Jean Jaurès, socialist and humanitarian/3

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CHAPTER III

JAURÈS AND THE DREYFUS CASE

 

It was not long after Jaurès had definitely joined the Socialist Party that France became harassed and rent with the Dreyfus case. The critical years during which the controversy raged were from the end of 1895 to 1899. After that the “Affaire” died down, though it was not really finished with till later. M. Rappoport calls it: “at once a moral epic, a national drama, a political tragedy, and on certain sides a popular melodrama.… Some secondary figures threatened to turn it into a tragi-comic farce. But the atrocious sufferings of an innocent man, and the ideological and political passions aroused, preserved for it, to the end, its serious character. It called into movement a whole world of ideas, passions, interests.”

The “Affaire” seems to have arisen out of a wave of Anti-Semitism, which, resulting from the emancipation of the Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century and the jealousy felt at their consequent increase of power, had visited other countries and passed at that time over France, The condition of mind which expresses itself as Anti-Semitism always seems connected with motives and emotions of a sinister sort, but it tries to appear as if it sprang from natural, and even noble indignation. Many Jews in France were rich, they had their hands on high finance, they were powerful, and, it was said, of course unscrupulous, at once the enemies of religion, of patriotism, and of the poor. The clerical journal, the Libre Parole, made common cause against them with "Nationalist" and "advanced" newspapers. So far as the Socialists were interested at all, they were at first prejudiced against the rich Jew who was made the victim of this propaganda. The clerical and aristocratic hatred for the bourgeois Republic in which it was said the Jews had grown so powerful was especially strong in the army, where, says Jaurès, in the preface to his book, Les Preuves, "the clerical party, having lost, during the Republican period, … the direction of public administration, of the Civil Service, had found a refuge.… There the old directing classes … grouped themselves into a proud, exclusive clique. There the influence of the Jesuits, patient and subtle recruiting officers among the higher command, was exercised in a sovereign fashion." This aristocratic and clerical feeling was naturally antagonistic to the Jewish officers, of whom there were five hundred. "And now, behold a Jew penetrates, the first of his race," he continues, "into the Staff, to the very heart of the stronghold.… Quick! this scandal must be cut short. First vague rumours, then general theories are propagated: by what imprudence has the French nation taken into the centre of her military system the accursed race, the treasonable people who, no longer being able to crucify God, hidden above the clouds, wishes to crucify the country? And immediately that the leakage of documents is announced to the General Staff, it is towards the Jew that eyes are secretly turned. Ah! what luck if it should be he!"

Drumont had founded the Anti-Semitic Libre Parole in 1892. This newspaper seems to have been in some way in the confidence of those who had the Dreyfus prosecution in hand, for it was through its means that the first hint of what was going on became public, and the Libre Parole began a regular campaign with the object of making it difficult for the Minister of War to support Dreyfus. When it first became known that Dreyfus had been charged with treason, it seemed indeed as if his enemies had all France at their backs, and though the whole trial was secret and no one had any idea of the evidence on which he had been condemned, the country decided against him. Amid a storm of furious denunciation he was degraded and condemned to be confined in a fortress for life, and no voice was raised on his behalf. Apparently no one but his own friends believed in his innocence. Five years later, when he was brought back from the Ile du Diable a great change had taken place, and although his enemies were still strong enough to secure his condemnation a second time, yet the verdict spoke of "extenuating circumstances" and the sentence of ten years was a mere form.

For a long time Jaurès looked on at this mysterious drama as an outsider, and was chiefly concerned with the indications it gave of the unrest and anarchy brought about by unscrupulous capitalism and finance on the one hand, and the workings of clericalism and militarism on the other. [1]"Across the incidents of the Dreyfus-Esterhazy affair," he wrote, "across its successive periods of sharp crises or of calm. Socialists have noted, like attentive surgeons, the play of profound forces which have entered into the struggle."

"Enemies of the power of cosmopolitan finance, as of military and of clerical power, they denounce the organic convulsions by which the social body is shaken. But we turn hopeful eyes towards the other power, great and good, which grows and increases every day, and which tomorrow will be the chief and all-powerful force—the power of the workers."

