Robert Wernick, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
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Count No-Count Esterhazy

Lieut. Col. Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen was an aristocrat of the old school, urbane, cultivated, charming and terribly careless. When the papers piled up too high on his desk at the German Embassy in Paris, he would crumple or tear them up and toss them into his wastebasket.

During the years he served as military attaché there, from 1891 to 1897, the colonel never suspected that Madame Bastian, the dear old charlady who cleaned the embassy offices, was leading a double life as agent "Auguste" of the French intelligence service. She was supposed to burn all the wastepaper but, at regular intervals, in clandestine meetings in the gloom of church chapels, she would pass over a bag full of papers to Major Joseph Henry of the Statistical Section, which was the code name for the French Army's counterintelligence service. In their cramped quarters on the Rue St. Dominique, the five dedicated men who made up his unit would piece the scraps together, photograph and analyze them.

Most of the documents from von Schwartzkoppen's wastebasket were love letters. There were passionate exchanges with the wife of a Dutch diplomat and a whole squadron of ladies of high degree. There were also passionate, and in this case wildly obscene, letters exchanged with the Italian military attaché Col. Alessandro Panizzardi. "Little red dog" and "little green dog" they called each other, and between the more intimate passages they sometimes slipped in items of business, such as their relations with Frenchmen willing to pass over a military secret or two for small amounts of cash.

The Statistical Section naturally read these documents with great interest. They were particularly anxious to identify the man referred to by the code name Jacques Dubois or on one occasion as "that scoundrel D" who for years had been selling the Germans plans of the fortifications of major French cities. But they had never found a single clue. On September 27, 1894, however, a particularly juicy item came in from agent Auguste. It was a memorandum, a bordereau, written on onionskin paper, containing a list of items being offered for sale to the Germans, including details of the 120 short cannon, a highly secret new weapon the French were counting on to take revenge for the humiliating drubbing given them by the Prussians in 1870. The author of the bordereau could only have been a French officer, one with connections to the General Staff. It was a flagrant case of treason and all the top military authorities were immediately notified.

There had been a few similar cases in previous years in which soldiers and officers in the French Army had been caught trafficking with the hereditary enemy and been condemned to stiff prison sentences. Like most treason cases, they were tawdry little affairs, good only for a shocking headline or two, and they had aroused little interest in the general public.

This case was quite different. The gentleman in civilian clothes, wearing the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, who had presented himself in Colonel von Schwartzkoppen's office back in July 1894 was obviously an exceptional individual. He introduced himself as Major the Count Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, a scion of the noble and immensely rich Esterhazy family which at one time owned one-eighth of the kingdom of Hungary. But he was in financial straits and, so he said, only the necessity of saving his wife and children from abject poverty had led him to take the contemptible initiative of offering his services to the German General Staff.

Esterhazy was serving in the 74th Infantry Regiment in the French Army. He was a decorated war veteran, a member of the Jockey Club, a friend of everyone who was anyone in Parisian society, an intimate of generals and cabinet ministers, a brilliant conversationalist, a clever journalist. He was also a compulsive gambler; a compulsive liar; a jewel thief; a blackmailer; a witty, learned, fascinating crook. Women found him entrancing, and he liked to pick them up in the first-class compartments of trains. It was on the train from Le Havre to Paris that he met and won Marguerite Pays, who would help him forge documents and would remain faithful to him through thick and thin. On the other hand, after a miserably unhappy marriage, his wife--he had described her as a spend-thrift and ninny whose only interest in him was "physical passion"--would divorce him in 1899.

The surviving photographs of Esterhazy show the face of a man whom Hollywood would have typecast as a riverboat gambler of the second class. But face-to-face, people found him brilliant. He had encyclopedic knowledge and a prodigiously agile tongue, the tongue that was his sole resource which enabled him to keep his creditors at bay and let him wriggle out of the hopeless situations that more and more formed the pattern of his life. He had a gift for making things up, including his own identity, for he was not a "Count," and though he did have Esterhazy blood, it came to him through the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son.

He loved nothing better than to play both sides of the street. Under the pseudonym Z, he wrote a chronicle of military gossip for La Libre Parole, the paper of Edouard Drumont, the leading anti-Semitic tub-thumper of his day. He served as a second to a Jewish lieutenant who challenged Drumont to a duel. Then Esterhazy turned to an old schoolmate of his, a Rothschild. and wheedled a good sum of money out of him on the grounds that he was being blackballed for being a friend of the Jews. When his nephew Christian came into an inheritance, Esterhazy offered to put the money into promising investments. He put it into the stock market in his own account, selling short on the basis of inside information from his friends in high places and losing everything when the market rose. He explained to the guileless nephew that his funds had been temporarily blocked by the malevolence of Jews.

