The Cavalry of Sodom vs the Pornographic Pig

The Dreyfus Affair 

Sentenced for a crime his superiors knew he did not commit, the case of Captain Dreyfus tore France apart and left France with a stain still not eradicated a century later.

“Degrading an innocent man”

Early on Saturday, 13 October 1894, 35 year-old Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a junior army officer, received orders at his home in the Avenue du Trocadero in Paris to report in civilian dress to the ministry of war.

He was met by Colonel Georges Picquart, chief of the Section de Statistique (Statistics Office, France’s military counter-spy service), and taken to meet a solemn, uniformed officer, Major du Paty de Clam. Dreyfus was asked to write a letter, du Paty dictating, that contained the phrase: “A note about the hydraulic brake on the 120 cannon”.

Halfway through the dictation, du Paty asked: "Is something the matter, Captain? You’re trembling!" As Dreyfus explained that it was winter and his fingers were cold, Du Paty grabbed his shoulder and shouted: "In the name of the law, I arrest you for high treason”.

Dreyfus was court-martialled in secret, convicted and sentenced to deportation. On 5 January 1895, he was brought into the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire (Staff College) before a full parade of his fellow officers. Watched by a mob screaming “Judas” and “Death to the Jews!”, the buttons and epaulets of his uniform were ripped off and his sword was broken. 

As he was marched off to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island, he only said: "You are degrading an innocent man! Long live France! Long live the army!"

Spy Mania

Before Dreyfus’ arrest, the most valued asset of the Section de Statistique was a cleaning lady, Madame Bastion. 

Every Tuesday and Thursday, she cleaned the German Embassy. More importantly, she passed over anything she found in the the wastepaper basket of the military attache, Colonel Maximillian Von Schwartzkoppen, who also acted as German spy chief in Paris.

In 1894, she found an anonymous, hand-written letter which came to be known as the "bordereau”. Written on thin blue paper, it was from a spy operating at a high level in the the French army and included the words: “A note about the hydraulic brake on the 120 canon”. Schwartzkoppen, not exactly James Bond, had torn it up and binned it.

Bastion gave the letter to her control, Major Hubert-Joseph Henry. For reasons only to become clear later, Henry kept the letter for some months before showing it to a superior, who happened to be Colonel Fabre. Like many of the strongly Catholic, highly conservative officer corps who wanted a return to the monarchy rather than the existing republic, Fabre was an anti-semite. He suggested that the handwriting of “the bordereau” was like that of a trainee general staff officer officer whom he disliked, Captain Dreyfus. He mentioned that Dreyfus was Jewish. “I might have known,” replied Major Henry. Dreyfus was then arrested.

Almost by accident, Dreyfus got caught up in the army’s machinery. Handwriting specialists were called in, including an expert from the Banque de France. They agreed the writing was not Dreyfus’. It was no good. The general staff under Minister for War, General Auguste Mercier, had already begun leaking details to the right-wing press which was delighted at winkling out a Jewish traitor in the ranks of the French army. 

That there was no evidence against Dreyfus was immaterial. At the secret trial, du Paty testified that the expert graphologists were simply wrong while Henry, the chief witness, kissed a crucifix to prove his sincerity and swore that the defendant had been identified by another of his agents “whom I cannot name”. He pointed at Dreyfus and said, "And here is that very traitor”.

Dreyfus was convicted by unanimous decision. He had to be. The army had spun itself into a corner. As one pro-army editorial in the newpaper L’Autorité made plain: "If Dreyfus is acquitted, no punishment would be too severe for Mercier.”


Marooned on Devil’s Island, Dreyfus did not know his case was causing storms in France as an unlikely ally appeared. Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the same counter-intelligence service that arrested Dreyfus, had continued his investigations.

Picquart was a strong anti-semite and pro-monarchist. He was also a professional and concerned that even though the “traitor” had been dealt with, French secrets were still leaking to Schwartzkoppen. 

Capturing one communication, he immediately saw that the handwriting was the same as that of the “bordereau” with similar spelling and grammatical mistakes. Everything matched the style of Major Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, an infantry major of Hungarian family.

A gambler, a boozer and constantly in debt, Esterhazy had been attached to the French intelligence service. Unusually for a French officer, Esterhazy was loudly pro-German in his opinions which, equally unusually for an intelligence officer, he compulsively wrote down. (Piquart, following his paper trail, got his hands on one letter to a girlfriend in which Esterhazy had written: “What a sad figure these people would make under a blood-red sun over the battle-field, Paris taken by storm and given up to the pillage of a hundred thousand drunken soldiers! That is the fate that I long for!")

