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Dreyfus Affair

(1859—1935) French army officer

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A crisis that shook French politics and society to their foundations. In December 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus (b. 1859, d. 1935), a Jewish officer from Alsace on the General Staff of the French Army, was convicted of treason by a military court for passing on military secrets to the Germans. Since the leaking of information continued, the new chief of the French intelligence service, Colonel Picquart, established that the culprit was not Dreyfus, but one Commandant Esterházy. The army refused to reopen the case, and Picquart received a posting to Tunisia. His successor began to manufacture evidence to prove Dreyfus's guilt, but meanwhile so many questions had been raised in public that a trial of Esterházy became inevitable. The latter's acquittal in a farcical trial spurred the famous novelist Émile Zola into action. He attacked the army's actions against Dreyfus in an open letter under the title J'accuse (‘I accuse’) on 13 December 1898. Yet it was not until a change of President (Loubet for Faure) and of Prime Minister (Waldeck‐Rousseau for Dupuy) that a retrial became possible. In August 1899, Dreyfus was still found guilty, but ‘with extenuating circumstances’, and his sentence was reduced to ten years. In response, Dreyfus received a presidential pardon, but it was not until 1906 that he was fully rehabilitated and reinstated in the army.

The affair revealed the deep anti‐Semitism that permeated every social strata in France and led to widespread disturbances at the height of the affair, in 1898. For the following decades, it polarized French society, which had just begun to overcome its political divisions, into a right wing hostile to the Republic and supported by popular Catholicism, which rallied around anti‐Semitism, and a left wing which had (generally) advocated Dreyfus's acquittal, and which rallied behind the Republic.

Subjects: Literature

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