The Dreyfus Affair

A Summary History of the Dreyfus Affair

Source: Théodore Reinach, Histoire Sommaire de l’Affaire Dreyfus. Paris, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, 1924;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

There are no fait divers in history. If every event has immediate causes, it also has profound causes which alone truly explain their genesis and development. The Dreyfus Affair is no exception to this rule.

In order to understand the proportions and the turn it took, as well as the role it played for several years in French public life, we must on one hand go back to the origins of the nationalist movement, heir of Boulangisme, and on the other hand to those of the anti-Semitic movement. This latter began to become visible in France around 1880, its steps marked off by the catastrophe of the “Union Generale” in 1882, “La France Juive” of Drumont in 1886, and the founding of La Libre Parole in 1892. Without attempting to write the history of these two movements it must be recalled that it is they and they alone that created in the country, and especially in the army, the mood necessary for the blossoming and the exasperation of an affair which, left on its own, would have aborted while still in seed or remained restricted to the strictly judicial order.

From the beginning of the anti-Semitic awakening the efforts of its most persevering promoters were directed against the situations occupied by Israelite officers in the French army and who, for many intransigent Catholics, were a subject for scandal. One of the first campaigns of La Libre Parole was directed against them. It resulted in the successive duels of Captain Crémieu Foa with Drumont and Lamase, and in that of Captain Mayer with the Marquis de Morès, a duel that ended in the death of the Jewish officer (June 23, 1892).

The Crémieu Foa -Mayer Affair is the prelude to the Dreyfus Affair. The perspicacious observer could have found sketched out there the prejudices, the passions, the procedures that we were to see in all their vigor two years later. Already there figured there certain actors in the drama: Captain Esterhazy was one of Crémieu Foa’s witnesses.

Among the military services of the Ministry of War reorganized after the war of 187 that of “intelligence,” i.e., espionage and counter-espionage took, under the impetus of zealous chiefs a considerable, even excessive development. The leadership of this service was centralized in a section of the General Staff officially designated under the name of “Section of Statistics” and formally attached to the Deuxieme Bureau. One of this service’s preoccupations was the surveillance of the German Embassy.

In truth the Ambassador, the Count von Munster, following the Boutonnet Affair, where his military attaché was caught in flagrante delicto, had promised that German military attachés would henceforth abstain from paying off French officers or employees. But they knew in the Intelligence Office that that promise had not been kept, if not by the ambassador, at least by the new attaché, Colonel von Schwarzkoppen. Unbeknownst to his chief, the latter continued to be involved with espionage, corresponding directly with the Prussian General Staff in Berlin. According to information furnished by various agents, notable by an honorary Spanish military attaché, Val Carlos, who received a salary from the ministry, M. von Schwarzkoppen had ties with the Italian military attaché, Colonel Panizzardi. The two agents communicated their discoveries to each other and, when the case was urgent, informed each other in writing.

In order to track down this little game the Intelligence Bureau did not content itself with the resources offered by the cabinet noir and the intercepted dispatches. It had succeeded in assuring itself of the assistance of a cleaning lady at the German Embassy, a certain Bastian. The latter carefully gathered up what was found in the garbage pails and in the fireplaces, fragments of the papers torn up by Schwarzkoppen. She wrapped them in a cone and once or twice a month brought them or had them brought to the “Section of Statisitcs.” There they were separated and carefully glued together. Most of the documents thus reconstituted were insignificant, even frivolous. Some, though, aroused attention.

Starting in 1892 they were thus able to note certain leaks of intelligence secrets concerning national defense. Plans for the fortress of Nice had been delivered by an individual who a letter from Schwarzkoppen designated under the name of “this canaille D...” [1] Fragments of a memo from Schwarzkoppen [2] allowed it to be understood that the German attaché had found an informant who claimed to bring him documents that came directly from the Ministry of War. There was thus a fox in the sheepfold, and Val Carlos attested to this. These revelations, however incomplete, caused a real unease in the General Staff. No one was any longer sure of his neighbor, and all were afraid of being suspected themselves. They were stumbling in the shadows.

During the summer of 1894 there arrived at the Intelligence Bureau a document much more alarming than all the preceding ones and which certainly came from the German Embassy. It was the anonymous letter that became famous under the name of “bordereau.” This letter, written on a nearly transparent graph paper of onion skin was traversed by two perpendicular tears, but was otherwise intact. The text was written on both sides of the first page. According to the version that was later officially accredited it had arrived through “normal channels,” that is via Mme Bastian’s cone. But the document’s appearance, barely torn, sufficed to put the lie to this version. From other sources it appears that letter was taken intact from the loge of the Embassy concierge in Colonel von Schwarzkoppen’s mail slot and brought to the bureau by an agent named Brucker. This man, who had once served as intermediary between Mme Bastian and the Intelligence Service, had momentarily been cast aside and sought to find grace in the service’s eyes by a coup d’éclat.

The documents whose dispatch the letter announced do not appear to have reached the German General Staff, and the envelope of the letter was not presented. We thus don’t know if the letter was sent through the mails or in another way, nor do we know if the documents were in the same envelope or were sent separately. [3]

Here is the text of the famous document:

“Without any news indicating that you want to see me, I nevertheless send you some interesting information:

1: A note on the hydraulic brake of the 120 and the way that piece performed; [4]

2: A note on the covering troops (a few modifications will be made in the new plan); [5]

3: A note on a modification to the artillery formations; [6]

4: A note relating to Madagascar [7];

5: The project for the firing manual of the field artillery (March 14, 1894)

This last document is difficult to obtain and I can only keep it in my possession for a few days. The Ministry of War sent a fixed number to the corps, and the corps are responsible for them. Each officer having one must return it after maneuvers [8]

If you want to take from it whatever interests you, and put it at my disposal afterwards, I will take it. Unless you want me to make a copy of it in extenso and send you the copy.

