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One Hundred Years After the Exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus: Re-Thinking Theodor Herzl’s Analysis of This Landmark Case

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2006

In July, 1896, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer who had spent five years on Devil’s Island for high treason and an additional seven years trying to clear his name, was absolved by France’s Supreme Court.  
One hundred years later, it is useful to recall the Dreyfus case. It was, after all, while covering the Dreyfus trial that Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist and assimilated Jew, with no religious commitment to or association with Judaism, came to the conclusion that the emancipation of the Jews of Europe would not be successful and that only the creation of a state of their own would solve the “Jewish problem.” Herzl himself declared that, “The Dreyfus trial, which I witnessed in Paris in 1894, made me a Zionist.” In fact, Herzl may have misread the Dreyfus affair and learned the wrong lessons from it.  
Military Secrets  
In September, 1894, a concierge and petty spy at the German Embassy in Paris discovered a military memorandum, unsigned and without a named recipient, containing promises of military secrets. She conveyed the documents to Hubert-Joseph Henry, an ambitious commandant, who passed it on to his superiors at the Statistical Section — the division responsible for espionage — of the General Staff. One of these men, Col. Fabre, claimed to recognize Dreyfus’ handwriting and, after consulting with handwriting experts who came to contradictory conclusions, on October 15, Dreyfus was arrested for high treason.  
Following two months of imprisonment, including solitary confinement and various forms of psychological torture designed to produce a confession, which failed, Dreyfus faced a closed-session court martial. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.  
Real Traitor  
In 1896, a new head of the statistical section, Georges Picquart, a lieutenant colonel, discovered evidence pointing to the real traitor. Placing letters written by a commandant in the Statistical Section next to the military memorandum in question, Picquart saw that the handwriting matched exactly. He determined that the actual culprit was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a notorious hustler with chronic gambling debts. Though he was a confirmed anti-Semite, Picquart was horrified at the prospect that a traitor was still at large and probably still selling military secrets to the Germans. He confided his discovery to a few colleagues, whose help he elicited in planning a sting that would establish Esterhazy’s guilt beyond any doubt. These colleagues, however, betrayed Picquart’s plan to top officials at the General Staff, who quickly transferred him to a dangerous post in Tunisia. They were unwilling to have the truth of their incompetence and injustice revealed.  
In The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, Ernst Pawel notes that, “Back in January 1895, near the end of his term as Paris correspondent, Herzl had witnessed what then seemed to be the final act in the tragedy of Captain Dreyfus ... It was Bernard Lazare ... who patiently collected evidence of an anti-Semitic frameup and, in November 1896, opened a campaign to rehabilitate Dreyfus. A few months later, Major Georges Picquart, head of the Statistical Section of the General Staff, independently discovered the identity of the real traitor. Although himself an arch- conservative and avowed anti-Semite, Picquart nonetheless placed justice above personal prejudice and went public with his findings, a breach of military etiquette that earned him a court-martial, exile and persuasive death threats. Aroused by the blatant assault on human rights and republican virtue, Emile Zola ... flung himself into the fray. It was largely his passion that rallied the intellectuals and hommes de lettres to the Dreyfus case, for the first time giving these fractious individualists a sense of collective power and responsibility which outlasted l’affaire and became a permanent feature of French politics. On January 13, 1898, his famous open letter ‘J’Accuse,’ appeared in Clemenceau’s Aurore. ... On February 23, Zola was tried for libel and sentenced to a year in prison. (The verdict was later set aside).”  
A Brighter Chapter  
In Pawel’s view, “In the long-range perspective, the Dreyfus Affair, for all it revealed about the persistence of medieval fanaticism, blind prejudice, and murderous hate underneath the veneer of civility and civilization, was one of the brighter chapters in French history ... What Herzl failed to appreciate, what he could not possibly have realized, was the abrupt emergence of the Dreyfus case as the paramount issue not only of French politics but of French society altogether. No secondary sources abroad, certainly not the ever-cautious Neue Freie Presse, from which he drew most of his information, conveyed the depths to which l’Affaire had begun to divide France along fundamental fault lines, with the army, the Church, the old royalist establishment, and the populist anti-Semites on one side, arrayed against a loose coalition of intellectuals, anti-clericals, and left-of-center elements drawing on the vestigial traditions of the Revolution.”  
