In a disconcerting manner, the Dreyfus case in France almost one hundred twenty years ago remains pertinent given our own opaque actions of government under the pretext of national security and the national interest. What is ironic is that the chief actors in the Dreyfus drama- the double agents, perfidious generals, conniving politicians, and anti-Semites posing as patriots are still around on the political scene…
Ultranationalist and Catholic fanatics called for a massacre of the Jews to avenge their martyrs blood; anti-Semitic mobs in Algeria had already begun sacking and killing without waiting for the pretext. A harebrained nationalist agitator, Paul Deroulede, tried to lead the army into a coup d’etat on the occasion of President Felix Faure’s funeral; the new president of the Republic, Emile Loubet, was assaulted while at the races.
By the time the French court of appeals had set aside Dreyfus’s conviction and a new military court had been convened- the trial opened in Rennes, as far away as possible from the mobs of the capital, on August 7,1899- the generals gad regained their nerve. Dreyfus, tragically aged by his ordeal, remained as wooden and unconvincing as ever in affirming his innocence. Gen. Auguste Mercier, cool, trim, and soldierly, asserted his own innocence with authority.
The former war minister completely dominated the proceedings, visibly awing the judges with his personality, rank, and prestige. He repeated all the old lies and added one astonishing new one. Directly contradicting the testimony of Casimir-Perier, who had been president at the beginning of the affair, Mercier swore that in January, 1895, the announcement of a visit from the German ambassador had prompted the president to warn him, Mercier, to hold himself ready in case a general mobilization had to be ordered in the next few hours. At the origin of this narrowly averted international crisis, he hinted, was an unmentionable matter relating to the affair; the imaginary dispatch from Wilhelm II once more.
The ultimate issue, in the eyes of the Rennes judges, was the same as it had been in Paris five years before. Either Dreyfus was lying, or Mercier was. And generals don’t lie. Mercier told the court,” You will have to choose between me, your former War Minister… and this Jewish captain…” Dreyfus was once again found guilty of treason, though the court, out of compassion, reduced his sentence to ten years’ detention in France. ( to be continued)…
(see link at end)… Many on the anti-Dreyfusard side were prepared to admit, sotto voce, that the case against Dreyfus was not very strong. But, given that Germany posed an existential threat to France, an attack on the French Army was an attack on the nation’s future. The same forces of reform that had opened the Army to Dreyfus and raised it to a national sacre were now conspiring to keep him locked up. That was the heart of the affair, and of Mathieu’s dilemma; he had to find a way to liberate his brother without challenging the honor of the Army—which was, despite it all, still as sacred to his brother as to everyone else.
The unmaking of the Dreyfus case is a very long story—so complex, and taking place at such a snail’s pace and in such wayward directions, that almost no one has ever been able to relate it simply. Essentially what happened is that the evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence that Mathieu unearthed became too overwhelming to deny, and progressive politicians came into power who were ready to act on that evidence. There were nearly as many reversals as advances. A lieutenant colonel, Georges Picquart, was put in charge of the Statistique, and soon realized, thanks to an intercepted telegram, that Esterhazy was the real culprit. When he announced this in a report, he was promptly cashiered and transferred to the fringes of empire by panicked superiors, and then imprisoned on trumped-up charges of revealing other secrets. (Picquart is one of the truly admirable figures in the story—anti-Semitic by inclination and background, he was a friend of Mahler, and, above all, a dutiful officer, who had followed the facts, despite the consequences.) Meanwhile, another member of the Statistique, Joseph Henry, began to forge, crudely, new documents that p
ed to Dreyfus—though it’s unclear whether he did this in conspiracy with Esterhazy or out of a conviction that Dreyfus was guilty and a feeling that it did no harm to put a thumb on the scale of justice.