Col. Dreyfus of Cause Celebre to Be 75 Years Old Tomorrow
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Col. Dreyfus of Cause Celebre to Be 75 Years Old Tomorrow

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On Wednesday an aged man will take his daily promenade in the neighborhood of I’Avenue de Wagram.

He is almost blind.

Few who notice him and his guide will realize that the man who walks with faltering footstep is Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, retired, chief figure in the world’s most notable “cause celebre.”

On Wednesday he will be seventy-five.

He is not alone in forgetting the day. Half the world thinks of him as a legendary person, probably long dead.

Yet with his fate was inextricably bound also the fate of the Third French Republic.

Cabinets fell because of him. Men committed suicide. Innumerable duels were fought over him. Riots swept the great cities of France. A President of France resigned because of “l’Affaire Dreyfus.” Emile Zola went into exile. France split up into Dreyfus and anti-Dreyfus factions. Barricades went up in the streets of Paris. Revolution was in the air. War threatened with Germany. And all because a Jewish captain on the general staff of the French army, an ardent patriot, had been falsely accused of selling the military secrets of his country to Germany.


In 1894 the French general staff ascertained through its agents that French military secrets were being sold to the German military attache in Paris. A document, the famous “bordereau” offering French artillery plans to the Germans, came into the possession of French officials. The writing bore a slight resemblance to that of Captain Dreyfus who, although a brilliant young artillery officer, was disliked by his colleagues because he was a Jew.

On October 15, 1894, the young officer was called to the Ministry of War and asked to write from dictation. When he finished writing he was arrested and charged with high treason. He indignantly denied his guilt and refused a proffered revolver for “an easy exit.”

A court martial swiftly convicted him and sentenced him to penal servitude on Devil’s Island. In front of assembled troops and spectators he was stripped of his uniform and his sword was broken and thrown away. A wave of anti-Semitism swept the French Republic.


Colonel Picquart was appointed to head the intelligence division of the general staff. Soon he discovered the forgeries in the Dreyfus case. He placed his find before high officials of the general staff, but was told to keep his mouth shut.

“What does it matter if the Jew is out there?” the chief of staff asked.

“But he is innocent,” Picquart replied.

“Nobody will know if you keep silent,” the general said.

The brave Picquart was sent on a dangerous mission to Algiers, but he refused to keep silent and helped to free Dreyfus.

But his family, particularly his brother, Mathieu, was firmly convinced that he was innocent. Public spirited French Gentiles also became certain of the innocence of Dreyfus. A movement began for a revision of the sentence. But the French general staff, positive that Dreyfus was guilty, found it necessary to secure proof.

Dreyfus had been convicted on flimsy evidence. So Major Henry, of the intelligence department, as he later admitted before he committed suicide, “manufactured” further evidence against Dreyfus. The staff also discovered that Major Esterhazy had dealings with the German military attache. But that case had passed beyond the stage of the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus, so the story was suppressed and Esterhazy exonerated.


Little by little Mathieu Dreyfus won the support of George Clemenceau, Emile Zola, Jean Jaures, Yves Guyot and Gabriel Monod. In 1897 Mathieu wrote, to the Ministry of War openly accusing Esterhazy of the crime. Esterhazy was tried and acquitted. Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from a living hell on Devil’s Island, tried again, and once more convicted.

Esterhazy fled to London and there admitted his guilt, but not before another year was over was Dreyfus freed. Five years later he was completely exonerated and restored to his rank in the army.

In the World War, Colonel Dreyfus served with distinction. His son was killed in action. Later he was retired and decorated by the French government. But “l’Affaire Dreyfus” continued to stir people.

In the files of the German army and in the memoirs of the German military attache, Colonel von Schwartzkoppen, proof was found after the war that Esterhazy was guilty and that Dreyfus was innocent.


In 1930 a play on the affair was given in Berlin, based on the complete knowledge of the case made available by German official documents. The actor who played the part of Dreyfus was jeered by the Nazis and so intense was the feeling that when Dreyfus, in the play, proclaimed his innocence, members of the audience leaped to their feet and shouted “You are a liar, you are a traitor.”

When the play was produced in Paris, Major Esterhazy’s daughter struck the playwright who had “dishonored” her father. He replied that Esterhazy had dishonored himself. She said “you have been paid for writing.” He answered, “No; in any case it was not in German marks.” Once more there were riots in Paris about Dreyfus. But they died down. The play was forgotten. That same year Mathieu Dreyfus died.

Colonel Dreyfus still lives. On Wednesday he celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday.

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