Being Enlightened with Knowledge


contact |  news |  backgrounds |  search |  home
Interesting Facts Strange and Unexplained Mysteries and Secrets
Mysteries & Secrets - Alfred Dreyfus

Miscarriage of Justice - Long Live Truth
Soldiers drawn to attention line the courtyard of Paris's Ecole Militaires as the prisoner is marched out to stand before a general on horseback. Outside a crowd estimated at 20,000 howls, "Death to the traitor! Death to the Jew!" Precisely at nine o'clock on that Saturday morning, January 5, 1895, the sentence is read, and the general shouts, "Alfred Dreyfus, you are unworthy to bear arms. In the name of the French people we degrade you."

Captain Dreyfus public humiliation cermony  -- General Darras (insert) "Soldiers, they are degrading an innocent man. Soldiers, they are dishonoring an innocent man," the prisoner cries out. "Vive la France, vive l'armee!" A towering sergeant of the Republican Guard steps forward, bends over the condemned officer, and strips from his cap and sleeves the insignia of rank. Next the sergeant rips off the prisoner's buttons and the stripes from his trousers. Finally, he draws the sword from the officer's scabbard and breaks it over his knee. After being paraded before the assembled troops, the disgraced man is placed in a police van and taken as a common criminal to a city prison. En route, he passes the home where he had known so many happy years with his wife and children.

To his beloved Lucie, the 35 year old ex-captain writes later that day: "Oh, my darling, do everything in the world to find the guilty one; do not relax your efforts for one instant.... There is a traitor, but it is not I." Two weeks later Dreyfus, in chains, is put on a train for the port of La Rochelle. There a ship awaits to take him to Devil's Island off French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. For most prisoners the notorious penal colony is a death sentence.

Devil's Island prison

"That Scoundrel D"

The conviction, sentencing, degradation, and exile to Devil's Island of Alfred Dreyfus was the climax of an espionage case that gripped France for months late in 1894. It was, however, only the beginning of what would become known as the Dreyfus affair, a shocking miscarriage of justice that preoccupied, bitterly divided, and nearly immobilized the army and government of France for the next 12 years.

Still smarting from the humiliating defeat in the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71, the French army's counterintelligence service kept a close watch on the German embassy in Paris and, in particular, on its military attache, Lieutenant Colonel Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen. From papers retrieved by the embassy's cleaning woman, the French learned that Schwartzkoppen had been receiving plans of their fortifications from an agent using the code name Jacques Dubois, or "that scoundrel D," as the German officer called him. The identity of the traitor eluded the chief of counterintelligence, Colonel Jean-Conrad Sandherr, and his deputy, Major Hubert Joseph Henry, until an apparent breakthrough in the case on September 17, 1894.

On that date Major Henry received a bordereau, or covering memorandum, handwritten on onionskin paper, itemizing military information for sale. Included in the list were details about the new 120 mm cannon that, Henry speculated, could only have been supplied by an artillery officer on the general staff. Scanning the roster, Henry found the name Alfred Dreyfus. Handwriting on a report Dreyfus had filed the previous year, it was next discovered, bore a superficial resemblance to that of the bordereau. Henry quickly convinced his colleagues that Dreyfus must be "that scoundrel D." What no one mentioned openly was that, as a Jew, Dreyfus was a convenient scapegoat. To the elitist French officer corps, Jews were a foreign element. Born in Alsace, Dreyfus was thought to be pro-German although his family had left the disputed province when it had been seized by Germany two decades earlier.

Accusation, Trial, Conviction

On Saturday morning, October 13, Captain Dreyfus received a curious summons. The following Monday morning he was to report to the chief of staff - in civilian attire. When he did so, he found himself facing two officers and two policemen; he did not know that Major Henry was hiding behind a drapery. The perplexed captain was asked to write a request for a return of "documents that I had passed on to you before my departure for maneuvers." He started to write, then paused, trembling. What could it mean?

The charade at an end, one of the officers blurted out, "Dreyfus, in the name of the law I arrest you! You are accused of the crime of high treason." On what evidence, he demanded to know. The evidence, he was told, "is overwhelming." Protesting his innocence and declaring that "an appalling plan" had been hatched against him, Dreyfus was taken away to prison.

Not until November 1 was the arrest confirmed in the Parisian press. "High Treason. Arrest of the Jewish Officer Alfred Dreyfus," shrieked an anti Semitic tabloid. A public trial was demanded since, as another newspaper claimed, one in private would "only serve to prolong the scandal." But when Dreyfus appeared before the seven military judges of a court martial on December 19, the public was excluded at the first defense mention of "the sole piece of evidence," the bordereau.

Two of the five handwriting experts asked to inspect the document said that Dreyfus could not have written it. Three said he had, one of them.

Alphonse Bertillon - refuting his own testimony that the sentences Dreyfus took in dictation at the chief of staff's office on October 15 differed from the bordereau. Dreyfus, Bertillon grandly proposed, had been disguising his handwriting during the dictation; the sentences four witnesses had seen him write were forgeries!

Major Henry testified that he had known for some time that there was a German spy on the general staff. "And that traitor is sitting there!" he said, pointing to Dreyfus. Asked to substantiate his charge, Henry icily answered, "There are secrets that an officer does not even share with his hat." The judges appeared to be impressed.

