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The Dreyfus case a century on: ten lessons for Australia. An address at the opening of the centenary exhibition on the Dreyfus affair at the Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, 26 March 2006

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The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG**


A centenary reflection: It is exactly a century since Alfred Dreyfus,

the French soldier who was Jewish, was finally cleared of the offence of

high treason. A hundred years ago, he was described as the most

famous man in the world since the death of Napoleon1.

Yet who today remembers him or the story of the trials he

underwent for providing military secrets to his country's most hated foe,

Germany? Who recalls his conviction, punishment and eventual

vindication? Who knows of the persistent struggle by his wife Lucie and

his brother Mathieu to clear his name and by the band of intellectuals

* Text of an address at the opening of the centenary exhibition on the Dreyfus affair at the Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, 26 March 2006.

** Justice of the High Court of Australia. 1 M Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affairs (Bedford/St Martin's, 1999), vii.


and civil libertarians who came to be convinced of his innocence? Who

recalls the efforts of military and government leaders and churchmen in

France to uphold his guilt, even when they were presented with

overpowering evidence that he had been wrongly convicted? What

lessons does L'Affaire Dreyfus have for liberty in contemporary Australia

and for how we handle complaints about the misuse of governmental

power? Of prejudice against minorities? Of miscarriages of justice by

the very institutions that we entrust to protect society and its members

from injustice?

In its day, the Dreyfus trials and their aftermath were like the

Petrov case, the Lindy Chamberlain saga, the ordeal of David Hicks, the

Mallard case, and the trial of Saddam Hussein, all wrapped into one.

Yet none of those events, nor anything we have seen in Australia, is

exactly like the ordeal to which Alfred Dreyfus was subjected. In its time,

that ordeal became an illustration of how human institutions can go

wrong, human justice can fail and pride and patriotism can swamp

concern for the individual. All too easily, this can happen when that

individual is a member of a minority subjected to irrational hatred - as

Dreyfus, the Jew, was and as others in the century that followed have


The Dreyfus case was a warning of the Holocaust, of the show

trials of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, and of the occasional failings of

elected democracies that marked the twentieth century. It was a


warning that was not sufficiently recognised a century ago. We do well

to reflect on it today so that we do not repeat its mistakes.

There are few in Australia today who remember the details of

Dreyfus's case. We know vaguely of the long controversy that divided

France, of his banishment to Devil's Island, of the brave band of

supporters who never lost faith in his innocence, of the anti-semitism

that played a part in his conviction and of the long time it took to clear his

name. But we do not know the details.

It is in the detail that the wrongs of the Dreyfus affair are to be

found. The greatest wrong was not the mistaken conviction of Dreyfus

for treason. Human justice makes human errors. No human effort is

immune from error2. What was important was how the conviction came

about in the first place; how it was reconfirmed in the face of

overwhelming evidence; and how ultimately institutions of government

and other powerful forces elevated the insistence on Dreyfus' conviction

above the proof of his innocence. Maintaining his guilt became a badge

of honour for elements in the army, the Church, the government and the

population at large. Even today in France, streets and statues that

honour Dreyfus are desecrated. In France, murders still happen that are

2 E C Hughes, Men and Their Work (1958) cited in O Quick, "Outing Medical Error" (2005) 14 Medical Law Review 22 at 23.


attributed to anti-semitism3. Closer to home, violence against ethnic and

religious minorities shocks Australians who are convinced that the

national acceptance of multicultural ideals will spare Australia from the

worst of such prejudice.

So come back a hundred years to when the Dreyfus affair was still

on the lips of most informed people, even in Australia4. How did it

happen? Why should contemporary Australians give any thought to

events that occurred so long ago and so far away?

Sources of anti-semitism: To find the answers to these questions it

is necessary to dig deep into an infantile tendency of human beings. A

root cause of the Dreyfus affair was anti-semitism. A fear and hatred of

Jews in France arose because of several factors: their minority

numbers; their exclusive, counter-majoritarian, habits; their involvement

in money lending and finance; their often unusual clothing; their distinct

culinary habits; and their disproportionate educational and professional

success. Above all, there was the supposed "blood guilt" of Jews for the

death of Jesus Christ. The foundation for this blood guilt was a passage

3 S Rotella, "Racism a Factor in Murder of Jew Says Magistrate", Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February 2006, p 13 (concerning the death in France in on 13 February 2006 of Ilan Halimi).

4 See eg Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 1899; The WestAustralian,12 September 1899 cited in H L Rubinstein, "'A Disgrace to Christendom': Australian Reactions to the Dreyfus

Affair" in (1994) 12 Journal of Australian Jewish Historical Society 467 at 467-468.


in St Matthew's Gospel, when Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of

Judea, offered to release Jesus but the Jewish people of Jerusalem

chose Barrabas and said to Pilate, of Jesus, "His blood be on us, and on

our children"5. On those nine words was hung a terrible hatred.

The hatred was reinforced, until recent times, by prayers in church

services at Easter for the conversion of "the perfidious Jews"; by deep

feelings of animosity towards the Jews amongst many Christians and

others; and by governmental, political and church attitudes that fuelled

anti-semitism throughout Europe and beyond.

Revolutionary and military causes: It was a mark of the embrace

of notions of universalism and rationality after the French Revolution that

they eventually gave rise to an edict of liberation for the Jews of France.

Although prejudice endured, it waned in nineteenth century France.

Gradually, notions of secularism, reserving religion to a private zone,

began to prevail. This was a feature of France in the Belle Epoch that

reassured Dreyfus that he would be protected by the French legal

system against any lingering attitudes of prejudice against Jews. After

all, decades earlier, Christian symbols had been removed from French

courthouses. The French Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the

5 St Matthew's Gospel, Ch 27, v 25. See also C Thornton-Smith, "Reactions of the Australian Catholic Press to the Dreyfus Case" (1997) 14 Journal of Australian Jewish Historical Society 57 at 64.


Citizen drew no distinctions on the grounds of race or religion. At first,

Dreyfus's confidence was to prove misplaced.

