The Alfred Dreyfus Degradation Ceremony – Paris, France

By Sara Willen, Resident Historian | January 5, 2012

January 5, 2012
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On Saturday, January 5, 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army officer freshly convicted of treason, stood at attention in the center of the parade ground of the École Militaire in Paris.  Surrounded by 5,000 troops, first the buttons of his tunic were cut away, then the stripes of his trousers, then the insignia on his cap and his sleeve; his sword, finally, was broken in two. “I am innocent!” he cried. “Vive la France!” Marched in tatters around the square, calls for his death, and that of the Jews, rained down upon him. Watching this was an Austrian journalist, Theodor Herzl, and what he saw there, would forever change the course of Jewish history. Mark Twain, too, was in Paris: soon he would take up Dreyfus’ cause. But in this remarkable letter, written just days after his public degradation, on the letterhead of a Prison de la Sante convict, Dreyfus can only profess his innocence – the fact of which profoundly shook, and influenced, the modern world

The Dreyfus Affair was, in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, “one of the great commotions of history. ” It began in 1894 when, in a miscarriage of justice against a backdrop of espionage and anti-Semitism, a Jewish Army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island; it ended, finally, it 1906, when all the accusations against Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless, and he was reinstated as a major in the French Army. During the twelve years of the Dreyfus Affair, French society was split in two, for and against Dreyfus, the army, the state, the church, the aristocracy, the Jews and ultimately, for and against the truth.  All of this was closely observed by a journalist named Theodor Herzl, who saw in France’s explosive anti-Semitism, the impossibility of Jewish assimilation, and the need for a Jews to have a state of their own: so that from the persecution of a Jewish Frenchman, came the modern state of Israel.

"...a pure and clean conscience will give me superhuman strength.... this name, I swear, as much as my strengths can help me, I will clean it from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.... With all of our combined efforts, our wills focused into a single one, we will succeed, I am sure." -Alfred Dreyfus

When, however, the prisoner Dreyfus wrote this letter protesting his innocence and his resolve to prove it, he’d yet to grasp the nightmarish events which, overnight, upended his life. A cleaning woman, working for French military intelligence, had fished a torn-up letter from a wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris; the document, though unsigned, pointed to a spy; its handwriting, someone said, resembled Alfred Dreyfus’. That, incredibly, was the “evidence” which now saw him awaiting transportation for life to the hell of Devil’s Island. But what would soon be clear was that it was his Jewishness, only that and nothing more, which was the alpha and omega of his persecution – for the Army he loved, was anti-Semitic to its core: and only a Jew, it believed, would dare betray France. Dreyfus, then, could not have begun to imagine a Herzl, drawing from this tragedy, the nascent dream of a Jewish homeland; or a Twain, with his outrage at a country in which a man could be convicted solely because he was a Jew; or a Zola, who would rise up to literally accuse the government itself of having orchestrated this vicious travesty of justice. Nor could he have foreseen the epic battle, fought daily in French papers, homes, and politics, for over a decade, between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, liberal and proto-fascist, and left and right, which would prefigure the cataclysms of the coming century. All he knew, and all he would ever know during the year-in year-out solitary confinement of his tortuous imprisonment, is that he must live to clear his name. This he says here, at the outset of his martyrdom, a mere nine days after the humiliation ceremony – on prison letterhead detailing, in print, all that is forbidden a convict to write about, most chiefly, “anything but personal or family matters”:

“I will not tell you much about myself; what could I say that you do not already know. I suffer horribly from the infamy that has tarnished my name, I suffer atrociously to be here, powerless, incapable to do anything to prove my innocence. My moral strength has never abandoned me, a pure and clean conscience will give me superhuman strength. I am convinced that we will manage to discover the truth, that the light will be made on the tragic affair. If I was in charge of finding out the truth, I am certain that I would succeed; my iron will would crush all the obstacles… To say that I will not still suffer terribly to bear all this until it is over would be a lie. I will go everywhere with my head up, without weakening. I know well that it would have been easier for me to die. It would have been the end of everything, the forgetting of all suffering. But today I realize full well that such a death would have been cowardice, I would thus have left a dishonored name to my children. Well, this name, I swear, as much as my strengths can help me, I will clean it from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.”

It was the issue of justice, and the hideous lack of it, that so rankled a thoroughly unlikely combatant in this most French of upheavals: the American westerner, Mark Twain.  He was in fact in Paris in January 1895, finishing a book about another great martyr, Joan of Arc, when Dreyfus’ public degradation – which itself seemed so medieval – took place. Then, too, he had just met another journalist in Paris who, like himself, was consumed by the case: Theodor Herzl. But whereas Herzl was inspired by the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair to found political Zionism, Twain was inspired to write a book about what he came to consider “the battle for the most infamously misused Jew of modern times.”  It was in that connection that he penned this brief note, attempting to confirm a report of Dreyfus’ departure for the Ile de Re, on route to Devil’s Island, when an infantry officer reached with his sword over the head of a gendarme and struck Dreyfus with the pommel, inflicting a wound from which blood flowed. The story was carried, initially, in the Petit Parisien and discussed in L’Éclair on January 25, 1895.

Where did you get that about the officer striking Dreyfus in the face with the hilt of his sword? In a French paper? Has it been contradicted? Did the paper find fault with the act & denounce it?”

Twain’s publishers nixed the book, unhappily, in 1898; but the effect of the Dreyfus Affair on Twain’s thinking, and in his work, showed up in several essays, the most famous of which was “Concerning the Jews.” There he spoke not only of Herzl’s plan “to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own” but traced that vision to its source. Writing of the Jews in general and Dreyfus in particular, he said “all religions issue bibles against him [the Jew], and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but the evidence for the prosecution… To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English; it is un-American; it is French. Without this precedent Dreyfus could not have been condemned.”

Dreyfus died peacefully at his home in Paris in 1935.  That same year, across the border in Germany, Jews were forbidden from joining the armed forces, marrying or cohabiting with non-Jews, and by virtue of the Nuremberg Laws, deprived of citizenship. The Dreyfus Affair wasn’t over, after all. Soon another corrupt and viciously anti-Semitic government would rule France – the Vichy Regime eagerly rounding up French Jews (among them, members of Dreyfus’ family) to send to its Nazi master. Soon six million Jews would be murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. And even after that, it would take a War of Independence, waged in Palestine in 1948, for Herzl’s 1895 dream of a Jewish State to be fulfilled. Then, finally, the Dreyfus Affair could end.

ALFRED DREYFUS. 1859 – 1935. French Jewish army officer wrongfully convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island. He was finally vindicated in 1906.
Autograph Letter Signed (“Alfred”), in French, 3 pages, quarto, Prison de la Sante, January 14, 1895. To his sister and brother-in-law, Henriette and Joseph Valabrègue.

SAMUEL L. CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN). 1835 – 1910. Great American novelist and humorist.
Autograph Letter Signed (“S.L. Clemens”), 1 page, duodecimo, no place, February 11 [no year; 1895]. To Mr. Wilson.