Schechter, Betty
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965
264 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2010

The central focus of Betty Schechter’s account of the Dreyfus affair is to draw a distinction between the Dreyfus trial and his life, and the Dreyfus affair, the impact of the trial on France as a nation.

She sets the stage by going back to the 1789 revolution and the birth of the First French Republic. She sites some key sign posts on the way to Dreyfus.

“ . . . by the time of the Dreyfus case the people of France had come to see their Revolution as part of history. The Revolution, they believed, had asked too much and promised too much.”

But as the book plays out we see that her claim above is too broad. Yes, by the time of the Dreyfus “case” many had come to see the Republic as a bad thing and they wanted to return to authoritarian government, be it military, nobility or even church or some combination of them. Yet there were factions of the public who stayed loyal to the ideals of the Revolution and some of them played a prominent role in the Dreyfus trial and the Dreyfus affair.

Now, what is the difference? And who is Dreyfus and what is this all about?

Alfred Dreyfus was a military officer in 1894, competent, respected, but not much liked. He wasn’t too friendly, was a bit haughty and, something that mattered a great deal, he was Jewish.

The military establishment itself wasn’t very happy with the Republic and sort of acted as a separate entity unto its own. In general the French Republic was not very popular, especially in Paris.

However, peasants, untrusting of nobility and weary of them kept voting for the Republic.

Nearly all people loved the army

  1. It provided security (despite the loss of the recent war to Germany)
  2. The army and the people wanted vengeance upon Germany and the return of Alsace and Lorraine

The 1870 war had also shackled France with a huge debt, but by 1890 the debt had been repaid and the French people wanted revenge. In 1893 there were rumors of French master plan against Germany, and the city dwellers, especially, we ready for strong leadership. Finally in 1894 France signed an alliance with the Russian Republic.

Major Hubert Henry in charge of counterespionage was presented with evidence that an officer was giving information to the Germans. A note was found by a French spy, a woman working as a cleaning lady in the Germany embassy. It was a list of documents which this spy had and was ready to begin selling.

One of the officers who came under suspicion was Alfred Dreyfus, but the evidence against him was quite weak.

There were only two real pieces of evidence, neither very helpful. They had the list of documents offered, and a part of a note that spoke of the agent as “The Scoundrel D.” Even the handwriting on the list of documents offered for sale didn’t appear to be Dreyfus’s hand. However, the deciding factor was that Dreyfus was a Jew. The military decided quickly and acted quickly. They arrested Dreyfus.

Thus we arrive at the Dreyfus trial, and the issues there are:

  1. Did Dreyfus commit the crime? He was convicted and sent to Devil’s Island.
  2. Was Dreyfus really guilty? There were years of follow ups and three trials, in all of which Dreyfus was convicted, but eventually he was given a presidential pardon, and FINALLY, his trial declared null and void, since in the end it turned out the documents in the list discovered at the German Embassy weren’t even classified documents at all, so, in effect, there had been no crime. Crazy, the whole trial had been 12 years of much ado about nothing (military).

However, in the years between the event of 1894 and the final resolution in 1906 there was also the Dreyfus AFFAIR which rocked the French Republic to its core and threatened the very existence of the nation.

The army was always uncomfortable that they had arrested the right man and they behaved very badly. They had used the press to whip up anti-Semitic fervor against Dreyfus and the “international conspiracy” against France by Jews, Protestants. The “case” was not an issue of law, but of public pressure and opinion.

The whole “case” spiraled out of control and by the time of the second trial

“The question is not whether the wretch is guilty or innocent, but whether or not the Jews and the Protestants – this vanguard of Germany, England and their allies – are to rule our country. . . “

That was the way the opponents of the Republic saw it. However, the defenders of the Republic saw what was the case: The French Republic was on trial, not just Dreyfus. Would civilian rule by law survive? Would equality, liberty and fraternity survive? Would justice survive? Would France remain France? It was fairly apparent that the army was lying and had stirred up public opinion and especially anti-Semitism to cover their illegal behavior, and to accept the conviction of Dreyfus. To many who supported Dreyfus, it wasn’t HIM who was the issue, it was FRANCE herself and the entire history of the Republic.

That’s what the Dreyfus AFFAIR was about.

So there are two intertwined stories. The minor tale (to history, but certainly not to Dreyfus and his family) were the Dreyfus trials (three) and eventually, first his pardon and later the throwing out of his case since no crime had been committed.

The historically important issue, the Dreyfus affair, was the saving of the Republic and a strong attack on anti-Semitism and to a lesser degree anti-Protestantism, and the rule by the power of the elite and the excitement of the mob.

Dreyfus himself wasn’t very popular with his major defenders – among them Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau, who at the time was a liberal journalist, and who later became the leader of France in WWI and Tiger of France, the leader who finally got back Alsace and Lorraine.

Another of that circle of leaders who was frustrated with Dreyfus for accepting the presidential pardon rather than continuing the fight was Charles Puguy. When the president offered Dreyfus a pardon, Dreyfus at first refused arguing that:

“The rider attached to the Rennes verdict, ‘with extenuating circumstances’ allowed Loubet to offer Dreyfus a presidential pardon and although Dreyfus said at first that he would not accept it, that he wanted not mercy but justice, he finally did so.”

Puguy argued that:

“We might have died for Dreyfus; Dreyfus has not died for Dreyfus.”

This was the heart of the clash between the Dreyfus trial and the Dreyfus affair.

Along the way there were many heroes in the Dreyfus camp, both at the level of trial and the level of affair.

I think central to the Dreyfus trial were three people, his wife, Lucie, his brother, and the military officer Colonel Picquart. They stuck by him and worked tirelessly for justice for him.

At the level of the Dreyfus affair there were many, but the key figures were Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice-Presidnet of the Senate, Georges Clemenceau, and author Emile Zola. Zola’s famous letter to the president of France, which Clemenceau got him to rename, “J’accuse” (I Accuse), was a major turning point.

“It was a distress signal warning the French people that they were being robbed of their most precious moral possession while they slept.”

Author Betty Schechter relates the story in an engaging and gripping manner, as though it were a mystery story instead of history. I enjoyed the reading very much and would recommend it to any who wish to get a better understanding of more than two hundred years of French history, and the detailed story of Alfred Dreyfus.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett