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Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

The Dreyfus Affair

We are now skipping a century and find ourselves in Paris where a relative of Haydn’s patrons, Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy (16 December 1847, Austria – 21 May 1923, England), would be the key player in a drama that began several years after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), also called the Franco-German War of 1870.  France lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, an area it would not regain until the end of World War I (28 July 1914  – 11 November 1918).

(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)

First Trial
Le capitaine Dreyfus devant le conseil de guerre

The Prussian victory was a catalyst.  It led to the unification of Germany.  Germany had long been a group of loosely-linked German-language states, perhaps best described as a landed squirearchy.  It became a nation-state on 18 January 1871, at no less a venue than Versailles itself, in the Hall of Mirrors, ten days before Paris fell, on 28 January 1871.  Germany was unified but, from the moment Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested, on 15 October 1894, France would be divided into the Dreyfusards, intellectuals, and the anti-Dreyfusards, a division that revealed deep comtempt against the Jews, not only in the armed forces, but among civilians.


Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935), a French artillery officer of Jewish background, was arrested for treason.  Dreyfus’ wealthy family originated from Alsace but had moved to Paris after the Franco-Prussian War.  The culprit was Marie Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, a remote member of the Esterházy family, but a relative nevertheless.  Esterhazy had sold information to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War, not Alfred Dreyfus.  Yet a guilty finger was pointed at Alfred Dreyfus.

Émile Zola: « J’Accuse »

Dreyfus was arrested on 15 October 1894, hastily court-martialled, behind closed doors, and convicted of treason on 22 December 1894.  After his conviction, Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his army rank and, beginning on 13 April 1895, he started serving a life sentence on Devil’s Island, about 14 km away from mainland French Guiana, in South America.  Imprisoned on Devil’s Island, an innocent Dreyfus served five years of a life sentence while French intellectuals, led by writer Émile-Édouard-Charles-Antoine Zola (2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902), set about exposing a miscarriage of justice.  Never had a miscarriage of justice so mobilized France’s foremost intellectuals.  Émile Zola wrote his famous « J’accuse, » an open letter to French President Félix François Faure (30 January 1841 – 16 February 1899), published in L’Aurore on 13 January, 1898.


The military conceals evidence

In 1896, when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart,[i] chief of the army’s intelligence section, found evidence that Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy was engaged in espionage.  Esterhazy’s handwriting was found on the memorandum (the bordereau) that had incriminated Dreyfus.  Picquart revealed his findings to his senior officers who persuaded him to conceal the truth so that Esterhazy would be protected.  Picquart continued investigating and was removed from his position and assigned to duty in Africa.  In fact, he would later be accused of the crime that brought France to its knees.  Picquart had spoken with Dreyfusards before leaving for Africa.

In the meantime, Zola was accused of libel and brought to trial on 7 February 1898.  Zola had hoped that his « J’accuse, » would lead to a trial and to disclosure of evidence that could free and exonerate Dreyfus.  It did, but tortuously.

Dreyfus is tried and convicted a second time

Dreyfus was tried a second time, but was again convicted and condemned to ten years of imprisonment while Major Walsin-Esterhazy went free.  The memorandum clearly implicated Esterhazy, but a decision had been made to protect him.  Consequently, treason was again imputed to Captain Dreyfus despite a petition signed by 3,000 persons asking that the Dreyfus’ trial be reviewed.  According to Britannica, the affair “was made absurdly complicated by the activities or Esterhazy in inventing evidence and spreading rumours, and of Major Hubert Joseph Henry, discoverer of the original letter attributed to Dreyfus, in forging new documents and suppressing others.”[ii]  Major Henry was arrested for having forged evidence against Dreyfus, but committed suicide shortly after he was incarcerated (1898).

However, Dreyfus was pardoned by French President Émile Loubet, in 1899, but a pardon implies that one has been found guilty.  Yet, nothing but forgeries incriminated Dreyfus, but he would not be exonerated and reinstated to his rank until 1906.  Therefore the Dreyfus Affair was a 12-year nightmare for Dreyfus and a long fight on the part of Dreyfusards, Anatole France, Henri Poincaré, Marcel Proust, Georges Clemenceau, France’s premier between 1917 and 1920, Émile Zola, the leader, and others.  “The parliament passed a bill reinstating Dreyfus.  On July 22 he was formally reinstated and decorated with the Legion of Honour.”[iii]

The leading anti-Dreyfusard was Édouard Drumont (3 May 1844 – 5 February 1917), the founder the Antisemitic League of France (1889) and the founder and editor of La Libre Parole.  Drumont is the author of The Jews against France (1898).  The League was also anti-Masonic and had supporters among Catholics.  The editors of La Croix, who have since apologized, wrote an unacceptable “[d]own with the Jews!” and labeled Dreyfus as “the enemy Jew betraying France.”  (See La Croix, Wikipedia.)

As he had hoped, Zola was brought to trial, which served Dreyfus’ cause.  The trial exposed a miscarriage of justice, except that Zola was convicted of libel, a conviction he did not expect and further divided public opinion.  Zola was about to pay a heavy price for publishing his « J’accuse », which had otherwise been a “success.”  Britannica reports that “[b]y the evening of that day, 200,000 copies had been sold.”[iv]  Despite support, Zola was condemned to a year in jail and a fine of 3,000 francs.  He escaped his jail sentence by fleeing to England where he remained for a year, 1898-1899, but he was allowed to return to France when the French Government fell.

Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy

Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy

Although Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy[v] was brought before a court-martial in 1897, he was acquitted by his fellow officers and retired in 1898.  However, as the movement for revision of Dreyfus’ condemnation gained momentum, Esterhazy fled first to Belgium and then to England where he worked mainly as a translator and possibly as a traveling salesman.  Esterhazy was in fact encouraged to flee to England.  He lived in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, until his death in 1923 (aged 75).  After he was exonerated, Dreyfus did reintegrate the army.  He passed away in 1935, at the age of 75.  As for Émile Zola, he died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902.  It may have been an accidental death, but it may also have been murder.

Britannica concludes that “[f]rom the turmoil of which it was the centre emerged a sharper alignment of political and social forces, leading to such drastic anticlerical measures as the separation of church and state in 1905 and to a cleavage between right-wing nationalists and left-wing antimilitarists that haunted French life until 1914 and even later,” and adds that “[a]t best, it evoked a passionate repudiation of anti-Semitism, which did France honour[.]”[vi]  But the Dreyfus Affair seems yet another tug of war between extremists, liberals versus conservatives, not to mention a major case of scapegoating at the expense of Jews.

Regarding the connection between Haydn’s patrons and Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, it is simply very unfortunate.  However, it could well be that Péter Esterházy (born 14 April 1950 in Budapest), a likeable individual, is the most prominent among current Hungarian writers.

History has had a lot of very bad days, and it keeps repeating itself.

© Micheline Walker

[i] “Georges Picquart”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013

[ii] “Dreyfus affair”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013

[iii] “Alfred Dreyfus”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013

[iv] “Dreyfus affair”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013

[v] “Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013

[vi]  “Dreyfus affair”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013

Franz Joseph Haydn: Serenade