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
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
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
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
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
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'
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