But from 1896 to 1898 a series of events had taken place, and, through the press, revelations, and half-revelations, and insinuations had poured forth, and the eyes of honest men had been opened more and more.

After Dreyfus was sent to French Guiana in 1895 there was silence for over a year. He had begged in the most impassioned manner for further investigation, and his family were all this time at work, but nothing happened, and no doubt his enemies thought they had rid themselves of him for ever.

Then a very curious thing came about. In May, 1896, a carte telegramme was brought from the German Embassy, by the secret agent of the French Government who had brought from the same place the document which was supposed to incriminate Dreyfus. This carte telegramme was delivered into the hands of Colonel Picquart, at that time head of the Intelligence Department, and as it happened, an honest and honourable man. The card, always afterwards called the petit bleu, which he now received, was addressed to Monsieur le Commandant Esterhazy, at this officer's address in Paris. This led Colonel Picquart to make some inquiries about Esterhazy, in the course of which it became clear that Esterhazy was a depraved and reckless man. But this was not all, for Colonel Picquart, whose suspicions were aroused by Esterhazy's manifest relationships with the German Embassy, compared his handwriting with that of the famous bordereau attributed to Dreyfus, and became convinced that they were the same.

But when he intimated to his superiors of the General Staff, who had at first encouraged him, that he was ready to proceed against Esterhazy, he was told to be cautious, and in the autumn of 1896 he was sent on a dangerous mission in Tunisia, and Esterhazy was not tried for another year. While away, Colonel Picquart received letters and telegrams of a compromising nature, which were obviously sent to discredit him.

Meanwhile, a facsimile of the bordereau had been published in the Matin to reassure the Anti-Dreyfusards, who were becoming somewhat uneasy. It was a mistaken step, however, for almost at once it was seen not to have been written by Dreyfus, so that it was not reassuring at all. Meanwhile, the Anti-Dreyfusard paper, L'Eclair, actually had the folly to state that Dreyfus had not been condemned because of the bordereau, but upon a letter which had never been shown either to him or to his lawyer. This fact, so damning to his judges, came out in other ways.

Esterhazy, in fact, knew that the net was drawing closer round him. On the 14th November, 1897, it was stated in the Figaro that a senator, M. Scheurer-Kestner, had convincing proofs of the innocence of Dreyfus. To discount such evidence beforehand, Esterhazy published the next day an article in L'Eclair under the name of Dixi, in which he stated that the plan of the "Dreyfus Syndicate" was to throw the blame of the bordereau on another officer whose handwriting resembled that of this document, the truth being that Dreyfus had obtained quantities of this officer's handwriting and had traced it and incorporated it into the bordereau. Esterhazy thus himself admitted the likeness between his own handwriting and that of the bordereau.

When Picquart returned shortly afterwards, Esterhazy was court-martialled. But the trial was with closed doors, and the bias of the Staff was so greatly in his favour and its determination that the Dreyfus case should not be reopened was so strong, that he was acquitted, while Colonel Picquart himself was imprisoned on a charge of espionage.

It was plain that none of the facts that had so far leaked out had moved the authorities at all. On the contrary they had shielded the real traitor, and had refused to listen to the plea for revision made by Matthieu Dreyfus and others. It seemed that nothing less than a direct appeal to the public would avail, and Emile Zola, the novelist, stepped bravely into the breach. On the 13th of January, 1898, he published in L'Aurore the famous "open letter" to the President of the Republic, each paragraph of which began "J'accuse …" and in which he accused by name, a number of Generals of the Staff, who by weakness or wickedness were partners in the crime of condemning an innocent man, the Commandant Paty du Clam for being the "ouvrier diaboliqiie de l'erreur judiciare," the experts in handwriting, the Council of War, and the bureaux of War for the campaign which it had inspired in the Press.

His object, of course, was to secure a trial for libel, which he was duly accorded in February, and at which many more incriminating facts against the persecutors of Dreyfus were disclosed. But the highest chiefs of the army, so many of whom were by this time implicated, put forth all their powers to prevent the truth from coming to light, and Zola was accordingly condemned. He appealed, and two months later the Cour de Cassation reversed the judgment. Means were found, however, to institute a fresh trial in July. For some reason Zola thought it the best policy to disappear, and he came to England, where he remained in hiding till June, 1899. Then, hearing that Dreyfus had at last been accorded a revision, he went back to Paris.