Picquart took his suspicions to the army general staff. Reviewing the new evidence, the generals acted at once: in Septermber 1896, they fired Picquart from his position and posted him to far-away Tunisia. Major Henry, promoted to lieutenant-colonel, took his job.

Picquart might have been out of the picture but, before he left, he handed over his findings to Dreyfus’ brother Mathieu. He had never given up hope. He had posters pasted across Paris carrying photographs of the “bordereau” side-by-side with the new spy communication. People could see for themselves that the handwriting was identical.

By now Esterhazy was being mentioned in the press. He demanded a court-martial for himself to clear his name. It took less than three minutes to acquit him. The judges were particularly impressed by a new dossier put together by Henry that contained new, absolutely cast-iron evidence against Dreyfus which could not be released to the public for reasons of state security.

“I Accuse...”

By 1898, four years after the original trial, France was in uproar, divided between anti-Dreyfusards, mostly right-wingers and the Catholic church who imagined some vast Jewish conspiracy to destablise the army, and Dreyfusards, left-wing republicans who wanted to purge the army of political enemies and break the ties between church and state.

As newspapers launched vicious attacks on each other and fistfights broke out in France’s National Assembly, the writer Emile Zola published an open letter in the newspaper L’Aurore to the President Felix Faure accusing the government, the army and the church of conspiring to keep Dreyfus on Devil’s Island.

Tying together all the threads, Zola’s letter, entitled J’Accuse... (I Accuse...) unleashed chaos. Anti-semitic riots broke in Nantes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Tours and Toulouse which saw Dreyfus burned in effigy and Jewish businesses besieged. In French-held Morocco, the authorities turned a blind eye to attacks on synagogues and the stoning to death of worshippers.

To calm the country, a senior government minister read out a letter from the Dreyfus dossier supplied by Henry. This damning evidence was intended to silence the Dreyfusards once and for all.

Colonel Picquart happened to read the letter in the newspapers. He was baffled. If anyone knew the contents of the dossier, it was Picquart. He recognised instantly that it was a forgery and he informed the newspapers.

“A Patriotic Forgery”

Now came the most bizarre twist of all. Colonel Henry had led the Dreyfus investigation from the start and, with his former superior sent off to the desert, he now controlled the dossier. 

What only became clear after Picquart raised the alarm was that Henry knew the real spy, Major Esterhazy very well. They had worked together in the Section de Statistique. Not only were the two men close friends but Esterhazy was in the habit of lending Henry money. As the Dreyfusards applied pressure, Henry had asked Esterhazy for help to clear his name and, at the same time, take the heat off Henry. Esterhazy had promptly forged some “evidence” incrminating Dreyfus and Henry put it in the dossier.

Now the only thing to do was shut Picquart up. Henry challenged him to a duel. In a nice touch, Picquart won, skewering Henry through the arm. Esterhazy also challenged Picquart but was refused with contempt. "That man," said Picquart, "belongs to the justice of his country.”

Justice came swifty but from the wrong direction. It was Picquart who was put on trial, for “revealing military secrets”. His lawyers, backed by Dreyfusard journalists, turned the tables, proving beyond doubt that Esterhazy was not only a spy but that Henry, the head of the French counter-intelligence service, had schemed with him to fabricate evidence against Dreyfus. Now it was all in the open.

One step ahead of the gendarmes, Esterhazy took the next steamer to England where he stayed until he died in 1935. Henry was arrested and imprisoned in Mont Valérien military prison. The next day,while shaving, he cut his own throat. The army chief of staff resigned and then finally the whole government. A new cabinet was formed of moderate republicans, some known to be Dreyfusard.

At last, they ordered that Dreyfus himself, still rotting on Devil’s Island, be recalled to Paris for a new court-martial. In an atmosphere charged with tension (his defence lawyer was shot in the back outside the courtroom by an unknown anti-Dreyfusard), the now white-haired and broken Dreyfus made his case before the court-martial in Rennes.

On 9 September, true to form, the panel of army judges delivered their verdict. Dreyfus was still guilty. Because of “extenuating circumstances” that they did not explain, the judges reduced his sentence from “life” to only “ten years imprisonment”.

After The Affair

Dreyfus did not stay in jail long. Ten days after his trial, he was granted a presidential pardon. Only in 1906, was the Rennes verdict overturned and Dreyfus declared innocent of all the charges against him.

L’Affaire” (The Affair), as it is still known in France, did not fade away as its main characters grew old and died. Its echoes still reverberate in France today.

