Dreyfus Affair

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Event.png Dreyfus Affair 
Dreyfus Affair.jpg
Date November 1894 - 1906

The Dreyfus Affair (in French: affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that polarised France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement.

Two years later in 1896 evidence came to light identifying French army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the culprit. High-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his court-martial. Instead of exoneration, Alfred Dreyfus was then accused by the army based on documents fabricated by French counter-intelligence officer Hubert-Joseph Henry who sought to reaffirm Dreyfus's conviction. These counterfeits were uncritically accepted by Henry's superiors.

News of the military court's framing of Alfred Dreyfus and the attendant cover-up began spread, largely due to J'accuse, a vehement open letter by writer Émile Zola published in a Parisian newspaper in January, 1898. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 for retrial. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued polarised French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards) and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont (director and publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole) and Hubert-Joseph Henry.

Eventually all accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be groundless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served throughout World War I, ending his service at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Picquart's investigations

While Alfred Dreyfus served his sentence on Devil's Island, supporters and the press in France began to question his guilt. The most notable of the skeptics was major Georges Picquart, who brought evidence of the forgeries to his superiors and, when ordered to keep silent, [Leak|leaked] information to the Dreyfusard press. Picquart was later court-martialed for his revelations. After Dreyfus was exonerated, Picquart was also cleared and restored to his military position.

Other investigations

After Major Georges Picquart's exile to Tunisia others took up the cause of the Alfred Dreyfus.

Public scandal

The Dreyfus Affair divided the whole of French society. In a famous 1898 cartoon, Caran d'Ache depicts a fictional family dinner. At the top, somebody remarks "Above all, let's not discuss the Dreyfus Affair!" At the bottom, the family quarells, and the caption reads "They have discussed it."

The debate over the falsely-accused Alfred Dreyfus grew into a public scandal of unprecedented scale, and caused most of the French nation to become polarised as Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards.

Émile Zola's open letter

Famous writer Émile Zola wrote an open letter published on January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L'Aurore. The letter was addressed to president of France Félix Faure and accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, sentenced to penal servitude for life for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and the lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the front page of the newspaper and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel on February 23, 1898. He fled to England, returning to France in June, 1899.

Other pamphlets proclaiming Dreyfus's innocence include Bernard Lazare's Miscarriage of Justice: The Truth about the Dreyfus Affair (November 1896).

Aftermath

The affair saw the emergence of the "intellectuals"--academics and others with high intellectual achievements who took positions on grounds of higher principle, including Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau, Anatole France, Henri Poincaré, Jacques Hadamard and Lucien Herr. Romanian Socialist writer and émigré in Paris Constantin Mille described the anti-Dreyfusard camp as a "militarist dictatorship".

Alfred Dreyfus after the Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus was reinstated to the French army, returned to his prior rank of major and made a chevalier of the French Légion d'honneur in July, 1906. His health deteriorated during his imprisonment on Devil's Island and he was granted an honorable discharge in 1907. In 1908 during the burial of Zola at the Panthéon he was slightly wounded in an assassination attempt. Célestin Hennion, chief of the French police, was there to arrest the would-be assassin, who was tried and found innocent.

Dreyfus volunteered for military service again in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, serving despite his age in a wide range of artillery commands as a major and finally as lieutenant-colonel. He was raised to the rank of officer of the Légion d'honneur in 1919. His son Pierre Dreyfus also served in World War I as an artillery officer and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Alfred Dreyfus' two nephews fought as artillery officers in the French army during World War I and both died. The same artillery piece which Dreyfus had been accused of revealing to the Germans was used in repusling the early German offensives because of its ability to maintain accuracy during rapid firing.

Dreyfus died two days before Bastille Day in 1935. His funeral cortège passed through ranks assembled for Bastille Day celebrations at the Place de la Concorde and he was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery.

Political ramifications

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterward. The far right remained a potent force as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained but turned their attention to other causes. Groups such as Maurras's Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades.

The Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants. The Vichy Regime would later close its eyes to the arrest of Dreyfus's granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, by the Gestapo. Madame Levy was imprisoned in Camp Drancy on November 3, 1943, and on November 20 of the same year she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died.

Anti-Semitism and birth of Zionism

Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl was assigned to report on the Dreyfus trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-Semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, persuading him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. While the Dreyfus affair was not Herzl'. s initial motivation, it did much to encourage his Zionism.

In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely-accused captain Dreyfus and criticized the persecution of Jews in France.

Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-Semitism in France. It was also viewed as the opposite of this. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: "A country that tears itself apart to defend the honor of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going."

Commission of sculpture

In 1985 president François Mitterrand commissioned a statue of Dreyfus by sculptor Louis Mitelberg. It was supposed to be installed at the École Militaire but the minister of defense refused to let it be unveiled, although Alfred Dreyfus had been rehabilitated by the army and fully exonerated in 1906. Today it can be found at Boulevard Raspail, n°116-118, at the exit of the Notre-Dame-des-Champs metro station. A replica is located at the entrance of the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History) in Paris.

Centennial commemoration

On 12 July 2006, President Jacques Chirac held an official state ceremony marking the centenary of Dreyfus's official rehabilitation. This was held in the presence of the living descendants of both Émile Zola and Alfred Dreyfus. The event took place in the same cobblestone courtyard of Paris's École Militaire, where Capitaine Dreyfus had been officially stripped of his officer's rank. Chirac stated that "the combat against the dark forces of intolerance and hate is never definitively won," and called Dreyfus "an exemplary officer" and a "patriot who passionately loved France." The French National Assembly also held a memorial ceremony of the centennial marking the end of the Affair. This was held in remembrance of the 1906 laws that had reintegrated and promoted both Dreyfus and Picquart at the end of the Dreyfus Affair.

Tour de France and L'Auto

The roots of both the Tour de France bicycle race and the daily sporting newspaper L'Auto (now L'Équipe) can be traced to the Dreyfus Affair. Le Velo, then the largest sports daily in France, was Dreyfusard. In 1900 a group of anti-Dreyfusards started L'Auto to compete with Le Velo. L'Auto in turn created the Tour de France race in 1903.

The trigger for these events was a brawl between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards at the Auteuil racetrack in Paris in 1899. During the incident French president Émile Loubet was struck on the head with a walking stick by Count Albert de Dion, owner of the De Dion-Bouton motor car company.

De Dion served 15 days in jail and was fined 100 francs. De Dion's behavior was savagely criticised by Le Vélo and its Dreyfusard editor Pierre Giffard. De Dion responded by starting L'Auto. He was supported by other wealthy anti-Dreyfusards such as Adolphe Clément and Edouard Michelin. (They were also concerned by Le Vélo because its publisher was their rival, Automobiles Darracq SA.)

L'Auto was not the success its backers had hoped for. By 1903 its circulation was declining. To boost its circulation, L'Auto launched a new long-distance bicycle race, with distances and prizes far exceeding any previous race. This was the Tour de France.  

Related Document

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TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
J'accuseopen letter13 January 1898Émile Zola


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