The Incredible Beginning of the First World War: Madame Caillaux on Trial

One hundred years ago, Europe was on the road to war. By the end of July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, starting a series of declarations between the Great Powers that ended on August 4 when Britain declared war on Germany for its invasion of neutral Belgium. A month before on June 28 1914, the heir to the Habsburg crown, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by the young Serbian nationalist, Gavrillo Princip. None foresaw that Princip's actions would become one of the most monumental acts of the 20th century, though in July of 1914 few cared to notice. For most Europeans (and Canadians!) they were more interested in the “trial of the century” taking place in Paris. French socialite Madame Henriette Caillaux was found not guilty on July 28, the same day Austria declared war on Serbia.

French politics in the years before the First World War were divisive ones. The acerbic debate over the false accusation of French military officer and alleged spy Alfred Dreyfuss at the turn of the century had clearly divided French society between the left and the right. The liberal, republican Dreyfussards proclaimed his innocence, while the conservative anti-Dreyfussards preferred to side with the French Army's original conviction. The wounds still lingered in 1914 and no compromise could be reached between the two sides. New debates were invitations to once again attack the other side of the political spectrum. The trial of Madame Caillaux was yet another political argument between two very difference perspectives of the French nation. Though only a month later, the union sacrée (sacred union) of August 1914 would see the two sides united in the defence of France against German invasion.

Joseph Caillaux was a prominent figure in French politics in the early 20th century. He had been a Dreyfussard and in the years afterwards rose through the ranks of government while becoming the head of the left-wing Radical Party. In June of 1911, the French President Armand Fallières asked him to form the government. It was a brief term though he briefly led France through the Second Morrocan Crisis. By January of 1912, he was forced to resign after it was revealed that his government was attempting to fashion an accord with Germany without the knowledge of the President. Caillaux continued to advocate for left wing policies, including the introduction of income tax, while opposing right wing ideas, like the extension of military service from two to three years. He attracted the attention of Gaston Calmette, the editor of the right-wing newspaper, Le Figaro.

In December of 1913, Calmette claimed to have documents that proved Caillaux had obstructed justice as Minister as Finance as well as letters between him and Henriette while Joseph was still married to his first wife. For three months, Calmette threatened to publish them in Le Figaro and ruin Caillaux's stalled career while subjecting him to ever worsening personal attacks. On March 13 1914, Le Figaro published a deeply personal letter from Joseph to his first wife (not Henriette). At six o'clock, Henriette arrived at the offices of Calmette and asked to see him. “You know why I have come,” she said. “Not at all, Madame,” replied Calmette. Henriette pulled out a revolver and fired six shots. Calmette fell to the floor clutching his stomach. The police were called and Caillaux was chauffeured to the station, after arguing that a lady of society could be trusted to take her own vehicle after committing such an obvious act of murder.

Over the next four months there was an extensive pre-trial investigation and the trial was scheduled to start on 20 July, 1914. As Austria issued ultimatums to Serbia over the death of Franz Ferdinand, France focused on the upcoming trial. President Raymond Poincaré was in the midst of a trip to Russia shoring up France's alliance, and without access to the country's highest leaders, the French press was free to focus entirely on the trial of Madame Caillaux in July's final weeks. For six days every detail was published in French papers, including virtual transcripts of the proceedings as well as embellished flourishes of its characters. It had all the makings of scandalous public theatre: high society, high politics, high stakes, and above all, gossip. The President of the Republic was even called to the stand. Around the world, audiences were enthralled with learning the juicy details that led Henriette Caillaux to murder. In Germany, they were smugly superior that the French would ignore a growing international crisis in favour of a spurious trial. British press gladly provided the details of another Parisien scandal, news which filtered back to Canada as well. It easily overshadowed yet another incident in the Balkans region that had seen a handful of wars in the last generation.

After two days of deliberation on 28 July, the verdict came back: Not guilty. Madame Caillaux had committed a crime of passion, and so caught up in the fervour of defending her husband, had shot Calmette. Right wing newspapers were outraged, alleging that Madame Caillaux had killed Calmette to silence her husband's political enemy. The left wing press argued that Le Figaro's slanderous campaign had driven Caillaux to a state of temporary insanity and the verdict was legitimate. Just days before the outbreak of war, France split along familiar political fault lines. The same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on its small neighbour Serbia. Within a week, Europe and the world would be at war for four long brutal years. Most French papers were entirely devoted to the guilt and innocence of Madame Caillaux.

There's much to be said about the trial of Madame Caillaux. There's many books on the topic, most of which take one side or the other, though Edward Berenson's The Trial of Madame Caillaux offers an English language work that is has a detailed and balanced perspective. The trial evokes many of the themes of French society before the First World War, the division of its political spectrum, the arrogance of its high society, or the pettiness of politics. Or how easily the allure of celebrity trials, as we still know today, captures headlines and readers' attention.

It's comfortable to judge France and the world for ignoring the incredible events in the Balkans that led to the First World War. With our hindsight, we can trace all the warning signs that diplomacy might not be working as well as it had before, that if war did break out, it would include many more powers than just those of eastern Europe. That Europe was foolish to ignore the coming storm. Of course, who are we to judge? As conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and most recently Iraq, all threaten to expand and intensify, today's media can barely keep it in the headlines. Not when there is the World Cup, or Rob Ford, or the arrest of hockey players. Who's to say that one hundred years from now, historians won't be judging us for missing obvious signs?