The Dreyfus affair convulsed France for an entire decade. It saw the emergence,for the first time, of a distinct class of intellectuals — the word intelligentsia was coined at this time — as a major power in European society and among whom emancipated Jews were an important element.  
A cartoon by Caron d’Ache showed a dining room with all the furniture smashed and the guests fighting on the floor: “Someone mentioned it (the Dreyfus case).” The battle has been repeatedly described, in Proust’s Jean Santeuil, Zola’s La Verite, Anatole France’s L’Ile Des Pinguins and Monsieur Bergeret A Paris, plays by Lavedan and Donnat, by Charles Maurras, Roger Martin du Gard, Charles Peguy and Jean Barois.  
Dreyfus Rehabilitated  
The left won an overwhelming electoral success in 1906. Dreyfus was rehabilitated and made a general. Picquart ended up Minister for War. In 1895, Herzl was not to foresee the victory of the Dreyfusards. For many, the outright victory in France of the Dreyfusards reaffirmed the view that at least in that country Jews could find not only security but opportunity and a growing measure of political and cultural power.  
In Nationalism, the distinguished Jewish historian Hans Kohn saw the protest of the intellectuals against Dreyfus’s conviction for treason as proof of “the alert and enlightening conscience against the suggestiveness of national faith.”  
In a cover story about the anniversary of Dreyfus’s exoneration, The Jerusalem Report (June 26, 2006) provides this analysis: “The late French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was fond of recalling his father’s words, said before the family fled pogroms in their Russian homeland: ‘A country where people tear each other apart over the fate of a little Jewish captain is a country where we must go without delay.’ The country was France and the little captain was of course Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish officer who was falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany. Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island for nearly five years, before being vindicated, after many bitter recriminations and a wave of national soul-searching that exposed his innocence and the depths of French anti-Semitism at the time. It was the ultimate triumph of justice, with Dreyfus being made a Knight of the Legion of Honor at the very spot, the grounds of L’Ecole Militaire, the French war college, where he suffered humiliation 12 years earlier, and it served as a main catalyst for the migration of many thousands of Eastern European Jews to France. An expression was even coined at the time in Yiddish: ‘Gliklekh vi Got in Frankraikh’ (as happy as God in France.)”  
Successful Emancipation  
According to The Report, the emancipation of the Jews of France was so successful historically that, the magazine laments, many families ceased to be Jewish after several generations: “At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, French Jews were still giddy from the effects of their emancipation. They were positively in love with the ideals of the French Republic, which had opened the country’s top schools and civil service to their brightest sons. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was among these, having been admitted to the elite Ecole Polytechnique, and subsequently to the ranks of the army officer corps ... Despite the liberty, equality and fraternity they enjoyed — or perhaps because of those very rights — there is very little left of the community Dreyfus emerged from. ‘The families behind the great Jewish fortunes — the Deutsch de la Meurthes, the David-Wells, the Achille-Foulds — they’re no longer Jewish,’ says Cyril Grange, a historian. ‘Among the banking families, only the Rothschilds have remained Jewish.’”  
The French Revolution ushered in the era of Jewish emancipation. In August, 1789, the National Assembly adopted a Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen which was intended as a general statement of political principles and became a preamble to the finished constitution. The Declaration asserted that all citizens were free and equal in rights, and listed the cardinal rights of man as liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.  
Enlightenment Influence  
In The Age of Napolean, Will and Ariel Durant write: “The emancipation of the European Jews came first in France because France led in the emancipation of the mind, and because the Enlightenment had accustomed a rising proportion of adults to interpret history in secular terms. Biblical research had revealed Jesus as a lovable preacher critical of Pharisees but loyal to Judaism; and the Gospels themselves had shown he was gladly heard by thousands of Jews, and welcomed by thousands as he entered Jerusalem. How, then, could an entire people, through thousands of years, be punished for the crime of a high priest, and a handful of incidental rabble, demanding his death?”  
