Jean Jaurès before the storm, and Jean Jaurès after. Go back to July of 1898, the height of the Dreyfus Affair. At the end of 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian-born, Jewish officer in the French Army, had been railroaded by a military court, convicted of passing secret information to Germany, largely on the basis of a secret dossier of letters—including some forgeries—prepared by the Army and passed on to the judges to forestall any possibility of an acquittal. For the next three years, the Dreyfus family and a band of journalists and intellectuals advocated for the decision to be overturned. Investigations by Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the Army’s intelligence service, revealed the true culprit, one Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. But the Army closed ranks: Picquart’s deputy, Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, fashioned another forgery that seemed to prove Dreyfus’s guilt. Esterhazy was, on order from the Army leadership, acquitted by another military court, while Picquart was ostracized. That led to novelist Émile Zola’s famous “J’Accuse” open letter, which (by design) led to Zola being tried and convicted for defamation, putting many of the details of the Affair in open court.
The momentum was on the side of the Dreyfusards for a new trial. But Jules Méline, the prime minister—who knew that the letter Henry produced had been forged—nonetheless declared the case closed. Then, a month after Zola’s conviction, new elections brought a new Minister of War, Godefroy Cavaignac, who in July 1898, gave a speech in the French Chamber of Deputies doubling down on Dreyfus’s guilt and the authenticity of the forged documents. The Chamber gave Cavaignac a rousing ovation, voting unanimously to post copies of the speech and the documents outside town halls across the country. Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book The Proud Tower, picks up the story:
For the Dreyfusards it was an unbelievable blow, an “atrocious moment.” A journalist came hot from the Chamber to bring the news to Lucien Herr [a leader of the Dreyfusards], who was in his study with Léon Blum [Socialist politician, later to become prime minister of France]. They were struck mute; tears were close to the surface; they sat immobilized by consternation and despair. Suddenly the doorbell rang and Jaurès burst in, brushed aside the gesture of his friends inviting him to mourn and berated them in a tone of triumph. “What, you too?… Don’t you understand that now, now for the first time we are certain of victory? Méline was invulnerable because he said nothing. Cavaignac talks, so he will be beaten…. Now Cavaignac has named the documents and I, yes I, tell you they are false, they feel false, they smell false. They are forgeries…. I am certain of it and will prove it. The forgers have come out of their holes; we’ll have them by the throat. Forget your funeral faces. Do as I do; rejoice.”
Jaurès went out and wrote Les Preuves (The Proofs), a series of articles beginning that week in the Socialist paper, La Petite République, which stunned its readers and marked the first collaboration of Socialism with a cause of the bourgeois world. Through the Affair the bridge of class enmity was crossed.
Jaurès’s indefatigable and zealous hope (Georges Clemenceau once joked that Jaurès’s articles were easy to spot: “all the verbs are in the future tense”) is hard work. But why not? The times are dark, and with good reason. But we have everything to gain.