If events had followed their normal course, the arrest and trial of this man on charges of passing classified matter to a foreign power would have provided the newspapers with a short burst of spicy scandal. But they took another turn. A series of chance events turned what was basically a minor, run-of-the-mill affair of espionage into the most famous miscarriage of justice of modern times. "The Affair," as the French call it to this day, was to last for 12 years. It would include three courts-martial, a colossal political and military cover-up that blackened the name of the French Army for decades, and years of passionately bitter debate. Governments would fall, careers would be ruined, the whole nation of France would be torn in two and the scars would not heal for generations. They have not, in fact, healed yet.

And all because a young officer visiting the Statistical Section made a suggestion that sent the investigators, who had just about given up hope of finding the author of the bordereau, barking off in a new direction. In a matter of hours they arrested the man they were convinced was the culprit. It was not Major Esterhazy, but another professional soldier who up until that day had been living in perfect contentment as a devoted family man, rich, conservative and conventional: Capt. Alfred Dreyfus.

Nobody had actually gone looking for Dreyfus. But when his name turned up on a list of officers who had served in sections of the General Staff with access to the information in the bordereau, it struck all the investigators as a gift from Heaven. Dreyfus' handwriting looked reasonably like that of the bordereau. And his name began with a "D," the initial that had popped up in the von Schwartzkoppen-Panizzardi correspondence. And he was a Jew, which to a good part of the French officer corps meant that he was a foreign element in the nation, probably pro-German, and at all events ready to do anything for money.

The fact that the Dreyfuses were fanatical patriots who, in order to maintain French citizenship, had given up their home in Alsace after it was annexed by the Germans, was immaterial, as was the total absence of a motive. Dreyfus was a rich man who had no need for the few hundred francs von Schwartzkoppen was doling out for information. For that matter, he had access to much more sensitive material than the fairly commonplace stuff in the bordereau. There was also the troubling matter that no one could be sure the handwriting on the incriminating document was really that of Captain Dreyfus. Two of the five experts called in to examine it said he could not have written it. Of the three who said he could, one --he famous Alphonse Bertillon, father of modern criminology - truck most people who dealt with him as a lunatic: he would eventually spend years refining elaborate charts and diagrams to demonstrate that a diabolically clever Captain Dreyfus had actually forged his own handwriting.

But to men who were desperate to get a successful spy case behind them, these considerations counted for nothing.. The only thing that might have stayed their hands was the paucity of the evidence, which consisted, and for all the stormy 12-year course of the Affair was to consist, of that one highly equivocal piece of paper, the bordereau. It was Gen. Raoul de Boisdeffre, chief of the General Staff of the army, who insisted that it was necessary to nourrir le dossier, fatten the file. And so, to incriminate Dreyfus, over the years busy hands at the General Staff and the Statistical Section would add some 4,000 items to the dossier, all of them irrelevant and some of them forged.

In due course, Captain Dreyfus was dragged before a court-martial. A "secret file" of innocuous but sinister-looking documents was smuggled into the judge's chamber without the knowledge of the defense. The defendant - a proud, stiff, shy man too dazed and too innocent to know what was happening to him - was found guilty of treason, condemned to be stripped of his captain's insignia in a public ceremony In February 1895 he was shipped off for life imprisonment in the worst place the French penal system could provide, Devil's Island off the coast of Guiana .

From extreme left to extreme right, all the politicians congratulated the army authorities for the speed and efficiency with which they had acted to safeguard the vital interests of the nation. Except for the captain's wife, Lucie, and his brother Mathieu, who dedicated themselves to exonerating the captain, and one or two punctilious souls who were offended by the irregularities of the court-martial proceedings, almost everyone was satisfied.

There were three people who had reason to follow every detail of the affair with particular concern. Colonels von Schwartzkoppen and Panizzardi were puzzled and, within the limits allowed them by their official status, shocked. Von Schwartzkoppen protested to the French government that he had never laid eyes on Dreyfus, but no patriotic Frenchman was going to believe a word uttered by a representative of the German government. Panizzardi offered to testify to the same effect, and he was told to mind his own business.

As for Major Esterhazy, he must have felt greatly relieved. Unfortunately, circumstances were no better for him than when he first went knocking at the door of the German Embassy. His creditors were shrill, his wife's dowry had dribbled away, his bank account was down to 43 francs 78 centimes. He returned again and again to von Schwartzkoppen, but the colonel was dissatisfied with the quality of the material supplied and cut his rates. Borrowing the names of two of the oldest families of French nobility, Esterhazy, as Monsieur Rohan-Chabot, became a partner in a new luxurious house of prostitution opening on the Rue du Rocher. He had little capital to offer, but he could provide the names of 1,500 potential customers.

But times remained hard. And there was always the threat that the small but growing number of people who had begun to suspect that an innocent man had been sent to the hell of Devil's Island might stumble on the facts, and drag the name of Esterhazy out into the open.

