Dreyfus Affair

views updated May 29 2018


the case (1894)
from case to affair (1894–1897)
the culmination (1897–1899)
from pardon to innocence (1900–1998)

Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) was a French army officer tried as a German spy in 1894. Largely because he was Jewish, his case became an affair. "Dreyfusards" fought for individual rights, equality, citizenship, and other values associated with the French Revolution (which had given citizenship to Jews). "Anti-Dreyfusards" fought for national security, hierarchy, "blood" as the marker of Frenchness, and other values associated with the monarchy.

the case (1894)

The affair began when the French intelligence service—the "Statistics Section"—discovered a bordereau, a list enumerating secret documents sent to the Germans. The Section wrongly assumed that only an officer-in-training could have gotten all the documents. That limited the field. Dreyfus's name soon came to the fore. That he was a Jew—the first Jew to rise so high in the army—did not directly influence investigators, but was a factor in negative reports that drew the investigators' attention: among aristocrats in the army, he was an outsider.

Dreyfus was arrested on 15 October 1894, but the case faltered. Dreyfus was independently wealthy and had no need for additional income. He was a devoted family man and deeply patriotic: his family had, at considerable cost, left their Alsatian home in 1871 rather than become German citizens. Investigators were considering dropping the case, when, on 28 October, the anti-Semitic daily newspaper, La libre parole (The free word), got a leak and ran a huge story: the Jewish Lobby was maneuvering to get charges dropped against a Jew arrested for high treason.

Fearing to appear soft on spies and Jews, the army set Dreyfus's court-martial for 22 December 1894. Three of five handwriting experts now refused to identify Dreyfus as the writer of the bordereau. There was no other evidence. The Statistics Section, however, found in their archives a letter referring to "that scoundrel [canaille] D." To implicate Dreyfus as "D," someone in the Section, either its head or Major Hubert Henry, constructed another letter, implicating Dreyfus. This forgery—the "Guénée forgery"—and the "scoundrel" letter were presented to the military judges without the defense counsel's knowledge, in a "secret dossier."

To this dossier prosecutors added forty-seven love letters—some very explicit—between the German and Italian military attachés, who were having a hot affair. It had nothing to do with Dreyfus, who was a faithful husband, but prosecutors assumed that mud would stick. Conservatives were preoccupied with "degeneration," the decline of the European race, which they perceived in the apparent emergence of Jews, homosexuals, and effete males, all of whom they attacked as effeminate and untrust-worthy. As Nicolas Dobelbower has pointed out, the judges could be expected to experience general disgust about Jews and homosexuals, whom conservative discourse already linked.

Dreyfus was found guilty and formally degraded: while a crowd howled "Down with the Jew," his insignia were stripped off and his sword broken. He was imprisoned on Devil's Island, a rocky outcrop off the coast of French Guiana.

from case to affair (1894–1897)

Initial reactions supported Dreyfus's conviction: a traitor had been punished. Jean Jaureès, the great socialist leader (soon one of Dreyfus's leading partisans) used the case as an example of injustice: a private from the poorer classes could be sentenced to death for a momentary act of insubordination, but even for treason an officer received only a life sentence.

Doubts were soon raised. On 18 September 1896 Dreyfus's wife, Lucie, published an open letter. This was followed in November 1896 by Bernard Lazare's pamphlet, Une erreur judicaire: La vérité sur l'affaire Dreyfus (Judicial error: The truth about the Dreyfus case), which had to be privately printed in Brussels but was quickly taken up by a French publisher. And the spying continued! Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart investigated and correctly fingered Major Ferdinand Esterhazy as the spy, but the minister of war ordered a search for more evidence. Major Henry forged another document. He found a letter from the Italian military attaché to his German lover inviting him to dinner with "three friends from my embassy, including one Jew." Henry cut the letter apart and added similar paper, on which he himself wrote words incriminating Dreyfus as "that Jew." Picquart was banished to the provinces to prevent the truth from leaking out. By June 1897, fearing for his life, Picquart revealed all to his lawyer, who enlisted Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, vice president of the Senate. Scheurer-Kestner threw his weight behind efforts to reopen the case. It became a national affair, fought out in the emerging mass media.

the culmination (1897–1899)

The army put Esterhazy on trial in December 1897, but he was acquitted. Émile Zola, France's most famous living writer, wrote an open letter to the president of the republic, accusing the army of deliberately concealing the truth. Georges Clemenceau, a leading republican politician, gave it the title by which it is known—"J'accuse" (I accuse)—and published it in his newspaper on 13 January 1898. It sold a record three hundred thousand copies.

