France’s War on Terror Revives Dreyfus-affair Debate

110 years after the French Jewish officer was exonerated, the lessons of the affair still spark a controversy in a country where right-wingers aim to curtail human rights.

A statue of Alfred Dreyfus in the city of his birth, Mulhouse, France, October 2016.
Facebook / Jean Rottner

Alfred Dreyfus is everywhere in France.

There’s the marble plaque on the house where he was born, which tourists from all over the world photograph from every angle in a colorful square, but not in the street bearing his name, which contains a hair salon, a high school and a park.

There’s the hall named after him in the municipal building, where likenesses of him hang in abundance. There’s the municipal museum, which contains an entire floor dedicated to him. There’s the neighborhood bistro, which boasts a portrait of him by a local painter; the diners glance absentmindedly at it between bites of choucroute garnie and sips of Gewürztraminer wine.

There are the signs on the “In Dreyfus’ footsteps” urban trail, notably in the window of schools where children write him letters and learn to draw him.

The mayor of Mulhouse in the Alsace region struggled to think of other famous figures born in his city. 

“I think Alfred Dreyfus is Mulhouse’s most famous resident in the world,” he told a group of journalists. “What, more famous than the painter Jean-Jacques Henner?” asked a local reporter in surprise.

“I think so,” the mayor responded diplomatically.

According to the city’s history museum, the 18th-century mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert and the chemist Alfred Werner, who won the Nobel Prize in 1913, were also born there. But they were both Swiss, while Dreyfus the man, the affair named after him and the mistaken image that took root in the historical consciousness is 100 percent French.

We met on Dreyfus’ birthday, October 9, in the city’s main park to inaugurate a granite statue of him by the sculptress Sylvie Koechlin. It was just one of dozens of events the city is holding this year to honor the Jewish officer whose ordeal forms an integral part of the Zionist ethos. The high-speed train from Paris stops at Mulhouse en route to Basel, another landmark in the establishment of the Jewish state.

Still, there’s something exceptional in Mulhouse’s Dreyfus cult. The ceremony took place ostensibly to honor the 110th anniversary of his rehabilitation, but actually he’s remembered every year for one reason or another. Dreyfus has almost completely disappeared from the public space in Israel, and no one would think of marking the anniversary of his release. The more religious Israel becomes, the more the official Zionist narrative neglects Theodor Herzl in favor of the Bible and the Holocaust, and Dreyfus is slowly being pushed aside.

French President Francois Hollande viewing the famous Emile Zola piece that defended Dreyfus, October 2016.
Reuters / Philippe Wojazer

In Paris, the city that gave birth to the affair and was at the forefront in drawing conclusions from it, Dreyfus is present yet absent. No street is named after him, and only in 2000 was an Alfred Dreyfus Square sign put up at an intersection in the 15th arrondissement, a place that’s not really a square and has no connection to Dreyfus. Moreover, the sign glorifies Emile Zola, in the same way the author who wrote “J’Accuse” received a much better street in Tel Aviv than Dreyfus.

Anti-Israel graffiti

This Parisian dimming of history is brilliant compared to the embarrassing affair of installing a Dreyfus statue in the City of Light. In 1983, the culture minister under President Francois Mitterrand, Jack Lang, was shocked to discover that Paris had no Dreyfus statue, so he had one placed in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, the military academy where the Jewish officer had his insignia ripped off him in a humiliating ceremony.

Eyebrows were raised when Louis “Tim” Mitelberg, a Jewish political cartoonist, was commissioned to make the statue. The choice led necessarily to symbolic art , and the selection of a Jewish artist could have hinted that the affair was mainly an affront to Jews, not to a French officer.

Mitelberg fashioned a beautiful sculpture full of symbolism: Dreyfus stands holding his broken sword. But the Defense Ministry refused to accept it.

The official reason was that the Ecole Militaire courtyard isn’t normally open to visitors, but the real reason was the army’s resistance to training and holding ceremonies in the shadow of its greatest injustice. Only in 1988 was a place found in the Tuileries Garden. The statue was moved from their five years later to a hidden corner on Boulevard Raspail, where it’s regularly spray-painted with anti-Israel graffiti.