The seeds of the affair were planted by the military humiliation of

France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The defeat of the army,

that still boasted of the Napoleonic conquest of Europe, was a great

blow to French honour and pride. The defeat was commonly attributed

to German spies. Only spying, it was believed, could explain the

collapse of an army and nation so historical, glorious and unique.

Paranoia over superior German spying capacity was never far from the

surface in the last years of the nineteenth century. Financial collapse,

economic depression and the political instability of the Third Republic

turned conservative politicians and newspapers into messengers of fear

and suspicion of the supposed enemies of the nation in its midst. The

loss of Alsace and Lorraine made those who stayed behind in France

suspect in the eyes of some fellow citizens and the newspapers that

pandered to their fears. This was especially so if they were German-speaking, with German-sounding names. It was particularly so if they

were of the Jewish minority.

Discovery of the bordereau: Into this potent mix of fear and

suspicion intruded a remarkable event6. A document was discovered,

probably by a French concierge working at the Germany embassy in

6 M P Johnson, The Dreyfus Affair: Honour and Politics in the Belle Epoque (1999).


Paris. It was handed to French security who then worked in a section of

the General Staff of the army. Torn into six pieces, this memorandum

(bordereau) was a communication in French with a German contact

about miliary secrets, including details about a new French field gun. It

was signed with the initial "D". It suggested that a senior military official

of France was providing secrets to the German military attaché in Paris.

The bordereau led immediately to a search for the culprit. That

search led the senior members of the French army to suspect Alfred

Dreyfus. He was descended from a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace.

He had made the French army his career. He was a non-observant Jew

who enjoyed an income many times greater than his military salary. He

had been a top student. At the age of thirty, his outstanding service led

him to be assigned to work in the Ministry of War in Paris, with the rank

of captain. For a soldier, he lived an unusually quiet family life. His

misfortune was that the leaders of the General Staff were openly anti-semitic. They were determined, without delay, to rid the army of the

author of the inculpating document.

The bordereau was discovered in late September 1894. By late

October 1894, the intensely conservative and right-wing Christian

newspaper, La Libre Parole, was fed the news that the suspect in the

spying was a Jewish officer. Dreyfus had been asked, on a pretext, to

write a letter based on the wording of the bordereau. Because of

perceived similarities between the handwriting in the two documents, he

was arrested and imprisoned. The Dreyfus affair had begun.


Conviction and exile: In December 1894 Dreyfus was put on trial

before a court martial. He had an excellent lawyer who was convinced

of the innocence of his client and demanded an open trial. However, the

military judges insisted on a trial held in closed court. They said that this

was essential to preserve national security. Handwriting experts called

by the army attested to the similarity of the writing in the bordereau and

Dreyfus's writing. However, two superior experts called for the defence

pointed to many dissimilarities. Dreyfus' lawyer was sure that his client

would be free at the end of the trial.

As is now known, contrary to procedural fairness and the French

law governing courts martial, an officer of the War Ministry provided a

secret dossier to the members of the court martial whilst it was

deliberating. The dossier contained a letter from an Italian military

attaché inculpating Dreyfus. Neither Dreyfus nor his lawyer were given

access to this secret evidence. Nor did they know of its provision. The

course adopted was later justified in the name of national security7.

Vehemently professing his innocence, Dreyfus was unanimously

convicted of treason. He was condemned to military degradation and

perpetual deportation.

7 H T Tamplin (ed) "The Dreyfus Case" (1898) 15 The Cape Law Journal 23.


In an electric scene in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in the

centre of Paris, Dreyfus had his military insignia torn from his uniform

and his sword broken in his presence. A famous cartoon of the time

showed him bowed and humiliated. But photography had arrived by

1894. A photograph showed him unbowed and erect. He declared in a

voice that those nearby could hear: "I forbid you to do this to me". And

because the square was so large, Dreyfus was led around its perimeter

to be humiliated in front of the assembled army officers and antagonistic

citizens. He was far from bowed. Repeatedly he declared "Innocent!

Innocent! Vive la France!". It was an unsettling response that led many

who witnessed it to quit the assembly in a state of disquiet.

But disquiet was not present in the vast majority of witnesses.

Dreyfus's protestations were drowned out by cries "Death to the Jew!".

In the legislature, politicians of all persuasions welcomed the outcome of

the court martial and the eradication of a blemish on the honour of the

French army. Uncovering so swiftly the treasonous spy was a cause for

congratulations to the government and the army. Even the radical

politician, Georges Clemençeau, who was later to become a supporter

of Dreyfus, asked Parliament why an ordinary soldier would be

condemned to death for treason but a captain spared of his life?

Politicians of the right, the left and of the centre, jumped on the

bandwagon of excoriation. Dreyfus was exiled to Devil's Island off the

coast of French Guyana, as soon as his petition for appeal was rejected.

On that island, he spent his time in solitary confinement in a malarious


environment. However, his spirit was not broken, nor that of his wife and


A saga of iniquity began that represents the essence of the

Dreyfus affair. The army had wanted no publicity and a quick conclusion

to the matter. However, no motive had been shown why a wealthy

captain, with a promising career, would have acted as claimed. The

motive hinted at was Dreyfus's origin in Alsace, his knowledge of the

German language and his Jewishness. Religious newspapers like La

Libre Parole and La Croix supported the conviction whenever it was

questioned. As the growing evidence of wrongdoing mounted, these

forces in government, in the army and the Church railed against the

questioners. For them, patriotism demanded unquestioning loyalty. But

the questioners would not let up.

A second letter is discovered: The case against Dreyfus began to

collapse in March 1896 when another letter was intercepted in the

German embassy. This could not have involved Dreyfus, safely locked

away on Devil's Island. Because a new government had taken office in

Paris, the Dreyfus file was reopened. A military official, Georges

Picquart became convinced, against his earlier belief, of the innocence

of Dreyfus and of the guilt of another army officer, Major Ferdinand

Walsin-Esterhazy. Esterhazy, a big spending soldier, originally from

Hungary, with a weakness for women and gambling, was identified by

his stockbroker, de Castro, who saw a photographic reproduction of the


incriminating bordereau in a newspaper. It had been published to

confirm Dreyfus's guilt. Instead, it shifted a spotlight onto Esterhazy.

