Dissent & Dreyfus

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

It was the Dreyfus case and Emile Zola's magnificent role in it that alerted French intellectuals to their higher calling as moral watchmen over the modern state. Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French Army, was found guilty by a military tribunal in 1894 of selling secrets to the Germans. He was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. A special law was passed so that he could serve his sentence on Devil's Island, an arid rock formation off the shore of French Guiana. He was held in solitary confinement in a stone cell, with no relief from the tropical heat.

There was no precedent in French law for such brutal treatment. The usual punishment of exile to a remote penal colony simply would not satisfy a Minister of War enraged by Dreyfus' refusal to confess, or the anti-Semitic and nationalist public. Eventually, Dreyfus was completely exonerated.

It, however, exposed gross misconduct at the highest level in the Army, divided the nation and held it to ridicule abroad. Louis Begley, a prize-winning novelist and lawyer of 45 years' standing, tears the prosecution case to shreds.

The labour has a purpose. It is to illuminate the parallel between the Dreyfus affair and the practice of torture by the United States under George W. Bush, between Devil's Island and Guantanamo. As ever, we face the dilemmas of liberty vs security and mass hysteria, fuelled in our age by television, whenever a man is charged with treason. Even when the charge is manifestly justified, the result can be denial of a fair trial; if it is not, there can be a monstrous wrong.

The military tribunal allowed last-minute secret introduction of evidence, without sharing that evidence with the defence. Anti-Semitism transformed suspicion into certainty. Top military leaders decided that any action leading to conviction even forgery was justified. A whistleblower, Lt. Col Picquant, who recognised both Dreyfus' innocence and the risks such a miscarriage of justice might pose to the nation, was prosecuted and punished.

The press and the public had been excluded from the trial. The case of treasonable espionage rested on a single piece of paper to which nothing except an alleged similarity of handwriting linked him, a similarity on which handwriting experts could not agree.

He was held incommunicado for two weeks and then put up for trial by a court martial. On December 19, 1894, he was convicted and sentenced. Five years later, the conviction was set aside by the Court de Cassation, the highest court of France. He was to be tried afresh, which was all he wanted a fair trial. He had a touching faith in the Army and the men who led it.

L'Affaire Dreyfus tore the nation apart. By 1898 the Dreyfusard camp, led by Mathieu Dreyfus [his brother], included centrist and left-wing politicians, and, with significant and notorious exceptions, most leading intellectuals, artists, writers, and academics, as well as, in smaller numbers, Army officers and members of the clergy. Later came revelations of the illegalities committed at the Paris court martial.

Public opinion outside of France was overwhelmingly on the side of Dreyfus. Spectacular supporters of Dreyfus outside France included Queen Victoria and her attorney general, Empress Eugenie, the widow of Napoleon III :. Anti-Dreyfusards were a right-wing coalition of Army officers, anti-Semites, militarists, extreme nationalists France's Sangh Parivar.

He was retried in 1899 and found guilty, by a vote of 5-2, but with extenuating circumstances. Such a grudging retreat is typical of all states. The Army's top brass was present in court to proclaim his guilt to the seven military officers trying him. The decline of the Right facilitated redress; Dreyfus asked for a review based on fresh evidence available to him. In 1903, the case was sent to the Court of Cassation. In 1906, Dreyfus was declared innocent. He was made a major and eventually an officer of the Legion of Honour.

Two men led the fight, Jean James, the socialist leader, and Emile Zola, the author of the immortal J'accuse an open letter to the President published in L' Aurore, a left-wing daily. Two hundred thousand copies were sold out within hours. In 1984, France honoured both Drefus and Zola.

Begley has the last word. Times and circumstances change. Some Guantanamo detainee may be as innocent as Dreyfus; some surely are not. But before January 20, Guantanamo detainees could look forward only to trials that would be as unfair and lacking in protections for the defendant as the court martial that convicted Dreyfus.

The Dreyfus case became the Dreyfus Affair, which tore France apart for long years after the case had come to an end and Captain Dreyfus had been fully exonerated. Steps taken by President Obama may spare the United States similar bitter strife, burnish its soiled image, and offer a path to freedom to those Guantanamo detainees who deserve it.

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