"J'accuse" produced an immense sensation, and for many honest men it became the occasion of a "veritable liberation of conscience." For a long time Jaurès had been more and more unable to restrain his indignation. From this moment he threw himself with all his powers into the struggle. [2]"At the tribune of the Chamber" he tells us, "on the 24th of January, 1898, I put the question plainly, 'Yes or No.? Was a document which might have formed or fortified the conviction of the judges, communicated to them and not to the accused? Yes or No?'" One seems to see Jaurès, his eyes gleaming, asking this straight question and one realises that he was a formidable opponent. "I waited for a reply for some minutes. M. Méline (the Prime Minister) hesitating, troubled, finished by stammering 'You will be answered in another place.' But it was just in the Chamber, that is before the country, that he should have answered me. It is not the business of Parliament to apply the laws, but its first duty is to watch over, by means of the responsible government, the observation of the law, the maintenance of legal guarantees, without which a prosecution is only a trap.

"And when Parliament abdicates this essential duty, when through fear of the army chiefs who have criminally violated the law, it dares not even get information, when it permits the government by a miserable shuffle to evade a definite question, there is no more surety of liberty in a country; what remains of it is yielded us on sufferance only.

"But if it was false that the law had been violated … what prevented M. Méline from rising and saying 'No!'?

"With a single word he would have calmed honest minds. This word he did not say, and his silence was a decisive avowal."

And this same answer was not given "elsewhere." It was refused at Zola's trial by General Mercier, who had been Minister of War at the time of the Dreyfus trial. Nevertheless all came gradually to light.

Reinach refers to Jaurès' wonderful physical energy in speaking, when he describes his first interference on this subject in the French Chamber. Tumult arose from the beginning of his speech, and the interruptions were frequent, while [3]"he boldly made his profession of faith, the same as that of all those who had been crying for months for justice.

"'Do you know from what we are all suffering,' he said, 'from what we are all dying.? I say it on my own responsibility. We are all dying since this affair began from half measures, from keeping things back, from equivocations, from lies, from cowardice. Yes, equivocations, lies, cowardice.'

"He no longer spoke, he thundered with a purple face, his arms stretched out towards the Ministers who protested, toward the Right who bellowed. But the more the clamour became furious, the higher his voice rose, like the cry of a sea-bird in a tempest."

Jaurès was a journalist of great powers. He now began a press campaign in La Petite République, for which at that time he was writing. In the autumn of the same year 1898 his articles were published as a book called Les Preuves. It is a brilliant piece of work.

Jaurès began with the two propositions, "(1) That Dreyfus had been condemned illegally without guarantees essential to the accused; and (2) That he had been condemned by error. He is an innocent man who suffers afar for the crimes of another. It is to prolong the martyrdom of an innocent man that to-day all the powers of reaction and of lying have coalesced."

And then he proceeded day by day and bit by bit to prove his assertions. He unravelled this tortuous web of lies, spread by the enemies of Dreyfus; he followed with endless patience the ramifications of these mysteries, and all with a mastery of touch, a power of getting right at the essential underlying truth, a restrained passion, which only occasionally bursts into flame when he can bear the atmosphere of falsehood no longer.

Jaurès first examined the charge with which the enemies of Dreyfus (including the Minister of War) had attempted to stop all further effort on the part of those who were trying to bring about revision, when at last it began to be clear that both the evidence on which he had been ostensibly and that on which he had really been condemned were alike coming to grief. Jaurès tells us that M. Cavaignac, the War Minister, actually declared in the Chamber as late as July, 1898, that nothing else really mattered since there was, after all, an avowal of his guilt by Dreyfus himself, and Rochefort, the editor of L'Intransigeant merely said, "Why insist on other proofs? Dreyfus has confessed."