Slowly, even before the Revolution, life was improving for French Jews. Louis XVI had encountered no popular resistance to his removal of taxes that had specifically burdened Jews. Mirabeau, in an essay, had pleaded for the complete emancipation of the Jews in 1787. The Abbe Gregoire had won a prize from, the Royal Society of Science and Arts in Metz, in 1789, for his treatise The Physical, Moral and Political Regeneration of the Jews. It seemed only a logical consequence of the Declaration of Human Rights when the Constituent Assembly, on September 27, 1791, extended full civil rights to all the Jews of France. The armies of the Revolution carried political freedom to the Jews of Holland in 1796, Venice in 1797, of Mainz in 1798. Soon the Code Napolean established it automatically wherever Bonaparte’s conquests reached.  
Jewish Hopes and Dreams  
It is instructive to recall the hopes and dreams of French Jews following the Revolution. A public letter, written in 1791 by the outstanding French citizen of Jewish faith at the time, set forth for Jews and Judaism what its author believed was required by the new society. The author was Isaac Berr. Publication of the letter followed passage of the Edict of Emancipation by the French Chamber of Deputies.  
He wrote: “At length the day has arrived on which the veil is torn asunder which covered us with humiliation. We have at last obtained the rights of which we have been deprived for eighteen centuries. How deeply at this moment should we recognize the wonderful grace of the God of our forefathers: On the 27th day of September we were the only inhabitants of this great realm who seemed doomed to eternal humiliation and slavery; and the next day, a memorable day which we shall always commemorate, didst Thou inspire these immoral legislators of France to utter one word which caused 60,000 unhappy beings who had hitherto lamented their hard lot, to be suddenly plunged into the intoxicating joys of the present delight. This nation asks no thanks, except that we show ourselves worthy citizens.”  
Berr urged his fellow Jews to examine their own culture and values and to determine what changes might be needed to leave an isolated existence and join France’s larger society:  
“Let it be acknowledged, dearest brethren, that we have not deserved this wonderful change by our repentance or by the reformation of our manners ... Let us examine with attention what remains to be done on our part ... and how we may be able to show in some measure our grateful sense. The name of active citizen which we have just obtained is without a doubt the most precious title a man can possess in a free empire; but this title alone is not sufficient; we should possess also the necessary qualifications to fulfill the duties annexed to it. We ourselves know how very deficient we are in that respect ... We must then, dear brethren, strongly bear this truth in our minds: that, till such a time as we work a change in our manners, in our habits, in short in our whole education, we cannot expect to be placed by the esteem of our fellow citizens in any of those situations in which we can give signal proofs of that flowing patriotism so long cherished in our bosoms.”  
He concludes:“God forbid that I should mean anything derogatory to our professed religion ... If during our tribulation we have derived some consolation from our strict adherence to our religion, how much more are we bound to remain firmly attached to it now! ... But I cannot too often repeat to you how absolutely necessary it is for us to divest ourselves entirely of the narrow spirit of corporation and congregation, in all civil and political matters not immediately connected with our spiritual laws. In these things we must absolutely appear simply as individuals, as Frenchmen, guided only by a true patriotism and by the general good of the nation. We must ... avail ourselves of the resources offered to us by sending our children to share the advantages of national education in public schools ... by means of that unison in schools our children, like those of our fellow citizens, will remark from their tender youth that neither opinions nor difference of region are a bar to fraternal love; and that everyone naturally embracing the religion of his father, all may, in fulfilling their religious duties, fulfill also that of citizenship.”  
