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  • Rachel Beer, the Dreyfus Case, and the Observer:The "Sponge Metaphor"
  • Eloise Forestier (bio)

In September 1894 the French Ministry of War discovered that one of its army officers was spying for the Germans. When a shredded bordereau, a memorandum containing French military secrets, was found at the German embassy, the French Army needed to find a culprit for this embarrassing security breach. The position and skills of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) fit with the information found in the memorandum. Dreyfus was also the only Jewish officer in the French Army. In October 1894 Commandant du Paty de Clam was put in charge of the investigation. He summoned Dreyfus and dictated a letter to him based on the memorandum. As the handwriting seemed to match, Dreyfus was arrested for treason, despite his protestations of innocence, and locked up in the prison of the Cherche-Midi. On November 28, 1894, the French daily Le Figaro published an interview with General Mercier, then minister of war, who inappropriately declared before the trial, "La culpabilité de cet officier est absolument certaine" (The guilt of this officer is beyond any doubt).1 A meeting of the military court of justice held behind closed doors heard the dubious testimony of a handwriting expert attesting to Dreyfus's authorship of the memorandum. As the judges hesitated, Commandant Henry, the officer of the Intelligence Department who had reported the discovery of the memorandum, presented them with forged evidence collected in a file of documents. This file, referred to as the "secret dossier," was passed on to the judges under Mercier's orders without informing the defence.2

Dreyfus was court-martialled, imprisoned, and exiled in January 1895. The discovery of new evidence in the case in 1896 cast serious doubts on Dreyfus's guilt, yet the French Army abided by its code of honour and adhered to the strength of la chose jugée (res judicata).3 The army headquarters shielded the true author of the memorandum, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a man of ill repute who had turned spy to pay off his [End Page 518] debts. France was divided into two opposing parties: the Dreyfusards, who proclaimed Dreyfus's innocence, and the anti-Dreyfusards, who maintained his guilt. The two sides were backed by different factions of the French press, which published a variety of articles and pictorial representations.4 During the period in which Dreyfus's guilt was under debate, from late 1897 to 1899, the international press became involved. Media coverage soared from March to September 1899 when the Court of Cassation reviewed the case and eventually quashed the verdict on June 3, 1899. Coverage peaked when Dreyfus was tried for a second time in Rennes (August 7, 1899–September 9, 1899). Dreyfus was found guilty again, this time with "circonstances atténuantes," a French legal expression translated in the English press as "extenuating circumstances."5 The court used this sentence as a political innuendo to mask the complexity of the case. In other words, Dreyfus officially became a scapegoat. His guilt protected the army officials who were involved in his arrest, while the "extenuating circumstances" enabled the judge to revoke his prison sentence. British and American critics pronounced the verdict of Rennes unfair, with one calling it "a violation of the laws of civilization."6 The negative reaction of the British press culminated after the second verdict when the French government shirked its responsibility for the scandal by granting Dreyfus a presidential pardon.7

One particularly strident Dreyfusard voice came from the Observer, a British weekly edited by Rachel Beer. Beer not only reported on the Dreyfus affair but also took an active part in its development by interviewing Esterhazy and, as this essay will show, shifting the key terms of the debate. Borrowing an image from French journalist Jules Cornély's "L'Eponge," an article published in Le Figaro that suggested wiping the slate clean for everyone involved in the case, Beer adapted the sponge metaphor to highlight the injustice suffered by Dreyfus. My study retraces the evolution of this metaphor in the French press and across linguistic boundaries in international newspapers. By situating Beer's use of the...