That won’t happen here in Alsace. Dreyfus was Alsatian, a native of the city his family left so they wouldn’t receive German citizenship. Dreyfus was an officer in the army, and it’s amazing how many military figures came to the park for the unveiling, an unacceptable scene in Paris. Dreyfus, as Mulhouse’s most famous resident, puts the city on the French tourist map, on the list of school field trips, and in history in general. And they respect history in Alsace.

So everyone here knows, even if they’re wise enough not to mention it, that the real traitor of the espionage affair, Lt. Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, is also from Alsace. In fact, contemporary research tends to stress Dreyfus’ Alsatian origins more than his Jewish identity. He not only was an absolute outsider because he was both Jewish and Alsatian, he knew the people conspiring against him since childhood. For Mulhouse city leaders, Dreyfus was first and foremost a victim of the place.

In an era when the lawyers of Donald Trump and Moshe Katsav don’t hesitate to bring up Dreyfus’ name to their advantage, most of the confusion is around the brand that the affair created. No, Dreyfus isn’t the symbol of a man framed based on an invented crime. Military documents were sent to Germany. There was a traitor. Dreyfus is the symbol of fabricating evidence, and this fabrication of evidence was meant to cover up the first fabrication of evidence. The system found an easy victim and had no intention of yielding just because he was innocent.

From this perspective, the most important sentence in the affair is not “J’Accuse” but rather the question the defense minister posed to the only hero in the French army, Gen. Georges Picquart, who sought to reopen the investigation: “General Picquet, what do you care if that Jew stays on Devil’s Island?”

Hard-line Sarkozy

And so, with the unveiling of the new sculpture, Dreyfus is decorated with the insignia he donned after his return to the army, as a lieutenant colonel, not a captain as is normally done. A ray of light bursts from the granite stone, separating Dreyfus from the web of lies in which he was trapped, which is represented by a stone from the Brittany region where the fabricated retrial was held. There is no mention of the role of the press or the role of the judicial system. The army took and the army gave back.

In practice, the French press may have saved Dreyfus thanks to Emile Zola and the newspaper L’Aurore, but the press also libeled him in the paper La Libre Parole, with its anti-Semitic editor, Edouard Dumont. The affair would secure the freedom of the press law in its liberal wording from the days of the revolution, and would lead to the ban on presenting testimony that is not passed on to the defense in military courts.

The will of fate and these two amendments now stand at the center of the controversy in France amid the struggle against radical Islam. For example, in special courts against terrorists that Nicolas Sarkozy seeks to establish, the presidential candidate seeks to curtail what he calls the defense’s “excessive rights.”

The military chiefs realized on October 27, 1894, that they lacked evidence to convict Dreyfus, that the military court might acquit him. From that moment, the conspiracy to convict him at any price was organized; this included the falsification of documents and the fabricating of affidavits. All this was brought to the judges via what became known as “the secret file,” without the defense being informed. This file got Dreyfus convicted.

Not only this, but by law Dreyfus was supposed to be jailed on French soil, where he would have been eligible to peruse the evidence. But France’s defense minister signed a special regulation to exile military people who were convicted of passing secret information to the enemy. They would be sent to the most remote place then under French control, Devil’s Island.

It’s no coincidence that the president of the appeals court in the Alsace region, Bertrand Louvel, dedicated his speech at the unveiling of the Dreyfus statue to the judiciary’s independence. Without mentioning his name, he warned against Sarkozy’s proposals and said that if it weren’t for the independence of the civil courts, Dreyfus would have died on Devil’s Island.

Indeed, Sarkozy’s proposals include amending basic laws that were passed in the wake of the Dreyfus affair. Sarkozy demands that France allow the “speedy exile before trial” of terror suspects and the establishment of terror courts presided over by judges with military backgrounds.

This isn’t the first time France has considered taking a vacation from the legal principles it adopted after the Dreyfus affair. Such a proposal was accepted by the National Assembly in February 1963 after the Algerian war. It’s not certain the ray of light of Dreyfus’ statue in Mulhouse will reach that far.