7. WILL JUSTICE FINALLY TRIUMPH?
On June 5, 1899, at twelve-thirty, the head warder suddenly entered Dreyfus' hut on Devil's Island and handed him a note:
"Please inform Captain Dreyfus immediately of the result of the appeal to the Supreme Court: The Court quashes the judgment handed down on December 22, 1894 against Alfred Dreyfus by the first Court-Martial of the Paris Military Government and sends the accused for trial by the Rennes Military Tribunal, etc."
With this, Alfred Dreyfus was no longer liable to deportation; he became an ordinary prisoner, was reinstated at his former rank, and was able to wear his uniform again. He wrote,
"I was enormously, unspeakably happy. Finally I was released from the rack to which I had been nailed for five years... The era of justice was dawning for me."
When a shrunken, ill Dreyfus appeared in the hall of the Rennes School, the impromptu courtroom, the forgotten martyr finally took on a physical presence. Barres wrote,
"A man of flesh and blood, who has been fought over by two camps and, for the last six years, has not had a moment's peace, has rolled up from the Americas and wandered into the midst of our battle."
It is astonishing that none of the numerous contemporary commentators was able to provide a dispassionate picture of Dreyfus. Unfortunately, part of the myth about Dreyfus included his disagreeable character. Clemenceau, his unremitting defender, did not like him. Yet, Dreyfus was an officer and a patriot, whose dignity and stiffness were intended to convey that all he was seeking was justice from his peers, and not the support of his supporters. In a shrewd observation, Leon Blum noted,
"Had he not been Dreyfus, would he himself have been a Dreyfusard?"
As far as public opinion was concerned, the main figure of interest in the trial was General Mercier, not Dreyfus himself. To the very end, the judges had the impression that both the government and General Mercier were not willing to tell them the whole truth. They were made to judge between Mercier (the Army as a symbol) and Dreyfus - over and beyond the evidence.
After retiring, the verdict (five for, two against) was again of "guilty", but it was accepted that there were "extenuating circumstances". Dreyfus was sentenced to ten years of forced labour, five already served.
This unlikely outcome unleashed a storm of comment. Jaures wrote, "It is unbelievable and unprecedented that the ruling which held Esterhazy to be the author of the bordereau which led in 1894 to Dreyfus' conviction could not, in the Rennes Public Defender's Office, act as worthy counsel for the defence."
At no point had Esterhazy's guilt been raised; as in 1894, Dreyfus was the only one on trial, as if nothing had happened since, and the proceedings rendered his defence impossible. For all his supporters, the bubble collapsed.
The whole world was outraged: anti-French demonstrations took place in twenty capital cities and the world press was scandalised.
Finally shaking off its torpor, the French government proposed pardoning Dreyfus, who immediately withdrew his appeal to the Supreme Court. Clemenceau was indignant:
"After an entire people has risen up and demanded justice, it is immoral to ask it to accept that an individual should have to plead for mercy."
Jaures agreed, while Reinach and Bernard Lazare went along with Mathieu Dreyfus, feeling their unfortunate friend's sufferings could only be brought to an end through clemency.
"Very well," sneered Clemenceau, "so you agree with the General Staff!"
Dreyfus was not himself in favour of pleading for mercy. Although he did not share Clemenceau's desire for exoneration - a triumph of the principles underlying the Dreyfus case - he was afraid that the granting of mercy would bar his reinstatement permanently. He only agreed under pressure from his brother and Bernard Lazare.
At that point, the press and public opinion lost all interest in the Affair.
Despite the press, and the pressure of public opinion, the government and the Second French Republic as a whole - finally found a formula to deal with the Affair. The Rennes judgment had been a decisive political act: the Affair did indeed die down. There was no question of looking for the real guilty parties: everyone's watchword was "amnesty". With all now calm, Dreyfus was exonerated quietly several years later. After the amnesty voted in parliament, on July 12, 1906, the Supreme Court of Appeals quashed the Rennes verdict, which it said had been passed "mistakenly and in error".
Dreyfus was promoted to Major. In an epilogue worthy of Hollywood, on July 21, 1906, in the same courtyard at the Military Academy where his ceremony of degradation had taken place, Drefyus was awarded the Legion of Honour by General Gillain, in a ceremony attended by Picquart, now a General. In this visual affirmation of his reinstatement, Dreyfus was thus at one stroke cleansed of both the unfair verdict and the tarnish of the Affair.