Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, at a time when Dreyfus had few defenders in the French army, and himself an unapologetic anti-Semite, was the person who found evidence of his innocence, and damaged his army career by fighting for justice for Dreyfus. Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, had been convicted of treason in a case tainted by anti-Semitism.
The Dreyfus affair involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. The only evidence was a scrap of paper (the bordereau) obtained by Major Hubert Henry of the French intelligence service (Section de Statistique) in September 1894, retrieved from the wastebasket at the German Embassy by a cleaning woman, with handwriting that did not much resemble that of Dreyfus. The document indicated that highly-classified information concerning artillery mobilization was being offered to Germany by a French officer.
Major Armand Du Paty de Clam ordered Dreyfus to write out a prepared text which Du Paty dictated. Dreyfus was then arrested, taken into custody, and imprisoned in secrecy. He was convinced of Dreyfus's guilt through dictations that he analyzed as an amateur graphologist, and after six questionings. A court-martial was held in the Cherche-Midi military prison. Removed from public scrutiny, the Ministry of War furnished judges with a “secret file” of fabricated documents, not seen by the defense, which incriminated Dreyfus.
On January 5, 1895, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and stripped of his rank in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire before officers and new recruits representing every regiment in Paris. Dreyfus was deported to Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guyana where he spent almost 5 years. Isolated and surrounded by a high-walled enclosure, a prey to vermin and scorpions, Dreyfus was shackled for extended periods of time. His diet, often consisting of foul food, was cooked and eaten in rusty cans.
Not long after the condemnation of Alfred Dreyfus, the military counter-intelligence section at the French War Ministry had a change of leadership. Georges Picquart, who had been in charge of reporting the proceedings of the Dreyfus case to the War Minister and to his chief of staff, received the appointment. He was a young and brilliant officer, who was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel on April 6, 1896, and was the youngest officer of that grade in the army.
Immediately upon his arrival at the office he reorganized the service. He required that the paper bags in which Madame Marie Bastian continued to collect the waste papers from the German embassy, and which she brought to Major Henry, should pass through his hands before being given to Captain Lauth, whose work it was to review them.
The chief of the staff, Raoul Le Mouton de Boisdeffre, told Picquart that in his opinion the Dreyfus affair was not definitely settled. They must be on the lookout for a counter-attack from the Jews. In 1894 they had not been able to discover a motive for the treason; there was therefore every reason for continuing the search to "strengthen the dossier."
In the month of March, 1896, Henry made only short and infrequent visits to Paris. One day he sent Madame Bastian's paper bag, particularly bulky on this occasion, to Picquart without looking at the contents. Picquart, also without inspecting it, passed it on to Lauth. Lauth later brought his chief a pneumatic tube telegram (commonly known as a "petit bleu"), the fragments of which he had found in the bag; pasted together, they contained the following words:
To Major Esterhazy, 27 Rue de la Bienfaisance, Paris.
Sir: I am awaiting first of all a more detailed explanation [than] that which you gave me the other day on the subject in question. Consequently I beg you to send it to me in writing that I may judge whether I can continue my relations with the firm R. or not. C.
The writing of this note was disguised, but the place it came from left no room for doubt that it came from Lieut. Col. Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen, military attaché at the German Embassy in Paris; the office possessed another document, known to have been written by him, and signed with the same initial "C." The "petit bleu" had not been sent by mail; apparently, after having written or dictated it, Schwartzkoppen decided not to send it and threw it away, taking care to tear it up into more than fifty very small pieces. He had not foreseen the patient industry of the Intelligence Department.
Captain Lauth felt the note might mean there was another traitor among the officers. Picquart shared his impression; but determined to avoid the indiscretions and blunders which had been committed in 1894, he decided to secretly investigate himself before spreading the news of the discovery. He put the "petit bleu" away in his strong-box, and shortly afterward had photographs of it taken by Lauth.
Picquart began by getting information about the personality of Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, to whom the "petit bleu" was addressed. He spoke to his friend Major Curé, one of Esterhazy's fellow soldiers.