Esterhazy demanded a court martial to clear his name. In the

heated atmosphere of the times, the army pulled out all the stops to

reaffirm the guilt of Dreyfus and to clear Esterhazy. False rumours had

been circulated that, before departing France, Dreyfus had confessed

his guilt to miliary colleagues. In the face of his astonishing performance

at the Ecole Militaire, this proved unconvincing. A leak from military

headquarters to a sympathetic newspaper contained a mention, for the

first time, of the existence of the incriminating secret file provided to the

court martial in 1894. This unintended slip propelled the Dreyfus family

to petition the Chamber of Deputies for review. Picquart was transferred

to a dangerous post in Tunisia, presumably in the hope that he would die

or disappear. He did not oblige. Another conservative newspaper,

unsympathetic to Dreyfus, Le Matin boastingly published the bordereau

as evidence of Dreyfus's guilt and de Castro saw it. But the biggest

mistake that then occurred was the interference by military operatives in

the evidence that had been used to convict Dreyfus.

Forged messages were inserted in the military file, naming

Dreyfus as the spy. Eventually these forgeries were revealed as such.

One of them, prepared by a master forger, came undone when

examination under magnification showed a discrepancy between the

size and colour of the lines in the paper at different parts of the

reconstructed page. The identification of Dreyfus's name appeared on


paper that had obviously been skilfully inserted in the original that had

contained no such identification. It was like a modern case of

reconstruction by photocopying. It showed the extent to which the army

would go to keep the Dreyfus case closed.

Émile Zola's accusation: Unsurprisingly, Esterhazy was acquitted

by his court martial. Lucie Dreyfus's petition was rejected by the French

legislature. At the end of 1897, the French Prime Minister declared to

the National Assembly "There is no Dreyfus affair whatsoever".

However, by this time, a group of civil libertarians and intellectuals had

taken up the Dreyfus cause8.

Émile Zola published the first of a series of public letters urging his

fellow citizens to interest themselves in the wrongful conviction of

Dreyfus. International handwriting experts denounced the opinion that

Dreyfus was the author of the bordereau. Zola stepped up his public

campaign. On 13 January 1898, in Clemençeau's newspaper L'Aurore,

Zola wrote a letter to the President of the French Republic. It appeared

under a full-page headline, composed by Clemençeau, "J'accuse …!".

Writers of great distinction, such as Marcel Proust and Anatole France

joined the campaign. But anti-semitic hoodlums took to the streets to

defend France against "Masons, Protestants and Jews".

8 W E Dwight, "An Episode in the Affaire Dreyfus", 8 Yale Law Journal 272 at 272 (1898).


By February 1898, the French League for Human and Civic Rights

was founded to provide a focus for the voices asserting that the Dreyfus

conviction was a miscarriage of justice. Contemporaneous with these

developments was a heightened resolve by officials to affirm Dreyfus's

conviction and to keep his file firmly closed. Their resolve was

evidenced by the outcome of Zola's letter. Instead of the reopening the

Dreyfus case, it resulted in a long prosecution of Zola for criminal libel.

He was convicted and, after appeal, retried and reconvicted. He fled to

Switzerland and then to England where he awaited the outcome of his

campaign. He was denounced personally and, not content with this, his

critics also traduced his father.

Yet by August 1898 senior army officers were also beginning to

share some of the doubts about the forged materials discovered in the

army files. They moved to dismiss Esterhazy from the army. His

dismissal was not for treason, but for "habitual misconduct". Even in the

face of plain forgeries, the army continued to cover up. Indeed, an

inquiry was initiated against Picquart, working for a reopening of the

Dreyfus case from within the army. He was arrested and imprisoned.

Still more violent anti-semitic demonstrations broke out in Paris. Mobs

took to the streets to assert the guilt of Dreyfus and to condemn the lack

of patriotism of those who questioned it. Evidence was not the concern

of these people. Fear of German spies and of Jewish aliens was what

drove them. By December 1898, in response to the League for Human

and Civil Rights conservative forces founded the League of French

Patriots. It was to survive the outcome of the Dreyfus case and to laud


the 'patriotic' officers who had forged documents in order to uphold the

army's honour. Eventually, this body was to provide the personnel who

initiated the anti-semitic campaigns of Vichy France during the Second

World War.

Second trial and its outcome: All of this notwithstanding, by 1899,

despite the passions and the cover-up, it had become impossible to

keep the lid on the errors of the Dreyfus trial. A Court of Appeal in June

1899, overturned the court martial verdict of 1894. Dreyfus was

summoned back to France for a new court martial. He was remanded in

custody at Rennes. Foreign journalists noticed that, in the second court

martial, conducted in a local high school, Christian symbols remained on

the walls, as if to indicate that in miliary affairs, secularism would not

intrude too far. In August 1899, a fanatic shot at Dreyfus's lawyer in an

attempt to kill him. But the second trial proceeded a week later. To the

astonishment of foreign observers, Dreyfus was not acquitted but for the

second time, this time by majority, he was found guilty of treason. The

verdict was qualified by a rider of "extenuating circumstances".

Dreyfus's imprisonment was reduced to ten years detention9.

The outcry against this verdict was enormous and instantaneous.

Within days the French Cabinet had recommended that Dreyfus should

be pardoned by the President. Dreyfus only accepted the pardon on

9 See Burns, above n 1, 176 describing the Rennes verdict and its immediate annulment.


condition that he could continue to assert and prove his innocence. The

President agreed to this stipulation. The pardon issued. The Minister of

War declared: "The incident is over"10. Paris was preparing for the

inauguration of the Universal Exhibition of 1900. The Chamber of

Deputies passed an amnesty law. Many hoped that Alfred Dreyfus

would quietly disappear into old age. But the turmoil was not so easily

put to rest.