In response, the Catholic daily La croix (The cross) and other Catholic organs went into orgies of anti-Semitism and hatred of the republic, ensuring that republicans continued to view the church as their major opponent. And the army prosecuted Zola for libel in February 1898. Zola's fame made the affair an international issue. Faced with appeals to faith in the army, Zola was convicted. Also in February, leading pro-Dreyfusard intellectuals founded the Ligue des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (League of the rights of man and of the citizens), better known as the Ligue des droits de l'homme, still the guardian of French republican liberties. Convicted on appeal in July, Zola fled to England to prevent the verdict's being officially served on him and to keep the case open, adding more drama to the affair.

A new war minister, Eugène Godefroy Cavaignac, made a major speech on 7 July 1898. Aiming to restore faith in the army, he detailed all the proofs against Dreyfus. Jaurès responded with a series of articles called "The Proofs" (10–24 August 1898), demonstrating by textual analysis that the "proofs" must be forgeries. Cavaignac interrogated Major Henry, who confessed. The next day, using a razor provided by fellow officers, he committed suicide in his prison cell. Anti-Dreyfusards made him a hero: he had created "le faux patriotique" (the patriotic forgery) "for the public good" (Bredin, p. 337). La libre parole collected 131,000 francs for this "martyr for patriotism"; many donors added vicious anti-Semitic comments (Weber, pp. 32–33). The royalist Charles Maurras also defended Henry. Maurras hated "Hebraic thought and all the dreams of justice, of happiness and of equality it drags in its wake." Major Henry had, Maurras wrote, defended France against the Jew "for the good and the honor of all" (Weber, p. 8). Maurras joined other anti-Dreyfusards in founding the Comitéd'Action Française (Committee of French Action); he soon emerged as its leader.

Following Henry's suicide, Cavaignac resigned and Major Esterhazy fled to Belgium (thento England), but the president of the republic, Félix Faure, still resisted reopening the case. Faure died in February 1899 and was succeeded by Émile Loubet. A retrial was granted on 3 June 1899. The next day, at the Longchamps races, a furious young aristocrat smashed Loubet's top hat with his cane. The socialist parties called a massive counterdemonstration for 11 June 1899, and other republicans joined in, beginning a tradition of

rallying for the republic when it was threatened. The next day, the socialist deputy Édouard Vaillant moved no confidence, and the ministry fell.

Loubet called on René Waldeck-Rousseau to form a government committed to ending the affair. Dreyfus was brought back for a second trial; the judges found him "guilty but with extenuating circumstances," hoping to make possible a light sentence and defuse the affair. Waldeck-Rousseau immediately arranged for Dreyfus to be pardoned on 19 September 1899.

from pardon to innocence (1900–1998)

In 1904 Dreyfus's case was reopened, and in July 1906 he was formally cleared, given the Legion of Honor, and reinstated in the army with the rank of major, a rung below the level he would have expected to reach. Picquart was reinstated with the rank of brigadier general. Dreyfus soon retired, but returned to the army to fight in World War I. On 13 January 1998, the centenary of "J'accuse," President Jacques Chirac formally apologized to Dreyfus's and Zola's descendants.

The Dreyfus affair consolidated the republic and led to the separation of church and state in 1905. Zola's intervention set a precedent for intellectuals to take a special role in politics, both in France and worldwide. The affair led many Jewish observers to strive for a Jewish homeland rather than to count on assimilation. Foremost among these was Theodor Herzl, who organized the 1897 congress that founded the World Zionist Organization and became its president, after observing the affair as Paris correspondent of the Viennese newspaper, Neue Freie Presse.

