Gary Beck's epistolary account of a secret letter that casts new light on the controversial Dreyfus affair in fin de siècle France.
Dear Professor Eggert,
I hope your summer on Nantucket was enjoyable and you're back in your history mode at the university. My summer was very productive and I made real progress in the research on my thesis subject: French Republicanism Between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Do I dare confess to my doctoral advisor that I sampled the night life of Paris? Well, as much as a poor student could afford.
However, that's not why I'm writing to you. I've discovered a highly unusual document that might have remarkable consequences, if not handled properly. It purports to be a memoir by Alfred Dreyfus, written just prior to his death. I know, I know that you told me Dreyfus was worn out as a thesis subject, but I can't help considering the fact that the Dreyfus Affair became one of the gravest crises of the Third Republic and split the nation into pro and anti-Dreyfus factions. Yes, I haven't forgotten that you're an authority on the period. I can see the look on your face as you read this and assume that I've strayed from your suggested guidelines. But I've made a unique find! The fantasy come true of every historian.
I was sifting through the archives of the long defunct newspaper L'Aurore, when I found some yellowed, hand written papers in a musty folder. The title page was: 'Now I accuse, A.D. Not to be opened until 50 years after my death!' I remembered the famous Zola letter of that title that inflamed France in 1898 and I read on. I hope I've whetted your curiosity by now, but if I haven't yet, the following statement will. In this old document, Dreyfus accuses the French Army of the murder of Emile Zola! That's right, professor, murder. Is this starting to sound like the plot of a mystery novel?
Forgive me if I seem to be rambling on so much, but as you can imagine this find awakened my enthusiasm. I left out much of the description of his early misfortunes, because I know you're familiar with them. I believe that the following excerpts from the memoir will arouse your interest and I eagerly look forward to your response. Let's avoid electronic communication, because this could turn out to be a volatile subject, so no telephone or email. If I appear to be overly cautious, please suspend judgment until you read the material for yourself.
It is with great reluctance that I set pen to paper and write this indictment, just a few days before Bastille Day, the holiday that symbolizes liberty, of an institution that I once served with honor, the Army of France. I was still an overage captain in 1894, slow to get promotion mostly due to anti-semitic resentment that permeated the General Staff. Yet there were a few officers who saw me as a man, not just a Jew who was intruding in the officer corps. This acceptance from men of tolerance allowed me to pursue my duties with integrity, secure of my place in the service of my country.
Then that infamous day that shattered my life and the lives of my beloved family forever. Without any inkling of the conspiracy that had been developing towards me, I was arrested and accused of passing secrets to the Germans. I was convicted of treason by a military tribunal in a nightmarish court martial that throughout felt as if it were happening to someone else. Then, in what became the most agonizing day of my life, the Army I revered paraded me in front of my brother officers at the École Militaire. With the contemptuous eyes of everyone on me, they ritually tore off my badges of rank and insignia. A staff officer, immaculate in his dress uniform, broke my sword across his knee. After several days in a military prison, spit on by my guards, they shipped me to that hellhole in the South Atlantic, Devil's Island.
Of course, like all Frenchman, I knew of Devil's Island. But if it was ever mentioned publicly, it was either with contempt or indifference for the luckless devils sent there. There I was, having served France loyally and honorably, condemned to life imprisonment in that remote penal colony. During my first year of agony I thought often of my beloved country's motto; Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Well, the General Staff stole my liberté, but I found more égalité and fraternité on that monstrous island in the company of those poor rejects from France, than I ever felt among my fellow officers. My daily suffering was the more tormenting because of my complete innocence.
My beloved wife and brother never ceased their efforts on my behalf. And lo and behold, after four terrible years, they procured a new trial for me. Hope soared in my breast. Surely my country would realize that it had misjudged a loyal Frenchman. But then despair. Once again the court martial found me guilty and I was returned to Devil's Island. This time even the pledges of my family to never give up their efforts to free me could not sustain my battered spirit. I do not know how I endured the inflictions that fate had decreed for me.
Then events that I only learned about later took control of my destiny. One of France's greatest writers, Emile Zola, became interested in my case. He learned some facts about forged evidence and certain officers who lied about me that established my innocence. In an act of great moral courage, M. Zola defied the might of the French Army and in 1898 accused the General Staff of falsely convicting me. This stirred up a hornet's nest that divided the country into two opposing factions; one that believed me innocent; the other guilty. Passions were so incensed that some newspaper editors speculated that the nation might come to civil war.
Then miracle of miracles. I was rescued from hell and brought back to France in 1900 and pardoned by the President of the Republic, M. Loubert. I was quietly restored to duty and even promoted to major. Has any subaltern ever had to go through so much to be promoted? I owed my freedom and possible good future all to my beloved wife and brother, and the conscience of that great man, M. Zola. I thanked him repeatedly for saving my life, but he modestly dismissed my eternal gratitude and refused any money offered by my brother.
It is with heavy heart that I now charge that the death of that light of France, M. Zola, on September 29, 1902, at the age of 62, was no accident as reported in the press. The story given out was that he was found dead of asphyxiation in his sealed apartment, victim of a defective fireplace flue. I went to his funeral with a depth of sorrow that I still feel to this day as my death approaches, for the noble benefactor who saved my life. Afterwards, I tried to ignore some of my fellow officers, who gloated that the meddler had been punished for his insult to the Army. I only learned the horrible truth four years later.
On July 21, 1906 the Court of Appeals annulled my guilty verdict and I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. At the same place of my shame twelve years earlier, when I was broken in front of the officer corps at the École Militaire, I was awarded the Legion of Honor. It seemed for a brief moment that I had regained my life. But then, as I paraded proudly in front of my brother officers, a voice called from the anonymous ranks: "When your notoriety dies down, Dreyfus, we'll get you, just like we got Zola."
