Monday, 20 January 2014

Georges Picquart: The Dreyfus Whistle-blower

IT's a 100 years last Saturday since the whistle-blower in the French Dreyfus case, Georges Picquart, died.  Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery captain who became the only Jew on the general staff of the French army, and it came as no surprise to Picquart, who the author Robert Harris describes as 'casually anti-Semite', that Dreyfus fell under suspicion of passing secret intelligence to the Germans.  Picquart attended the Dreyfus conviction when his sword was broken and insignia torn from his uniform, and said to a fellow officer:  'He's a Jew, don't forget that.  He's thinking of the weight of the gold braid and how much it's worth.' 

On that day Jan. 5th, 1895, a crowd of 20,000 shouted 'Death to the Jew!'

Picquart, unlike modern whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, was a senior figure in the organisation he was about to expose and who had taught Alfred Dreyfus at the Ministry of War, and had even provided the sample of Dreyfus's handwriting to the investigators that appeared to confirm Dreyfus's guilt.  Later the Dreyfus affair was to divide French society, when Picquart at the age of 40, was made the youngest colonel in the French Army and put in charge of a small intelligence unit, known as the Statistical Section, and he placed Maj. Charles Esterhazy under surveilance after more evidence emerged.

Wikipedia reports:  'Little by little despite threats of arrest for complicity, machinations, and open traps by the military[94] he (Picquart) managed to convince various moderates. Thus the libertarian journalist Bernard Lazare looked into the shadows of the proceedings. In 1896 Lazare published the first dreyfusard booklet in Brussels.[95] This publication had little influence on the political and intellectual world but it contained so much detail that the General Staff suspected that the new head of SR Picquart was responsible.'

The nationalist press launched a violent campaign against the heart of the burgeoning dreyfusards. In counter-attack, the General Staff discovered and revealed the information, hitherto ignored, in the 'secret file'.[108] Doubt began to establish itself and figures in the artistic and political spheres asked questions.[Note 21] Picquart tried to convince his seniors to react in favour of Dreyfus but the General Staff seemed deaf. An investigation was started against him, he was monitored when he was in the east, then transferred to Tunisia 'in the interest of the service'.

At the end of 1897, the novelist Emile Zola was provided with the information and did his celebrated expose of the affair, 'J'Accuse...!'  Picquart, the whistle-blower, was dismissed from the army, framed as a forger and locked up in solitary confinement for over a year. 

The campaign for the review, relayed little by little into the leftist anti-military press,[96] triggered a return of a violent yet vague antisemitism. France was overwhelmingly anti-dreyfusard. Major Henry from the Statistics Section in turn was aware of the fragility of the prosecution case. At the request of his superiors, General Boisdeffre, Chief of the General Staff, and Major-General Gonse, he was charged with the task to grow the file to prevent any attempt at a review. Unable to find any evidence, he decided to build some after the fact.

In 1906, justice was done; the Dreyfus conviction was quashed, and Picquart was restored to the army with the rank of brigadier general.  In the Autumn of 1906, Picquart's friend and fellow Dreyfusard, George Clemenceau - owner of the newspaper that published 'J'Accuse...!'  became prime minister and made Picquart Minister of War, a post he held for three years.  Picquart died of edema of the face - effectively, suffocation - following a riding accident.  He was 59.  Having no family to preserve his memory:  a bachelor with a succession of married mistresses, he left no children.  A section of the army never forgave him for betraying his comrades, and some of Dreyfus's backers still accuse him of being 'anti-Semite'.  But Clemenceau oserved:  'Dreyfus was the victim, but Picquart was the hero.' 

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