He discovered that Esterhazy had been under suspicion of malversation in Tunis and of espionage; he learned that Major Esterhazy was constantly absent from his garrison. He learned that Esterhazy collected information on confidential military questions, particularly those concerning mobilization and artillery. Esterhazy attended artillery tests, and when he could not succeed in being ordered to attend he went there at his own expense. This is what he had done notably in 1894, the year of the bordereau. He also borrowed books and documents, and had them copied by his secretaries.
At first Picquart did not establish any connection in his own mind between the "petit bleu" and the bordereau; he simply thought he was on the track of a fresh traitor, and hoped to catch him in the act. However, Esterhazy had been warned, and not only was it impossible to surprise him in any compromising visit, but he showed himself openly at the German embassy, to which he went to ask for a passport for his colonel. He insisted that he be allowed to return to the War Office, in preference to the Intelligence Department, and was able to attain the post through the highest parliamentary and military influence.
However, a fresh incident occurred to strengthen Picquart's suspicions. The French military attaché at Berlin, Foucault, informed him of a curious conversation he had had with Richard Cuers, a spy who wavered between France and Germany. Cuers told Foucault that Germany had never employed Dreyfus, that the only French officer who was in Germany's pay was a major of infantry who had furnished some sheets from lectures held at the shooting school at Châlons.
Picquart told General de Boisdeffre about his discovery, and upon the order of the general and of the minister of war, Jean-Baptiste Billot, he was directed to continue his inquiry as quietly as possible. If Esterhazy were really a traitor, he would be dismissed from the army quietly; another Dreyfus affair was to be avoided. Picquart now set to work in earnest to get samples of Esterhazy's handwriting, and he succeeded in obtaining two letters which the major had written. On looking at them Picquart discovered that the writing was identical with that of the bordereau attributed to Dreyfus.
Picquart realised that if Esterhazy, as the handwriting seemed to indicate, was the author of the bordereau, Dreyfus must be the victim of a judicial error. He obtained the secret dossier communicated to the judges in 1894, and which had been stored since then in Henry's safe. He discovered that the documents in the dossier contained absolutely nothing that applied, or could be made to apply, to Dreyfus. Of the only two papers that were of any importance, one, the document "canaille de D . . .," did not in any way concern any officer, but only someone who had assumed the name of Dubois, while the other, the memorandum of Schwartzkoppen, almost certainly pointed to Esterhazy. Mercier du Paty de Clam’s commentary was a mass of wild suppositions: a report that omits information favorable to Dreyfus and adds data "overwhelming. Later he was found to be the co-author of two forged telegrams designed to compromise Picquart.
Picquart immediately drew up a report and brought it to Boisdeffre, who ordered Picquart to relate his story to the deputy-chief of the staff, Charles Arthur Gonse. The general received Picquart, listened to his revelations, and concluded that they must "separate the two affairs," that of Dreyfus and that of Esterhazy. These instructions, confirmed by Boisdeffre, seemed absurd to Picquart, since the bordereau established an indissoluble bond between the two cases; he should have understood from that moment that his superiors had determined not to permit the reopening of the Dreyfus affair.
Picquart meanwhile was unaware that in his own office he was spied upon, opposed, and deceived by his fellow workers, Henry, Lauth, and Gribelin. One of them, Henry, had served with Esterhazy at the Intelligence Office, and had been his friend and debtor since 1876, although he pretended to know very little about him. If it is not certain that Henry was Esterhazy's accomplice, it seems very probable that from the end of 1894 he knew him to be the author of the bordereau.
In early September Picquart came into possession of a strange forgery. It was a letter in a feigned handwriting written in the German style, pretending to be addressed to Dreyfus by a friend named Weiss or Weill, and referring to "interesting documents" written in invisible ink. This was probably the beginning of the plot to discredit Picquart. He insisted to General Gonse that the initiative should come from the Staff Office to investigate. Gonse answered by vaguely advising him to act with prudence, and was opposed to the "expertises" in handwriting that Picquart requested.
Then took place between General Gonse and Picquart this dialogue:
"What can it matter to you," said the general, "whether this Jew remains at Devil's Island or not?"
"But he is innocent."
