Those unfamiliar with the basic story of the Dreyfus affair could do worse than begin with this short book review by Gareth Jenkins published in Socialist Review back in 2010. A Jewish officer in the French Army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was accused in 1894 of spying for Germany, convicted by a military tribunal of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. In 1896, an internal French Army investigation revealed that the original trial had been flawed and named the true spy as a Major Esterhazy. Yet Dreyfus was not released, and the author of the investigation was forced to leave France. In January 1898, the novelist Emile Zola published J’accuse, a brilliant deconstruction of the case against Dreyfus. But the army held firm. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel just one month later. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England. At an 1899 retrial, Dreyfus was again convicted. He received a Presidential Pardon but this deliberately left open the question of his guilt or innocence. Only in 1906 did a further military tribunal finally clear his name.

The most basic facts about the Dreyfus affair are the weakness of the prosecution case and the extraordinary way in which the French army and politicians conspired to maintain Dreyfus’ guilt. One prominent anti-Dreyfusard, Maurice Barrès wrote, “That Dreyfus is guilty, I deduce not from the facts themselves, but from his race.” For the Right, his guilt was a point of principle: that a Jew could never be believed; and that by contrast a gentile officer of the French Army must always be telling the truth.

For another leading anti-Dreyfusard Charles Maurras what mattered was not whether Dreyfus was guilty, but the interests of the nation which always had to come first: “the specific interests of the condemned man cannot be weighed against those of the French Army.” Maurras was adamant, the army was being witch-hunted in the press. His friends, his party, the causes he supported all were more important to Maurras than a proper investigation. Indeed a fair investigation was the opposite of what he wanted; for its outcome would almost certainly have been to reveal Esterhazy and others for the rogues they were.

Those maintaining Dreyfus’ guilt did so through repeated set-backs, holding desperately to the fiction that there had been a fair investigation. For twelve whole years they maintained this lie, becoming ever less convincing the longer they argued it. The counter-argument was compelling: the proceedings were in secret, no-one was allowed to read the documents that had been put to it or to know what was said. In the last resort there was nothing more to the anti-Dreyfusard case than this: “we are people of authority, we would have no reason to get a decision wrong, you must trust us to have got it right.” It took twelve years to win the argument that it is not enough to take justice “on trust”. A fair investigation must be done and must be seen to be done.

It is hard to grasp at this distance what a wretched, unending business Dreyfus must have been for all concerned. Relationships split over it; at times the key participants must have been disgusted with their own impotence to bring it to any sort of conclusion. And all the while it was working to readjust the political landscape; bringing low those associated with deceit, replacing them with new people who had met the challenge.

After the 1906 election, Zola’s publisher Georges Clemenceau became Prime Minister of France. The French Socialists, led by another Dreyfusard, Jean Jaurès, increased their representation in Parliament from 9 to 54 seats. The attitude – of putting a cause before the truth – had caused and would continue to cause the Right immense harm. A generation of politicians staked decades of hard-won authority on establishing that Dreyfus was guilty. Afterwards, they were humbled, appeared liars, and were disgraced. For twelve years, they undermined their own supporters, tarnished their own cause.

Yet while the Dreyfus affair is usually held up as a simple victory of the French left in its capacity as principled seekers of truth; a more honest reflection would be that the issue split the French left in two. Among the Socialists, there were two substantial blocks of opinion. The “impossiblists” led by Jules Guesde took a seemingly principled position of revolutionary intransigence. At every occasion, Guesde warned of the present danger posed by the reformist route to socialism. Seeing the campaign between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards only as a split within bourgeois liberal opinion, he concentrated his fire on those among the socialist camp who wanted to use their party’s increasing popularity to form a left’ government. Socialists can’t be neutral however when principles are tested on this scale. Merely parroting empty slogans about the need for revolution when an actual battle was underway was a vacuous and dishonest approach to a real conflict. In the language of one recent source it was “deliberate obfuscation”. Guesde’s “neutrality” was the first sign of the extraordinary passivity of even the supposed revolutionaries among French and German socialism; the first betrayal in a long series that would end with a failure to oppose the carnage of 1914.

As for the “possibilists”, although Jean Jaurès rightly campaigned for Dreyfus’ innocence; his supporters would not push the politics of Dreyfus’ truth to its logical conclusion, but constantly sought to use it as a bargaining chip, hoping to accommodate the politicians of the French Right. This included in 1899 sanctioning a supposedly “Dreyfusard” ministry in which socialist ministers (chiefly Alexandre Millerand, the Minister of Labour) would be a small minority. The Minister of War in this government (i.e. the man charged with pardoning Dreyfus) was one General Gallifet, who three decades earlier had been a chief butcher of the Paris Commune. As Chris Harman has written, the compromise which was supposed to clear Dreyfus fell short of doing even that:

“By the time the government was formed, it was clear not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but also that leading army officers were guilty of lying to keep him in prison and of victimising those who spoke out in his favour. The rationale of Millerand joining the government was to ensure that those in the military who had conspired against Dreyfus were brought to justice, while his name was completely cleared. Instead the government simply pardoned Dreyfus (implying that he might have been guilty but was being let off) and by trying to draw a line under the whole affair let the military conspirators go. In other words, Jaurés’s socialist was prepared to drop the demand of full justice for Dreyfus if that was the price of staying in the government. It was not until four years later that further revelations forced a different government finally to admit the truth about the whole Dreyfus business.”

What the Left should have done is straightforward: tolerate no compromises with those who had lied on an epic scale; campaign for the most thorough investigation until the full truth was revealed; and use the history of deceit relentlessly to expose the Right.

I don’t often use this website advice to give advice to the Right, in history or the present, but they were too human and Dreyfus was (as far as they were concerned; they were a self-pitying bunch) their tragedy too. They had but one route to salvation: stop lying, tell the truth quickly, and admit everything.

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