Never was a deeply injured and helpless man more finely defended than Dreyfus was in this matter by Jaurès. To rouse in his readers a full sense of the impossibility of this pretended confession, he tells us how Dreyfus had repeatedly, unwearyingly, and passionately declared his innocence. He describes how the Commandant Paty du Clam, into whose hands the conduct of this case had been given, had several times visited him in prison, both before and after his condemnation, urging him, even tempting him by the offer of a personal interview with the Minister of War, to confess, and how Dreyfus (as was mentioned in the act of accusation) had obstinately refused to allow that he had even committed a slight indiscretion. Next Jaurès quoted a long description, from a newspaper of the time, of the terrible day of his public degradation, when it was noticed how "straight the canaille held himself." Upon his sentence being pronounced this account declared that he threw up his arms and shouted "I am innocent! I swear that I am innocent! Vive la France!" and directly they touched him to tear off his decorations he shouted again "I swear it on the heads of my wife and children, I am innocent! " Three times more he declared it, urging on the journalists, who met him with insults, to tell France of his innocence, and again he avowed it upon his return to prison. Then in letters written that very night, in the greatest agony of mind, he repeated it, and on every possible occasion since, Dreyfus never swerved from this position.

"Thus Dreyfus had never confessed. Always with indefatigable energy he affirmed his innocence." How then did this legend arise? The story, Jaurès tells us, comes from a certain Lebrun-Renaud who had a conversation with him on the morning of his degradation, and who stated the next day to the Minister that Dreyfus had made "half-avowals." Will it be believed that for three years Lebrun-Renaud was not asked to make a definite report, but that he was then called upon to do so, and his report quoted as if it had been given at the moment? Jaurès explains that the Commandant Paty du Clam had gone to Dreyfus four days before the degradation and had suggested to him that the Minister was not inclined to believe so badly of him, but that if he would confess that he had sent "documents of no importance to the foreign power to get documents of more importance," this might be accepted as saving at least his honour. To this Dreyfus had firmly replied that he had done nothing of the sort. But in his long conversation, or rather "monologue," with Lebrun-Renaud, he no doubt said: "The Minister knows that I am innocent. He believes that if I sent documents it was so as to get other (more important) ones. But I did not do even that." … And Lebrun-Renaud, not attending carefully to these words, turned them afterwards into: "The Minister knows that if I sent documents it was with the purpose, etc." … These were in fact the words used in Lebrun-Renaud's report. Such is Jaurès' explanation, and in reading it one feels it is the truth.

With like art Jaurès unravelled the tortuous history of the bordereau. Five experts were called in to study the handwriting of Dreyfus, three of whom held that it was the same as that of the bordereau, two thought not. Of the three who believed that Dreyfus had written it, one Bertillon distinguished himself from the others by his "system," which he said was psychological, not merely graphological. Jaurès holds up his system to ridicule, and he shows how this same Bertillon who was so absolutely certain that his system could not err, was no sooner confronted by Colonel Picquart two years later with some of Esterhazy's letters than he cried out: "It is the writing of the bordereau," and yet, having once decided that the bordereau had been written by Dreyfus, would not alter his opinion that Dreyfus was its author, even when he was told that these letters were Esterhazy's. Jaurès was tireless in the pursuit of evidence. He shows us three new experts at Esterhazy's trial, forced to account for the writing of the bordereau by a new theory, the theory that Dreyfus traced some of Esterhazy's handwriting and introduced it into the bordereau, and he tells how they supported this idea with the most roundabout and untenable suggestions, while he refers to the fact that at Zola's trial no less than seven savants whose work is amongst manuscripts, and who are experts of a high order in writing, had all without exception agreed that the handwriting was that of Esterhazy. And following his blows home with an almost terrible determination, he shows Esterhazy himself put to the most pitiable shifts to explain the matter, himself owning the resemblance and trying to explain it with elaborate stories of the way in which Dreyfus had obtained by fraud a long document in his handwriting. Jaures leaves nothing to chance, he unmasks first one and then another subterfuge. He shows how the enemies of Dreyfus change their ground, and remarks particularly how, in July, 1898, when Cavaignac, the War Minister, again speaks in the Chamber on this subject, he no longer dares even to mention the bordereau, but reads the three secret documents on which Dreyfus had really been convicted. Two of these documents merely referred to someone called D., and Jaurès had no difficulty in showing that it was quite impossible to say that this referred to Dreyfus; there was no evidence of any kind that it did. Then there was a third document in which the name of Dreyfus occurs in full, but which, as M. Cavaignac owned, had not fallen into their hands till two years after the trial. It was not difficult for Jaurès to prove that this last had been a forgery. He declared openly that it was so: "In October 1898 … Esterhazy, Paty du Clam and the Staff knew that Colonel Picquart had gathered together against Esterhazy the most crushing charges. They knew that the bordereau was Esterhazy's, that the secret documents contained nothing serious against Dreyfus, that evidence which would probably establish the innocence of the unhappy condemned man was about to appear and that the Staff would be compromised … Esterhazy and his accomplices on the Staff decided to fabricate a false letter which should prove at last the culpability of Dreyfus." Jaurès brought internal evidence against them to prove this accusation. And events soon showed that he was right. But with biting ridicule he describes how M. Cavaignac had said it was certain that this letter must come from the same source as the two other letters which had fallen into their hands two years previously, because it was written on the same sort of paper and once more with a blue pencil. What is the value of evidence to M. Cavaignac? A blue pencil, messieurs, the test is certain.

