Pascal Ory: Interviewed about Dreyfus case

Roundup: Talking About History

In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the highest ranking Jewish military officer in the French army at the time, was imprisoned after being accused of passing secrets to the German embasssy in Paris. The conviction was exposed as an anti-Semitic plot by activists such as writer Emile Zola, who wrote an open letter to the President Felix Faure with the famous headline J’accuse. Finally, in 1906, Dreyfuss was exonerated of his charges and allowed back in the army.

As France marks the 100th anniversary of the captain’s rehabilitation Professor Pascal Ory of the Sorbonne University discusses the Dreyfus affair.

EJP: Bernard Lazare and Emile Zola are celebrated as Dreyfus’s greatest defenders but Alfred Dreyfus was often accused of not fighting hard enough. Are these accusations justified?

Pascal Ory: Dreyfus was a symbol but the man himself didn’t interest many historians. It is only recently that we started studying his attitude. A biography of the captain by Vincent Duclert* was published this year and we learn by reading it that the captain was a pure product of the Republic. He was a rationalist; he battled against passion and was regarded as cold next to his passionate defenders.

Alfred Dreyfus was very affected by the affair but he avoided showing his feelings. He was criticised for his attitude but it was a pure product of his generation. He was secular, rationalist and when he became the victim of injustice he thought that the truth would impose itself naturally.

This reasoning may seem idealist today but when you look things through you realise that his expectations ended up happening. At the end of the affair and in a rather complicated way his innocence was finally recognised.

Dreyfus was alone at first. He was shocked and surprised by the accusations against him.

He proved he was purely rational when he refused to use the gun handed to him by an officer. The officer told him to commit suicide but the captain refused to do so. His personal battle started off there. We know today, after examining his letters to his wife and brother, that Dreyfus did fight for himself. This was unknown, even to many of those who fought for him. He was the best republican.

EJP: What did his battle consist of?

Pascal Ory: He refused to be defeated. He said clearly and continuously that he was innocent. He encouraged his family and friends to keep on defending him.

You have to remember that at the beginning he was all alone. No one imagined that the army headquarters forged documents and created false evidence to accuse him.

The civil justice was truly remarkable. Precisely a century ago the civil judges, some of which may have been anti-Semitic, made their decision. They rationally studied the evidence and decided to discharge him.

There is nothing remarkable in the fact that his family defended him but what is impressive is that many non-Jews battled for him. Many of them anti-Semitic but this didn’t keep them from defending him.

The Dreyfusards wouldn’t have triumphed without the gentiles that defended him, such as lieutenant colonel Geoges Picquart.

That’s the interesting part. It gives us important information on their society and on ours. ...

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