The French are not men

Michael Wood

  • Lettres à la marquise: correspondance inédite avec Marie Arconati Visconti by Alfred Dreyfus, edited by Philippe Oriol
    Grasset, 592 pp, £19.00, March 2017, ISBN 978 2 246 85965 9

The event was ‘foreseeable and scandalous’, a wonderful combination in its way, and we might apply the phrase to many incidents in our world. I didn’t find it in yesterday’s newspaper, though. The historian Marcel Thomas uses it in his remarkable book, published in 1989, on Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man who was the spy that Alfred Dreyfus wasn’t. Thomas is thinking of Esterhazy’s acquittal in 1898. Why would a French military tribunal find a guilty man innocent? What was the point of this ‘ritual theatre’, as Frederick Brown calls it in For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (2010)? The questions immediately call up another: why would an 1894 tribunal have found an innocent man guilty of the same crime?

The story is complicated but not unintelligible. We just have to immerse ourselves in what Thomas calls a ‘naive form’ of the modern spy story, full of ‘rigorous compartmentalisation, manipulation, sting operations, falsification of documents, planting of delayed-action bombs in the form of carefully elaborated “legends”’. The French secret service, the marvellously named Statistical Section, thought it had found a spy in Dreyfus, and was not going to let a mere lack of evidence, or even probability, get in the way. Like Thomas, Philippe Oriol insists on the manufactured nature of the supposed truths of this history. Chapter titles in his Histoire de l’affaire Dreyfus (2014) include: ‘How one fabricates a guilty man’, ‘How one convicts an innocent man’. Oriol asks whether we can ‘still talk, as one often does concerning this affair, of a “judicial error”? It really is a question of a machination.’

Language itself begins to wobble under the pressure of these activities. Vincent Duclert in L’Affaire Dreyfus (2006) writes of a ‘true document’ that is a ‘false proof’, and also cites the ‘original’ version of a forgery. One of the chief players in the case, Major Du Paty de Clam, whom Thomas describes as ‘half-accomplice and half-dupe of his partners’, reversed this argument by writing of ‘very real indications arising from the traffic in false documents’. What ‘many people know’, as Duclert puts it, is merely what everybody is supposed to think; and when Oriol calls Dreyfus ‘the ideal traitor’ he is ironically adopting the anti-Semite’s point of view: ‘As a Jew, Dreyfus was … the perfect guilty party.’

These sinister fantasies paraded and accepted as realities reached their anti-logical climax in 1899, when, in a climate of growing belief in Dreyfus’s innocence and calls even from those convinced of his guilt for a clarification of the legal case, the unfortunate man was brought back from Devil’s Island for a new trial. He was found guilty again, but ‘with attenuating circumstances’, the chief of which was the fact that he wasn’t guilty. The judges couldn’t actually say this without finding the secret service, Dreyfus’s superior officers and the former minister of war incompetent or much worse, and they weren’t going to do that. The verdict was rendered on 9 September 1899 and ten days later Dreyfus was formally pardoned for what he had not done. A year later an amnesty was declared that let the conspirators off completely. A mollifying general spoke of closing the doors of forgetfulness on the whole show. The celebrated affair was over.

Except that it wasn’t. The doors were nowhere near closing. For those convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt, his acceptance of the pardon was a confession. For those alarmed by the army’s illegalities, the amnesty was a scandal – ‘l’amnistie scélérate’ was one lurid name for it, ‘the scoundrel settlement’. And for many of Dreyfus’s supporters the pardon itself was a betrayal, a ‘dishonour’, some said. In fact, Dreyfus’s own first impulse was to refuse the offer – ‘the right of the innocent man,’ he wrote, ‘is not clemency but justice’ – but he was persuaded he would be better able to fight for his rehabilitation if he was out of prison. He published the following eloquent statement drafted by the Socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, and Joseph Reinach, the first historian of the Dreyfus Affair:

The government of the Republic gives me back my liberty. It is nothing to me without honour. As of today, I shall continue to pursue reparation for the frightful judicial error of which I am still the victim.

I wish the whole of France to know, through a definitive verdict, that I am innocent. My heart will be at peace only when there is no longer a single French citizen who imputes to me the abominable crime committed by another.

The correspondence between Dreyfus and Marie Arconati Visconti, which Oriol has edited, picks up the story at this point. The marquise’s Paris salon, he says, had been the ‘headquarters’ of much pro-Dreyfus activity, but she did not meet the man himself until he was released after his second trial. She was introduced to him by Reinach, and he became a regular jeudiste, a Thursday man, attending her weekly lunchtime salons, which often sound more like seminars. ‘You have no idea how interesting your Thursday lunches are,’ Dreyfus writes. ‘What a marvellous lecture we heard last Thursday.’

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