Commentary Magazine


An Intimate Journal of the Dreyfus Case, by Maurice Paleologue

Reasons of State
An Intimate Journal of the Dreyfus Case
By Maurice Paleologue
Criterion. 319 Pp. $4.50.

 

If the Dreyfus case continues to fascinate one more than fifty years after its close, this is not because of the qualities of its protagonist. Alfred Dreyfus was a petty man, accidentally entangled in a web he never understood. Those who got to know him well were shocked to realize that his respect for rank and for the army that persecuted him were so great that he would no doubt have voted for his own conviction had he been a member of the court-martial. Nor, in fact, was anti-Semitism the central issue. Dreyfus was a Jew, but that was not why he was victimized. Anti-Semitic passions figured in the case, but only toward the end, and even then they confused rather than helped to explain the fierce loyalties that divided Dreyfusards from anti-Dreyfusards.

The case became a world-wide issue because it revealed that the corrupt survivals of France’s old regime were incompatible with the spirit and the structure of a democratic state. The line that divided the Dreyfusards from their opponents divided the 20th century from the past. Suddenly it became clear that the ugly anachronistic relics of earlier compromises that still cluttered the European social scene were serious threats to men’s liberties. That is why new evidence on the case still attracts our interest. Even now, after all the participants are dead and gone, there is still drama in the basic historical issues.

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Maurice Paleologue was a Frenchman of good family, well educated and intelligent, who would ultimately go on to a distinguished diplomatic career. He would also make something of a name as a writer and a historian. In 1894, he was assigned to the Intelligence Service of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From the moment the Dreyfus case broke, he was instructed by his superiors to watch developments closely. Although the case actually involved only the army and the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Office realized at once that this might be an opportunity to further its own interests. Paleologue was told not to ask questions, but to build up a file that might be used against the Ministry of Defense. This interservice rivalry often was the most decisive consideration in his mind. He accumulated an explosive file of secret documents which were ultimately revealed at the second court-martial at Rennes.

From 1894 to 1899 Paléologue kept a private diary. Many years later he carefully revised his notes, and in 1942 he submitted a manuscript to Librairie Plon, a well-known Paris publishing house. He instructed them to publish his book only after his death. This volume does not therefore represent the source in its original form. But it is nonetheless valuable—and as much for what it reveals unconsciously as for what it aims to reveal.

It soon becomes clear that justice was not at all a consideration in the mind of the author of this diary or in the minds of those like him. Paléologue was one of many who realized very early that Dreyfus was innocent. Almost immediately he discovered that the incriminating documents were forgeries—an intercepted telegram from the Italian military attaché had put him on to the whole secret—and not long after he learned the identity of the actual culprits. Yet he never felt the compulsion to speak out. Even at the trials at which he appeared as a witness, he refused to offer an opinion or to do anything else than present the documentary evidence. Although one of the traitors was an officer who continued to occupy a high post in the French government, Paleologue still felt it unnecessary to make his identity public.

A peculiar code thus seemed to govern this official; and that code was strikingly like the one by which the officers who convicted Dreyfus lived. Indeed, there is a close similarity among all the bureaucrats, military and civilian, who figure in these pages. Their instinctive dislike of Jews and their personal hostility to Dreyfus reflected the unwillingness of insiders to make room for outsiders. Their love of rumor and gossip was a condition of the self-contained little world in which they moved. Loyalty was their highest morality, so that Picquart, the only officer to dare to seek the truth, seemed to Paléologue an “apostate.”

In 1898, when President Casimir-Perier had become convinced Dreyfus was innocent, Paléologue persuaded him not to intervene. The decisive argument, repeated in many places in this book, was the necessity of conserving the integrity of the nation’s institutions. “After all, these officers are fine, honest, scrupulous men. They certainly would not convict one of their comrades, even a Jew, unless they were convinced by unquestionable evidence of his guilt.” And if no such unquestionable evidence could be discerned anywhere in the proceedings, that must be because the truth was so terrible that it could not be publicly revealed. After all, if Dreyfus were really innocent, then the general staff was guilty, and that was unthinkable—even if true. In the last analysis the decisive consideration was raison d’état. “Have respect for the res judicata. Do not destroy institutions that you yourselves set up.”

The bureaucrats did not understand until too late that a people armed with democracy might, in a choice between justice and established institutions, prefer justice, even if that choice pulled down the remnants of ancient institutions. And much in the history of France after 1900 was the consequence of the necessity for making such a choice.

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