"That is an affair that can not be reopened; General Mercier and General Félix Gustave Saussier are involved in it."
"Still, what would be our position if the family ever found out the real culprit?"
"If you say nothing, nobody will ever know it."
"What you have just said is abominable, General. I do not know yet what course I shall take, but in any case I will not carry this secret with me to the grave."
From that day Picquart's removal was decided. He was authorized for the sake of appearances to continue his investigations concerning Esterhazy, but he was forbidden to take any decisive steps or to have Esterhazy arrested. Picquart found that ordinary measures — secret searches in his rooms, opening of his correspondence, examination of his desks — were of no avail, because Esterhazy had been warned.
On 10 November Le Matin published a facsimile of the bordereau attributed to Dreyfus. It had been obtained from the handwriting expert Teyssonnières, who had kept a photograph of the document. The publication of the facsimile allowed handwriting experts all over the world to prove the differences that existed between the writing of the bordereau and that of Dreyfus. Moreover, Esterhazy's handwriting was recognized, particularly by Schwartzkoppen, by Maurice Weil, and by a solicitor's clerk, the son of the chief rabbi Zadoc Kahn. Maurice Weil, one of Esterhazy's intimate friends, sent to the minister of war an anonymous letter which he had just received and which warned him that Castelin intended to denounce Esterhazy and Weil as accomplices of Dreyfus.
The Staff Office blamed Picquart for these embarrassing facts coming into the open, and decided that his departure from the service should be arranged. Boisdeffre went with him to the minister, who rebuked Picquart soundly for having let information leak out and for having seized Esterhazy's correspondence without authorization. In recognition of his past services he was not disgraced, but was ordered to set out immediately to inspect the intelligence service in the east of France, and to resign his position to General Gonse. He left on 16 November without protesting.
Meanwhile, Picquart was sent from Nancy to Marseille, and later on to Tunis, where he was attached to the Fourth Regiment of sharpshooters in garrison at Sousse.
After evidence against Esterhazy was discovered and made public, he was eventually subjected to a closed military trial in 1898 The Esterhazy trial lasted only two days, and resulted in his unanimous acquittal. On February 26, 1898, Picquart was officially dismissed from the Army. Colonel Picquart was then indicted in July 1898 for revealing military secrets to civilians and was put under arrest at the Mont-Valérien military prison. He was accused of forging the note that had convinced him of Esterhazy's guilt. He was incarcerated at La Santé and then Cherche-Midi Prison until June 1899.
Word of the military court's framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread, chiefly due to J'accuse, a vehement public open letter published in the Paris newspaper L'Aurore in January 1898 by the notable writer Émile Zola. The letter was addressed to President of France Félix Faure, and accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Dreyfus. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the front page of the newspaper, and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel on 23 February 1898. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England, returning home in June 1899.
In 1899 Dreyfus was brought back to Paris from Guiana for another trial. Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. In 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army.
The exoneration of Dreyfus also served to absolve Picquart, who by an act of the Chamber of Deputies was promoted to brigadier-general. General Picquart subsequently entered Georges Clemenceau's first cabinet as Minister of War. He held that position for the entire duration of the Clemenceau Cabinet, from 25 October 1906 to 24 July 1909.While still a serving army officer, Picquart died on 18 January 1914 from injuries received in a fall from a horse.
Alfred Dreyfus was reinstated into the French Army, re-promoted to his prior rank of Major, and made a Chevalier of the French Légion d'honneur in July 1906. However, his health had deteriorated during his imprisonment on Devil's Island and, on his request, he was granted an honorable discharge in 1907.
Dreyfus volunteered for military service again in 1914, at the beginning of World War I, serving despite advancing age in a wide range of artillery commands, as a major and finally as a lieutenant-colonel. He was raised to the rank of Officer of the Légion d'honneur in 1919. The same artillery piece, secrets of which Dreyfus was accused of revealing to the Germans, was used in blunting the early German offensives because of its ability to maintain accuracy during rapid fire.
The 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Dreyfus Case (L'Affaire Dreyfus)" by Joseph Jacobs, a publication now in the public domain.