Friday, March 28, 2014

Prisoners of Honor

      His tomb might look like that of any other in the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris, France, if it weren't for the small stones that lay upon it (a Jewish mourning ritual) and the name "Alfred Dreyfus" (1859 - 1935) engraved upon the smooth surface. It's been over a hundred years since the shocking Dreyfus Affair (as it would forever be known) rocked the civilized world but there's still an uneasiness that emanates from this silent resting place. Was justice finally served? Have times really changed all that much?

Dozens of books and several films (the best still being 1937's The Life of Emile Zola) have examined the most singular and infamous case of antisemitism in modern history, but few today even acknowledge its significance let alone who Alfred Dreyfus even was. Furthermore, it would be unfair to recall Dreyfus' story without first mentioning another man, even more lost to the ravages of time and history. His name was Georges Picquart.

In 1894, Picquart was a career officer on the General Staff in Paris. There was nothing too remarkable about his appearance or demeanor. He may have seemed like any other honorable military man in the French Army. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Picquart, unlike the Jewish born Dreyfus, was likely just a product of his antisemitic upbringing.

Georges Piquart
Picquart, a skilled pianist, began his military career as an infantry officer and served in Indochina. He graduated second in his class from officers school and became a lecturer at the War Academy (Dreyfus was a student there at the time). By 1894, France was still nursing its wounds from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War two decades earlier. French novelist Émile Zola had written a scathing indictment of the General Staff in his book The Downfall (1892), whose main purpose was to convey the brutality of war. Admittedly, one of the few officers on staff at the time of the Dreyfus Affair who had even read Zola's book, was Picquart.

France had developed a secret 75mm field gun to combat the growing threat of German military superiority. Someone within the confined ranks of the French General Staff had leaked information about the gun to the other side. A hasty search for this traitorous spy was immediately undertaken by the top brass. Working from a very short list of possible suspects, one name stuck out like a sore thumb: Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew.

Having no tangible evidence whatsoever, Dreyfus was arrested for treason in October of 1894. Without delay, he was convicted in a secret court marshal, stripped of his rank (his sword snapped over the knee in a humiliating public display at the École Militaire) and shipped off to solitary confinement on Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana in South America where he would presumably spend the rest of his natural life. For the French Army and most of the anti-Dreyfusards (nationalists, fervent Catholics and various bigots) as they were known, it was case closed.

above: antisemitic cartoons like this one (of Captain Dreyfus) were all the rage in France at the time
below: police photograph of Dreyfus taken immediately after the degradation ceremony, 1895

Several years later, Picquart had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel and appointed chief of army intelligence. He discovered some routine discrepancies in the Dreyfus court marshal. While comparing the original letter that was intercepted by counter-intelligence against the handwriting sample obtained from Dreyfus (under false pretenses) known as the "bordereau" that was used to convict him, Picquart noticed few (if any) similarities in the penmanship.

Major Ferdinand Esterhazy
Furthermore, he soon discovered that the original letter was the work of another member of the General Staff; an officer named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart was warned by several high-ranking Generals not to take his investigation any further for fear of discrediting the French Army or causing more hysteria and paranoia amongst the public. To make matters worse, Picquart learned that his own investigation was being circumvented and sabotaged by his immediate superiors.

Picquart could not keep his findings a secret any longer. For him, despite being born and raised an antisemite, it was simply a matter of honor. Picquart's honor would eventually get him demoted, transferred out of the country to a dangerous post in French Tunisia, and later court marshaled himself. All the while, the General Staff protecting (and even once acquitting in court) the identity of Esterhazy while Dreyfus was wasting away in a nightmarish hell hole.

It's hard now to imagine the type of division that The Dreyfus Affair caused amongst the populace. Nearly everyone had an opinion on the case, especially the always controversial (but contented in his old age) Émile Zola who published a fabulously infamous open letter to President Félix Faure in 1898 entitled simply I, Accuse...! calling for justice in the deplorable case. The term "intellectual" was virtually invented during this time to describe educated men like Zola who were constant defenders of the falsely imprisoned Dreyfus.

 above left: actor Joseph Schildkraut won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola (1937) which also won Best Picture
above right: an illustration of Alfred Dreyfus for Vanity Fair, 1899
below: Richard Dreyfuss as Picquart in Ken Russell's Prisoner of Honor (1991) for HBO

Zola himself was eventually sued for libel (for having the audacity to openly question the French government; especially the General Staff) and sentenced to a year in prison. Zola decided it was best for him to continue to champion Dreyfus as a free man, rather than become another helpless, imprisoned martyr. He fled to England in exile.

