17-The Dreyfus Affair Begins
Toward the end of the century, in spite of the aggressive repression by the Lois Scélérates, Séverine kept busy with her columns for various papers, but her collaborations were certainly not appreciated by many radicals on the left. Even moderate liberals could accuse her of contradiction when she was writing for a monarchist paper like Le Gaulois or the fashionable press like Gil Blas, even though her principles were never sacrificed. Educated in the Vallès school of journalism she was ready to defend the victims of injustice in whatever venue was available as long as she was given complete freedom in her writing. That was how she ended up contributing to Drumont’s anti-Semite paper Libre Parole. More than identifying herself as a follower of this of that school of thought or staying cooped up with the right people, more than being a rebel just for the sake of it, she clung to the cause, representing the dispossessed, fighting for the oppressed in any and every field she found. Plus, she had to earn a living. Her husband, Adrien Guebhardt, living in the south of France, did not support her and her lover, Georges de Labruyère, was more often given money than giving.
At the end 1894, while Paris was busy worrying about the anarchist bombs and the assassination of President Carnot, another crime, a seemingly clear-cut treachery slipped into the papers. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jewish officer to be admitted to the General Staff, was arrested on October 15 for spying on behalf of Germany. The case hinged on a document that had been found in a trash can at the Kaiser’s embassy in Paris and that was identified as his handwriting. The trial was swift and inept and on December 22 he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dreyfus, of course, claimed his innocence and through his family found a supporting friend in the journalist Bernard Lazare, but they remained alone and isolated in their appeals. Their tenacity, on the other hand, was unstoppable.
Séverine, like everyone else, did not doubt Dreyfus’ guilt, but she did raise her voice against two injustices: once when he was refused a retrial and a second time for the ignoble behavior of the uniforms when they shipped him off to Devil’s Island on January 20 1895. See, there were reporters present when an officer reached over a policeman and smacked Dreyfus on the head with his sword. The bleeding, defenseless prisoner staggered on, unaided by anyone. Séverine was indignant and condemned the act in L’Eclair, cowardice being one of the things she hated most in the world. But this came as no surprise to the public since it was from “Our Lady with the Tear in Her Eye.” Dreyfus’ wife, at least, appreciated it and asked to see her as she was trying to rally support to prove his innocence. Séverine never answered the request, but she never regretted it; “there was too much money in their house,” too bourgeois for her liking; and besides she still had other fish to fry, other battles to fight. There was Armenia and Cuba and the insurrections in Algeria, not to mention the continuing battle of the disinherited at home in France.
Bernard Lazare and the Dreyfus family, especially his brother Mathieu, did not give up the fight and their determination paid off in more than one way. Firstly, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through France and split the citizens into two camps, the Dreyfusards who supported them and the anti-Dreyfusards, anti-Semites and monarchists who were pitted against them. Secondly, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, the new director of the intelligence service, scrutinized the case and became interested in the figure of Major Esterhazy, an officer up to his neck in debts. Another document was found in the German Embassy that matched the handwriting of Dreyfus’ condemning evidence but it was obviously written by Esterhazy. If this truth came out it would discredit the army, a few high-ranking officers in particular, and strain the already uneasy relations with Germany. Therefore, Picquart was shipped off to Tunisia and thus military honor was saved. Except that before leaving Picquart confided his secret to the vice president of the Senate Auguste Scheuer-Kestner who assured him that Dreyfus would see his day in court across from Esterhazy. And so he did. Another speedy trial in January 1898 became major news this time and Esterhazy was deemed innocent. France was more divided than ever. The partisans of national security versus the defenders of truth and justice. The trial was clearly not fair, but it took Zola to muster the intellectuals and make it international.
It should be noted that the original Dreyfusards did not blame the army as a whole but rather a small clique of officers. They only wanted a fair and just trial. It was only later when the anti-Semitism and nationalism bloomed into anti-Republicanism and radical right-wing violence that the anti-militarism sprang forth in reprisal.
On January 13 1898 in L’Aurore Emile Zola risked his career and published “J’accuse!” addressed to the president of the republic, which would become famous worldwide. The man who often wrote but never acted politically turned vehement and combative. He, too, had first believed in Dreyfus’ guilt, but he was disgusted by the hatred he witnessed. And now a travesty of justice was on hand. Anatole France stood beside him and Séverine joined their ranks with many others. Zola was dragged into court for accusing the army generals of anti-Semitism and of deliberately and of knowingly convicting an innocent man. Support poured in from all over the world, from Leo Tolstoy in Russia to Mark Twain in the United States, but the opposition was too strong. There were terrible demonstrations of anti-Semites screaming Death to Jews, Long Live the Homeland, Long Live the Army, Down with Zola! And so on February 23 1898 after a dramatic trial Zola was sentenced to one year in prison and a 3,000 F fine. Perreux, the editor of L’Aurore was given the same fine but only four months in prison. Without question and without packing Zola beat a hasty retreat to London.
Séverine was no babe in the woods when it came to the judiciary machine. After her battles for Duval and Vaillant and the rest, she had a long habit of the gavel, robes and wigs and she knew the power that the pen could wield as well as the dangers that could result. When she answered in her turn in an article calling for the truth to come out she was attacked by an armed assailant, barely escaping with her life, disconcerted but not at all discouraged. Her involvement in the affair was not so much in support of the officer himself, but against all the lies and hypocrisy. Guilty or innocent was not the issue, it was the violation of justice that outraged her.