Manifestations of public delirium. A delusive dread of subversion turning into mass paranoia. An invisible enemy and a demonic skill in manipulating the channels of communication. The ghosts of the Dreyfus Affair are still with us, its residue a festering abscess that still poisons democracy and abets a mob mentality among millions of normally decent and sane people…
There remains some uncertainty as to exactly when the case did start. A cone of darkness still lies at its center, despite a great deal of patient research during the past fifty years and some new discoveries. If it can be said, as John Lukacs asserts, that all history is revisionism in some guise, then the origin of the Dreyfus trail may have begun with the German historian Siegfried Thalheimer, who advanced the controversial thesis that the affair was an anti-Jewish plot likely conceived during the summer of 1894, when some unidentified member of Col. Sandherr’s cloak and dagger agency happened to read a serial in Le Petit Journal, a mass circulation Parisian daily.
The fictitious story concerned a French officer falsely accused of having betrayed his country under circumstances astonishingly like those responsible for the real-life persecution a few months later of Capt. Dreyfus. Certainly, it would be appropriate if what was to become an official lie had begun as penny fiction.
Administratively, the Dreyfus Affair began on the morning of September 27, 1894, when the records officer of the Statistical Section logged in a piece of paper handed him by Col. Henry. The paper, since known in French history as the bordereau, was a partly torn sheet of onionskin, on which an unknown hand had written in ink an undated, unsigned message of several paragraphs. The contents indicated that it had been intended as a covering note to go with several documents involving French military secrets of the highest importance. Very much later, it was found that the data in question was of little value to a potential enemy.
According to the official version-challenged by some historians, but as yet never wholly disproved- Henry had received the bordereau the day before from one of his agents, a charwoman employed at the German embassy. His story was that she had found it in the wastebasket of the military attache, Col. Max von Schwartzkoppen, who later declared that he had never seen it. Because several memorandums mentioned in the bordereau dealt with subjects on which high level staff work had recently been done, and because they were mistakenly thought to contain information not available at any lower level, Henry and his chief, Col. Sandherr, concluded that its author must be an officer on the army’s general staff. ( to be continued)…
(see link at end)…The apparently gentile Proust, who had campaigned for Dreyfus and had been baptized Catholic, was a sort of modern Esther.
Despite Proust’s silences and lapses on the subject of his mother’s religion, it would be unfair, especially in light of the rampant anti-Semitism of turn-of-the-century France, to say that he was unique or even extreme in his prejudice against Jews. And yet his anti-Semitism is more than curious, given his love for his mother and given, after her death, something very much like a religious cult that he developed around her. His mother, out of respect for her parents, had remained faithful to their religion, and Proust revered her and her relatives; after her death he regretted that he was too ill to visit her grave and the graves of her parents and uncle i
e Jewish cemetery and to mark each visit with a stone. More important, although he had many friends among the aristocracy whom he had assiduously cultivated, nevertheless when he was forced to take sides during the Dreyfus Affair, which had begun in 1894 and erupted in 1898, he chose to sign a petition prominently printed in a newspaper calling for a retrial.
The Dreyfus Affair is worth a short detour, since it split French society for many years and it became a major topic in proust’s life–and in Remembrance of Things Past. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jew and a captain in the French army. In December 1894 he was condemned by a military court for having sold military secrets to the Germans and was sent for life to Devil’s Island. The accusation was based on the evidence of a memorandum stolen from the German embassy in Paris (despite the fact that the writing did not resemble Dreyfus’s) and of a dossier (which was kept classified and secret) handed over to the military court by the minister of war. In 1896 another French soldier, Major Georges Picquart, proved that the memorandum had been written not by Dreyfus but by a certain Major Marie Charles Esterhazy. Yet Esterhazy was acquitted and Picquart was imprisoned. Instantly a large part of the population called for a retrial of Dreyfus. On January 13, 1898, the writer Emile Zola published an open letter, “J’accuse,” directed against the army’s general staff; Zola was tried and found guilty of besmirching the reputation of the army. He was forced to flee to England. Then in September 1898 it was proved that the only piece of evidence against Dreyfus in the secret military dossier had been faked by Joseph Henry, who confessed his misdeed and committed suicide. At last the government ordered a retrial of Dreyfus. Public opinion was bitterly divided between the leftist Dreyfusards, who demanded “justice and truth,” and the anti-Dreyfusards, who led an anti-Semitic campaign, defended the honor of the army, and rejected the call for a retrial. The conflict led to a virtual civil war. In 1899 Dreyfus was found guilty again, although this time under extenuating circumstances–and the president pardoned him. Only in 1906 was Dreyfus fully rehabilitated, named an officer once again, and decorated with the Legion of Honor. Interestingly, Theodor Herzl, the Paris correspondent for a Viennese newspaper, was so overwhelmed by the virulent anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair that he was inspired by the prophetic idea of a Jewish state.
In defending Dreyfus, Proust not only angered conservative, Catholic, pro-army aristocrats, but he also alienated his own father. In writing about the 1890s in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust remarks that “the Dreyfus case was shortly to relegate the Jews to the lowest rung of the social ladder.” Typically, the ultraconservative Gustave Schlumberger, a great Byzantine scholar, could give in his posthumous memoirs as offensive a description of his old friend Charles Haas (a model for Proust’s character Swann) as this: “The delightful Charles Haas, the most likeable and glittering socialite, the best of friends, had nothing Jewish about him except his origins and was not afflicted, as far as I know, with any of the faults of his race, which makes him an exception virtually unique.” Read More:http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/w/white-proust.html