Émile Zola
In 1899, thanks in no small part to public outcry, Dreyfus was allowed to return to France and plead his case again, this time to the Supreme Court. Despite most everyone in the government being aware who the real culprit was, Dreyfus lost his new court martial and was again found guilty (this time only being sentenced to ten years hard labor). Rather than witness another revolution in the streets, the new President Émile Loubet pardoned him a few days later.

After serving four long years of a life sentence, Dreyfus was finally a free man. Having returned to his beloved France, Émile Zola was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. The roofer who allegedly tampered with his chimney ventilation claimed he did so for political reasons. Several years later, when Zola's ashes were being transferred to the Panthéon in Paris (where he now shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas) an attempt was made to assassinate Dreyfus at the ceremony. Dreyfus was shot in the arm by a disgruntled journalist.

Once the remnants of the old regime had mostly crumbled away, Dreyfus was finally vindicated by a military tribunal. He was officially exonerated in July of 1906. The next day, he was promoted to the rank of Major; a week later he was Knighted into the Legion of Honor. Dreyfus retired from the Army in 1907 at the age of 48, however, he reenlisted at the outbreak of WWI and served throughout the entire war (mostly on the Western Front) rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Always an impassioned advocate for his own innocence, he once stated: "It is nothing for me without my honor." Esterhazy, the real Prussian spy, retried (under pressure) from the French Army in 1898 at the rank of Major. He moved to Brussels and then the UK where he continued to write in antisemitic papers until his death in 1923.

Alfred Dreyfus
But what became of Picquart, the man who made Dreyfus' exoneration possible in the first place? After the libel trial of Émile Zola, Picquart was unjustly found guilty of forging the note that convinced him of Esterhazy's involvement. It was during the interval when the Supreme Court was reviewing the Dreyfus case that Picquart had been arrested and was awaiting his own court marshal.

After Dreyfus' second court marshal Picquart resigned from the army. When Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906, so too was Picquart who was almost instantly promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. This was the logical rank that he had been expected to achieve if his career had not been sidelined by the Dreyfus scandal. That same year, Picquart became Minister of War, a position he held until his retirement in 1909. He died in 1914 from an injury he sustained in a fall from a horse.

Throughout the length of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, Picquart and Dreyfus never had much contact with one another, other than their fleeting encounters while working for the General Staff in 1894 (Picquart was present during Dreyfus' initial accusations). Author Robert Harris (who has fashioned an immensely researched and partly fictionalized book about the events called An Officer and a Spy) imagined their momentous meeting as a brief but professional encounter following the long overdue exoneration of Dreyfus.

Picquart defending Dreyfus in court
After exchanging a note of genuine and heartfelt gratitude, Dreyfus eventually travels to meet with Picquart while the latter is serving as Minister of War. The true reason for this meeting is because Dreyfus feels he should have been promoted to a higher rank to account for all the time wasted during his period of imprisonment and demotion (a luxury that Picquart himself was afforded).

While appearing sympathetic to Dreyfus' request, Picquart admits that there is nothing he can do about such matters, as they are most assuredly out of the Minister's hands. After an awkward silence, both men soon part ways, never to see one another again; each man a prisoner of their own honor. Harris stated: "overall, what Picquart felt was loyalty to the law, to rationality, and duty, and above all, justice...I don’t think he could have lived with himself if he didn’t do something."

Harris also adds: "If there’s a lesson from the Dreyfus case, it is that any organization – an army, or the church or the government – that investigates itself will have a tendency to lie, and they will justify it by saying they’re doing it on behalf of national security."

The book is currently being developed for the screen by director Roman Polanski; his film is likely to be called D. Even today in France, attacks on Jews and threats to Jewish property have been on the rise since the early 2000s. In 2006, a 23-year-old French Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered (more than 80% of his body had been burned with acid) in what appeared to be a transfer of decades old prejudice at the hands of an antisemitic group calling themselves the Gang of Barbarians.

The name Alfred Dreyfus may hardly register with much of the collective today, but there are those that still fight to keep his honor alive. In doing so, they fight for the honor of us all.

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