30 April 2013

Traitors & Turncoats: The Dreyfus Affair

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Justice and Parables:  Alfred Dreyfus and Franz Kafka

How is it possible for the Dreyfus Affair to cast light on the work of Franz Kafka, and in particular stories such as “The Burrow?”  For it may be said of Kafka, perhaps more than any other writer of his stature, that he is rarely read historically—and yet, to better understand Kafka, context is needed—and, indeed, the connection between his writing and the Dreyfus case better understood. 

“The Affair,” as the Dreyfus case is known, began after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).  The war prompted an arms race between the two European powers.  The French, having lost to its German neighbor, was determined to modernize not only its artillery but heighten its intelligence operations.   Diplomatic channels seethed with espionage; a cast of charismatic and extraordinarily careless characters took up posts in the German embassy—one of whom bore the name Maximilian von Shwarzkoppen.  The French High Command monitored the Germans by hiring cleaning women (spies), who emptied the wastepaper baskets on a daily basis.  Whatever material went into the trash, the cleaning lady then handed over to French officials in what was called “the ordinary task.”  Shwazkoppen kept up a furious correspondence. He and his agents adopted female aliases, wrote steamy letters to each other, and reveled in obscene references.  All in all, they seemed to be having a good time of it.
Alfred Dreyfus
Sadly, the frivolity ended with the arrest of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason.  Dreyfus began his service in 1880 as an artillery officer.  According to Jean-Denis Brendin, author of The Affair, the induction of Dreyfus coincided with an increasingly virulent form of French anti-Semitism.  Dreyfus was in a delicate position:  he was not only Jewish but from Alsace-Lorraine.  As such, was Dreyfus truly French?  Could a Frenchman be a Jew as well?  Did the orthodox French army, a bastion of papists and monarchists, even want Jews among its ranks?  From the beginning to the end of his long ordeal—arrest, conviction, sentencing to Devil’s Island, eventual release—Dreyfus never once suggested  that he had become a scapegoat for the Jews.  In statement after statement, in letter after letter, he insisted on his devotion to France, his love of France, on the glory of France; for him, there was no greater nation.  The French Republic, pure in spirit and brotherly love, would never debase itself by allowing racism to stain its reputation.   Dreyfus never ceased to defend his country while insisting that a grave mistake had been made:  he was innocent.
Others agreed.  The German Embassy wanted no part of the Dreyfus Affair, or any other case that would implicate its diplomats in espionage.  Swarzkoppen protested ever having come into contact with Alfred Dreyfus.  He was unwilling, however, to reveal the identity of the true traitor: a complicated—some might say sociopathic—individual by the name of Major Marie Charles Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.   Sometime before Dreyfus’s arrest and court martial, Esterhazy volunteered to pass sensitive documents to Swarzkoppen, pleading mounting debts and possible destitution.   Wary of Esterhazy, Swarzkoppen nonetheless took him on as an agent.  His new spy proved to be more trouble than he was worth.  Even before Dreyfus came under suspicion, Swarzkoppen was eager to be rid of Esterhazy and his demands for ever larger sums of money.
Meanwhile, the French agent at the Germany Embassy continued collecting the trash—much of it correspondence of no particular importance hastily ripped to bits and pieces, including one document that would become known as the bordereau or memorandum.   The contents of the memo referred to a hydraulic break of the 120; a note covering new plans for troops; modification of Artillery (sic) formations; a note pertaining to Madagascar; and The Sketch for a Firing Manuel for the country artillery.  Upon reading the memo, General Auguste Mercier, the French Minister of War, was outraged, as it implied that someone under his direct authority had committed treason, a grave oversight that reflected poorly on his ability to manage his staff.  The hunt for the culprit began in earnest—and the faster the traitor was caught the better.  Justice would not be served in this case, as officers eager to prove their worth relied on hearsay, doctored evidence, conspired among each other.  The name Alfred Dreyfus came up, and it was decided that if his handwriting matched the memo, it would certainly provide evidence enough of his guilt.  Hand-writing experts were called in, although none could say for certain that Dreyfus had written the memo.  Still, the Minister of War was convinced.  His Jewish background, the fact that he was considered in the eyes of his superiors as more German than French, a negative review written by a superior, and the fact that he came from a family of means (ironically) compromised Captain Dreyfus.  The end result:  a miscarriage of justice that would take years to resolve.
On October 13, 1894, Alfred Dreyfus reported to his office.  Waiting for him was a man who introduced himself as Commandant du Paty de Clam.  Bendin describes the scene:

In the rear were three men in civilian garb unknown to Dreyfus…  du Paty invited Dreyfus to fill in the identificatory section of his inspection as his aides looked on.  Then du Paty, whose right hand was covered by a black glove, said to Dreyfus:  “I have a letter to write and present to General Boisdeffre for his signature.  I’ve hurt my finger.  Can you write it for me?”  Dreyfus agreed to the odd request, and sat at a small table ready for the dictation.

