Friday, October 9, 2009

History unmasks all secrets

‘The most frightful judicial error which has ever been made.’ This is how Alfred Dreyfus - born exactly 150 years ago today - described the judgement that had sent him to years of prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. After being put in irons, it was one of the very last entries he made in a diary that would later be published simply as Five Years of My Life. In the same entry, he writes about pitying torturers, for ‘history unmasks all secrets’. The full text of the book is freely available online.

Dreyfus was born on 9 October 1859, one and a half centuries ago today, in Mulhouse, France, near the Swiss border, and was the youngest of seven children in a prosperous Jewish family. The family moved to Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, when Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by the German Empire in 1871. He trained at the elite École Polytechnique military school and Fontainebleau artillery school before being attached to the 32nd Cavalry Regiment. By 1889 he had been promoted to captain and was working for a government arsenal. In 1891, he married Lucie Hadamard and they had two children. Immediately afterwards he entered the war college (École Supérieure de Guerre), graduating two years later. Thereafter, he was appointed a trainee at the French Army’s General Staff headquarters.

However, in October 1894, Dreyfus was accused of spying for the Germans, and arrested for treason. His Jewishness, his ability to speak German (coming from Alsace), and a complaint he had made at the war college over irregularities in the marking of papers, all seemed to prejudice many against him. The following January he was convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Two years later, evidence came to light identifying a major named Esterhazy as the real culprit, but high-ranking military officials suppressed the evidence and Esterhazy was acquitted. Instead of being exonerated, Dreyfus was further accused by the army on the basis of false documents.

The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, did not go away, partly thanks to the writer Émile Zola who published vehement accusations of a cover-up, most famously in an article headlined J’accuse!. Eventually, in 1899, Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana to face a second military trial, but he was convicted again, and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was subsequently pardoned, though, by President Émile Loubet and freed, although it was not until 1906 that he was formally exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He died in 1935. Wikipedia has an article on Dreyfus, and an even longer one on The Dreyfus Affair

There has been very much written about the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus himself wrote or contributed to various books. Most notable, perhaps, is Five Years of My Life, which covers the period of his incarceration on Devil’s Island and is made up of letters and diary entries. It was first translated by James Mortimer into English and published by George Newnes Ltd in 1901. The full text is available at Internet Archive. Here are the last two diary entries included in the book.

9 September 1896
‘The Commandant of the Islands came yesterday evening. He told me that the recent measure which had been taken, in reference to putting me in irons, was not a punishment, but ‘a measure of precaution,’ for the prison administration had no complaint to make againt me.

Putting in irons a measure of precaution! When I am already guarded like a wild beast, night and day, by a warder armed with rifle and revolver! No; the truth should be told: that it is a measure of hatred and torture, ordered from Paris by those who, not being able to strike a family, strike an innocent man, because neither he nor his family will or should bow their heads, and thus submit to the most frightful judicial error which has ever been made. Who is it that thus constitutes himself my executioner and the executioner of my dear ones? I know not.

One easily divines that the local administration (except the chief-warder, who has been specially sent from Paris) feels a horror of such arbitrary and inhuman measures, but is compelled to apply them to me. It has no choice but to carry out the orders which are imposed on it.

No; the responsibility for them is of higher source; it rests entirely with the author or authors of these inhuman orders.

In any case, no matter what the sufferings, the physical and moral tortures they may inflict on me, my duty and that of my family remains always the same.

As I keep thinking of all this, I no longer fear to become even angry; I have an immense pity for those who thus torture human beings! What remorse they are preparing for themselves, when everything shall come to light; for history unmasks all secrets.

I am overwhelmed with sadness; my heart is so torn, my brain is so shattered, that I can scarcely collect my thoughts; it is indeed the acme of suffering, and still I have this crushing enigma to face.’

10 September 1896
‘I am so worn out, so broken in body and soul, that I am bringing my diary to a close to-day, not knowing how long my strength will keep up or how soon my brain will give way under the strain of so much misery.

I will close it with this last prayer to the President of the Republic, in case I should succumb before seeing the curtain fall on this horrible drama:

Monsieur le President,
I take the liberty of asking you to allow this diary, which has been written day by day, to be sent to my wife. It may perhaps contain, Monsieur le President, expressions of anger and disgust relative to the most terrible conviction that has ever been pronounced against a human being, and a human being who has never forfeited his honour. I do not feel equal to the task of re-reading, of going over the horrible recital again. I now reproach nobody; every one has acted within his faculties, and as his conscience dictated. I simply declare once more that I am innocent of this abominable crime, and still ask for one thing, the same thing, that search may be made for the true culprit, the author of this abominable deed. And on the day when the light breaks, I beg that my dear wife and my dear children may receive all the pity that such a great misfortune should inspire.


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