In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
The small dark haired man sat alone in a chair, in the middle of a large room. He was almost motionless but his nervousness was betrayed by his constant fiddling with his cap which he twisted in his small hands. Occasionally his dark eyes darted around the room, past the shaft of weak winter sunlight from the high church like window. He rubbed the back of his index finger along his pencil thin moustache and tried to listen for clues in the low murmur of the witnesses gathered in the courtroom. He could make no sense of the chatter and he returned to picking at the peak of his cap.
“This court martial will rise.”
The accused and the witnesses clattered to their feet and stamped to attention. The seven members of the court strode in a dignified line to their places on the dais, each man resplendent in full dress uniforms, medals and spurs clicking rhythmically.
“Captain Dreyfuss.” The Judge Advocate General spoke in a deceptively soft voice and Dreyfuss, despite already being at attention, stiffened.
“Captain Dreyfuss, this court has found you guilty of treason. The finding is unanimous. You will be dismissed in dishonour from the Army of the French Republic, and will be transported for life to Guiana.”
Dreyfuss closed his eyes and swayed. “My God, Devil’s Island.”
Alfred Dreyfuss was thirty-five at the time of his trial and had been a solider for twelve years. He was an uncharismatic man whose military career had been uneventful, and judged by his rank of captain, fairly unsuccessful. Dreyfuss, a married man with two small children, was a native of Alsace, a racially divided province which bordered Germany. In fact, since 1870, when Napoleon III, possessing all of his uncle’s arrogance but none of his genius, had declared war on Prussia, Alsace had been occupied by the German Empire. It would remain so occupied until 1918 and was again from 1940 to 1945. Tragically, the dreadful massacre of 642 French civilians at Oradour sur Glane on 10th June 1944 was perpetrated by the Das Reich SS Division, most of whom were Alsatian men.
The little captain had a worse handicap than his birthplace and his German name. He was Jewish in a country with a rich seam of Anti-Semitism, something never far below the surface in France. During the Second World War the Vichy Government, without much pressure from the Germans, assisted willingly in the deportation of thousands of French Jews to the death camps in the East.
In 1894 the memory the stunning Prussian victory of 1870/71 was still an open sore, the poison from which continued to infect French life, and particularly the French Army. Though not known at the time the Germans would overrun France twice more in the next forty-five years. Gallic nerves were raw in the extreme in matters of Germany, and Dreyfuss had been convicted of writing a letter to the enemy disclosing secret military information.
He had pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ and had said the letter was a forgery, but the court martial, held in camera without civilian witnesses, was a foregone conclusion.
After his departure to Devil’s Island, his family and friends, and to their credit, a number of middle ranking Army officers, sought a re-trial, without success. As the years dragged on, l’affaire Dreyfuss assumed an importance out of proportion to the trial itself. France, as ever, was a divided society with Republicans, Monarchists, Bonapartists, anarchists, supporters of the right wing Catholic Church, and the left wing successors to the Paris Communards. Each faction took pro or anti stances in regard to the trial, but their real interest was in fighting each other.
Lt-Col Picquart, who had been Dreyfuss’s immediate superior, found evidence that another officer had forged the vital letter, but Picquart was immediately arrested and dismissed for his trouble. Politicians of all shades became involved including Georges Clemanceau, later Prime Minister of France, but the establishment clung together. In 1898, the famous French novelist, Emile Zola, wrote an open letter to the French President, accusing the military and political leadership of dishonesty and corruption. His letter, called ‘J’accuse’, sold 200,000 copies on the first day and sparked anti Jewish riots in many parts of France. Zola was arrested, put on trial, and sent to prison for a year.
But by now the momentum for a retrial was unstoppable. In fact, it was not until September 1899 that this occurred and Dreyfuss was again found guilty and given ten years, the outstanding five of which were suspended. . The captain’s supporters fought on, against bitter opposition both in Government and in the country. There followed a number of re-trials, and appeals until in 1906 Alfred Dreyfuss was finally completely cleared. He was restored to the Army after an absence of twelve years at the rank of Major. He resigned almost immediately, but returned to serve throughout the First World War as a Lt-Col. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the whole sorry business was that the real culprit, a Major Henry, confessed to the treason in 1898 and committed suicide. It took another eight years for the unfortunate Dreyfuss to obtain justice.
The fault lines exposed in French society by l’affaire Dreyfuss had been heightened and led to fatal French weaknesses which developed, in 1940, into the shame of the national surrender.
Lt-Col Dreyfuss died in obscurity in Paris in 1935.
Written by BM