Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/France After the Zola Trial

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
France After the Zola Trial

From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLII, No. 2151 (March 12, 1898), p. 243.



The Zola trial, which may properly be called the latest, but not the last, phase of the Dreyfus case, has excited all over Europe a sort of tremulous uncertainty as to how the strange condition of things existing in France may affect the relations of that country with the world outside. It is generally regarded as proving that in France the government, and even the courts of justice, are at the mercy of a most dangerous combination of revolutionary influences capable of causing explosions of an incalculably mischievous character. This impression is well borne out by the history of the case in question. Some years ago the general staff of the French army were agitated by the belief that, by persons connected with its military, secrets of importance were betrayed to foreign governments. A memorandum enumerating certain pieces of such information, the famous bordereau, was discovered, said to have been in the possession of the German embassy in Paris. Suspicion was directed to Captain Dreyfus, an officer connected with the staff. He was tried by court martial in secret. Some experts testified that the bordereau was in his handwriting; others testified that it was not. Other so-called evidence was brought forward, with which, however, the accused man was not made acquainted. He was sentenced to be cashiered and to be transported to Devil's Island. The sentence was executed in the most cruel fashion. There the authorities hoped that the matter would rest. But a few months ago a man of high standing, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Senate, M. Scheurer-Kestner, believing that he had evidence of the innocence of Dreyfus, expressed that belief publicly, and sought to induce the government to reopen the case. He met with bitter resistance on the part of the chiefs of the army. But he stood not alone. Other men of prominence joined in his efforts, and there being signs pointing strongly to Major Count Esterhazy — a man of questionable repute, who had in his private correspondence spoken of the French army in a most scandalous manner — as the real culprit, the military authorities found themselves under the necessity of subjecting him too to a trial by court martial. This trial was conducted in such a manner as to appear to every unprejudiced observer as a preconcerted farce, and Count Esterhazy was triumphantly acquitted, and cheered by excited multitudes as a vindicator of the honor of the French army.

Then the famous novelist Emile Zola stepped forward and publicly accused the heads of the army of having by secret and arbitrary proceedings condemned to an infamous punishment a man whose guilt had not been proven, and of having, in order to cover up this crime, in an equally arbitrary way forced the acquittal of a guilty person. What Zola intended by this public charge was, avowedly, to oblige the government to prosecute him for libel, and thus to give him an opportunity for proving the innocence of Dreyfus and the guilt of Esterhazy. But Zola had reckoned without his host. He was, indeed, prosecuted for libel, but only on the charges he had made with regard to the Esterhazy court martial — a proceeding intended to exclude all testimony concerning the Dreyfus case, and to confine that concerning Esterhazy within narrow limits. As to the manner in which the Zola trial was conducted, it is not too much to say that if a detailed and strictly truthful report of it — with all the partly timorous, partly defiant refusals of witnesses to testify; with the insolent and dictatorial harangues addressed to the court and to the jury by generals of the army, who were really the accused parties; with the arbitrary rulings of the presiding judge in excluding almost all the testimony which threatened to tell in Zola's favor; with the part which the howls of an excited mob played in the proceedings; and with the court's condemnation of Zola, imposing upon him the extreme measure of punishment — had appeared in a work of fiction, the verdict of the unbiased reader would be that while a novelist may ask us to accept many improbable things, he should not ask us to believe that such an undisguised, ruthless perversion of justice was possible in a high tribunal of a civilized nation calling itself a republic at the close of the nineteenth century.

Nothing could be more natural than that each day's proceedings should have increased the number of those who believe Dreyfus innocent and Esterhazy guilty. But worse was the conviction, forced by the methods employed in the Zola trial upon every impartial mind, that the heads of the army, having something of a gravely compromising nature to conceal, would shrink from no means ever so desperate to accomplish their purpose. When the trial of Zola proceeded upon the assumption that the accused party was guilty and had to prove his innocence, instead of assuming, according to our principles of justice, that he must be regarded as innocent unless his guilt were proved, it acted only according to the established French rule, strangely antiquated as that rule may seem. But when General de Pellieux, a witness, successfully clamored for the exclusion of testimony required for the establishment of Zola's innocence, on the ground that its admission would be derogatory to the dignity of the army, and when General Boisdeffre, also a witness, addressing the jury, exclaimed, “You, gentlemen of the jury, you are the nation here, for you represent it; and if the nation has not confidence in the chiefs of the army, let it say so, and we are ready to leave to others the burden of our responsibility!” they demanded nothing more nor less than that the cause of justice to the citizen should be subordinate to the interests of the army; and that demand, as it was obeyed by the court and the jury, may properly be called a blow struck at the most fundamental principles of free government.

But the heads of the army went even farther than this. Taking advantage of the circumstance that Dreyfus is a Jew — a circumstance which, in the first instance, may have induced them to select him as a scapegoat — they called to their aid the anti-semitic feeling, that meanest and most hideous remnant of mediæval barbarism, which never appears on the surface without an exhibition of the basest impulses of human nature, casting a dark shadow of disgrace on our boasted Christian civilization. And forthwith the shrill cry of “Down with Jews!” mingled with cheers for the army on the streets of Paris, while in the provinces that cry actually excited the populace to pillage and murder. No less significant was the alliance on this occasion between the army, seeking to maintain its power and prestige, and the most unruly and dangerous elements of the population, represented by so inveterate an enemy of all orderly government as Henri Rochefort — the professional defenders of law and authority and the professional revolutionary disturbers, so to speak, locking arms and uniting in one cry against those who sought only truth and justice! In all her internal commotions France has hardly ever beheld a spectacle more grotesque and alarming than this.

Thus, through moral terrorism and the excitement of the bad passions of the multitude, the chiefs of the army overawed judge and jury and carried their point. But they have not put the trouble to rest. It is true the Prime Minister, who, there is good reason for believing, had watched the proceeding with extreme discomfort, obtained in Parliament, after an appeal for peace and quiet, a vote substantially ratifying what had happened. But the Dreyfus case will rise up again, like Banquo's ghost, to torment the government and the nation in a variety of forms — not only in the appeal to the court of last resort entered by Zola, but after that in the protests of conscience which are sure to come from the thoughtful and self-respecting citizens of the republic, and then, perhaps, in more daring demonstrations of the praetorian spirit in the army. What at last may be the upshot of the bewildering confusion and demoralization of public sentiment in France nobody can foretell. The army has fatally hurt its moral prestige by the methods adopted for maintaining it. The generals will inevitably discover this. It is by no means improbable that they may think of restoring that prestige by the desperate expedient of some warlike enterprise on a great scale. Such a scheme may indeed be foiled, not only by the peaceable disposition of the French people generally, but by the Russian friend, who has his own policy, and who will no doubt make them understand that the Russian alliance will surely be forfeited by any foolish venture on their part. But the situation is full of dark possibilities, and the French people, when they come to their senses, will have learned once more what it means to have a large standing army in a republic.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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