Thus day by day Jaurès continued to unravel the sordid and miserable tale.

A serious blow fell on the enemies of Dreyfus when Colonel Henry, who had followed Colonel Picquart at the Intelligence Department, confessed that he had fabricated the third "secret document," and being arrested, committed suicide. But still the authorities held out, and even in September, 1898, revision had not been conceded, although Jaurès calls for it at the end of his articles with confidence that it cannot long be denied.

"No closed doors, no mysteries."

"Justice in full daylight. Revision in full daylight for the deliverance of the innocent, for the punishment of the guilty, for the instruction of the people, for the honour of the country."

Revision was in fact near at hand. A great change had come over the people. Led away at first by the newspaper declarations and denunciations, the people of France had been gradually affected by the revelations, and by the work of men like Jaurès, Zola, and Scheurer-Kestner. It was the Conscience of France speaking to her, and she listened. It is one of the glories of that great nation that she knows how to repent.

The question had indeed become a far larger one than when first an anti-Jewish prejudice saw a possible victim in Dreyfus. During the campaign every force of reaction and darkness had joined together on one side, especially Nationalism, always a danger for Republican France, and Clericalism. These exploited the idea of the Army and of Patriotism to the fullest extent. On the other side were now grouped not only all the best intellectual forces, like Zola and Anatole France, not only Socialist leaders of the people like Jaurès, not only Radicals like Clemenceau, but even all those moderate men who wished honestly to see the Republic upheld. Political war was openly declared and plots to overturn the Republic itself came to light. The Socialists by joining with the Republicans secured power for the defence of the Republic, and under the Radical Ministry of Brisson, the Cabinet at last remitted to the Cour de Cassation an application for the revision of the Dreyfus trial. The Court held an elaborate inquiry and ended by quashing the old trial and ordering a new military trial at Rennes. Dreyfus therefore, after nearly five years in prison, was brought back to France in 1899. His old enemies, the generals, made every effort against him, and such was the excitement that his counsel, M. Labori, was actually shot at, and wounded, on the eve of the cross-examination of the witnesses.

His condemnation was however a farce. In ten days the President of the Republic, M. Loubet, sent him, by the advice of the Government, a pardon. Dreyfus was once more free, but naturally neither he nor his friends were satisfied with this very partial measure of justice. Even Jaurès, however, felt that the matter must be allowed to rest till some of the excitement and bitter feeling aroused should have passed away, although he did not abandon the cause till he had brought about the complete reinstatement of Dreyfus.

For when in 1905 Dreyfus demanded a new trial, Jaurès obtained the agreement of the Chamber. "Faits nouveaux " were accordingly found and the new Minister of War transmitted them to the Cour de Cassation, which with all its chambers sitting, recorded in 1906 its verdict that the whole accusation against Dreyfus was disproved, and the second trial at Rennes was in its turn quashed.

Dreyfus now re-entered the army. Like Colonel Picquart, he was promoted and received the Legion of Honour in the Artillery Pavilion of the Military School.

