Leon Blum 1935

Memories of the Dreyfus Affair

First published: 1935;
Source: Léon Blum, Souvenirs sur l’Affaire. Paris, Gallimard, 1981;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor



[The early Dreyfusard] Michel Bréal was a Jew. Bernard Lazare was a Jew. Colonel Roget announced in advance a Jewish plot. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t at all be believed that in the Jewish circles I frequented at the time – a middle-bourgeois milieu, of young literary types, of functionaries -there existed the least predisposition towards Dreyfusism. At that time one would have seen nothing of the kind. As a general thesis, the Jews had accepted Dreyfus’ condemnation as definitive and just. They didn’t talk of the Affair amongst themselves: they fled the subject more than they brought it up. A great misfortune had fallen upon Israel. They submitted to it without saying a word, waiting for time and silence to efface its effects.

The mass of Jews received with much circumspection and mistrust the beginnings of the campaign for revision. The dominant sentiment could be translated by a formula like this one: "This is something the Jews shouldn’t get mixed up in..." In this complex sentiment all elements weren’t of equal quality. To be sure, there was patriotism, and even a touchy patriotism, respect for the army, confidence in its chiefs, a repugnance for considering it partial or fallible. But there was also kind of selfish and timorous prudence that could be qualified with words even more severe. The Jews didn’t want it believed that they were defending Dreyfus because he was a Jew. They didn’t want anyone imputing their attitude to a racial distinction or solidarity. Above all, they didn’t want, in going to the defense of another Jew, to furnish any fuel to the anti-Semitic passion that was running rampant with such great intensity. The arrest and condemnation had already harmed the Jews. It was absolutely necessary that the campaign for revision not compromise them any further. The Jews of the same age as Dreyfus, those who belonged to the same social stratum, who, like him, had passed difficult competitive exams, had been introduced into the officer cadre of the general staff or the most sought-after civilian administrative corps, were exasperated by the idea that a hostile prejudice would put a limit to their irreproachable careers. After having excommunicated the traitor they repudiated the bothersome zeal of his lawyers. Actually, in order to get a picture of the exact mood that I’m attempting to describe you only have to look around you today. Rich Jews, Jews of the middle bourgeoisie, Jewish functionaries were afraid of the fight for Dreyfus exactly in the same way they are afraid today of the fight against fascism. They thought only of keeping their heads down and hiding themselves. They thought that the anti-Semitic passion would be turned aside by their pusillanimous neutrality. They secretly cursed those from among them who, in exposing themselves, delivered them to an age-old enemy. They didn’t understand any better than they understand today that no precaution, no play-acting will fool the adversary, and that they remained the immediately offered-up victims of triumphant anti-Dreyfusism or fascism.

This is why when in September 1897 when Lucien Herr came to see me one afternoon in the country, an average Jew, such as I was, unconsciously submissive to family equilibrium and ordinary frequentations, had no more marked a vocation to receive the Dreufusard grace than any other. On the other hand, the apostle’s word was that which could most imperiously act upon me. I had known Herr seven years before at the place in which he had voluntarily locked himself in his entire life: that is, the library of the Ecole Normale. Over the previous few years a familiar, quotidian intimacy had formed between us. But in the influence he exercised over me there was something that friendship didn’t suffice to explain and that I would like to make clear to those who didn’t know him. By assisting in making known this personality I will be making a contribution to the history of our times more precious than could be believed. It was Herr who led Jaurès to socialism or, to speak more precisely, led Jaurès to a clear consciousness that he was a socialist. It was he who, with Lucien Lévy-Bruhl had just convinced Jaurès of Dreyfus’ innocence. It was he who was going to bring to life and guide the movement of "intellectuals," leaving behind the peace of the laboratory or the office to throw himself into the Dreyfusist battle. It was he who with Charles Péguy was to found the "Librairie Bellais" where the entire socialist and Dreyfusard youth found its rallying point. It was he who, for thirty years, until his last day, was to remain for the university elite the confessor, the converter, the guide and, for so many public figures, the confidant, the spiritual and philosophical guide.

Herr’s strength, his truly incredible and unique strength – for I have never noted it in any other to the same degree – was essentially this: in him, conviction became evidence. For him the truth was conceived with a power so complete, so tranquil that it was communicated without effort and with ease to his interlocutor. The possibility of discussion seemed to be set aside. From his entire being there emanated this assurance: "Yes, I think this, I think that. It is absolutely impossible for an individual of a certain quality to not think or believe it." And you would realize that you did think or believe like him. You even had the impression, or the illusion, do have always secretly thought or believed in that way. You didn’t know if he had persuaded you or had revealed you to yourself. To use the term in its familiar sense, no man more naturally "possessed" another man. A physical hold was added to the intellectual influence. For he was as big as a giant, with an outsized head; spoke without harshness and even tenderly but in a way that stripped everything bare, shook up everything, a gaze in which authority was mixed with solicitude. Such was the man who affirmed to me point-blank, while we were walking together in a garden lane: "Dreyfus is innocent," and who, seeing me seized and almost conquered by his voice, spelled out for me, one after the other, the facts, the arguments, the proofs.


The Dreyfusard baggage was composed of two elements, distinct in their origin but which had just been mixed together. It was formed by the conjunction of the work of Bernard Lazare and the discoveries of Colonel Picquart. From Bernard Lazare came the destruction of the legend of the confession, the discovery of the identity between the handwriting of the bordereau and that of Esterhazy. From Picquart came the positive information on the content of the dossier of the accusation and the secret dossier, and especially the revelation of the document that brought the decisive imputation against Esterhazy: the "petit bleu" of the military attaché Schwarzkoppen. The Chief of the Deuxiéme Bureau of the General Staff had had in his hands the "petit bleu." He had denounced the terrible error to his chiefs. They had answered him with disgrace and deportation. But before leaving for the distant garrison of Tunisia from which he was not certain of returning alive, he had left to a childhood friend, the lawyer Leblois, his almost-posthumous confidences. In turn Leblois had confided in Senator Scheurer-Kestner; Scheurer-Kestner had informed Mathieu Dreyfus. Lucien Herr had received directly from the Bernard Lazare source, and via Lévy-Bruhl, the Picquart-Mathieu Dreyfus source. The system of proofs had been adjusted, completed in his spirit. The certainty was so clear in his eyes that he couldn’t conceive that it could possibly not be shared, and in fact, I shared it. Jaurès felt no more doubt than he. He had already convinced, or proposed to convince as soon as he returned to Paris, the friends who formed his group; Charles Seignobos, Charles Andler, Paul Dupuy, Victor Bérard, Arthur Fontaine, Doctor J-P Langlois... And soon they were to set out, they were going to start a political campaign, a press campaign, a parliamentary campaign if necessary. In the Senate no one inspired more respect than Scheurer-Kestner. Jaurès elected to the Chamber four years previously as the Socialist representative of Carmaux reigned through his sovereign eloquence. The dossier, as we possessed it, was sufficient for any demonstration. In any event, we had neither the time nor the right to wait for there was not only the Dreyfus trial, or the Dreyfus Affair. The judiciary error had a body. There, thousands of kilometers away, a tortured innocent was succumbing under an almost unheard of accumulation of suffering. This unfortunate had to be delivered at the same time as the truth was avenged. If absolutely necessary the truth could wait, but not the man. And so the resolution was taken. As soon as the vacation period was over we would rehabilitate before the country the name of the innocent man, and we would turn over to it the name of the guilty one.