The Dreyfus Affair

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

At the end of the 19th century in France, the birthplace of European Jewish emancipation, an espionage scandal erupted involving an assimilated Jewish army captain and questions about his “loyalty” to the state. The anti-Semitism that characterized the arrest, trial, and retrial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus shocked world Jewry.

The Crime

In 1894, Dreyfus was arrested and accused of spying. He was convicted by a military court for supposedly selling French military secrets to the Germans. 

The physical evidence consisted of a slip of paper discovered in a German military trashcan on which was written a promise, in French, to deliver a valuable French artillery manual to the Germans. Handwriting experts could not definitively link the note to Dreyfus, but the captain was vulnerable on other accounts.

Dreyfus was rich and Jewish. He was also from Alsace, the border area of France that was ceded to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71. After the area was returned to Germany, the Dreyfus family moved to Paris. The press ran stories questioning his loyalty: Was he, above all, French? German? Or part of an “international Jewish conspiracy”?

While his background made him “suspicious,” the military court hesitated to convict Dreyfus without more substantive proof. Colonel Henry, a French military intelligence agent, testified that he had additional information definitively implicating Dreyfus, but that this information involved classified military secrets and thus could not be revealed. Based on Colonel Henry’s testimony, Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in exile on Devil’s Island.

The Cover-up

In March of 1896, French intelligence discovered another piece of paper–in the same German office–which promised new deliveries of French military secrets. The handwriting was identical to that found on the piece of paper used in the Dreyfus case. Since Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island at the time the second paper was discovered, he could not have authored this or the original treasonous note. This time, handwriting experts traced the writing to another officer, Walter Esterhazy, a notorious gambler.

Upon learning of these new developments Colonel Henry, arguing that the army’s credibility was at stake, initiated a cover-up. The new information was leaked, however, to the government. A group of liberal senators charged the army with undermining one of the very foundations of republican government, equality before the law, and demanded a retrial.

When the information was released to the press, the army had no choice but to bring Esterhazy before a court martial; despite the serious evidence against him, the army voted to protect him as one of their own, and Esterhazy was acquitted.

The Public Outcry

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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