Napolean Emancipates Jews  
Soon after this, Napolean Bonaparte proceeded to emancipate Jews in the territories he conquered. In Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, Abba Eban writes that while the world knows of Napolean’s conquests, “What is less well known is how pivotal a part he played in defining the Jewish role in modern European society through his policies and conquests. ‘Peoples of Italy, the French army comes to break your chains,’ proclaimed Bonaparte in 1796, at the outset of his brilliant Italian campaign. For much of Italy, the French victory would mean an end to regional divisions and aristocratic privileges. But for the Jews, the coming of the French army had a more immediate meaning — an end to the Inquisition, the dismantling of the ghettoes. Everywhere Napolean went, Italian Jews hailed him as their saviour; and when Napolean entered Ancona, Jewish soldiers, citizens of France, led the march into the ghetto, tearing off the yellow badges of the residents and offering them the tricolor rosette, symbol of the revolution.”  
During February-March 1807, the Emperor convened the Sanhedrin, a Jewish assembly of 71 members, two-thirds of them rabbis, the remainder laymen. To the Sanhedrin he submitted 12 groups of questions, among them the following:  
• In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren? Or are they considered as strangers?  
• Do Jews born in France and treated by the laws as French citizens, consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the dispositions of the civil code?  
Jewish Notables  
The Assembly of Jewish Notables, a convocation of more than 100 Jewish leaders, met continuously from July 26, 1806 to April 6, 1807. The French Sanhedrin was a rabbinic counterpart. Both agreed on their answers to the questions put forth.  
With regard to the question of whether Jews considered France their country and felt bound to it, the assembly was unequivocal: “The love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so consonant to their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England, as among strangers, although he may be among Jews; and the same with English Jews in France. To such a pitch is this sentiment carried among them, that during the last war, French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries at war with France.”  
All of this was preceded by a debate held in France on the subject “How can we make the Jews of France happy and more useful?” The conclusion of these debates was summarized by the comte de Clermont-Tonnerre: “We must grant everything to the Jews as individuals, but nothing to the Jewish nation ... There cannot be a separate nation within the nation.” He added that if the Jews wanted emancipation on those terms they should be welcomed, but if not they should be expelled. The response of the Assembly of Jewish Notables and the Sanhedrin made clear that genuine emancipation was what the Jews sought.  
“Render Unto Caesar”  
In The Controversy of Zion, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes that the agreement between Napolean and the Sanhedrin “was also a political device equivalent to Napolean’s early concordat with the Papacy, and this too succeeded in the sense that the Sanhedrin adopted ‘render unto Caesar:’ Jewish teaching, it proclaimed, was purely religious, the French Jews’ political allegiance was purely to the Emperor. The Sanhedrin even condemned money-lending at high rates of interest though not usury itself. Above all, the offer of assimilation was met with a promise: the Jews ‘no longer form a nation within a nation,’ said Abraham Furtado, a financier who had been head of the earlier Assembly. ‘France is our country. Jews, such today is your status: your obligations are outlined, your happiness is waiting.’”  
Observing the Dreyfus trial caused Theodor Herzl to come to the conclusion that the emancipation of the Jews of France had been a failure. For a number of reasons, this assessment appears to have been hasty and flawed.  
The centennial of the 1906 decision by the Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court) to rehabilitate Dreyfus is being marked by historical exhibits, learned seminars and the laying of the cornerstone of a Dreyfus museum at Medan, west of Paris. If former Culture Minister Jack Lang, who is Jewish, has his way, Dreyfus’s remains will be moved from the family tomb in Paris’s Montparnesse cemetery to the majestic Pantheon building, at the heart of the Latin Quarter, resting place of such distinguished figures as Emile Zola and Jean Jaures, his two greatest defenders.  
Integration Resumes  
Historian Philippe Landau notes that, “The Dreyfus case was a disaster for French Jews, because they had by then nearly entirely succeeded in their integration into French society. But their integration resumed again afterwards. Typical of their success were the Jews who became prime minister, such as Leon Blum (1936), Rene Mayer (1953), whose grandfather had been chief rabbi of France, and Pierre Mendes-France (1954).  
When Bernard Dufournier, the first husband of Alfred Dreyfus’s granddaughter Aline, was appointed French ambassador to Lebanon in the 1960s, a senior official asked then-president Charles de Gaulle if it was a good idea to send to an Arab country an ambassador whose wife was Jewish. De Gaulle, whose own father, a high school teacher, had been ostracized by colleagues for being among the first to support Dreyfus in his hometown, icily replied: “Thank you. I know that Madame Dufournier is the granddaughter of a French officer.”  