On November 7, 1897, it happened. A stockbroker named Castro was strolling the boulevards and picked up one of the brochures that Mathieu Dreyfus had had printed in his brother's defense; it contained a facsimile of the bordereau. Castro recognized the writing at once --Major Esterhazy had dealt with him often, when he had some cash to speculate with. It was the first glimpse of hope to break through to the brave little band of what were beginning to be called "Dreyfusards."

What they did not know was that the French Army had known all about Esterhazy for 13 months. In March of the previous year the new boss at the Statistical Section, Lieut. Col. Georges Picquart, had come across a piece of express mail, the famous petit bleu, a postcard written by Colonel von Schwartzkoppen, ever careless, and addressed to Major Esterhazy. His curiosity piqued, Picquart asked for some material on this officer, and was appalled;-for he, like almost everyone else, took it for granted that Dreyfus was guilty - to find that Esterhazy's handwriting and that of the bordereau were identical.

A strictly honorable, though somewhat innocent man, he expected to start proceedings against Esterhazy immediately and right the miscarriage of justice. He did not realize that by now the French Army had accepted the guilt of Dreyfus as an article of faith. To challenge the findings of the court-martial was regarded by the French General Staff as an act of treason worse than selling a few papers to the Germans. "What difference does it make to you," reportedly snapped General Gonse, deputy chief of the General Staff, to Picquart, "if that Jew remains on Devil's Island?"

In practical terms, this meant that when presented with devastating information about an officer with a very bad reputation, the Minister of War, the General Staff of the army and the Statistical Section all collaborated in protecting him. Troublesome Colonel Picquart was hustled off on a made-up mission to Tunisia to get him out of the way, and forged telegrams and an anonymous note from Esterhazy were sent to him (and intercepted) to suggest that he was part of a pro-Dreyfus conspiracy. With a little help from his wife, Major Henry, who had originally acquired the bordereau from Colonel von Schwartzkoppen's charlady, composed a letter signed "Esperance" warning Esterhazy that unscrupulous friends of Dreyfus were plotting against him. Thereafter Esterhazy was regularly informed of developments and coached in the proper attitude to maintain in case anything became public.

When, despite all the efforts of his friends, the charges against Esterhazy did become public, he never dreamed of adopting the low profile they advised him to take. He bubbled with righteous indignation that a French officer, son of a French general, should be the object of such calumny. At first he claimed that the bordereau was a forgery, painfully copied from words in a manuscript account of his father's heroic actions at the battle of Eupatoria, an account he had written many years before. When this story began to seem a little thin, he changed it to say that, of course, he had written the bordereau at the order of Colonel Sandherr, head of the Statistical Section in 1894, so that he could serve as a double agent. When asked to provide some documentary evidence, he would wave a letter that he said came from Colonel Sandherr's widow thanking him for all he had done. But he never let anyone close enough to the letter to read or copy it.

He wrote to the President of the Republic, threatening that if he did not receive satisfaction he would appeal to the feudal suzerain of the Esterhazy family, the emperor of Germany. He wrote the prime minister that if his good name were not restored and his enemies punished he would make public information that would lead either to war or national humiliation. He wrote at length about a mysterious veiled lady who, at great risk to herself, met him at dusk to hand over documents proving that he was the object of a plot led by the dastardly Colonel Picquart.

And for a while he got away with it. It was Colonel Picquart who was put in jail. Politicians and press hailed Esterhazy as an exemplar of the traditional French values, an honorable soldier pursued by a pack of ruffians. The army arranged to have him vindicated by a court-martial which decided that precisely because the bordereau was in Esterhazy's handwriting it must have been a forgery by someone else trying to frame him. After all, if he had written it, would he not have disguised his hand? He was found innocent of any crime of treason. When the verdict was announced, he was surrounded by hundreds of officers shouting, "Long live France! Down with the Jews! "

But every time he seemed triumphant, some new and damaging disclosure would be made. Once it was his cousin and mistress, Madame de Boulancy, despairing of ever seeing 36,500 francs he had borrowed, who decided to publish the letters that Esterhazy had written her over the years. For admirers of traditional French values, they made distressing reading. "If someone were to come tell me this evening that 1 would be killed tomorrow as a uhlan captain running through Frenchmen with my saber, 1 would certainly be perfectly happy.... Paris taken by storm and given over to the pillage of 100,000 drunken soldiers! That is a festivity 1 dream of!"

Hardly had the scandal caused by such unpatriotic utterances died down a little than his nephew Christian, belatedly suspicious of what had happened to his money, began a lawsuit accusing his uncle of fraud.

Every detail of the affair was by now becoming public property, fresh fuel for the raging political debate that for a while threatened to tear the country apart. Families were divided, old friendships broken up, political debate poisoned. An extraordinary nastiness pervaded public life: when a high court handed down an administrative decision that helped the Dreyfusard cause, L'Intransigeant, one of the leading anti-Dreyfusard newspapers, recommended tying hungry spiders to the judges' eyes and letting them eat their way in.

