French Connection: What the Dreyfus Affair Does-And Doesn't-Tell Us about Guantanamo

By O'Donnell, Michael | The Washington Monthly, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

French Connection: What the Dreyfus Affair Does-And Doesn't-Tell Us about Guantanamo


O'Donnell, Michael, The Washington Monthly


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The most remarkable moment of the Dreyfus affair, which noisily consumed France for over a decade at the turn of the twentieth century, occurred quietly in May 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew and a captain in the French army, had been wrongly convicted by court-martial of treason, largely on the strength of secret and forged evidence. He was publicly humiliated in a ceremony of degradation before 20,000 people, his epaulets ripped from his shoulders and his sword broken in two as the crowd called for Judas's blood. Then he was shipped off without notice to his family to serve a life sentence of solitary confinement on Devil's Island, a craggy little slice of hell off the coast of French Guiana in South America. A month after he arrived, as he began to comprehend the isolation, heat, malnutrition, and disease, he received a letter from his brother, Mathieu Dreyfus. This is what the letter said:

   Banal consolations are not what I want to offer; there are none in
   your situation. But tell yourself that the contempt and shame that
   attach themselves to your name, to our name, for a crime that you
   have not committed, must not make you bow your head. You must be
   alive, amongst us, on the day of reparation. Light shall be shed
   and it will be blinding, I promise you. I have taken upon myself
   the task of solving the enigma of this frightful story, and I will
   never give up, no matter what happens. And I have the certainty,
   the most complete and absolute belief, that I will succeed.

One trembles to read words of such power a hundred years and many lattes removed from Devil's Island. Imagine how Dreyfus felt when they reached him. The photo of him immediately after the degradation ceremony is heartbreaking: it is the image of a man crushed beyond all hope of healing who yet tries to retain his dignity. No portrait exists of him during his lonely penal term, yet it would have been infinitely more horrible. His good name would not be restored for nearly eleven years, and then only because of the efforts of Mathieu Dreyfus.

If European fascism were a ladder, the Dreyfus affair would have its own rung. Situated between the Russian pogroms of the 1880s and the first echoes of the goose step, it ushered in the bloody new century with the cry of "Death to the Jews" and the smashing of store windows. Writing in 1951, Hannah Arendt marveled that "[n]either the first nor the second World War has been able to bury the [Dreyfus] affair in oblivion," and observed, "Down to our times, the term anti-Dreyfusard can still serve as a recognized name for all that is antirepublican, antidemocratic, and anti-Semitic." This point has reverberated for sixty years; the affair is still one of the most written-about subjects there is. It prompted the birth of the Zionist movement after Theodor Herzl left France in 1896 to write Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that Jews must relocate, not assimilate. It also startled republican France by revealing the depths to which even an enlightened and cultured nation could sink. The second-place finish for Jean-Marie Le Pen and his far-right National Front party in France's 2002 presidential election caused such alarm because it occurred in a country that had both locked up an innocent Jew and moved its government to Vichy.

Ferocious anti-Semitism accompanied Dreyfus's court-martials and the trials of his various allies and opponents. Catholic partisans revived the blood libel, claiming that Jews were kidnapping Christians to bleed them in order to make matzos, and editorialists drew cartoons of Jews roasting on spits. When one of the heroes of the ordeal, Georges Picquart-himself casually anti-Semitic--unearthed evidence that Dreyfus could not have been the one who passed French artillery specs to the Germans, he was famously told, "What do you care if that Jew rots on Devil's Island? …

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