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The Dreyfus Affair shamed the entire French nation

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News on Thursday, 27 February 2014

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This edited article about Alfred Dreyfus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Dreyfus being publicly humiliated,  picture, image, illustration

Dreyfus being publicly humiliated

It was a cold, grey January morning in 1895. On a Paris parade ground troops were drawn up to form a hollow square. Behind them, a huge crowd stood and watched.

In the centre of the square, in full dress uniform, stood the lone figure of Captain Dreyfus.

The drums rolled. A General stepped forward and faced Dreyfus. The drums stopped rolling and there was complete silence. Then the General quickly ripped the badges of rank from Dreyfus’s shoulders. Next the gleaming uniform buttons were savagely torn off one by one. Finally the General took Dreyfus’s sword, broke it across his knee, and threw it to the ground. Dreyfus’s face drained of all colour, was set in rigid lines that betrayed no emotion.

Two guards moved forward to stand on either side of Dreyfus. They took a firm hold of his arms and started to march him slowly round the square. It was the final act of degradation. The crowd hurled abuse and derision at the man who had now been publicly branded a traitor to his country. Dreyfus lowered his head, unable to face the looks of contempt on the faces of his colleagues.

Next day Dreyfus, under close custody, started the long journey to the penal colony of Cayenne in French Guiana, South America. He remained in Cayenne a month while huts were built for him and his guards on a tiny island out in the bay. Its name was Devil’s Island. A fitting place perhaps for a traitor to spend the remainder of his life.

Except that Dreyfus was not a traitor. He was an innocent man.

It had been towards the end of summer the previous year that a long document, unsigned and unaddressed, fell into the hands of French Intelligence. It had been found in the room of the German Military Attache and gave a long list of plans and papers that the writer was in a position to be able to sell to the Germans.

Investigations were put in hand. The suspects were narrowed down to just a few. Captain Dreyfus was one of these – and he was Jewish. It seemed impossible that a true Frenchman could have been responsible for the document. But a Jew – well, that was a different matter. And so, even at this early stage, it was decided that Dreyfus was the guilty one.

Captain Dreyfus was summoned before Major Henry of Military Intelligence who told him: “You are under arrest charged with high treason.” Dreyfus stared at Major Henry in blank amazement. “I am innocent!” he shouted as he was taken away. He was put in solitary confinement for nearly two months. He was permitted no visitors, not even his wife. And although he was interrogated again and again he still did not know what the evidence was against him.

In mid-December, the court-martial began. It was held in absolute secrecy. From the very beginning it was obvious that the judges intended to convict Dreyfus. Every shred of evidence was turned against him. A handwriting expert stated that the writing of both Dreyfus and the document were the same. Time and time again, Dreyfus protested his innocence. Even his defence counsel was not allowed to examine the evidence, a gross breach of legal procedure.

After four days, Dreyfus was found guilty.

Devil’s Island was aptly named for it was a terrifying place. Small and remote, it had a climate like a furnace all year round, and this was made even worse from December to March when the rain streamed down incessantly and steamed off the hot rocks.

Dreyfus was kept in a small, cramped hut with a sentry stationed nearby day and night. He was forced to do his own cooking and cleaning and was allowed only a few books to read.

The whole island was alive with insects. They had no respect for property and not only devoured Dreyfus’s food but also made short work of his books. There were other horrible creatures as well including the spider crab with its poisonous bite.

Once a day, Dreyfus was allowed out of his hut for exercise. He walked from his hut down to the landing stage and back again. Later, a rumour reached the French Colonial Office that Dreyfus had tried to escape – completely false for there was no way of escaping from that dreadful place. However, extra guards were immediately posted, and Dreyfus himself was put in leg irons.

Month after month went by. The heat grew even more intense. The isolation was terrible. It seemed to Dreyfus that the world had forgotten him, that he was to spend the rest of his life on that fever-ridden island.

But he was wrong. Back in France, people were working on his behalf, trying to set right one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice ever known.

There were many people to blame for an innocent man having been sent to Devil’s Island. One of these was Major Esterhazy, a member of the General Staff as Dreyfus had been. He was the true author of the document that had convicted Dreyfus. In fact, Esterhazy had been selling military secrets to the Germans for years. He was only too pleased to see another take the blame.

Equally guilty was Major Henry, the Intelligence Officer who had arrested Dreyfus. The incriminating document had been written on a very distinctive notepaper. It could not be bought in Paris and there was only one officer who used it – Major Esterhazy. Major Henry knew all this but remained silent.

Others too knew of the background to the affair, knew that Dreyfus had been convicted on only the flimsiest of evidence. They too kept silent. Dreyfus may have been the victim of a conspiracy but there was little point in bringing up the matter again now.

But some people did try to bring the matter into the open. There was Picquart, for example, who was the new Head of Intelligence. He discovered that Esterhazy was probably the real spy and informed his superiors. He was immediately posted to Africa. Then a banker read a newspaper article about Dreyfus which showed a photograph of the document. He recognised the handwriting as being that of one of his clients – Esterhazy.

As the rumours mounted, Esterhazy played a bold game of bluff and demanded to be tried. Obviously if Esterhazy was found guilty, the army would have to admit to a miscarriage of justice in Dreyfus’s case. That was unthinkable. So Esterhazy was acquitted and Dreyfus remained enduring the hardships of Devil’s Island.

But Emile Zola, an eminent French novelist, still believed in the innocence of Dreyfus. He drew up his famous article “I accuse!” and had it printed. At once he was arrested and tried for libel. This was what he wanted. He thought it would be his chance to raise the Dreyfus case again. But he was wrong. He was barely allowed to speak and was speedily found guilty and sent to prison. He appealed and was released and then put on trial a second and a third time. In the end, Zola was forced to flee to England.

And still Dreyfus remained on Devil’s Island, a hopeless, shackled prisoner.

It was now that Major Henry made a mistake that was to save Dreyfus.

Knowing that the public were becoming curious about the Dreyfus affair, Major Henry forged a letter which he hoped would further incriminate Dreyfus and end the business once and for all. But it was a very bad forgery and quickly detected.

The Minister of War had Major Henry brought before him and interrogated him at length. Major Henry tried to bluster his way through but eventually broke down and confessed. That night in his cell, Major Henry took his own life.

Meanwhile, Esterhazy had already fled the country.

In the spring of 1899, a boat approached Devil’s Island. Dreyfus watched it from the window of his hut without much interest. Probably new stores or the relief guards.

At the landing stage a senior officer and an armed escort stepped off and made their way to Dreyfus’s hut. The man they found there was thin, unshaven, and almost unrecognisable as Dreyfus.

“You are to return to France,” he was told. “Your case is to be reviewed.”

Tears of joy trickled down his face. The impossible had happened. He was to be given another opportunity to prove his innocence.

A few hours later, as the boat carried him nearer the mainland, Dreyfus turned and looked at the distant outline of Devil’s Island for the last time. He shuddered, thinking it could so easily have been his tomb.

Ahead there waited France, his family, another trial and eventually freedom.

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