Vindication and innocence: Many members of the Chamber of

Deputies were gravely disquieted by the official conduct during the affair.

This disquiet grew when the army itself, in October 1903, raised the

possibility of a further retrial of Dreyfus. In March 1904, the Criminal

Chamber of the Court of Cassation granted Dreyfus's request for a

reinvestigation of his case. That investigation concluded with an

outcome favourable to Dreyfus. The decision was referred to an

extraordinary sitting of the Supreme Court of Appeal in November 2004.

On 12 July 1906, after still further inquiry, the Supreme Court of Appeal,

with all three Chambers of France's highest court sitting jointly, annulled

the Rennes verdict. It pronounced the total rehabilitation of Dreyfus. It

proclaimed his innocence. A week later in the same courtyard of the

Ecole Militaire in Paris, Dreyfus was decorated a Knight of the Legion of

Honour. When the crowd shouted "Long live Dreyfus!", he replied in the

10 J D Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus (1986); A David, Famous Political Trials (Learner, 1980) at 45.


words he had used in that place twelve years earlier: "Vive la

France!"11. Picquart was there t witness the scene.

The Vichy aftermath: Some observers declared that the ultimate

outcome of the Dreyfus affair was a delayed vindication of French

institutions and a reaffirmation of civic equality in the face of stigma and

discrimination. Yet the legacy of the case was a deep sense of disquiet

both by supporters and opponents of Dreyfus. His supporters noted the

long interval of denial, forgery and cover-up to which, even in a

democratic country like France, great governmental institutions would

stoop. His opponents continued to hate those who had supported

Dreyfus. They considered that their damaging campaign had

questioned the honour of the French army and the nobility of the nation:

values that were to be maintained at all costs - even, if necessary, at the

sacrifice of a person like Dreyfus. Some of the anti-Dreyfusards would

never believe his innocence. A number of them took their vengeance in

the anti-semitic laws of Vichy France. After 1942, that regime tightened

the noose around the lives of the Jewish refugees in France and,

ultimately, even French citizens of Jewish origin.

On the perimeter wall of one corner of the Ecole Militaire in Paris,

where the beginning and the end of the Dreyfus drama was played out,

is a memorial. It records a group of French Jews ordered to assemble

11 A L Goodhart, "Three Famous Legal Hoaxes" (1968) 6 Alberta Law Review 1 at 9.


there, who were deported to the Nazi death camps with almost total loss

of life and true loss of national honour. Anti-semitism did not die out in

France with the rehabilitation of Alfred Dreyfus. It lay in wait for further


What are the lessons for today that we should derive in Australia,

as we reflect on the story of Alfred Dreyfus in France a century ago?


Vigilance against miscarriages: The first lesson is that we must

be vigilant against miscarriages of justice. It is easy for the mind,

especially the lawyer's mind, to slip into formalism. Easy to forget the

ultimate purpose of law and of its institutions: to do justice according to

law. The fact that a trial has gone through all the correct procedures

does not relieve us of the duty to consider any flaws that are alleged in

the process or the outcome that amount to a miscarriage of justice.

Human justice is imperfect. Most serious injustices happen long

before cases come before courts. If police investigation is defective or

partisan, justice may never be rescued. If the prosecutor does not act

fairly, the accusation may never be properly tested. If officials lie and

falsely claim (as in the Dreyfus case) that confessions have been made,


great wrongs can follow12. This is why the High Court of Australia

ultimately insisted on verification of confessions to officials, leading

Parliaments throughout the country to provide for sound and video

recording of them13. Vulnerable and inexperienced witnesses can

undermine their own cases14. In such instances, it is not enough for a

court to admit to lingering "anxiety"15. This was what the High Court did

at the beginning and end of its reasons dismissing the appeal of Rupert

Max Stuart, an Aboriginal accused of, and sentenced to, death for the

murder of a young girl based on a flawed confession16. In the end, it

was a media campaign, the agitation of civil libertarians and the disquiet

of some politicians that saved Mr Stuart's life - not the Australian courts

of justice.

More recently, there have been other instances of suggested

miscarriage of justice where the courts have been divided. The Lindy

12 The Queen v McKinney and Judge (1991) 171 CLR 468. Also relevant is the decision upholding the right to legal representation of the indigent in serious criminal trials: Dietrich v The Queen (1992)

177 CLR 292. 13 See eg Kelly v The Queen (2004) 218 CLR 216 considering the Criminal Law (Detention and Interrogation) Act 1995 (Tas) s 8(1)

and Nicholls v The Queen (2005) 219 CLR 196 considering the Criminal Code (WA), s 570D(2). 14 Tuckiar v The King (1934) 52 CLR 335. 15

Stuart v The Queen (1959) 101 CLR 1. 16 Ibid, at 3, 10 per Dixon CJ, McTiernan, Fullagar, Taylor and Windeyer JJ; cf M D Kirby, "The Stuart Case - A Story in Black and

White" (2002) 23 Adelaide Law Review 195.


Chamberlain case is an instance17. The eventual outcome of that saga

was also secured outside the courts. Ultimately, it followed a Royal

Commission. Yet more recent examples show the increased vigilance of

Australian courts against the risks of miscarriage. This is usually the

central issue in most criminal appeals18.

In the Mallard case19, the importance of the fair conduct of the

prosecution was given fresh emphasis by the High Court. In our system

of law, the prosecutor for the Crown is not just another litigant,

determined to win its case. Like the court itself, the prosecutor is subject

to duties of fair conduct, which includes fairness to the accused. This is

a universal feature of a just system of criminal procedure20. We are not

exempt from it. Yet the Mallard case had earlier come to the High Court

and been refused leave to appeal21. I was a party to that refusal. It was

only when further evidence was accumulated and analysed by

supporters who believed in Mr Mallard's innocence, that the matter was

returned to the courts on a petition of mercy, reopened, re-explored and

found wanting.