Everyone took sides, and there were great names on both sides. Emile Zola took a special edition of Georges Clemenceau's newspaper L'Aurore to publish his famous open letter to the President of the Republic, "J'Accuse," breaking down the wall of silence that the French General Staff had built around the real details of the case in the name of state secrets and national security. The mild and skeptical Anatole France astonished everyone by the passion with which he fought for the release of an innocent man. But other great names, including Degas, Cézanne, Renoir and Paul Valéry, were all equally convinced of Dreyfus' guilt.

Meanwhile the prisoner lived on, now shackled to his bed at night, in a stifling cell, surrounded by a stockade to keep him from getting a glimpse of the sea. He remained throughout his career - to the dismay of many of his most fervent supporters - exactly what he had been before history came down to enfold him, a thoroughly conventional, conservative Frenchman, devoted to family, to honor, to the army, to la patrie. He always said that however great were the sufferings he endured, they should have been twice as great if he had been guilty of the crime with which he was charged. He never seemed to doubt that army and patrie would one day acknowledge that they had condemned him unjustly, and in the end he was right.

For despite the increasingly hysterical efforts of the authorities to bury the truth, it kept dribbling out. Colonel Henry (promoted for his loyal endeavors) had changed a "P---" in one of the incriminating letters to a "D---," forgetting that the Statistical Section photographed all documents with strict bureaucratic regularity the moment they arrived. And so the original "P" remained in the archives while the forged "D" was being waved in the face of skeptical government ministers investigating the case. In a supreme effort to silence the skeptics, Henry took one of the other letters, tore off the heading and the signature, and attached them to a new text of his own composition, one in which for the first time in the whole case all seven letters of the name Dreyfus were spelled out. On July 7, 1898, the new Minister of War, Godefroy Cavaignac, read this document to a cheering Chamber of Deputies, which voted to have copies of his speech placarded in every one of the 13,000 communes of France as proof positive of Dreyfus' guilt.

But a month later, the roof fell in, on Esterhazy and the Ministry of War alike. On the night of August 13, a captain on Cavaignac's staff, studying the doctored letter under slanting lamplight, noticed for the first time that the lines of the graph paper on which the body of the text was written were of a different color from those at the top and bottom. Cavaignac was thunderstruck. A man of integrity, he could not ignore the evidence as his predecessors had. He was determined to clean house, and the first thing to do was to get rid of Esterhazy. A military court of inquiry found him guilty of "habitual misconduct" and he was thrown out of the army. "A monstrous abuse of power" by a pack of "cowardly and obscene scoundrels," was Esterhazy's comment.

On August 30, Cavaignac summoned Henry to his office and mercilessly browbeat him till he broke down and confessed his forgery. Generals Gonse and de Boisdeffre, who had encouraged if not actually ordered him to do it, sat by without saying a word. The next day, Colonel Henry, loyal French officer and second- rate forger, wrote a confession of guilt and slit his throat in a prison cell.

At that moment the Dreyfus case was over, though Cavaignac and the generals and the anti-Dreyfusard fanatics refused to believe it. After a moment of shock they rallied to maintain that Colonel Henry was a national hero (to this day he is revered by ultra-right-wing French for what Charles Maurras called his "heroic forgery"), and that Dreyfus was as guilty as ever. More clairvoyant than his friends, ex-Major Esterhazy knew that the jig was up. The day after the news of Henry's confession was made public, he shaved off his mustache and took the train, third class this time, for Maubeuge, slipped into Belgium and across the Channel to England. He would remain in England for the next 25 years.

It was a long, sad descent into oblivion. As the Dreyfus case dragged on to its inevitable end - through the return of Captain Dreyfus from Devil's Island, through a second court-martial that ended in the bizarre verdict of guilty of "treason but with extenuating circumstances," through the annulment of the earlier verdicts in July 1906 and the final rehabilitation of Dreyfus - Esterhazy was always available for an interview. He was pleased to tell all he knew and made up much more. He derided French politicians and French generals as fools, fops and madmen. But there were no more ladies to seduce in first-class carriages, no more cousins to swindle.

Being Esterhazy, he managed to survive somehow. During World War 1, in which Dreyfus, despite his ruined health, served for 20 months as an artillery officer, Esterhazy, under the name of Fitzgerald, wrote articles for the British press denouncing the incompetence of the French Army.

When he died in 1923 in a village in Hertfordshire, no one there had any idea who he was. He was described as a traveling salesman. He was going by the name of Count Jean de Voilemont.

©1989 Robert Wernick

Smithsonian Magazine, August 1989


Robert Wernick
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
info@robertwernick.com