I am leaving on maneuvers.”

However poorly written this missive – we don’t even know if the author has sent the firing manual or he is simply offering to procure it for him – it is clear from the text that it was written at the very latest in August 1894. In fact, it is question here of the “firing manual” as well as a regulation recently sent to the corps (of troops) for maneuvers and that the officers in possession of the manual must return it after the maneuvers. The firing manual is a collection of methods meant to regulate the real fire of field pieces. This real fire never takes place during the “grand maneuvers” of September, but only during the firing schools that begin in May and end in August. It is these firing schools that the writer, in his incorrect language, designates under the name of maneuvers. It is thus obvious that the bordereau dates at the very latest from August. [9]

Whatever the exact date, it seems clear that the bordereau was given to Commandant Henry who was then, along with Commandant Cordier, the principal collaborator of Colonel Sandherr, chief of the Intelligence Service. According to the declarations of General Roget the piece arrived at the ministry with other documents whose dates were spread out between August 4 – September 2. [10] We can nonetheless suppose that Henry kept it for a few days, or perhaps a few weeks. But it is even more surprising that he did not recognize the handwriting of one of his former office mates, Commandant Esterhazy. September 24 [11]. He communicated his discovery to his comrades and his chief, Colonel Sandherr, who immediately advised the Chief of the General Staff, General de Boisdeffre, and the Minister of War, Mercier.

The emotion was profound. There was no longer any doubt: the German military attaché had an informant who was a French officer. Even more, it was concluded from the tone of the letter that it was an officer of the General Staff. Nothing justified this last hypothesis. To the contrary, grammatically and technically the incorrect writing of the bordereau, the difficulty he spoke of in procuring the firing manual (which freely circulated at the General Staff), his inability to himself extract interesting new pieces of information, the little importance his correspondent seemed to attach to his information, which left him “without news,” all of this should have, to unprejudiced spirits, excluded the attribution of the bordereau to an officer of the General Staff. Nevertheless, this idée fixe, this proton pseudos, suggested by the preceding notices of Val Carlos, were accepted without discussion. From the first hour the search was set off on the wrong path.

On the order of the minister the General Renouard, in his function as Chief of the General Staff, an inquiry was begun in the offices of the ministry. It was focused solely on the identification of the handwriting and produced no results. But on October 6 Lieutenant-Colonel d’Abboville, Sub-Chief of the Quatrième Bureau of the General Staff and who was returning from leave, having been brought up to date by his chief, Colonel Fabre, had the idea that the bordereau, which dealt with issues in different bureaus, must have been the work of an officer in training; these officers were the only ones to successively pass through the various bureaus in order to perfect their military instruction. What is more, since of the five documents mentioned three concerned the artillery, it was probable that the training officer was from that branch.

With the circle thus circumscribed all that was left was to consult the list of training officers of the General Staff who came from the artillery service. While going over it the two colonels fell upon the name of an Israelite officer, Captain Dreyfus. Fabre, who had had him in his bureau during the second quarter of 1893, remembered that he gave him poor grades – suggested, incidentally, by Lieutenant-Colonel Roget and Commandant Bertin-Mourot. Based on superficial elements he had impressed them as a pretentious officer, neglecting his current service in order to busy himself with secret questions. They immediately sought out pieces written by Dreyfus. By a strange quirk his handwriting had undeniable family resemblance to that of the bordereau. These officers, inexperienced and prejudiced, took a vague resemblance for identity, and it is thus that the fate of the unfortunate was sealed.

The date of April 16, 1894 currently written on that piece was added much later. The actual date of his entering into service is earlier: 1892 according to Colonel Cordier, 1893 according to Commandant Lauth. The individual designated by the initial “D...” was an insignificant subaltern agent named Dubois or who had taken the name in his communications with foreign attachés. This fact and the derisory nature of his salary are today beyond any shadow of a doubt.


1. Translated as follows; “Doubt. Proof. Service letter. Dangerous situation for me with a French officer. Not personally carry out negotiations. Bring what he has. Absolute. Intelligence Bureau. No relations corps of troops. Only importance of ministry. Already somewhere else.” This memo doubtless prepared the response to a telegram from Berlin as follows: “Things no sign General Staff.”

2. The extraction of a bordereau from an envelope while at the same time allowing the pieces themselves arrive at their destination is a trick that is not unexampled. At the Chamber on February 3, 1898 M. Delcassé told of a similar happening of which he was the victim.

3. Probably meaning the hydropneumatic brake of the 120 short cannon. It was a heavy field piece recently put in service. The brake’s mechanism, which prevented a back kick, was kept secret.

4. It is thus that are called the troops thrown onto the frontier from the first hours of mobilization and intended to “cover” the concentration of the rest of the army.

5. The new mobilization plan. (no. XIII which was to be put in practice in 1895)

6. It’s a question either of formations of maneuver modified by the new regulations of hose drawn batteries or, and less probably, mobilization formations modified by the recent transfer to the Engineering service of the ship bridge service.

7. The Ministry of War was then preparing the expedition intended for the conquest of the island.

8. This is not correct, or only applies to reserve officers.

9. In the final phrase: “I am leaving on maneuvers” this word could designate either brigade maneuvers, or firing school, or any kind of maneuvers including the departure of a garrison. But if the bordereau’s author, Commandant Esterhazy, went at his request to the firing school of Chalons at the beginning of August 1894 he didn’t go to the grand maneuvers of September, to which majors are never sent.

10. Understand by this that Commandant Henry fictitiously attached it to a cone of Mme Bastian’s containing pieces included between these dates.

11. Date indicated by Commandant Lauth. The Renouard Inquest began the 26.