining the evidence and investigating the affair in greater detail, concluded that the guilty officer was a Major named Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart soon discovered, however, that the army was more concerned about preserving its image than rectifying its error, and when he persisted in attempting to reopen the case the army transferred him to Tunisia. A military court then acquitted Esterhazy, ignoring the convincing evidence of his guilt.

1 comment:

pk said...

Thank you for that. It is indeed a thoroughly fascinating Kafkaesque tale which I'd only really ever understood peripherally.

And I thought I was destined to go to my grave wondering where "J'accuse!" originated.

And thanks for the shoutout up above ... very honoured and amazed.