While Dreyfus Rotted on Devil's Island

By Stanley Heller, 4/6/14

There's a terrific 2013 novel about Alfred Dreyfus by Robert Harris called "An Officer and a Spy". It tells the story of the "Dreyfus Affair" from the point of view of a French officer named Picquart who had a role in convicting Dreyfus, got promoted for this work to the head of counter-espionage and who later realized the spy who sold French secrets to the Germans wasn't Dreyfus at all, but another army officer. Despite being told to stop investigating he persisted and he became part of the movement that got Dreyfus his freedom.

Now, the conventional story is that Theodore Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist, observed the trial and the ugly anti-Semitic crowds in Paris and realized that assimilation was an impossible for dream for Jews and that they should start creating a Jewish state.

After looking into the matter I don't that that really was the story. Herzl had pretty much come to his Jewish nationalist analysis before had much knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair. At best one could say it solidified his opinions. Yet what is very clear is that Herzl did little or nothing for Dreyfus himself, setting the pattern for Zionists. They consistently ignored struggles for the rights of individual living Jews, blindly focused on building a Jewish state no matter what.

Herzl was not a religious man. He was a believer in science, progress and ideals of common humanity. He wasn't blind. He was keenly aware of the growth of the new hatred of Jews, not based on religion, but on false "science" that later was called "race", yet he persisted in his hopes for common human reconciliation. His views changed sharply, however, after seeing the growth of anti-Jewish acts in Vienna. By October 1894 he started work on a play "The New Ghetto" in which the hero sees the impossibility of being accepted by his country of residence and becomes a fighter for his own despised people, the Jews.

It's often said he was sent to Paris to cover the Dreyfus trial. That's not true. He became the Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse, a major European newspaper. In October 1892, two full years before Dreyfus arrest. Dreyfus was arrested October 15, 1894 and it was a week before the news became public (It was leaked to the mad anti-Semitic press of Drumont).

Herzl didn't attend the trial, because no civilians could. It was a secret trial. In a commentary on Herzl in 2008 Lewis Lipinsky wrote it "made no particular impression on him. It looked like a sordid espionage affair."

Dreyfus was convicted by the end of the year and sentenced to life in prison. In Herzl's extensive diaries he writes almost nothing about Dreyfus until years later. Herzl had the conventional view that Dreyfus was guilty.

What Herzl did see were anti-Semitic mobs, especially during Dreyfus "degradation", a disgusting ceremony where Dreyfus had his stripes ripped off his uniform and he was paraded past thousands of soldiers in formation and crowds of civilians screaming insults including "Kill the Jews".

By 1895 he starts writing his ideas for mass migration of Europe's Jews into a pamphlet he hoped to show to the Jewish millionaires, the Rothchilds, planning to call it "Address to the Rothchilds". Later he changes the title to "The Jewish State" which was published in February 1896. Herzl then devotes himself to bringing his dream about. His strategy is two-fold, one part in meeting with rich and powerful people and winning them over and the other in organizing a group devoted to the Jewish state idea, the Zionists.

What he didn't do was help Dreyfus. Alfred Dreyfus had been sent to a tiny rock near French Guiana, one square kilometer called Devils Island. It had once been a leper colony. There he was kept along in miserable isolation. He guards were instructed not to talk to him. He suffered from frequent fevers. He and his wife could exchange letters as long as they said nothing about his case.

As he years passed his conditions only grew worse. An absurd story in the British press talked about escape plans. After that a stockade was built around Dreyfus' hut and for a time he was put in shackles that imprisoned him in his bed.

Dreyfus had one thing going for him. He had a wealthy and loyal family. They worked through the courts and then tried to reach the public. They didn't think of going to Herzl for help. They went to Bernard Lazare. He was an anarchist and fierce writer who had written a book condemning anti-Semitism. In 1896 he wrote the first important pamphlet on the case that defended Dreyfus. Later the family worked with journalist Georges Clemanceau (later to become French Prime Minister). On New Years Day in 1898 they got powerful aid from the most important novelist in Europe, Emile Zola, who wrote a 4,500 word article in L'Aurore, the legendary "J Accuse!". Two weeks later there was a petition for retrial signed by a range of notables including Marcel Proust, Claude Monet, Anatole France and Emile Durkheim.

The evidence of officer Georges Picquart was crucial. He stood by the truth even though it earned him "exile" in the Tunisian desert and terms in prison.

Where was Herzl? He was off doing his Zionist organizing. While Lazare was writing his pamphlet in '96 Herzl was meeting with a representative of the German Kaiser, hoping to enlist him in the cause. Herzl goes on to meet Sultan Abdulhamid II of Turkey and later the czar's viciously anti-Semitic minister von Phleve. There's no mention that he ever met with the family of Dreyfus. Did he even sign the petition of notables in '98? Did the Zionists ever do anything for Dreyfus? In 1897 they honored Bernard Lazare at the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland. In the 12 years of the affair that's all I can find.

The heroes of the movement for justice, or the Dreyfusards as they were called, were men (and women) of the Left or even conservatives like Picquart who loved the army, but would not stand for Dreyfus being falsely condemned to a living hell. The Zionists, the supposed great defenders of the Jewish people, did almost nothing.

Finally, here is a video interview with Robert Harris, author of "An Officer and a Spy". Harris says at first he was interested in the Dreyfus Affair because it was a great story. Then he realized its contemporary relevance. He wrote it entirely in 2013. Harris says Picquart is the first great whistleblower, and sees parallels to actions of "conscience" by Snowden and Manning.