The Dreyfus Affair

The espionage conviction of a French military officer was a watershed event in the history of European anti-Semitism.

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The Public OJ'accuseutcry

The Dreyfus affair became a national public scandal. The press was filled with editorials on both sides of the issue. Emile Zola, the famous French novelist, published an open letter to the president of France entitled J’accuse, which ran on the front page of a leading Parisian newspaper. Zola argued that the government and the army had conspired to convict Dreyfus on false grounds. He accused the government and army of committing "treason against humanity" by playing to the public's anti-Semitism in an attempt to divert popular attention from their own public failures.

Zola’s article made a powerful impression--200,000 copies of the paper were sold in Paris alone. Zola was placed on trial and convicted for libel.

Meanwhile, the military court recalled Henry and demanded his secret Dreyfus evidence. Henry’s evidence was exposed as a clumsy forgery. Henry himself was thrown in jail, where he killed himself. 

The Retrial

Dreyfus was brought back from Devils Island for a retrial. As his trial proceeded, army officials and the royalist Catholic press released startlingly anti-Semitic statements, including a warning that the Jews could face mass extermination. Despite these scare tactics, Dreyfus had the evidence--including the papers, the handwriting, and Henry's forgeries--working for him during the retrial.

Despite the weight of these facts, the military court pronounced Dreyfus guilty after less than an hour of deliberations. The court was willing to reduce his sentence, however, from life to 10 years due to "extenuating circumstances."

The liberal reaction to this verdict both in France and the rest of Western Europe was one of shock and some violence. The liberal president of France, Emile Loubet, hastened to silence the uproar by promptly pardoning Dreyfus. Complete judicial exoneration of Dreyfus’ record came seven years later.

What Does This All Mean?

The Dreyfus affair was a watershed event in the history of European anti-Semitism.

World Jewry was stunned that such an affair could occur in France, the cradle of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The fact that the public, including nobles and members of the clergy, saw Dreyfus--an assimilated Jew--as an outsider seemed to suggest that assimilation was no longer a defense against anti-Semitism.

The Dreyfus affair also personally impacted a significant figure in Jewish history. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, reported on the Dreyfus scandal as a young correspondent for a Viennese newspaper. The anti-Semitism that Herzl witnessed in fin-de-siecle France convinced him that Jewish emancipation was a failure and spurred him to both ponder and pursue an alternative solution--Jewish nationalism.

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of MyJewishLearning.com.