The Dreyfus case exhibited
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, October 17, 2000)

Even after a century, nothing beats the Dreyfus case for emotional power. It's an incident that never goes away, because it was rich with meaning in itself and even richer in what it exposed about the world around it. It's impossible to read modern French history without encountering, again and again, the name of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain who was falsely convicted of trying to sell military secrets to the Germans. No other country has ever been so transfixed by the fate of a single individual as France was in the Dreyfus era. The story has been told many times over the years, and this month an exhibition, Dreyfus and Zola: A Moment in the Conscience of the World, tells it again, in a particularly vivid way, at the University of Toronto Art Centre.

Drawn from the collection of the Beitler Family Foundation in the United States, the exhibition presents the Dreyfus affair through the eyes of the media that covered it. We find ourselves plunged into the middle of this French moral catastrophe as we follow it through articles, illustrations and caricatures in rare newspapers, posters and pamphlets. The name of Emile Zola, the novelist, appears in the exhibition's title because he wrote, on Jan. 13, 1898, history's most famous newspaper piece, an open letter to the president of France headed "J'Accuse."

At that moment Dreyfus was serving a life sentence on Devil's Island, the tropical prison off South America. Back in Paris, charges against the real traitor had just been dismissed. Zola, writing in L'Aurore, accused the military authorities of faking evidence and hiding the truth. (That day L'Aurore sold 300,000 copies, about 10 times its normal circulation.) The government prosecuted Zola for libel, a court found him guilty, and to avoid jail he escaped to England and stayed there until he was pardoned. But his article helped create the tumultuous atmosphere that eventually freed Dreyfus.

So the case was a triumph for the new medium of mass print journalism. It was also a disgrace for journalism, because (as the exhibition shows) many newspapers saw it as their chance to promote anti-Semitism through words and drawings. Dreyfus, it seems, was chosen as scapegoat because he was the only Jew on the French general staff. The army was dominated by Catholics, monarchists and anti-Semites, and those who agreed with them were delighted to see Dreyfus disgraced. The people who fought to get him pardoned were drawn from the republicans, liberals, socialists, anarchists and critics of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1906, after 11 years of disgrace and agony, his supporters won him his freedom and a pardon. He went back into the army (he had always said he loved it), now as a major wearing the Legion of Honour. He served in the First World War and died in 1935. But the case had revealed how divided the French were on fundamental issues, and the national fissures it disclosed remain part of French life. It is said that arguments still go on between descendants of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards.

This tangle of events, deeply corrupt on one side and heavily political on the other, touched millions of lives, obscure and prominent. We can explore one of them in Linda Nochlin's The Politics of Vision, a brilliant book on the artists of that period, which traces the effect of the Dreyfus case on a particularly notable Frenchman, Edgar Degas.

Degas may well have been a discreet anti-Semite for years, but that didn't affect his friendships. Then, with the eruption of the Dreyfus case, he sided with the army. That destroyed his warm relationship with his fellow Impressionist Camille Pissarro, a Jew and a Dreyfusard. It broke other friendships, above all with the Jewish writer Ludovic Halévy, the subject of several Degas paintings. For a long time Degas had dinner at Halévy's house every Thursday night and lunch a couple of times a week. He and the Halévy family worked together on his experiments in photography. Ludovic's son Daniel grew up to idolize Degas.

But the Halévy family became Dreyfusards. Daniel wrote many years later of the "almost unbelievable" thing that happened in the autumn of 1897. "Suddenly, the family's long-standing friendship with Degas was broken off." They had argued about Dreyfus for some time, but argued as friends. Now the argument overwhelmed the friendship. One night at dinner Degas sat silent, looking at the ceiling, while the others analyzed the case from their Dreyfusard positions. When dinner finished, he left and never came back. Around this time, a model in his studio expressed doubt about Dreyfus's guilt. He screamed at her, "You are Jewish," and told her to put on her clothes and leave. His mind remained unchanged when he learned she was a Gentile.

The ripples of the case didn't stop at France's borders. The British and the Americans followed it passionately, and the exhibition contains American newspapers playing the story at the top of the front page. In Russia, Anton Chekhov nearly destroyed his relationship with his great patron, Alexei Suvorin, a conservative newspaper owner, by insisting on Dreyfus's innocence. Other effects can still be felt in world affairs: Theodor Herzl, sent by his Vienna paper to cover the case, was so appalled by the anti-Semitism he saw in France that he despaired of the Jews assimilating into European society; he then wrote the pamphlet that led to the first Zionist World Congress and eventually the creation of modern Israel.

As for Degas, he grew crazier. Anti-Semitism intoxicated him and addled his brains. His relatively mild prejudice turned into a sickness. Eventually he exhibited what Jean-Paul Sartre called the "petrified values" of the confirmed anti-Semite, not much different from the Holocaust deniers of today. He lived to 1917 and never changed his views. At the height of the Dreyfus affair, he remarked that Pissarro's painting was ignoble. Everyone knew that he had been among the first to buy Pissarro's work, so someone reminded him that he had once thought highly of it. "Yes," he said, "but that was before the Dreyfus affair."

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