Dreyfus: the name of our century

FOCUS: 'J'Accuse' - the phrase was Zola's, and when it screamed from the front page of 'L'Aurore' 100 years ago this week, it tore France in two and exposed the dynamics of the modern age: hate, horror and humanity
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THE most celebrated, and most devastating, headline in newspaper history appeared 100 years ago this week. On January 13, 1898, the outsize, front-page headline in the Parisian newspaper L'Aurore, read simply: "J'Accuse...!"

Beneath was an open letter, written by the novelist Emile Zola, which detonated the second phase of the Dreyfus affair: the case of an (initially) obscure, Jewish artillery captain, wrongfully accused of spying for Germany. It was Zola's article, a masterpiece of controlled fury, which inspired the first effective campaign to vindicate him.

For 12 years, spanning the turn of the century, L'Affaire Dreyfus tore France apart, inspiring anti-semitic riots, fist-fights in parliament, changes of government, scores of military duels. For a large section of French society (initially the great majority), the guilt of Alfred Dreyfus became an article of nationalist faith. For another part of France - especially after the Zola letter - belief in the captain's innocence was essential to defend the democratic, humanitarian values of the French enlightenment and revolution.

THE centenary of "J'Accuse...!" will be commemorated in Paris from tomorrow with two days of ceremonies, debates and exhibitions under the patronage of both the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and the President, Jacques Chirac. The anniversary is also marked by a rich flora of new literature on the affair, including the first publication in full of the captain's own 1899-1907 diaries. No equivalent event in British history from 100 years ago could command such attention.

Nelly Wilson is a British academic who is recognised as a great expert on both Zola and Dreyfus. She is the only non-French academic invited to lecture during the hommage to both men organised this week by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and others.

"It is perhaps not so surprising that the affair remains so vivid in the French mind," she said. "It describes a conflict at the heart of French political psychology which has not changed so very much to this day. On the one hand, a fierce nationalism and a temptation to justify almost anything for raisons d'etat; on the other hand, a fierce attachment to justice for the individual, for the rights of the individual."

Captain Dreyfus was first seized upon by the military hierarchy in 1894 through a mixture of incompetence, nationalist paranoia and racial prejudice. He had the misfortune to be in a junior, temporary post at army headquarters when counter-intelligence stumbled on a hand-written letter to the German embassy offering a shopping-list of minor French military secrets. Suspicion fell upon him, because of a vague similarity with his own hand-writing, and because he was jewish, and because he had been born in Alsace, then part of Germany.

Clear evidence of the captain's innocence was ignored or buried by senior officers; evidence of his guilt was trumped up, even forged. The captain spent five years alone in a cage in Devil's Island, a rock off the coast of what is now French Guyana. Eventually, in 1899, he was pardoned, soon after being found guilty for a second time by a court martial on no evidence whatsoever. Dreyfus was not formally exonerated until 1906.

The affair was seized upon by right-wing politicians and the military to whip up the extreme nationalism and paranoia of fin de siecle France, born of the defeat by Prussia in 1871. Anti-semitism was rife among the working class, but also in the highest echelons of society, including the military. The high-Catholic aristocracy blamed Jews, successful in industry and finance, for supplanting much of their political influence.

The affair came to be seen on the Left, and not without reason, as a struggle to the death, not to save one low-ranking officer, but for the inheritance of "Republican values" - liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy and justice for all - from the revolutions on 1789, 1830 and 1870.

If the anti-Dreyfusards had won - and without Zola's intervention they might have - France might have lapsed into something resembling Hitlerism, or more likely a Franco-like, high-Catholic, totalitarian state. When France did lapse into such a state, from 1940 to 1945, among the first actions of the Vichy regime were the posthumous rehabilitation of the senior officers who lied and cheated to persecute Dreyfus.

It is to the credit of France that - unlike in Germany, Italy and Spain a few decades later - democracy triumphed over nationalist hysteria. But Philippe Oriol, the young French academic who edited the captain's diaries, says that the disturbing inheritance of anti-Dreyfusism remains a live force in French politics today.

"The Dreyfus affair will always be a source of fascination for French intellectuals because it was the first, and remains the supreme, example of the direct engagement of the French intellectual for the good in political and public life. But the real fascination of the affair to me is that it remains in a sense unresolved.

"The issues, the values raised by the Dreyfus affair - truth, justice, the sanctity of the rights of the individual versus the manipulation of mass prejudice and the perversion of nationalism - are still contending in French public life. You only have to examine a speech by Jean-Marie Le Pen to see that the National Front are the true and direct inheritors of the diehard, anti-Dreyfusard position."

The notebooks edited by Mr Oriol - kept by the captain in the years between his release and his exoneration - do go some way towards resolving one vexing issue in the Dreyfus affair; the nature of Dreyfus, the man. Dreyfus has tended to be portrayed, including by some of his own supporters, as a cold, stiff, militaristic man; a small person of little emotion, and no great intelligence, someone who did not grasp the true importance of what was happening to him. He was even criticised for betraying his own cause by allowing himself to be released from the cage on Devil's Island before his innocence was established and the anti-Dreyfus camp fully vanquished.

"I think the notebooks prove that that the impression of a cold or stupid man is utterly false," said Mr Oriol. "Dreyfus comes over as a man of flesh and blood, but he also emerges as someone of great sensibility and intelligence, and a man who understood perfectly well the wider importance of his own affair.

"One of the great academic debates in France has been to ask whether Dreyfus himself, if he had not been directly involved, would have been a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard. I think these notebooks prove that he would have been a committed Dreyfusard."

Dreyfus was re-admitted to the military in 1906, served behind the lines in the First World War, rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and died in 1935 aged 75.

And Emile Zola? He was convicted of defamation and fled to London (which he hated). "J'Accuse" plunged the last years of his life into intense discomfort, when he could have been enjoying the fruits of his earlier success as a writer, which included works such as Germinal and La Bete Humaine.

Zola returned to Paris and died, in bizarre circumstances, in 1902 - apparently poisoned by the smoke from his own fireplace. Suggestions, which were never even remotely proved, that the writer might have been murdered by the anti-Dreyfusards will remain the stuff of speculation and debate for yet another century.

ALTHOUGH the subject of several movies, the Dreyfus affair has never had quite the same resonance outside France. Even at the time, British newspapers wrote puzzled or mocking articles, demanding to know what all the fuss was about. But the historical importance of the case is not purely French.

It was the Dreyfus affair which persuaded Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, that the only sure future for the Jewish people was in the creation of a Jewish state. It was the Dreyfus affair which led to the creation of the world's first formal human rights lobby: the French League of Human Rights.

More than that, the case can be seen as a grim sentinel of the conflicts which shaped this century: extreme nationalism, unbridled state power and racism on the one hand against justice and individual liberty on the other (while the more extreme members of the pro-Dreyfus faction span off into a kind of humanitarian fanaticism).

The Dreyfus affair stood at the gate between two centuries: an unheeded warning that the unfinished business of one would explode with unimagined force in the next, a salutary warning, still, as the 20th century draws to a close.

'Alfred Dreyfus, Carnets (1899-1907)', edited by Phillipe Oriol, is published by Calmann-Levy, FF159.