Its immediate effect was to unite and bring the French political left wing to power. The Dreyfusards gleefully purged the army of monarchist and conservative officers, reducing its size by 75,000 just as the First World War approached. All ties between the French state and the Catholic Church were ended (14,000 church schools were closed down).

The anti-Dreyfusards bided their time. During the 1930s, their political descendants organised into far-right, fascist parties like Action Française (French Action). When the Germans invaded, they enthusiastically collaborated to stamp out their rivals. Left-wing intellectuals were assassinated by the Milice (the Vichy police) and others put under house arrest. Jewish Dreyfusards were put on through-trains to the death camps. 

In turn, the left-wingers got their own back after 1944, getting the National Writers’ Committee to blacklist their old enemies and putting collaborator anti-Dryfusards on trial. One of them, the 77-year-old writer Charles Maurras, who had invented the theory of “the patriotic forgery”, was dragged from the dock to serve his sentence of life imprisonment for collaboration, screaming: "C'est la revanche de Dreyfus!" (“It's Dreyfus' revenge”).

In 1985, the French Ministry of Culture commissioned a statue of Dreyfus. What followed was comical, as a game of pass-the-statue was played out. It took almost three years to agree where it would be placed. The obvious site, the Ecole Militaire where Dreyfus was publicly was rejected by the army. The Ecole Polytechnique, which Dreyfus attended, was rejected by the ministry of the interior. Finally, the statue was erected in 1988 in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

In February 2002, Reuters news agency reported that the statue had been vandalised. Witnesses said a yellow star of David had been painted over the plaque at the foot of the statue, which had "Dirty Jew" scrawled on it.


“Double Shackles”: At every stop of the sealed train taking Dreyfus to Marseilles, lynch mobs gathered. At the port, though in chains, Dreyfus was punched in the face by an officer in view of a cheering crowd.

He was transported to the Iles du Salut off the coast of French Guiana and placed on Devil’s Island in the middle of a yellow fever swamp.

The government ordered that Dreyfus be kept in especially harsh conditions. He was kept in a small hut (only four cubic metres) specially built for him and surrounded by a fifteen foot high wall. To ensure that he did not kill himself and cheat French justice, an armed guard was posted at the door night and day. The guard was under strict orders not to talk to him at any time. Letters from his wife were checked by code-breakers and sent on as typed summaries.

In 1896, the most vicious anti-Dreyfusard newspaper, La Libre Parole, published a rumour that a Jewish “syndicate” was planning to invade the island and free him. New security measures included “double shackles” that locked his feet into place on the iron bedstead so that he could not move or turn in the boiling heat. 

On 5 May 1896, he wrote in his diary, the only thing he was allowed to keep as his own in the hope he would confess: "I have no longer anything to say; everything is alike in its horrible cruelty."

He stayed there for five years.

Artistic Differences: During the affair, blazing rows broke out, as always, amongst France’s intellectual community, especially amongst its artists. For years, Anti-Dreyfusard Edgar Degas, one of the most famous of the Impressionists, had dinner with Camille Pissarro, an equally influential painter, a Dreyfusard and a Jew, at a friend’s house every Thursday night. One night, they argued about Dreyfus and Degas stormed out, never speaking to Pissaro again. He started abusing Pissarro's paintings as “rotten”. Everyone knew that he had once been among the first to buy his friend’s work. "Yes”, he said, "but that was before the Dreyfus Affair.” Around this time, a model in Degas’ studio also expressed doubt about Dreyfus's guilt. Passers-by in the street outside heard him shout, "Put your clothes on and get out, Jew!” His mind remained unchanged when he learned she was a Gentile. 

The Storybook Ending: On 13 July 1906 the French government reinstated Dreyfus in the army as a lieutenant-colonel and Picquart as general (he was to become minister of war). A week later Dreyfus was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in the same courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, where he had been degraded eleven years before. At his “Rehabilitation” ceremony and to the enthusiastic yells of “Long Live Dreyfus!”, he shouted back: “No, gentlemen, no, I beg of you. Long Live France!”. This storybook ending is soured by an incident that occurred when Dreyfus attended the funeral of his greatest supporter Emile Zola. He was shot in the arm by a fanatical anti-Dreyfusard journalist. His attacker, pleading “provocation”, was acquitted by a Paris court. 

The Performance Yet To Come: “The Dreyfus Affair ... is the culmination of the anti-semitism which grew out of the special conditions of the nation state. Its violent form foreshadowed future developments, so that the main actors of the Affair sometimes seemed to be staging a huge dress rehearsal for a performance yet to come.” Hanna Arendt, political philosopher, 1951.


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