Friday, July 14, 2006

Dreyfus - One Century Later

July 12, 2006 was the 100th anniversary of the reinstatement into the French army of Alfred Dreyfus. The "Affair", as the French call it, still arouses all sorts of emotions, personal and political. Today the controversy revolves around several issues: the site of a statue commemorating the reinstatement, the attitude of the army, the hopes of the descendants of Dreyfus, and the frustration some feel at the amount of attention this event is receiving, while other more urgent matters are shoved under the rug. This article (slightly abridged) is from Libération:

Dreyfus still does not have full rights at the Ecole Militaire (Military Academy). Or rather his statue does not have full rights. In his speech Wednesday morning on the occasion of the centenary of the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus, the President of the Republic had no desire to put an end to an injustice: the absence of the statue in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, where he was dishonorably discharged in 1895, then reinstated in 1906.

"Let us acknowledge that a man, to whom complete justice was not accorded, had to leave the army, broken-hearted, not having benefited from a restoration of the career to which he was nonetheless entitled," declared the President, evoking the fate of the officer. But the President saw fit to go no further. Rather he affirmed, as he had been advised to do by historian Vincent Duclert, that Dreyfus was "an example for the army." It was a fine speech on the "tragedy of Captain Dreyfus, who helped to strengthen the Republic," but no statue.

Commissioned by Jack Lang in 1985 and designed by Tim, a newspaper artist, the statue of Dreyfus was never placed at the Ecole Militaire due to opposition from the army, relayed by then Minister of Defense Charles Hernu. And by François Mitterand himself. The statue was finally relegated to a small public square on Boulevard Raspail in Paris.

If Jack Lang and the current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë would like the statue to finally find its home, the army is still opposed. The Chief of Staff, General Henri Bentégeat, said so clearly Wednesday morning on RTL TV. Transferring this statue is "basically a political move...but there is no demand within the army for new commemorative ceremonies." This refusal is justified by the fact that "in the army, we are not in the habit of celebrating our errors. We celebrate first our victories..."

It's rather short-sighted: the French army does not hesitate to celebrate Dien Bien Phu, a military error if ever there was one. As for regarding the Dreyfus case as an army "error", what about the conclusion: the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus!

Dreyfus' descendants, who were invited guests at the national ceremony, regretted the absence of any announcement about the statue. "The affair is not over. It has only just begun," Anne-Cécile Lévy, the great-granddaughter of the officer told Libération. "I have spoken to Monsieur de Villepin, but I don't want this to become a political issue," she added. She would also like the square in front of the Ecole Militaire to be renamed in honor of her ancestor. A decision that can only be made by the mayor of Paris.

As for the decision not to transfer the ashes of Alfred Dreyfus from Montparnasse cemetery, where he is buried, to the Pantheon, Anne-Cécile Lévy concluded: "We aren't happy that they have refused us something we did not ask for! But we would have appreciated the transfer."

A short note by Leconservateur speaks of the confusion in which the Dreyfus case places the left:

While the left has adopted the Dreyfus affair as its own, as one of its fundamental battles in the struggle for progressivism, let us remember an historical fact: the left was, at the outset of the affair, among the most virulent accusers of the officer. And for good reason: the socialists associated the Jews with money, therefore as enemies in the class struggle.

The commemoration of Dreyfus' exoneration does not shock me in the least, but the uproar surrounding it only makes more evident the deadly silence surrounding the dead of Oran and the martyrs of Vendée(1).

It illustrates, however, one of those strange twists of fate in history...the left having become "philosemitic"(2) thanks to the Dreyfus affair, today, exactly 100 years later, finds itself anti-Semitic (excuse me, "anti-Zionist").

(1) Vendée is a region of Western France that put up fierce resistance to the French Revolution. Thousands of citizens of Vendée were murdered (many drowned) by the revolutionary army.

(2)I don't know if this word exists in English, but its meaning is clear.

There's an English-language account of the ceremony at Haaretz.

This information is from Wikipedia in English:

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterwards. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 enactment separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups like Maurras' Action Française that were created during the affair endured for decades. The right-wing Vichy regime was composed mostly of old anti-Dreyfusards or their descendants. The Vichy Regime would later deport Dreyfus' grand-daughter to the Nazi extermination camps. It is now universally agreed that Dreyfus was innocent, but his statues and monuments are occasionally vandalised by far-right activists. The Dreyfus Affair was commented upon later by Hannah Arendt in her book "The Origins of Totalitariansim" claiming that the Affair evidenced a recurring theme of anti-semitism as she sought to identify the causes of such a crisis.

One thing I found interesting - Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jew, like historian Marc Bloch (see my article here). Both men were fiercely patriotic, one died for France, one was sent to Devil's Island unjustly. Both men were, in some strange way, punished by the country they loved and served. I wonder if this toughness and patriotism are characteristic of the Jews of Alsace, and is it in any way a German trait? Or is it a trait of those Jews who happened to move into German lands?


At July 16, 2006 2:55 AM, Blogger Charles Henry said...

We watched a documentary on Devil's Island a few weeks ago. It was unsettling somehow to discover that today, it is a tourist trap. People travel to visit it. The little cabin that the framed officer was imprisoned in, was still there, and now it was often full of people who **wanted** to be there.

From what I recall from reading about the Dreyfuss case years ago, wasn't he framed at first by someone who didn't care about his being jewish at all, but more that he was a convenient target to pin an espionnage charge on? And that it was only after the conspiracy began to unravel, that his religion was brought in to appeal to the rampant anti-semitism of the higher-ups in the french military, to get them to commit to maintaining the false charges?

At July 17, 2006 10:31 AM, Blogger tiberge said...

@ charles

What you say is basically true. It started out as a rather routine espionnage case. He was presumed guilty because he was the most likely suspect - he had intimate knowledge of German, he had many connections in Germany, he was not particularly liked - he was considered aloof. Also there was talk that his personal life was in disorder - that he had many mistresses, etc... I don't know how much of that is true, but they managed to convince themselves, thanks to a graphologist, that it was his handwriting on the incriminating letter. Still he would have been acquitted were it not for false documents (that Dreyfus was never allowed to see)presented at the trial.

Dreyfus was the unfortunate pawn in the crude chess game between right and left. The so-called "moderate republicans" were in power and had managed to win the sympathy of the Catholic Church. To admit an error would have been disastrous for the Third Republic. Furthermore, the army, who was hated by the left, did not want to give its arch-enemies justification. The left, on the other hand, wanted any excuse to discredit both Church and Army. For the right, it was imperative that the captain be guilty, while for the left, the opposite was true. For once, the left was right (so to speak), and France was never the same. It reminds me of decisions like Dred Scott or the Scopes trial, where nothing is ever the same afterwards.

His ethnic origin was much less a factor at the beginning than at the end. The right began to consider the affair as a Jewish-Masonic-Jacobin conspiracy.

One interesting thing - a Colonel Picquart, known to be anti-Semitic, stood by Dreyfus. He had enough basic decency to place justice above his prejudices.

French-language wikipedia has a lot under "Affaire Dreyfus".


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