17 Chamberlain v The Queen [No 1] (1983) 153 CLR 514; Chamberlain v The Queen [No 2] 1984) 153 CLR 521.

18 Weiss v The Queen (2006) 80 ALJR 444 where the relevant cases concerning criminal appeals are collected.

19 Mallard v The Queen (2006) 80 ALJR 160. 20 Mallard v The Queen (2006) 80 ALJR 1 at 8 [68]ff. 21

Mallard v The Queen (1997) 191 CLR 646.


The lesson of the Dreyfus case, and of countless cases since, is

that decision-makers who have control over important decisions on

behalf of society, must always preserve an open mind. They must never

join a popular bandwagon. Society must reserve to itself a questioning

attitude towards officialdom. The supporters of Dreyfus elevated the

"duty to question" over the "duty to obey"22. Some patriots and

institutional conservatives at the time resented this. But in the end, the

questioners were proved right.

Alert to stigmatised minorities: The second lesson of the Dreyfus

case is that we should be alert to the dangers of prejudice towards

stigmatised minorities.

There is no doubt that Dreyfus suffered - and was kept on Devil's

Island long after the gravest doubts of his guilt were demonstrated -

because he was a member of such a minority. A Jew in a society with

widespread and latent anti-semitism. There are other such minorities,

including in Australia. The Aboriginals, like Stuart. The communists.

Arabs and Muslims. A minority I know well, of roughly the same

proportion as the Jews: the homosexual minority, still hated, feared and

discriminated against, often at the behest of the same religious people

22 Burns, above n 1, viii.


who hated the Jews. Convicted prisoners, the mentally disabled and the

unconventional are also easy to target.

The lesson of the Dreyfus affair is that we must be on our guard

that prejudices do not affect official decision-making. The objective

evidence against Dreyfus was extremely weak. There was no motive,

simply contested handwriting evidence. What made up the evidentiary

deficit was anti-semitism. In Australia, we must make sure that we never

make up any evidentiary deficit in a case with attitudes of fear or loathing

against members of a minority. Everyone in Australia is equal before the

law. Attitudes of prejudice sometimes exist on the streets. They have

no place in a court of law or other independent tribunal. These

institutions do not answer to populism or mob rule. The commitment to

equality before the law is tested by the way we treat vulnerable

minorities. Members of the great majority do not generally face this


Beware of military tribunals: Dreyfus was twice convicted by a

military tribunal. The first conviction was reached on the flimsiest

evidence. The second occurred in the face of demonstrable proof of his

innocence. Loyalty to the army swamped the evidence. One member of

the first court martial admitted that he had scarcely looked at the

handwriting tendered to secure the conviction. Accusation by the most

senior officials of the nation was enough to prove the accusation.


Loyalty, love of nation and belief in its institutions are marvellous

things. In the modern world, patriotism has its place, at least in sporting

contests. But there is a danger of tribunals that operate outside the

independent courts deciding questions of liberty. It is why the

independence of the courts, and the tenure of the judges, is so important

for our freedoms.

An examination of outcomes in the Australian Refugee Review

Tribunal, after members were not regularly reappointed, shows a fall-off

in decisions favourable to applicants for refugee status23. This is what

can happen where decision-makers do not enjoy guaranteed tenure. It

is true that such guarantees sometimes entail disadvantages and cloak

individual inadequacies. But over the centuries, judicial tenure has been

a great protection for our liberties. It did not exist in the first or second

tribunals that tried and convicted Dreyfus. Those military tribunals were

not really independent. They evinced loyalty for their conception of the

nation and for their military superiors. An affirmation of civilian rule is

crucial to the just trial of serious accusations. It is ironic to read the

American comments on the Dreyfus trials in the 1890s and the asserted

superiority of American civil courts24, contrasting them with the defence

of military commissions today.

23 Mary Crock, "Reviewing the Merits of Refugee Decisions: An Evaluation of the Refugee Review Tribunal" in Conference Proceedings, Retreating from the Refugee Convention (1997),

Northern Territory University, Darwin. 24 S D Thompson, "The Revision of the Dreyfus Case" (1899) 11 Green Bag 9 at 13: pointing to the need to "maintain the supremacy

Footnote continues


In Australia, courts martial are an exception to the general

principle of civilian courts for contested federal accusations25. In this,

Australian law normally reflects a longstanding British tradition that

restrict courts martial, essentially to military accusations arising out of

conduct on the battlefield26. A recent High Court decision has had the

effect of expanding this exceptional military jurisdiction. It was my

opinion in that case, and still is, that the present is not a good time to be

expanding the jurisdiction and powers of military tribunals27. Doing so is

contrary to our constitutional history and, in my view, to the constitutional


Anyone in doubt about the defects that can intrude in military

tribunals in fraught circumstances should read about the Dreyfus case,

and especially about the second outcome at Rennes. They provide a

reason for deep concern, mentioned by many observers, about the

proposed military commissions in the United States for trying the

of the civil over the military power, and to purge themselves of the rank corruption and gross injustice which fester in the Dreyfus case". 25

Re Tracey; Ex parte Ryan (1989) 166 CLR 518; Re Nolan; Ex parte Young (1991) 172 CLR 460 and Re Tyler; Ex parte Foley (1994) 181 CLR 18. 26

Discussed in Re Aird; Ex parte Alpert (2004) 220 CLR 308 at 341 [103] citing Re Tracey (1989) 166 CLR 518 at 558 and Burdett v Abbot (1812) 4 Taunt 401 at 449-450 [128 ER 384 at 403]. 27

Re Aird (2004) 220 CLR 308.


prisoners kept for four years in the military base at Guantanamo Bay28.

The subordination of the military power to the civilian power is one of the

key elements in a successful modern democracy. We must keep it

unimpaired in contemporary Australia.

Beware of secret trials: The Dreyfus case also teaches the great

care that must be observed in deciding serious accusations behind

closed doors. The giving of decisions in secret, based on secret

evidence not made available to an accused or the public, was a serious

flaw in Dreyfus's first trial. It was only repaired when, later, mistakenly

hoping that it would condemn Dreyfus, a photograph of the document on

which he was convicted, the bordereau, was published by a newspaper

aiming to satisfy its readers of his guilt.

