Georges Picquart died 100 years ago this month. To which the response from most quarters is likely to be “Georges who?” Even in his native France, his centenary is passing largely unremarked. Yet in the days of Queen Victoria and Theodore Roosevelt, Picquart was a figure of global controversy, revered and reviled in equal measure as the world’s most famous whistle-blower.
Unlike his 21st-century counterparts Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, Picquart was neither a disaffected nor a junior figure in the organization he was to expose. On the contrary: In October 1894 he was a brilliant, rising army officer. One of his steppingstones to advancement had been a professorship at the École Supérieure de Guerre, and one of the officer-cadets he had taught there was a Jewish artillery captain, Alfred Dreyfus.
|Photo du colonel Piquart - Affaire Dreyfus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Picquart, like many of his contemporaries, was casually anti-Semitic. It came as no surprise to him when Dreyfus — the only Jew on the general staff — was suspected of passing secret intelligence to the Germans. It was Picquart who provided a sample of Dreyfus’s handwriting to the investigators. And when expert analysis seemed to confirm Dreyfus’s guilt, it was Picquart who met his unsuspecting former pupil in the Ministry of War so he could be quietly bundled off to prison.
|Alfred Dreyfus (Photo credit: George Eastman House)|
In December, Picquart attended Dreyfus’s court-martial as an official observer. For reasons of national security it was held behind closed doors. When told that a file of intelligence evidence existed, conclusively proving Dreyfus’s guilt, Picquart supported the decision to show it in secret to the judges.
The file clinched the conviction. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment. On Jan. 5, 1895, before a crowd of 20,000 shouting, “Death to the Jew!” Dreyfus had his sword broken and the insignia of his rank torn from his uniform. Observing the spectacle, Picquart remarked laconically to a fellow officer: “He’s a Jew, don’t forget that. He’s thinking of the weight of the gold braid and how much it’s worth.” In March, Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, where he was denied all human contact, including conversation with his guards.
Picquart, meanwhile, prospered. Six months later, at age 40, he was made the youngest colonel in the French Army and put in charge of the tiny intelligence unit, known as the Statistical Section, that had compiled the evidence against Dreyfus.
The section’s prize agent was a cleaner at the German Embassy, Marie Bastian, who supplied the contents of the wastepaper basket of the military attaché, Col. Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen. It was she who was the source of the “bordereau” — the note that an expert had concluded was in Dreyfus’s hand.
Nine months into Picquart’s tenure, Bastian passed on a pneumatic telegram card — a “petit bleu” — that von Schwartzkoppen had torn into 40 fragments. Glued together, the telegram revealed that the German attaché was receiving intelligence from a serving French officer, Maj. Charles Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart immediately put Esterhazy under surveillance. He turned out to have the classic profile of a spy: a drunkard, a gambler, heavily indebted, and leading a double life with a prostitute in Montmartre. Moreover, he was dangerously active: He had recently applied for a job in the general staff.
Sitting in his office, Picquart compared Esterhazy’s letters with the bordereau. “I was terrified,” he testified later. “The two writings were not similar; they were identical.” The next day he showed them to the handwriting expert, Alphonse Bertillon, whose evidence had helped convict Dreyfus. Bertillon confirmed Esterhazy’s writing was a perfect match, but saw no reason to revise his original judgment: “It merely shows that the Jews have trained someone else to write using the Dreyfus system.”
Picquart’s next step was to inspect the intelligence that had been passed to Dreyfus’s judges. “I took possession of the secret file for the first time since my entry into the service. I confess that my amazement was profound. I was expecting overwhelming evidence. I found nothing.” Indeed, such scant evidence as there was had plainly been fabricated.
|Drawing "a family supper" from Caran d'Ache in le Figaro on February 14, 1898. The drawing depicts the divisions of French society during the Dreyfus Affair. At the top, somebody says "above all, let us not discuss the Dreyfus Affair!". At the bottom, the whole family is fighting, and the caption says "they have discussed it". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Picquart took his discoveries to the chief of the French general staff, Gen. Raoul de Boisdeffre, and to the overall head of military intelligence, Gen. Charles-Arthur Gonse. Their reaction appalled him. He was told to avoid any avenues of inquiry that might lead to a reopening of the Dreyfus case. “What does it matter to you,” demanded Gonse, “if one Jew stays on Devil’s Island?”
“Well,” replied Picquart, “because he’s innocent ...”
He pressed on with his investigation, to the irritation of his superiors. Two months later, he was relieved of his duties. By the spring of 1897, he was an exile, transferred to a native regiment in Tunisia on what amounted to a near-suicidal mission into the southern Sahara.
It was then that Picquart, after 25 years’ army service, realized he had no alternative but to break ranks. He passed his evidence against Esterhazy to a senior politician, the vice president of the senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. Then, at the end of 1897, he provided Émile Zola with the information that enabled the novelist to write his celebrated exposé of the affair, “J’Accuse ...!” Picquart’s reward was to be dismissed from the army, framed as a forger and locked up in solitary confinement for more than a year.
It was not until 1906 that justice was finally done; Dreyfus’s conviction was quashed, and Picquart was restored to the army with the rank of brigadier general. That fall, when his friend and fellow Dreyfusard, Georges Clemenceau — the owner of the newspaper that published “J’Accuse ...!” became prime minister, he made Picquart minister of war, a post he held for three years.
|Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse...!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. The headline reads "I accuse! Letter to the President of the Republic". See J'accuse...!, the whole text on Wikisource. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
On Jan. 18, 1914, six months before the outbreak of the First World War, while in command of the Second Army Corps at Amiens, Picquart died of edema of the face — effectively, suffocation — following a riding accident. He was 59.
He had no family to preserve his memory: A bachelor with a succession of married mistresses, he left no children. A large section of the army never forgave him for betraying his comrades. And some of Dreyfus’s supporters continued to accuse him of anti-Semitism. An awkward figure in death as well as life, he slipped through the cracks of history.
And yet the injustices against which he fought so courageously — the inherent unreliability of secret courts and secret evidence, the dangers of rogue intelligence agencies becoming laws unto themselves, the instinctive response of governments and national security organizations to cover up their mistakes, the easy flourishing of “national security” to stifle democratic scrutiny — all these continue. “Dreyfus was the victim,” Clemenceau observed, “but Picquart was the hero.” On this day, he deserves to be remembered.
Robert Harris is the author of a forthcoming novel about Georges Picquart, “An Officer and a Spy.”