There is much irony in the fact that Theodor Herzl moved toward the idea of Zionism as a result of the Dreyfus trial. In The Question of Zion, Professor Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary University of London, writes that, “It is a strange fact of Zionist history that the figure for launching Zionism as a political movement desired nothing so much as to be an emancipated, not to say assimilated Jew. ‘I am a German Jew from Hungary,’ Herzl announced in his speech to the Rothschilds in 1895, ‘and I can never be anything but a German.’ ... Herzl’s own relationship to anti-Semitism was ambivalent, to say the least: ‘What would you say, for example, if I did not deny that there are good aspects of anti-Semitism,’ he wrote in 1893 to his fiancee Julie Naschauer. ‘I myself would never convert, but one must baptize Jewish boys before they are able to act against it ... They must disappear into the crowd.’ In the same year he proposed to the pope that if the pope acted against anti-Semitism, he would undertake in return to initiate a mass movement for the ‘free and honorable’ conversion of the Jews.”  
“Der Judenstaat”  
Professor Rose points out that, “There are moments in Der Judenstaat (Herzl’s book) that read as if they had been lifted from an anti-Semitic tract: ‘When we sink, we become a revolutionary proletariat, the subordinate officers of all revolutionary parties; and at the same time, when we rise, there rises also our terrible power of the purse’; the immediate cause of anti-Semitism is ‘our excessive production of mediocre intellects.’”  
For Herzl, who had little connection with Judaism as a religion, the Dreyfus case, together with the mounting anti-Semitism he saw in the Hapsburg Empire, led to a theory of Jewish identity in what Professor Rose calls “its agnostic mode.” This identity is not forged internally but from the outside. Herzl declared, “We are one people. Our enemies have made us one.” Thus, the need for a Jewish state. And for Herzl, Palestine was irrelevant. He would locate his Jewish state in any available geographic area.  
Basing his analysis on Dreyfus’s initial trial, not the furore it caused and his later exoneration, Herzl may have misunderstood what was really happening in France. Geoffrey Wheatcroft notes that, “L’Affaire Dreyfus became the central episode which shaped the Third Republic between 1871 and 1914 ... The sides had been spoiling for a fight, and they got it. It was a decisive Kulturkampf, pitching the Republic against its unreconciled enemies, anti-clericalism against the Church, radicalism against militarism, and they happened to pick a battlefield named after a Jew. It became the great cause of a generation. Clemenceau and Zola led the charge for the Dreyfusards, supported by most of literary France ... It divided friend from friend, brother from brother, the Dreyfusard Claude Monet from the anti-Dreyfusard Paul Cezanne, the duc Guermantes from the prince de Guermantes.”  
Mixed Record  
Needless to say, France’s record in the post-Dreyfus years is a mixed one. Dreyfus himself left the army in 1907, rejoined it during World War I, then led a quiet life until his death in 1935. Yet only five years later, during the German occupation of France, anti-Semitism became official policy as the collaborationist Vichy government assisted in the deportation of 76,000 Jews, including Dreyfus’s granddaughter, to Nazi death camps. France has been slow to confront its role during the Nazi occupation. Some would argue that the lessons Herzl learned from the Dreyfus case were not entirely wrong.  
Still, the French Revolution set in motion the emancipation of the Jews, not only of France, but of Western Europe. This emancipation was sought not only by non-Jewish men and women of goodwill but by the vast majority of Jews who wanted to take their place as equal citizens in free and democratic societies. Despite many difficulties, and periods of regression, that emancipation succeeded.  
Now, on the centenary of Dreyfus’s acquittal, France is commemorating this event. Fifteen related books have been published or reissued. The Supreme Court has held a daylong seminar celebrating its decision of July 12, 1906, to overrule what is now viewed as a military court’s scandalous 1899 guilty verdict. The Museum of the Art and History of Judaism is presenting a show, “Alfred Dreyfus: The Fight For Justice.”  