I managed to get through the rest of the ceremony without revealing the horror that possessed me. That night, while everyone else was asleep, I sat in my study and considered what I should do. I had no doubt that I owed my life to M. Zola, a debt that now could never be repaid. The more I thought about the murder of that great man, the more my outrage grew. A terrible crime had been committed and only the murderers and I knew about it. I was obligated to do something. But what? There was no one in the Army I could trust, so my only possible ally was the press. Would that brave editor of L'Aurore champion the dead on hearsay? And what would happen to my beloved family if I accused the Army of murder?
After many hours of painful and confused thought, I concluded that it would be too great a risk for my family if I went public with my accusation. I could not help feeling like a coward about my decision and I thought of ending my life with my service revolver, which had never been fired in battle. Then the thought of the harm my suicide would do to my beloved family persuaded me to renounce the only escape that would allow me to retain my honor. So I went to work each day at the War Ministry and came home each evening to my beloved family, but inside I was a hollow man. I was a hostage for my family's continued safety and well-being.
After that day I became much more wary of everyone, especially my fellow officers and I was suspicious of everything that happened around me. My beloved wife assumed it was due to my suffering on Devil's Island and I could not confide the truth to her. Two years went by with me in a highly nervous state. I began to think I was imagining threats where there were none. But then a frightening incident occurred at M. Zola's bier on June 4, 1908. I frequently went to that great man's bier to pay my respects and silently thank him for saving me, as well as to apologize for not avenging him. That day, a petty journalist, a military correspondent, a toady for the Army, pulled out a pistol and yelled: "Zola and Dreyfus have defiled France," and shot me.
Fortunately, the wounds were not serious and my assailant was quickly apprehended by the police. Not unexpectedly, he never came to trial and was released several weeks later. It was obvious that I was still in danger and my family might be also. Soon after, I retired from the Army, disillusioned with the institution that I had tried to serve with honor, which in return had betrayed, reviled and abused me. We lived quietly in seclusion, avoiding any publicity that might lead my enemies to us. I went through the outward motions of a paterfamilias, while inside I smoldered with guilt, frustration and impotent rage.
Then once again the Germans invaded France. Despite my decrepit age of 55, I saw a last chance to redeem what I considered to be my still tarnished honor in the service of my country. My beloved wife was bitterly opposed to my reenlistment in the Army that had so cruelly betrayed me. It took a while to persuade her that I owed my allegiance and duty to France, despite the anti-semitic persecution I had endured from so many of my fellow countrymen.
I fought at Verdun, where so many brave Frenchman sacrificed their lives for the Republic. And I never said one word in public against the generals, who callously expended our national treasure, an entire generation of our youth. My beloved son Pierre died in the trenches, as did my beloved brother's son, along with the legions of the young. Many of the men who conspired to destroy my life perished in the Great War. There was one ironic death, Colonel von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché who intrigued with that treacherous villain, Esterhazy, the real spy. On his deathbed on the eastern front, he cried out: "People of France, hear me! Dreyfus is innocent."
My last testimony is almost complete. I have experienced terrible suffering in my lifetime, perhaps more then most men. Yet I will not die embittered thanks to the love of my life, my beloved wife, Lucie. However, hatred still poisons our land and once again the Army prepares to consume our youth in the mad quest for glory. I can do nothing more for my beloved country, except go to my grave with the undimmed hope that sanity may yet prevail and good men will appear and guide the nation with justice and honor. I attest that everything that I have written is, to the best of my knowledge, true. Long Live France.
Well, professor, what do you think? I left out various sections, but this should give you the gist of the document. Am I right? Is it a find? At first I thought it was wishful thinking on my part. Then I went on the all-pervasive Web and discovered some interesting information. In 1972, the city council of Rennes, where the second Dreyfus trial took place, refused to dedicate a high school to Dreyfus. In 1985, the Army refused to allow a statue of Dreyfus to be installed in the École Militaire, where his degradation took place in 1895.
Am I rambling on too much, professor? By now you should be able to tell how excited I am by what might not prove to be just musty material. To demonstrate that the Dreyfus Affair still is timely, the Army didn't officially pardon Dreyfus until 1995! Then a general admitted that the case was a military conspiracy and an innocent man was condemned by false evidence.
Now you have a basic outline of the memoir and related events up to quite recently, so it is time to present the crucial issue. If I pursue this subject, I will, in effect, accuse the French Army of the murder of M. Zola, as claimed by Dreyfus. After all, that is what his historic document represents, an allegation of a conspiratorial homicide. I have no corroborating evidence, no witnesses and no other information, which means a research project to attempt to discover further material. Would you approve this effort?
There is one other consideration that is disturbing me. Obviously, the French Army is still highly sensitive about their part in the Dreyfus Affair, even though it happened more than a hundred years ago. How will they react if I accuse them of murder? Will they assume my activities are scholarly excursions into the past, with no implications today? As you have repeatedly told me, the French are a peculiar people, with extreme passions and prejudices that are sometimes difficult for a foreigner to understand. What if the French Army feels threatened by my discovery? Would they conceivably arrange an accident for me? I interrupted this letter to check the flue in my fireplace to verify that it was drawing properly. Ha, ha. An academic's weak joke.
Seriously, Professor Eggert. I'm not the bravest of individuals. And I surely don't want to risk my life for what might turn out to be a piece of historical trivia. Yet I know it's the duty of the historian to reclaim the past honestly, for the benefit of future scholars. Is a historian supposed to have a code of honor? So. Would my work create an incident? Am I being paranoid? Am I creating a delusional fantasy to enhance my worth? Is the French Army still capable of malevolent acts? I urgently require your advice. Please respond immediately.
Respectfully, your student at-risk,