Alfred Dreyfus and the Derp State
After their defeat in 1870-71, the French Ministry of War was determined to modernize, and naturally saw the Prussian general staff model as a starting point. In what became known as the ‘continental system,’ a series of numbered bureaux were set up to handle the administration of armies. Deuxième Bureau (DB) was the very first permanent, that is to say professionalized, central intelligence bureau in French history, and it would become the model for the “intelligence shop” in every American ground combat unit above the company level — S2, G2, J2. Within the DB, a secret “statistical section” (Section de statistique) became the ancestor of today’s Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE), the French equivalent of the American CIA and NSA.
Military intelligence was the original obsession of the DB. French armies had marched to war in 1870 with fewer and less helpful maps than the Germans. Berlin achieved good results with systematic prisoner interviews, study of captured documents, and reconnaissance. Convinced that the success of German intelligence had been decisive in the destruction of French armies, the defeated nation approved of bureaucratic secrecy. Spies, police, postal servants, rail agents, trained surveillance operatives, and specialists formed a vast bureaucracy of information in what was purposed as a “scientific” form of organization in imitation of its supposed opposite in Germany.
“Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge,” wrote Max Weber. “This is the feature which makes it specifically rational” — and gives it a measure of social power. His contemporary Georg Kimmel also described secrecy as a kind of social glue within specialized cliques that empowers the knowers. In France, these German ideas were exactly what the “modern” middle class was looking for. Graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique, described by Terry Shinn as a wellspring of the new bureaucratic middle class in France, served in formative roles; Sorbonne professors taught spies how to surveil, encipher, and decrypt. Historian Alain Dewerpe subtitled Espion, his 1994 work on the history of French intelligence une anthropologie historique, for this was in fact a kind of tribe that meant to remain hidden from view in the jungles of government service.
As with all tribes, ranks closed whenever anyone attacked anyone inside it. This was demonstrated in the notorious Dreyfus affair, an injustice and public relations disaster that began in the Section de statistique. Alfred Dreyfus was framed for treason with evidence forged by the actual German spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy, who laundered it through a Section source chain starting at the German embassy. Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, the whistleblower who discovered the fraud, was first ignored, then undermined, and finally exiled to a colonial posting. Emile Zola famously accused the Section of anti-Semitism; Esterhazy was certainly anti-Semitic, and such attitudes were present in some officers of the Section. However, the most important bias against Dreyfus was simple and institutional. Professional solidarity and organizational defensiveness usually explain resistance to new evidence far better than ideological animus, although such motivations can certainly exacerbate the problem of organizational bias. I don’t think the Dreyfus case was exceptional in this way.
Embarrassed by Dreyfus’s exoneration and the disclosures surrounding it, the DB office was renamed Section de Renseignements (Intelligence Section) and given a renewed focus on preparing for war with Germany. However, the conflation of domestic and foreign intelligence continued. Intelligence success abroad required intelligence supremacy at home, so spy fever continued to burn in France. Worse, the focus on potential war with Germany helped France convince itself that war was inevitable, contributing to the diplomatic spiral that finally brought war in 1914.
But that is for another post.