In France, Dreyfus Affair won't die

February 09, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

The Germans are anxious about neo-Nazis. The English are troubled by historians who say the Holocaust never happened. And the French, they're still upset about the Dreyfus Affair which came before the Nazis or the Holocaust.

The report from Paris yesterday that the French army's chief historian had been fired for publicly doubting that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was innocent of the espionage charges against him back in 1894 shows that history is never a dead letter, at least not in France.

And ceremonials marking the centennial of the Dreyfus Affair this year are certain to be tinged with some of the bitterness and anger that infused the case originally and tore French society apart.

Francois Leotard, the French defense minister, was described as furious when he dismissed Col. Paul Gaujac after his department released a study to mark the anniversary of the Dreyfus case.

The reason? The report declined to accept that Dreyfus had been wrongfully convicted.

The report -- published in SIRPA Actualite magazine -- resorted to the driest bureaucratic phraseology to describe the consequences of the trial: "the dismantling of French military intelligence and a reduction of funds for the armed forces at a time when Germany was re-arming."

It made no mention of the moral collapse evident in the indictment and conviction of a man many members of the French military elite knew to be innocent.

Mr. Leotard called the Gaujac document "a major error."

Other officials described it as "wrong and unacceptable."

A lot flowed from the Dreyfus Affair. Its repercussions are still evident in French law. They even went far beyond the borders of France. The Dreyfus trial actually spawned the Zionist idea.

The world believes that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew who managed to find a niche in the officer class of France's anti-Semitic military caste at the turn of the century, was framed.

The world believes that he did not sell French military secrets to the Germans, that he was probably set up because he was Jewish.

It took a five-year term by Captain Dreyfus on Devil's Island, three trials and a dozen years of social upheaval to establish that as a fact of history, or at least the interpretation most people agree upon.

The intellectual wars generated by the Dreyfus case were violent in word and deed. They almost brought down the French Third Republic, since most of those who wanted to see Dreyfus condemned -- right-wing Catholics, anti-Semites and ambitious militarists -- had that larger goal in mind.

The fight enlisted some of the greatest figures in French history on Dreyfus' side, men like Georges Clemenceau and Emile Zola, who in his famous article "J'accuse" charged that Dreyfus was being used as a scapegoat to cover up the inadequacies of the French General Staff.

Following the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus, and owing to the involvement in the affair of many right-wing Catholics, the French state was formally secularized in 1905.

The French army was discredited, neglected and never able to prepare for the German onslaught that came eight years after Captain Dreyfus was finally declared innocent.

But it was perhaps its anti-Semitic dimension that had the most lasting impact. The trail finally persuaded the young Jewish journalist from Austria, Theodor Herzl, that assimilation into the various nations of Europe was not really possible for Europe's Jews.

It was the Dreyfus trial that drove him to found the Zionist movement, which was the first step taken toward the establishment nearly 50 years later, of the state of Israel.

Captain Dreyfus was convicted Dec. 22, 1894. He was declared innocent in 1906. He was awarded the Legion of Honor and promoted to the rank of major. He lived his last 29 years in obscurity.

But no one has ever forgotten his name. And not just in France.

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