J’accuse enfin le … conseil de guerre d’avoir violé le droit, en condamnant un accusé sur une pièce restée secrète….
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of one of the more astounding legal episodes in modern history, the Dreyfus Affair. French President Jacques Chirac marked the occasion on July 12 (Fr.; BBC coverage) by giving a speech honoring Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery captain convicted of treason in 1894. July 12, 1906, was the date on which the Supreme Court of Appeal reversed Dreyfus’s conviction and finally proclaimed him innocent; on July 21, in recognition of all he had been through, Dreyfus was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony held at the Ecole Militaire. In response to cheers of “Vive Dreyfus!”, Dreyfus famously responded, “No, gentlemen, I beg of you. Vive la France!”
The Dreyfus Affair is a story about an egregious abuse of the legal system, driven primarily by a powerful current of French antisemitism and by a desire to shield the French military from its own mistakes. It involves procedurally flawed court-martials, secret evidence, conspiracies, theft of government secrets, deportation to a brutal island prison, leaks to the press, leak prosecutions, riots by antisemitic mobs, and a cover-up and whitewash perpetrated at the highest levels of the French military. As that list should indicate, the affair is ripe with allegorical potential, for all sorts of different purposes, but Americans aren’t very familiar with it.