Monday, May 5, 2014

Dreyfus bleus

For some years now my friend Patrice and I have been reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. It is a book club of two, with many wonderful evenings spent together, sometimes talking of the book, walking in the botanical gardens, in wine bars or more recently chatting on Skype. At the moment we are reading The Guermantes Way, the third volume. It is here that the narrator becomes immersed in dinner parties and afternoon teas where much talk is of the Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish artillery officer in the French Army who, in December 1984, was convicted of treason, accused of spying for the Germans. In the following days he was publicly degraded, his medals stripped, his sword broken, spat on by the crowd. After years exiled in prison in a tiny island in the Atlantic, it was to be a pneumatique telegramme, a petit bleu, which would begin a cascade of events leading to the release of this innocent man.

One day in 1986, a petit-bleu, torn-up and never sent, was found in the contents of a rubbish bin in the Germany military post in Paris. When pieced together (see above) the message was revealed, implicating another French officer in the offences attributed to Dreyfus. It took another 10 years before Dreyfus was restored to commission and his innocence publicly declared in the same place where he had been previously dishonoured.

It seems sadly ironic that a torn-up telegramme led to the release of Dreyfus, considering that it was torn-up documents that led to his conviction (where bizarrely the lack of correspondence between Dreyfus' writing and that of the document was proof of "self-forgery"). This was a very important moment in French history, a topic of much Paris salon repartee, and by the end of the 19th century a pre-occupation of many in the country, with camps divided. Indeed some argue that we are still in the midst of Dreyfus Affairs, where national panic takes false prisoners.

Information for this blogpost largely sourced from Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker (September 28, 2009).

Image from Europeana

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