A feature of our legal system, inherited from Britain, is a revulsion

against secret trials29. Even where there is confidential information,

courts must ordinarily be trusted to adopt expedients to keep the trial,

and the evidence, open whilst treating with sensitivity particular material

recognised as sensitive. The light of public scrutiny must be shone on

28 cf Hamdi v Rumsfeld (2004) 159 LEd 2d 578; 124 SCt; I Barker, "Human Rights in an Age of Counter-Terrorism" (2005) 26 Australian Bar Review 1 at 10.

29 See eg Raybos Australia Pty Ltd v Jones (1985) 2 NSWLR 47 at 50- 58; John Fairfax and Sons Ltd v Police Tribunal of New South Wales (1986) 5 NSWLR 465; In the Matter of an Application by the

Chief Commissioner of Victorian Police (2005) 79 ALJR 881 at 900 [114]; cf Scott v Scott [1913] AC 417 at 437-438.


all serious trials. Otherwise, they may become a cosy self-fulfilling

enterprise denying fundamental rights to the accused.

The fact that national security was repeatedly asserted as the

reason for the secrecy of the Dreyfus trial should make us cautious

about that claim. But for the gradual emergence of the truth, the army

and many other powerful interests in France, would have closed the

Dreyfus case. Gradually, most people would have forgotten him. He

would have rotted away on Devil's Island. Politicians of all persuasions,

and the demonstrators on the streets, would have continued to

denounce Dreyfus as a traitor. It was only a band of supporters, and the

gradual emergence of the truth, that saved this innocent man from that

fate. That was not the outcome of the closed and secret trial which

officialdom wanted.

Protection for people of conscience: The Dreyfus case also

demonstrates the importance of protecting and honouring people of

conscience. Protests might have been expected from Dreyfus's wife and

brother: declaring his innocence and working for his vindication.

Families are like this. But they often cling to ideas of innocence in the

face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The community tends to

discount family claims, as the French community originally did in the

case of the Dreyfus family's pleas.

What changed the outcome of the Dreyfus case was the gradual

adherence of intellectuals and civil libertarians to the Dreyfus side. In


Australia, we do not much like the notion of intellectuals. They are

called "egg-heads". They often fall, as the first victims, to the tall poppy

syndrome that has existed in Australia since the earliest convict days.

Further, there are people in our own society who condemn civil

libertarians and reject their role. On some occasions, it is true, civil

libertarians buck the system and challenge authority with its important

tasks to perform. Yet, it was the Dreyfus case that led to the

establishment in 1898 of the French League for Human and Civic

Rights, the equivalent of the Australian Councils for Civil Liberties.

Writers and philosophers and journalists and lawyers joined the League.

It focussed the disquiet about the Dreyfus conviction. It mobilised the

belief that a wrong should be righted.

A British admiral who brought his nuclear warship into Sydney

Harbour had to combat Australian protestors, one of whom tried to

clamber on board. Far from joining the local denunciations of the

protestors, voiced by embarrassed local authorities, the admiral

defended their right to protest and to object. He said, indeed, that this

was the ultimate role of the defence forces: to protect a free society in

which people could protest. As Justice Murphy once put it, the world

has been greatly improved by protestors objecting to injustice as they

saw it. Sometimes they have brought the world round to their

persuasion. Mr Neal, he famously declared, was "entitled to be an


30 Neal v The Queen (1982) 149 CLR 305 at 316-317 per Murphy J.


It is necessary to acknowledge that, eventually, some of the

crucial converts to the Dreyfus cause were officers of the French army.

Georges Picquart became convinced that Dreyfus had been framed. He

paid for his conviction, and the disclosure of the reasons for his anxiety,

by being arrested, court martialled and imprisoned. Fortunately, he lived

to see the vindication of his suspicions. He was present when Dreyfus

was welcomed back to the Ecole Militaire in 1906. Yet when he acted

as he did, he could not have known the outcome.

Some whistle-blowers are obsessive, misguided, intolerant people

who will never accept overwhelming evidence. But, as Commandant

Picquart illustrates, some are vital agents for truth. Where it is

important, and a person is suffering loss of liberty and honour, society

must protect conscientious officials and others who adhere to truth, even

if sometimes they prove wrong and misguided.

Picquart was not alone. A decade after Dreyfus's conviction and

following his pardon, more senior army officers began to have, and to

express, doubts. True, the army leadership was complicit in the cover-up. Most of its leaders never accepted Dreyfus's innocence. But there

were military people and officials of conscience and integrity who were

eventually won round. Sadly, it took a very long time.

Scrutiny of authority: The story of the Dreyfus affair is one about

spies. Acting on partial information, embracing a theory, defending


national security and honour as they saw it, their "intelligence" and

"proof" took a great democratic republic, France, down the road where it

seemed willing to sacrifice an individual to defend the honour of the

nation and its army.

The cover-up was remarkable. When a military officer prepared

the forged documents, and slipped them into the military file, he thought

his ploy would never be discovered. It would help prove what he knew,

in any case, was the truth. But the forgery was discovered. When this

perfidy was revealed, the army officer committed suicide. Yet

immediately, he was praised for his "honourable" actions. They were

excused as patriotic. A national collection was invited for the support of

his widow31.

People exist who are so blinded by their concept of duty and

patriotism and distorted by their participation in espionage, that they

forget society's commitment to truth and justice. A civil society,

respecting liberty, must always be on its defensive against such honour-blind people. It must beware of their cover-ups. It must retain a healthy

scepticism about their accusations of anti-State activity. The terrible

wrongs of the Gestapo in Germany, of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police,

of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, and even of the Un-American Activities

31 P Quillard, "The Henry Monument" cited in Burns above n 1, 130.


Committee in the United States show what grave wrongs can be done in

the name of patriotism and national security.