It was then that Commandant du Paty, leaning over Dreyfus, dictated to him a meticulously composed text (55).

Unbeknownst to Dreyfus, he was signing away his legal rights.  At one point during the interrogation, du Paty shouted that Dreyfus was under arrest for the crime of high treason.   The Commandant had a pistol hidden beneath a folder, which he offered to Dreyfus—the intent obvious:   Captain Dreyfus should use it to kill himself.  He refused and then hauled off to lock-up.  His family had yet to be notified.  For the moment, only the military knew his whereabouts.
The Dreyfus family - Wikipedia
For a private man, the “Affair” brought Dreyfus to public attention in ways that were nearly as excruciating as his incarceration on Devil’s Island.  He was France’s most famous prisoner—and as such, much of the punishment meted out to him was excessive, and arbitrary.  Publicly degraded by being stripped of his uniform, and then shipped off to Devil’s Island, which had once served as a leper colony, Dreyfus was kept in solitary confinement, double shackled to his bed at night, and nearly starved to death.  Many in the French High Command wished he would be forgotten.  They would not get their wish.  Alfred’s brother, Matheiu Dreyfus, never ceased in his efforts to have him exonerated.  His desperation led Matheiu at to take up with a clairvoyant; a woman he lodged in his house.  He encouraged to her spend hours in trances in an effort to make psychic contact with his brother.  He also hired lawyers, knocked on doors and made trips abroad.  His efforts paid off—that, and the fact the right-wing papers, with their stream of anti-Jewish vitriol, gained the attention a group known as the Dreyfusards.  Among them, Emile Zola, who, sympathetic to Captain Dreyfus, published his famous J’Accuse letter denouncing the Affair.  The conservative press used Zola’s Italian background as cause for dismissing him as a foreigner, a man with no genuine ties to France.  One of the country’s most respected writers was thus lumped in with the grotesque Jews, who were vile, scarcely human, lacking a culture, country or language of their own, beyond contempt.
Grotesque?  Or Kafkaesque?  As the truth of the misdeeds of the French High Command surfaced, and the pressure to revisit the Dreyfus case mounted, it was decided that Dreyfus be allowed to return to France—not as a free man, but to face a second trial.  He was once more convicted, but by then French officials, wanting to wash their hands of the Affair, offered the Captain amnesty.   Dreyfus accepted—much to the dismay of his supporters.   Indeed, he infuriated them by requesting that he be reinstated in the army, and by his refusal to attack in any way those responsible for his ordeal.  Perhaps he feared for his family?  Whatever the reason, he refused to publicly assist the Dreyfusards.
As Sander L. Gilman writes in Franz Kafka:  The Jewish Patient, Kafka was eleven years old when Dreyfus was arrested.  He would turn twenty-three upon the Captain’s final pardon.  When Kafka was twenty-five, a last attempt was made on Dreyfus’s life.  Jews across Europe were deeply shaken by these events.  Kafka was no different.  The “otherness” of his writing points not uniquely to a disturbed psyche (although Kafka suffered from ailments both nervous and physical) but to actual historical events as well.  The Trial, certainly one of Kafka’s most famous novels, demonstrates the uncertain authority of the law, the vulnerability of the individual in the face of unfounded accusations, and the cruel absurdity of guilty before proven innocent.  In particular, his story “The Burrow,” may be read as the culmination of the hysteria that took hold of Europe that resulted in World War I.  For what was Kafka referring to in this parable about an animal that tunnels deep within the ground—a nameless creature—that seeks to protect itself by self-burial?  “The Burrow” is a story about trench warfare:   the misery of fighting in those holes, and the death of thousands.  The conflict resulted in an even greater hardening of one nation-state against another--and a re-emergence with particular hatred and fear of the “Other.” In some sense, Kafka was spared the worst.  He applied for service in World War I and was rejected for reasons of health.  After World War II broke out, his three sisters were captured and killed by the Nazis.  By that time, Kafka had passed away of tuberculosis.

Brendin, Jean-Denis, The Affair:  The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, George Braziller, New York, 1986.

Gilman L., Sander, Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient, pg. 69-70,

Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.


Robbi N. said...

Fascinating essay, which shows just how wrong-headed it is to read literature apart from its larger cultural and historical context.

Anita Davison said...

Fascinating post Kathryn-my Great Grandfather was Prussian and fled Danzig in 1881 - we wondered if it was to avoid subscription during the Franco-Prussian war - so articles like this all help build a picture

Octavia Randolph said...

A stellar piece of information. Thank you for making this complicated subject easier to digest. The Kafka aspect draws it round to literature and "art imitating life" in a most satisfying manner. I learned from this!