July 12


I have a highly personal vested interest in what happens after you hit the newspapers as a subject of scandal or controversy. As a general rule, the media gets much of the information wrong, rarely asks their "victim" to share their side of the story, doesn't care about fact-checking because the whole thing is forgotten (from the point of view of making copy and therefore sales, ratings and advertising revenue out of it) after a few days, and almost never ever comes back a week, a month, a year, a decade later, to apologise for the bits they got wrong (but which in the meanwhile damaged or even destroyed somebody's life), let alone to inform their audience of what has actually happened in the meanwhile (that man whose arrest for a horrible crime was splashed across our front pages, ruining his career; well, he finally made it to court fifty days later, and was immediately released).

Few media controversies have ever occupied a nation to quite the scale of that surrounding Captain Alfred Dreyfus (he actually gets three other mentions in this blog, unavoidable on each occasion: see February 3, July 14 and October 18). The full details of the scandal can be read here, and I see little point my doing more than a resum
é - if you already know the story, you don't need it; and if you don't already know it, then you need to click that "here" button and read the whole thing, because it's one of those seminal stories, like Rosa Parks and the Soweto schoolchildren's march, which changed the course of human behaviour, which is far more important surely than any impact they may have had on passing history. But it won't tell you what happened afterwards, which is actually far more important; and so you will need to read on here, because I shall, after a brief resumé of the incident, fill precisely that gap.

In brief then, the Jew Dreyfus was a French military attaché 
at the German Embassy in Paris, when, in 1894, he was framed as a spy and sent to Devil's Island as a traitor. In the meanwhile, the discovery of papers which proved that the real spy was one Major Esterhazy were suppressed; Colonel Picquart, who led the enquiry that found the evidence, was transferred to an out-of-the-way posting in north Africa; the writer Emile Zola was given a one year prison sentence (which he avoided by fleeing the country) for libellously daring to accuse the government in a front-page newspaper article of both anti-Semitism and a cover-up; and Marcel Proust retreated to a cork-lined room to write "A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu" in disgust at the racism of a society he had patronised for so long. 

There were appeals at the Supreme Court, the interventions of Prime Ministers, anti-Semitic riots, the whole shabang, until eventually Dreyfus was brought back from Devil's Island, to face a second court-martial in Rennes in 1899... at which he was again found guilty, albeit with "life" reduced to a further ten years, due to "extenuating circumstances", whatever that might mean in such a case. Some months later, in September 1899, the President of the Republic issued a formal pardon, and Dreyfus was persuaded - probably because the alternative, a return to Devil's Island, was a worse option than suicide - to accept it; like "extenuating circumstances", the acceptance of a pardon first requires, even implicitly, even tacitly, an admission of guilt. 

Upon his release, Dreyfus spoke to the media. His statement included these words: "Liberty to me is nothing without honour. From this day forward I shall continue to seek amends for the shocking judicial wrong of which I am still the victim."

He got nowhere for many years, while those responsible continued their illustrious careers. Then, out of the blue, on April 7th 1903, the newly elected Prime Minister Jean Jaurès announced a new enquiry, headed by General André, the Minister of War, though most of the real work was done by his aide, one Captain Targe. So many were the fabricated documents that Targe uncovered, most of them archived in the Ministry's own files, he was able to present a full report to the Minister of Justice by November of that same year. This led to a second formal enquiry, which was placed in the hands of one Ludovic Trarieux, later the founder of the League of Human Rights. It took two more years, but in April 1905 an eight hundred page report was presented, which demanded not just the quashing of Dreyfus' conviction, but also the dismantling of the entire system of military justice - something that would take another seventy-seven years to complete. 

On July 12th 1906, the French Supreme Court brought the matter to an end at last, by annulling the judgement in Dreyfus' first trial, and ignoring completely the 1899 retrial because it had no status or validity in the light of that annulment. 

There was also a declaration, in what might be considered slightly ambivalent language, of "the end of the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus". Anti-Dreyfusards, of whom there were still about half the nation, momentarily mis-read that as a sign that he was not to be rehabilitated any further, but the point was that he no longer needed to be rehabilitated at all, because he had never done anything wrong in the first place which required rehabilitation. He was reinstated in the army the following morning, with the rank of Artillery Major, which of course was a promotion, though he would have reached it by normal means had he not spent the intervening years in the gutter. He was also appointed as a Chevalier du Légion d'Honneur. He spent the next year as the Commander of the artillery base at Vincennes (the newly appointed Minister of War under whom he ultimately served was the "rehabilitated" Colonel Picquart! another nice little touch by the hand of chance and haphazard), before retiring in June 1907, still suffering from the various tropical and other afflictions residual to five years on Devil's Island.

When the First World War broke out, Dreyfus was called up as a reservist, serving as the head of an artillery depot in Paris before being sent first to Chemin des Dames and later to Verdun. By yet one more wonderful irony, the artillery that had been developed in the meanwhile, and which was so crucial to the German retreat from Normandy in which Dreyfus participated, was precisely the artillery that he was supposed to have sold to the Germans in the first place. That war service was rewarded by his appointment as an officer of the Légion d'Honneur in 1919, and his promotion to the rank of Colonel, while his son Pierre received the Croix de Guerre for his endeavours. He died on July 12th 1935.

One other side-note, when Dreyfus' great defender Emile Zola died in September 1902, the poet Anatole France demanded that Dreyfus be present at the funeral, but the Chief of Police refused, on the grounds that he wanted "to avoid problems", a rather prescient decision in fact - six years later, when Zola's ashes were being transferred to the Panthéon, and Dreyfus was present, a right-wing journalist named Louis Grégori attempted to assassinate Dreyfus, leaving him with a bullet wound in one arm. Anatole France compromised by writing a poem for the funeral, which honoured both Zola and Dreyfus:

"Before recalling the struggle undertaken by Zola for justice and truth is it possible for me to keep silent about those men bent on the destruction of an innocent man and who, after feeling lost, was saved and overwhelmed with the desperate audacity of fear?
   How to depart from your sight then I have a duty to show you.
   Zola rises up weak and disarmed against them?
   Can I hide their lies?
   It would silence his heroic righteousness.
   Can I hide their crimes?
   That would conceal his virtue.
   Can I silence the insults and calumnies which they have pursued?
   It would silence his reward and honours.
   Can I hide their shame?
   It would silence his glory.
   No, I will speak.
   Envy him: he honoured his country and the world by a vast and a great act.
   Envy him, his destiny and his heart gave out the greatest.
   It was a moment of human conscience."

Amber pages

Henry David Thoreau, US writer,born today in 1817, in what really ought to be renamed Discord Massachusetts, given the scale of his rebelliousness and his absolute conviction that there is no government like no government - a man after my own mind, if not entirely after my own heart.

George Eastman, photography pioneer, born today in 1854 - why do we always remember his partner Kodak, but never Eastman himself; and why do we never remember whatever was Kodak's first name?
   I do actually know the answer to that question, and am being entirely disingenuous in asking it; but it makes for one of those interesting questions that history poses. Eastman was adamant that calling his camera, or his company, by his own name, would be disadvantageous, and that he needed what today would be called "branding", a recognisable trademark, or it would never be successful. Go tell that to Amerlia Bloomer (May 26), or Erno Rubik (July 13), orJoseph Hansom (October 26), to name but three disproofs.

Amedeo Modigliani, Italian painter and sculptor, born today in 1884, and by a strange route of artistic and literary genealogy, see my piece on Osip Mandelstam in Private Collection.

Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and diplomat, born today in 1904 - see February 8

Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch author and scholar, died today in 1536

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