The affair also catalyzed the formation of a new extreme right, fusing anti-Semitism and nationalism with populist resentment against the new economic order and opposition to parliamentary democracy. In 1908 Action Française, the core of this new right, founded a daily to foster a nationalist monarchism based on hatred of foreigners and Jews. Ernst Nolte, a well-known right-wing historian later involved in much controversy, wrote in his pioneering Three Faces of Facism that Action Française was the "missing link" between the nineteenth century and fascism. Few historians in the early twenty-first century go so far, but most agree that Action Française kept alive values on which later extreme right movements were based.

See alsoAction Française; Anticlericalism; Anti-Semitism; Boulanger Affair; Clemenceau, Georges; France; Maurras, Charles; Nationalism.


Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. New York, 1986.

Burns, Michael. Rural Society and French Politics: Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair, 1886–1900. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

——. Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789–1945. New York, 1991.

Cahm, Eric. The Dreyfus Affair in French Society and Politics. London, 1996.

Forth, Christopher E. The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood. Baltimore, Md., 2004.

Griffiths, Richard. The Use of Abuse: The Polemics of the Dreyfus Affair and Its Aftermath. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Kleeblatt, Norman L., ed. The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice. Berkeley, Calif., 1987.

Lazare, Bernard. Une erreur judiciaire: L'affaire Dreyfus. 2nd ed. Paris, 1897. Reprint, arranged by Philippe Oriol. Paris, 1993.

Weber, Eugen. Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France. Stanford, Calif., 1962.

Zola, Émile. Truth. Translated by Ernest A. Vizetelly. New York, 1903. Reprint, Amherst, N.Y., 2001.

——. The Dreyfus Affair: "J'accuse" and Other Writings. Edited by Alain Pagès. Translated by Eleanor Levieux. New Haven, Conn., 1996.

Charles Sowerwine

Dreyfus Affair

views updated May 17 2018


Famous turn-of-the-century case of French antisemitism.

In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was convicted in a secret military court-martial of espionage on behalf of Germany and was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island in French Guyana, off the coast of South America. His alleged espionage prompted virulent antisemitism and was cited by some French editorialists as but one manifestation of widespread Jewish perfidy. Two years later, an army intelligence investigator concluded that Dreyfus was innocent and the guilty party was Major Walsin Esterhazy. The army at first resisted reopening the case; when it did, it acquitted Esterhazy despite the blatant evidence against him. Later that year the new head of army intelligence confessed he had forged documents implicating Dreyfus and subsequently committed suicide in his jail cell.

A number of prominent liberals and leaders on the Left united in support of Dreyfus, whose conviction they viewed as an unholy antisemitic alliance of France's political Right and the church leadership. The novelist Emile Zola published his famous letter, "J'accuse," in which he vociferously denounced both the military and civil authorities, forcing the investigation into Dreyfus's conviction. A second court martial reiterated Dreyfus's guilt, but shortly thereafter he was pardoned. A number of years later he was declared innocent and returned to his former military rank.

The brazen corruption and antisemitism led to the end of the rightist government in France and, later, the firm separation of church and state there. The antisemitism that manifested itself in many liberal as well as rightist quarters deepened the ties of some Jewish intellectuals to the nascent Zionist Organization. The Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, who had previously taken some interest in the organization, reported on the trial and, along with his colleague Max Nordau, became totally committed to Zionism.

See also Herzl, Theodor; Nordau, Max.


Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Braziller, 1986.

Burns, Michael. Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 17891945. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Derfler, Leslie. The Dreyfus Affair. Westport, CT: Green-wood, 2002.

Stanislawski, Michael. Zionism and the Fin-de-Siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

chaim i. waxman

Dreyfus Affair

views updated May 17 2018

Dreyfus Affair French political crisis arising from the conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) for treason in 1894. Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer, convicted on evidence later proved false. In 1898, publication of J'accuse, an open letter by Émile Zola in defence of Dreyfus, provoked a bitter national controversy in which the opposing forces of republicanism and royalism almost resulted in civil war. Dreyfus, initially imprisoned, later received a presidential pardon.

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