Some of the Socialists complained of the amount of energy which Jaurès threw into the "Affaire," although as a matter of fact it was only during 1898 and 1899 that he gave it much of his time. But there were those who said that the work had diverted him from the propaganda of Socialism, that it was a quarrel amongst the enemies of Socialism which they should be left to settle amongst themselves, since it had nothing to do with the workers. One writer averred that if Dreyfus had been a worker he would long since have been forgotten. While the matter was still in the balance Jaurès made a splendid appeal to his Socialist comrades in one of his articles in La Petite Républigue.

When it becomes certain, he says, that Dreyfus was condemned on evidence which he himself was not shown, then "On that day we Socialists shall have a right to set ourselves up against all the leaders who have fought against us in the name of the principles of the French Revolution. What have you done, we shall cry to them, with the Rights of Man and the liberty of the individual? You have despised it. You have yielded it all up to the insolence of military power. You are renegades of the bourgeois revolution.

"Oh, I am not mistaken and I understand the sophism of our enemies. 'What,' says the Libre Parole softly, 'these are Socialists, revolutionaries, who are troubled about legality!'

"I have but one word to answer. There are two sides to capitalist and bourgeois legality. There is a whole mass of laws destined to protect the fundamental iniquity of our society; there are laws which consecrate the privileges of capitalist property, the exploitation of the wage-earner by the possessors. These laws we wish to change, even by Revolution if it is necessary, to abolish capitalist legality so that another order may arise. But by the side of these laws of privilege and of rapine made by a class for itself, there are others which sum up the meagre progress of humanity, modest guarantees that it has little by little acquired by the long effort of centuries and the long series of revolutions.

"Well, among these laws the one which does not permit a man, whoever he may be, to be condemned without debating the charge with him, is perhaps the most essential of all. Unlike the Nationalists who want to keep all that part of the bourgeois legality which protects Capital, and give up to the generals all that which protects man, we revolutionary Socialists wish to abolish the capitalist part of the legality of to-day and save the human part. We defend the legal guarantees against the decorated judges who throw them away, as we would defend the Republic if necessary against the generals of a coup d'état.

"Oh, I know what is said, and these are friends who speak: 'It has nothing to do with the poor,' they say, 'leave the bourgeois to occupy themselves with the bourgeois.' And one of them added this phrase, which I own pained me: 'If a workman had been in question, a long time ago they would have given up bothering about him.'

"I might reply that Dreyfus has been illegally condemned, and that if in truth, as I will soon show, he is innocent, he is no longer an officer nor a bourgeois. He is stript by the very excess of his misfortune of all the character of a man of a certain class; he is no longer anything but humanity itself, and at the highest degree of misery and despair that one can imagine.

"If he has been condemned against all law, if he has been wrongly condemned, what a farce it is to count him still amongst the privileged! No, he no longer belongs to that army, which by a criminal error has degraded him. He no longer belongs to those governing classes which by cowardly ambition hesitate to re-establish legality and truth for him. He is only an example of human suffering in its most poignant degree. He is the living witness of military deceit, of political cowardice, of the crimes of authority.

"Certainly, we can, without contradicting our principles and without failing in the class war, listen to the cry of our pity; in the revolutionary struggle we can keep our human compassion: to remain Socialists, we are not obliged to flee away from Humanity.

"And Dreyfus himself, condemned falsely and criminally, becomes, whatever was his origin and whatever may be his fate, a sharp protest against the social order. By the fault of the society which insists on using violence, deceit and crime against him, he becomes an element of revolution.…

"That is what I might reply; but I add that Socialists who wish to get to the very bottom of the secrets of shame and of crime contained in this affair, if not occupied with a workman, are occupied with the whole working class.

"Who is most menaced to-day by the arbitrary action of the generals, by the always glorified violence of military repression? Who? The People. It has therefore an interest of the first order in punishing and in discouraging the illegalities and violence of the Councils of War before they become a sort of habit.…"

In these words Jaurès surely gave his comrades more than a justification for all he did for Dreyfus. It was a great service in the cause of Humanity, and an honour to the cause of Socialism.

  1. See Rappoport, p. 38
  2. "Les Preuves," p. 3
  3. Rappoport, p. 41