Every society has a right and duty to protect its citizens against

genuine affronts to security. But, in the long run, the best guarantee

against attacks on society is a steady adherence to the institutions and

ways of a temperate democracy. This steady adherence was

demonstrated in Australia in 1951 in the decision of the High Court in the

Communist Party case32. That decision invalidated the law designed to

outlaw Australian communists. That case will always stand in marked

contrast to the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, at

the same time, upholding a similar law to deprive communists in that

country of their rights to assembly and to free speech, although

expressly guaranteed in the American Constitution33.

Maintenance of secularism: Another lesson of the Dreyfus case is

the importance of keeping religious beliefs separate from the institutions

of the State. It is not a coincidence that, in December 1905, in the

aftermath of the vindication by the Criminal Chamber of the Court of

Cassation of Alfred Dreyfus's appeal, a law was enacted by the French

32 Australian Communist Party v The Commonwealth (1951) 83 CLR 1.

33 Dennis v The United States 341 US 494 (1951), Vinson CJ for the Court; Black and Douglas JJ dissenting.


legislature establishing clearly the separation of Church and State in


France had been moving in the direction of secularism in the

nineteenth century. However, the strong support for the forces lined up

against Dreyfus by anti-semitic elements in the Church, army and

politics of France, led to a strong feeling of revulsion against these

institutions when the injustice and cover-ups of the Dreyfus case were

laid bare. Secularism in France was reinforced. It is still strong.

A study of Australian Church journals in the years of the Dreyfus

affair shows that they never reflected the antagonistic attitude to Dreyfus

revealed in various Church-supported newspapers and other

publications in France35. Instead, the Australian religious press noted

the suggested double standards of the English media towards the

French trials and the trials of the Irish and Boer accused in the British

Empire. The strong bias against secret military tribunals, that has long

existed in English-speaking countries, was evident in Australia.

The institutions that grew up supposedly to defend patriotism and

the honour of the army and the nation in the Dreyfus case, were later to

34 See C Thornton-Smith above n 5 at 76ff for the concerns in the Australian Catholic community about the secular movement in France as it affected the Church.

35 C Thornton-Smith, above n 5, 76ff.


flourish and to spawn the extremist politicians and officials who led the

anti-semitism of the Vichy period of French history. It was not a noble

time for Christian adherents or for the universal principles of their faith.

But it was a lesson of the need to keep the religious dimension private

and for the State to protect and defend equally all people in its

jurisdiction, whatever their religion, ethnicity or features of special


If anything, the separation of religion and the State has become

more important and urgent as the decades have passed. In the modern

age, insistence upon legal enforcement of religious beliefs is again

intruding into law and governance36. Demands that religious law should

predominate over the laws made by a civilian Parliament need to be

resisted where they affect the basic civic rights of others. We know,

from contemporary experience, that sometimes religious minorities

target vulnerable minorities. Those minorities may be Jews. But they

may also be gays. Or members of the Baha'i faith. Islamic believers.

Or Christians in some countries. In a modern, democratic and pluralistic

State, the law should be there for everyone. People should not be

punished for changing their religion or renouncing religion altogether.

These are fundamental individual human rights.

36 See eg R A Fenton, "Catholic doctrine Versus Women's Rights: The New Italian Law on Assisted Reproduction" (2005) 14 Medical Law Review 73 at 75 concerning recent polarisation in the Italian

Parliament over a law on assisted reproduction. There are many examples in many countries on many issues.


Respect for the right to religion and for the dignity of each religion

does not extend to punishing people because they are of a different

religion or because of the characteristics attributed to that religion. I

hope that we have grown out of sectarian attitudes in Australia. Such

attitudes, between Catholics and Protestants and against Jews, were

still present in the Australia of my youth. The wrongs of the Dreyfus

accusations demonstrated the perils of anti-semitism.

Witnessing them, Theodor Herzl, reporting for the Viennese

newspaper, Der Judenstaat, came to the conviction that a separate

national homeland for the Jews was essential. If Jews could not be

protected effectively in their liberties, even in comparatively liberal and

secular France, Herzl believed they were in peril everywhere. The State

of Israel was thus an indirect outcome of the affront to justice of the

Dreyfus affair. In all societies, lawyers and other citizens must build a

protection for religious minorities. However, there must equally be an

insistence on respect, under the law, for religious freedom. Religious

freedom includes the right to change one's religion or to renounce

religion altogether. The killing of apostates and of gays or women or

other groups on supposed religious grounds has no place in the modern

world. Respect for religious or cultural values must not involve


deprivation of the fundamental human rights of non-adherents or

minority adherents37.

Ambivalent role of the media: The media played an ambivalent

role during the Dreyfus affair. On the one hand, in the earliest years,

sections of the media inflamed the anti-semitism so evident in the news

and editorials of the Church-supporting newspapers La Libre Parole and

La Croix. These journals played their part in suppressing the early

attempts to right the wrong of the Dreyfus conviction. They affirmed his

guilt substantially because of his Jewishness.

On the other hand, the publication in L'Aurore of the famous letter

by Émile Zola, "J'accuse!" was a turning point in the campaign for justice

for Dreyfus. Liberal newspapers took up his cause. So did journalists

from overseas38. In a sense, the case became an early global

illustration of infotainment. Part of the media attention arose out of the

genuine concern of journalists and editors, affronted by the cover-up and

injustice. Others just liked a good story. Not a few, in Australia and

England, enjoyed pontificating about the superiority of British justice.

37 See eg the provision on this subject of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity of 2 November 2001 and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights of 19 October

2005 (art 12); cf R Inglehart and P Norris, "The True Clash of Civilisations", Foreign Policy, March/April 2003, 63. 38 See eg The Times of London, 23 December 1894 in Burns, above n

1, 46-48.


Ultimately, as Lord Russell of Killowen reported to Queen Victoria

in 1899, the rehabilitation of Dreyfus was "brought about mainly by the

efforts of Frenchmen". His trial had not occurred in the civil courts of the

land where his conviction would much earlier have been quashed39.