After four days of inconclusive testimony from prosecution witnesses and a bland, dispassionate appearance by the defendant, the judges withdrew to deliberate. At that point, a messenger arrived with a packet from the minister of war. Expecting to find new evidence, the judges instead read a virtual order from the minister to find Dreyfus guilty. Later that evening the panel of officers voted unanimously to convict the defendant of the charge of treason.

On the Trail of the Real Culprit

In the summer of 1895, several months after Dreyfus had been shipped off to Devil's Island, Lieutenant Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart succeeded Sandherr as chief of counterintelligence. Since the military realized how weak the case against Dreyfus had been, Picquart was instructed to intercept and read all mail to and from the prisoner and, incidentally, continue to monitor the wastepaper smuggled out of the German embassy by the cleaning woman. In March 1896 he received from her torn fragments of a petit bleu, a special delivery letter on thin blue paper for local use in Paris. The letter, apparently torn up and tossed in a wastebasket without being sent, was addressed to Major Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy and asked for "a more detailed explanation than you gave me the other day on the question in suspense."

Esterhazy was the son of a French general of an illegitimate branch of the immensely wealthy Hungarian Esterhazys. Although married to a woman of independent means, Esterhazy never seemed to have enough money to support his life of debauchery in Paris. Sensing that he was on the trail of another spy, Picquart had Esterhazy shadowed; twice he was seen visiting the German embassy. In August the chief of counterintelligence obtained two of Esterhazy's letters. The handwriting was identical to that of the bordereau, the sole piece of evidence in the conviction of Captain Dreyfus.

When Picquart sought to prove that Esterhazy rather than Dreyfus was the traitor, a superior officer advised him not to reopen the case. "What difference does it make to you if that Jew remains on Devil's Island?" he was asked. "I will not carry this secret to my grave," replied Picquart. Learning that his chief could prove Dreyfus innocent, Major Henry set about forging new evidence to incriminate the prisoner.

"I Accuse!"

Inevitably, there were leaks to the press about new evidence in the Dreyfus case. Moreover, there was a growing suspicion in army and government circles that another culprit was involved. Fearing that his efforts to implicate Esterhazy would be blocked by the army high command, Picquart revealed his findings to his attorney and authorized him to pass the information on to the government. The attorney told a sympathetic senator that the bordereau could be shown to be in the hand of Esterhazy and not Dreyfus; the senator informed Alfred's brother, Mathieu. On November 15, 1897, Mathieu Dreyfus formally accused Esterhazy of the treason for which his brother had been convicted taking care that a copy of his letter to the minister of war also be sent to a leading Paris newspaper.

Deciding to bluff his way through, Esterhazy demanded a court martial. The military closed ranks behind the unsavory defendant, and a judicial panel hastily acquitted Esterhazy. The verdict, according to the novelist Emile Zola, was "a final blow at all truth, at all justice."

On January 13, 1898, Zola addressed an open letter to the president of the republic, Mix Faure. Under the title "J Accuse ... !" (I accuse), it was printed on the front page of L'Aurore, a liberal newspaper published by the future prime minister Georges Clemenceau. In his letter Zola accused by name seven high ranking officers and three handwriting experts of having fabricated the evidence against Dreyfus and having conspired to cover up their guilt as the facts in the case became known.

As Zola had intended, the sensational accusation brought the novelist to trial for libel. After tumultuous proceedings in which the duplicity of the army was fully revealed, Zola was found guilty, fined 3,000 francs, and sentenced to prison for a year. While awaiting a second trial on his appeal of the verdict, Zola fled France for refuge in England and remained there until June 1899.

The Case Reopened

Dreyfus with fellow officers -1906. The trial and conviction of Zola seemed to divide the nation into two camps, defenders of the army and believers in the innocence of Dreyfus. For his role in exposing the conspiracy, Picquart was dismissed from the army - though he was later reinstated. On August 30, 1898, Henry broke down under interrogation to confess his forgeries and was placed under arrest. The next day he was found dead in his cell, having slit his throat with a razor. Esterhazy fled to London, where he admitted his guilt; he remained in exile until his death a quarter century later.

In June 1899 the verdict in the Dreyfus courtmartial was set aside and a new trial ordered. Greatly aged by nearly five years of captivity, the ex-captain was brought back to France once more to confront his accusers. His hopes for vindication, however, were cruelly dashed by a split decision of the new court martial on September 9. Found guilty of treason but under extenuating circumstances, Dreyfus was sentenced to 10 years of detention. To Zola the verdict was one of "ignorance, folly, cruelty, falsehood, crime." Future generations would shudder, he predicted, adding that "Jesus was condemned but once."

Taking into consideration the prisoner's deteriorating health, the minister of war pardoned Dreyfus 10 days later. The act of mercy, he explained, was "to efface all traces of a painful conflict. " Reluctantly accepting the pardon, Dreyfus vowed to continue seeking vindication. "My heart will not be at rest until there is no longer a Frenchman who imputes to me the abominable crime which another has committed."

After seven years of dogged efforts, Dreyfus's supporters succeeded in having the verdict in the second court martial set aside on July 12, 1906. Dreyfus was reinstated in the army and promoted to major. In a ceremony at the Ecole Militaire on July 20 he was officially rehabilitated and made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. "Long live Dreyfus," rang out the cries. "No," he replied, "Long Live Truth."

News Contact Sky Pictures
Back to Top