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.

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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.