Even Lord Russell felt obliged to acknowledge that "with all his

grossness and exaggeration, the name of Zola ought not to be omitted".

Where the media failed was in identifying the systemic and deep-seated

problems which the Dreyfus case illustrated. Amongst these, the issues

of ultra-patriotism, the misuse of claims of national security and the

ubiquity of anti-semitism were inadequately addressed.

Need for institutional changes: The need for institutional changes

and improvements are illustrated by what happened to Alfred Dreyfus.

In a way, his case sounded a warning against anti-semitism.

Inadequately attended, that scourge was to produce unparalleled

suffering fifty years later, including in France.

Thinking on the Dreyfus case today, we can conclude that

improvements in society's institutions are needed, including sometimes

in the attitudes of those officials who people those institutions.

Minimising the role of military tribunals; resisting secret trials; examining

closely claims of national security; protecting stigmatised minorities:

39 Lord Russell of Killowen to Queen Victoria, 16 January 1899 extracted from R B O'Brien, The Life of Lord Russell of Killowen (1901) in Burns, above n 1, 152.


upholding secularism. All of these are shown in stark relief by what

happened to Alfred Dreyfus.

In many countries the awful happenings of the first half of the

twentieth century, including the Dreyfus affair, led ultimately to the

acceptance after 1945 of notions of legally enforceable fundamental

human rights. In Australia, we have accepted those notions as binding

on the country, in the form of international treaty law. In some instances,

we have also translated the notions into enforceable Australian law -

such as the law on refugees, the law against racial discrimination,

against sex discrimination and on other topics. But we have still not

taken the final institutional step of embracing, nationally, an enforceable

Australian charter of fundamental rights. Even Britain, Canada and New

Zealand, in their different ways, have done so, as has India, South Africa

and, long since, the United States. Of course, such charters are no

guarantee against wrongdoing, cover-up and official mistakes. But they

are an institutional protection for what are partly institutional problems.

At the least, they shore up the values that set society's standards which

need to be given weight when cases like Dreyfus come along.

Proffering apologies for wrongs: There is one final point. It is also

illustrated by the Dreyfus affair.

In France, there was a persistent reluctance of the old anti-Dreyfusards to acknowledge the wrongs done to Alfred Dreyfus. They

people would blame everything and everyone except the elements that


they adored - in the government, the army and the Church who had

assailed Dreyfus and played on anti-semitic sentiment to keep him

imprisoned as an embarrassment who had attracted 'unpatriotic' and

'suspect' supporters. That sentiment came to the fore again in France

under the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944.

By 1985, the French government, at its highest level, determined

on a corrective. The socialist President, François Mitterand,

commissioned a statue of Alfred Dreyfus. It was presented to the army

for placement in the Ecole Militaire. The army declined to accept it40. In

1988 it was placed in a corner of Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Soon after,

it was covered with painted swastikas. Anti-semitic profanities were

marked on Dreyfus's tomb at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

On the centenary reflections on Dreyfus's arrest in 1994, the

official military history, whilst literally accurate, omitted many details and

ignored the crimes done by supposed 'patriots' in the name of the

honour of the French army. The official account, written by Colonel Paul

Gaujac, declared that "Dreyfus's innocence is the thesis generally

accepted by historians"41. That observation showed that some people

will never admit error. For them Dreyfus's guilt is still an open question -

an equal hypothesis or an arguable theory.

40 Burns, above n 1, 189. 41 P Gaujac, "A Theory of Innocence" quoted from Le Monde, 10

February 1994 in Burns, above n 1, 189-190.


In 1998, President Jacques Chirac took a bold and healing step.

A conservative politician, he commemorated the centenary of Emile

Zola's public letter "J'accuse…!". It had been written by Zola as a letter

to the President of the French Republic. At last, a President of the

Republic responded. He took the occasion to remind his fellow citizens

of the "sinister forces, intolerance, injustice" that can "creep into the

State's highest level". Half a century after Vichy, and a century after

Dreyfus's ordeal, it was timely to make that acknowledgment frankly,

openly and humbly. It was an acknowledgment of "what Émile Zola and

Alfred Dreyfus are saying to us across the years"42.

President Chirac emphasised the suffering of Alfred Dreyfus. He

also pointed out that Dreyfus had known how to forgive. He declared

that it is patriots of this kind, not shallow, prejudiced, discriminating,

covering-up nationalists, who constitute "the conscience of humanity". It

is they who teach their fellow citizens that love of country includes

rejection of intolerance and hatred43. Blind patriotism and unquestioning

belief in the nation, whatever its wrongs, is not the ethos of a modern

civic society.

42 J Chirac, Letter of the President of the Republic on the Centenary of "J'accuse", January 1998 in Burns, above n 1, 199 at 192.

43 Ibid, 193.


We in Australia have not condemned a fellow citizen for treason to

an equivalent of Devil's Island or Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, accusations

of treason are exceedingly rare in this country's history. But Australians

have certainly made mistakes. Some we have repaired. Others we

have failed to repair. We have shown discrimination against vulnerable

minorities. Such discrimination still exists. It exists not just in the

streets. It exists in the law, in legal ways and in our hearts. We must

learn to recognise these mistakes and, like President Chirac, where they

are shown, to acknowledge them, to express regret for them to learn

from them and to teach the next generation. That is the way to progress

the journey towards greater human enlightenment.

The Dreyfus case speaks powerfully to Jewish people

everywhere, including in Australia. This is especially so because of the

genocide that followed. But it also speaks clearly of wrongs done to

Aboriginals, to Asian Australians, to Arab and Islamic Australians, to

gays and other sexual minorities, to women, to the very old and young,

to the mentally and physically disabled, to prisoners, refugees and to

unconventional people. We must not think that these wrongs are over

or that a full enlightenment has arrived. Dreyfus belongs to Jewish

people. But he also belongs to all human beings. Down the years, and

even down the centuries, his cry as he was sent to exile from the

courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris will ring out as a warning against

miscarriages of justice:

"Innocent! Innocent! Vive la France!"




The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG