Postcards From the Dreyfus Affair

Opinions about Alfred Dreyfus--and modern anti-Semitism--were expressed through the new print media of the day.

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In January 1895, Alfred Dreyfus was demoted from his rank of Captain in the French army after he was accused of spying for Germany. The Dreyfus Affair, as it came to be known, unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism that spread through France thanks to mass-produced media, including posters, postcards, serialized novels, and newspapers.

A Paper Trail

The Dreyfus Affair was a story of paper, from the handwritten note (known as the "bordereau" in French) that "proved" Dreyfus' guilt, to anti-Semitic pamphlets, to petitions in favor of Dreyfus. Indeed, the Affair's defining moment occurred in January 1898 when writer Emile Zola published an open letter to the French president on the cover of a leading newspaper. The letter, entitled J'accuse (I Accuse), indicted the government for conspiring against Dreyfus.

Interestingly, the postcard was perhaps the most vibrant paper medium of the Dreyfus era. The emergence of modern production techniques, such as lithography (mass reproduction and color printing), and photography, along with advances in postal services and tourism around the time of the Affair facilitated this fascinating development.

The first picture postcards were published in the 1880's, and became an immediate success. They were inexpensive to produce and buy, required less postage than letters, and were delivered three times a day. Dreyfus-related postcards were designed, printed, sent, and received regularly during the duration of the Affair, from 1894 to 1906, and even later. They broadcasted events of the day, thus contributing to the crystallization of opinions for or against the Jewish captain. At the same time, the massive circulation of postcards was instrumental in building public opinion, which was becoming a new political force at the end of the 19th century.

Anti-Semitic Imagery

Dreyfus was the object of hundreds of caricatures depicting him as a traitor, a hero, a Jew, and a victim. The numerous visual representations of the time show the shift from religion-based anti-Judaism to politically and racially-motivated anti-Semitism. The Dreyfus Affair became the symbol of modern anti-Semitism. A secular Jew who was so integrated as to reach the rank of Captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus was nevertheless considered disloyal and anti-patriotic. Dreyfus represented the Jew, "who is everywhere but belongs nowhere," as a slogan of the time opined. Or rather, he was German for the French, French for the Germans, and Jewish for all. At the end of the 19th century, Western Jews were in a no-win situation: they were either ghettoized for being too different, foreign, exotic and un-assimilable; or despised for blending into society too well, being difficult to identify as Jews and hence dangerous, suspicious, and unfaithful.

The Dreyfus Affair happened at the same time as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were published, translated, and disseminated all over the world thanks to the same inexpensive techniques of mass production that facilitated the rise of postcards. This forgery in the form of a 20-chapter pamphlet claimed to be the minutes of secret meetings held by Jewish wise men plotting to take control of the world. Alfred Dreyfus was seen as living proof that the Jewish conspiracy was taking place, since he was working "underground" for "secret powers" that wanted to subvert France.

Anti-Semitic postcards showed Dreyfus wearing the pointed helmet of the German army and speaking with a thick German accent. Others emphasized Jewish greed, with Dreyfus counting his money or looking for other paid espionage opportunities. Other illustrations borrowed from the century-old myth of the Wandering Jew and dressed Dreyfus in rags, his meager belongings stacked on his back.

The postcard above represents a (fake) monument to the glory of Dreyfus, as if erected by Germany as a sign of "eternal gratefulness" (so says the inscription on the pedestal). We see Dreyfus with a crooked nose, in a German uniform (with the eagle), next to his broken sword (a sign of treachery), sitting on stacks of money while reading the "bordereau," the paper that caused the scandal.

Pro-Dreyfus Postcards

But there were also favorable postcards of Dreyfus, and none of them mentioned that he was Jewish. On the contrary, they emphasized his loyalty and innocence, and depicted him in all his "Frenchness"--an honest man with values and responsibilities, serving his country with dignity. In favorable cards, Dreyfus was always in French military uniform. He was often surrounded with French Republican symbols (the motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", Republican hat and French flag) and was often in the company of a female personification of justice holding a sword or a scale (see below).

Public Opinion

Selecting a Dreyfus postcard and sending it to an individual was already a political statement. In many cases, the sender would add a few words commenting on the image of the postcard: an expression of hope or encouragement for Dreyfus, or an anti-Semitic slogan, for example. Often, however, the handwritten text had no relation to the image, and sometimes even clashed. Cards show Dreyfus in shackles, being tortured on Devil's Island, with notes about the weather conditions at a beach resort or excitement about an upcoming tea party.

As much as the sender made a statement in selecting a Dreyfus postcard, the recipient was forced to take a position as well. Whether in agreement or disagreement nobody could remain indifferent to such a political drama. Even when the Affair didn't make front-page news, it remained background noise that occupied public discourse.

In this sense, postcards turned out to be an ideal tool for mobilizing supporters across social, religious, and national lines. The idea of being part of history in the making encouraged people in both camps to take a position, contribute to public debate, if only by buying and sending picture postcards. The pro-Dreyfus movement was particularly active and, among other strategies, produced pre-printed and pre-addressed postcards that could be simply signed, stamped and sent to Alfred Dreyfus' wife, Lucie, or to his lawyer, Henri Labori, as a sign of support.

Other visually-rich new media, such as serialized novels and illustrated newspapers, followed suit. Those against the Captain carried on anti-Semitic stereotypes. In contrast, illustrations defending Dreyfus insisted on his French identity and his devotion to serve his country. A popular serialized novel of the time, The Calvary of an Innocent Man, underplays the Jewish politics of the Affair to such an extent, that it turns it into a romance featuring broken hearts and a revenge.

The End of the Affair

Visual materials played an influential role in the Dreyfus Affair, playing no minor part in the final victory with Dreyfus' acquittal, reinstatement in 1906, and promotion.

However, decades after the Affair ended, France--and particularly its army--still could not acknowledge Dreyfus' innocence and honor him accordingly. Military and political oppositions prevented a street from being named after the Captain, lobbied for a statue of Dreyfus to be placed away from the Military Academy, and some historians continued writing, "Dreyfus' innocence was the generally accepted version of the Affair."

One had to wait until the 100th anniversary of the Affair's commencement to see Dreyfus' statue set up in the Tuileries Garden in Paris, see a square named after him, and witness official support for exhibitions, publications, and performances remembering this episode of French history. Today, visual materials relating to the Dreyfus Affair are popular again--in museums, elegant publications, and private collections.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in New York University's Program in Religious Studies. A writer, editor, translator, and teacher, she earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University in May 2008.