“A Second Degradation”

September 23, 1899

William A. Rogers

“A Second Degradation”

Anti-Semitism; Crime and Punishment; Dreyfus Case; Symbols, France; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


No caption

The court-martial and imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew falsely accused of spying for the Germans, attracted worldwide attention and deeply divided the French people for decades.  This cover cartoon appeared after Dreyfus had been found guilty by a second court-martial, thus inspiring the title "A Second Degradation."  The scene presents a French military officer divesting the French Republic of her founding principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  

The image, though, is a bit ambiguous, and may have been drawn and prepared for print before the verdict was known.  That would account for the broken sword of "authority," which seems contrary to the theme; the indeterminate facial expressions of both figures (Is France sad or grateful?  Is the officer smug or chastened?); and, the position of the liberty cap, which could be perceived as either being placed on or taken off France's head.  The clear meaning of the title, which would have been added closer to press time, thereby determines the interpretation of the illustration.  Thus, the broken sword of authority comes to represent the shattering of the rule of law; France is sad and the officer smug; and the liberty cap is being removed.

In October 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was charged with passing military secrets to the German army.  France and Germany were longtime enemies, and many French were still bitter about their nation's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).  In December 1894, Dreyfus was found guilty by a military tribunal and imprisoned on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana in northeast South America.  He and his family vehemently denied his guilt, and the flimsy evidence on which he had been tried later proved to be forged.  An unknown French officer had passed military secrets to the Germans, and French military investigators decided to implicate Dreyfus, a Jew.  French anti-Semites used the episode to condemn all French Jews as untrustworthy and unpatriotic, and to enhance their own political stature. 

With Dreyfus exiled on Devil's Island, the continued flow of French military secrets to Germany prompted a new investigation in 1896 that revealed the spy and forger to be Major C. F. Esterhazy.  French military officials closed the investigation, transferred the investigator to Tunisia, created new forgeries concealing the original injustice, and acquitted Esterhazy.  Dreyfus, though, began to gain prominent defenders, such as journalist (and later premier) Georges Clemenceau.  The greatest support came from novelist Emile Zola, whose open letter appeared in the January 13, 1898 edition of Clemenceau's newspaper, L'Aurore, under the bold headline:  "J'Accuse!"  Within two hours, 200,000 Parisians bought copies to read Zola's fierce denunciation of the French military's duplicity against Dreyfus.  The novelist was found guilty of libel, fined 3,000 francs, and sentenced to a year in prison, which he avoided by sailing to England.

France was bitterly at odds over the Dreyfus Affair.  Those who favored reopening the case to exonerate Dreyfus viewed the matter in terms of individual rights and republican rule versus military authority.  Their opponents considered the case to have been rightly decided for the sake of national security, and labeled Dreyfus and his supporters as part of an international conspiracy of socialists and Jews.  3,000 people signed a petition to review the case, while anti-Semitic riots erupted across the country.  

In August 1898, the forger of the military cover-up confessed and then committed suicide, which provoked Esterhazy, the spy and original forger, to flee the country.  In June, a new French premier, Rene Waldeck-Rousseau, called for a retrial, which lasted from August 7 to September 9, 1899.  Dreyfus was again found guilty, although "with extenuating circumstances."  On September 19, President Emile Loubet pardoned Dreyfus.  That occurred after publication of this post-dated cartoon, and was reported in the following week's issue (September 30).  In 1906, a civil court exonerated Dreyfus, and the next year he was reinstated into the French army and awarded the prestigious Legion of Honor medal.  He retired the next year, but served again during World War I.  Alfred Dreyfus died in 1935.

Harper's Weekly first mentioned the Dreyfus Affair in the January 12, 1895 issue, in a two-paragraph article tellingly entitled "The French Traitor."  It briefly delineated the charge, the trial "behind closed doors," and the verdict, which "met with popular approval."  By December 1897, the newspaper was criticizing the judicial procedure more overtly, but left the question of Dreyfus's guilt or innocence an open question.   

In January 1898, Harper's Weekly editorialized against the prosecution of Zola and the riots in France by those "who do not reason, but who hate Jews..."  The journal characterized Dreyfus's sentence as "the most cruel punishment ever inflicted by a modern government..." and, the next month, as "cruel and unusual ... barbarous ... [and] grossly unjust."  In March, former editor Carl Schurz authored a lengthy commentary denouncing the unfair and secret trial procedures, the dominance of the military in French politics, and the virulent anti-Semitism the case had spawned, "casting a dark shadow of disgrace on our boasted Christian civilization."  

The lead editorial of the September 23, 1899 issue in which the featured cartoon appears is "The French Monster."  The editorial pronounced Dreyfus as "the great martyr of the nineteenth century" and judged that the second court-martial placed France "among the barbarous nations."  The editorialist focused his condemnation on the French "military monster," which had become the most powerful influence in the country.  "It is this army--born of an unholy thirst for vengeance--which has absorbed the youth into its ranks and drawn them out of the industries of the country, has made disarmament practically impossible in Europe, and has at last struck at law and justice."  The next week, Harper's Weekly applauded the pardon of Dreyfus, but emphasized that "on the main issue France is still degraded, and the pardon only emphasizes the disgrace."

Robert C. Kennedy

“A Second Degradation”
December 3, 2023

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