Emphasis on Dreyfus  
Writing in The New York Times (July 7, 2006) from Paris, Alan Riding reports that, “One novelty in the exhibition at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism ... is the show’s emphasis on Dreyfus himself. Often portrayed as an impassive observer of his own tragedy, he is presented here as a fervent champion of his own innocence. That is also the thesis of a new biography, Alfred Dreyfus: The Honor of a Patriot, by Vincent Duclert, a French historian who organized the exhibition with Anne Helene Hoog, a curator at the museum. Further, in what seems like a valiant attempt to close the Dreyfus Affair, Mr. Duclert has now proposed that Dreyfus’s remains be laid alongside those of Zola in the Pantheon, the final resting place of French Republican heroes.”  
French Jews, from the time of the Revolution, began to feel themselves very much a part of their society and took advantage of the opportunities made available to them. Anti-Semitism never disappeared, as the Dreyfus case shows us, and as the role of the Vichy government under Nazi occupation makes clear. But anti-Semitism always met resistance with distinguished individuals such as Emile Zola and Anatole France boldly challenging bigotry. During the Nazi occupation in World War II there are many examples of heroic resistance. In one instance, a small Protestant town in southern France called Le Chambon quietly, peacefully, and in full view of the Vichy government and a nearby division of the Nazi SS, enlisted its villagers and clergy to organize and save thousands of Jewish children and adults from certain death.  
Fully French  
In the story of this rescue, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie points out that the French Jews who passed through Le Chambon believed themselves to be fully French: “Many of these were shocked to be thought of as Jews and not simply as Frenchmen. People like Daniel Isaac, whose forebears were French from time out of mind, had not even thought of hiding their Jewishness before the war ... Despite the infamous Dreyfus case at the turn of the century, for many of them anti-Semitism was something the Germans had brought into their lives in spite of their beloved country’s efforts to prevent it. As for Vichy, they believed that the marshall had been pressured and duped by the Nazis!”  
At the present time, France faces great difficulty in integrating its large immigrant population, largely Muslim, into the French society. A new kind of anti-Semitism has emerged from this immigrant community, often manifesting itself in violence, as in the case of the February 2006 torture and killing of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jew. Barbara Lefebvre, a Jewish history teacher who has taught in several of Paris’s working-class suburbs told the New York Times (March 26, 2006) that, “As long as anti-Semitism came from the extreme right there was a reaction. But when it came from that part of the population itself that was a victim of racism, no one wanted to see it.” Slowly, France is moving to confront this problem.  
Changing Europe  
The dilemma of a changing Europe poses a number of complex challenges to policymakers. France’s parliament is considering legislation that would give entry preference to highly skilled foreign workers, athletes and artists. The legislation would no longer let foreigners who have been in France illegally for 10 years apply for citizenship. And it would make long-term residency contingent on speaking French and respecting French values. This legislation followed riots in 2005 by mostly African and North African immigrant youths in predominantly Muslim enclaves.  
France is undergoing dramatic change today, much as it did at the time of the Revolution and, later, during the period of the Dreyfus trial and its aftermath. At a ceremony marking Dreyfus’s rehabilitation, President Jacques Chirac spoke of the importance of memory and commemoration, and urged the French nation to continue its fight against “injustice, intolerance, and hatred.”  
The Rest of the Story  
Theodor Herzl, witnessing Dreyfus’s trial, formed his own view of what Dreyfus epitomized: “The Jew trying to adapt himself to his environment, to speak its languages, to think its thoughts, to sew its insignia on his sleeve — only to have them ruthlessly ripped away.” Herzl should have waited for the rest of the story, of Dreyfus’s triumph, with “Vive La France” his continuing proclamation. Dreyfus, of course, may have misinterpreted the events through which he lived and suffered. One hundred years later, this case and its meaning is certainly worthy of further consideration and analysis.  
All of us would do well to reflect upon the Dreyfus case and the many divergent lessons which might be learned from it. Perhaps it did not so much mark the failure of emancipation as the reality that history is never finished, that it rarely moves in a single direction, and that battles for freedom and equality must be fought in every generation.

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