"The Affair"
Background on the Dreyfus Affair [1894-1906] by Michael Sinclair, professor of history, Wake Forest University. A concise, clear presentation of the complexities and conflicts this seminal case raised; includes a 1995 article from Time Magazine, a belated concession by the French army that Dreyfus was innocent.

The Dreyfus case underscored and intensified bitter divisions within French politics and society. The fact that it followed other scandals — the Boulanger affair, the Wilson case, and the bribery of government officials and journalists that was associated with the financing of the Suez Canal — suggested that the young French Republic was in danger of collapse. The controversy involved critical institutions and issues, including monarchists and republicans, the political parties, the Catholic Church, the army, and strong anti-Semitic sentiment.

Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure captain in the French army, came from a Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that province in 1871. In 1894 papers discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attaché made it appear that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus came under suspicion, probably because he was a Jew and also because he had access to the type of information that had been supplied to the German agent. The army authorities declared that Dreyfus' handwriting was similar to that on the papers. Despite his protestations of innocence he was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial, during which he was denied the right to examine the evidence against him. The army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped him off to [life imprisonment on] Devil’s Island, a penal colony located off the coast of South America. The political right, whose strength was steadily increasing, cited Dreyfus’ alleged espionage as further evidence of the failures of the Republic. Édouard Drumont's right-wing newspaper La Libre Parole intensified its attacks on the Jews, portraying this incident as further evidence of Jewish treachery.

Dreyfus seemed destined to die in disgrace. He had few defenders, and anti-Semitism was rampant in the French army. An unlikely defender came to his rescue, motivated not by sympathy for Dreyfus but by the evidence that he had been “railroaded” and that the officer who had actually committed espionage remained in position to do further damage. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, an unapologetic anti-Semite, was appointed chief of army intelligence two years after Dreyfus was convicted. Picquart, after examining the evidence and investigating the affair in greater detail, concluded that the guilty officer was a Major named Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart soon discovered, however, that the army was more concerned about preserving its image than rectifying its error, and when he persisted in attempting to reopen the case the army transferred him to Tunisia. A military court then acquitted Esterhazy, ignoring the convincing evidence of his guilt.

“The Affair” might have ended then but for the determined intervention of the novelist Émile Zola, who published his denunciation (“J’accuse!”) of the army cover-up in a daily newspaper. [Note: Zola was found guilty of libeling the army and was sentenced to imprisonment. He fled to England, where he remained until being granted amnesty.] At this point public passion became more aroused than ever, as the political right and the leadership of the Catholic Church — both of which were openly hostile to the Republic — declared the Dreyfus case to be a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons designed to damage the prestige of the army and thereby destroy France.

Sometime later another military officer discovered that additional documents had been added to the Dreyfus file. He determined that a lieutenant colonel (Hubert Henry) had forged the documents — which seemed to strengthen the case against Dreyfus — in anticipation that Dreyfus would be given a new trial. Immediately after an interrogation the lieutenant colonel committed suicide. In 1899 the army did in fact conduct a new court-martial which again found Dreyfus guilty, although it observed that there were “extenuating circumstances.” The army then sent Dreyfus back to Devil’s Island.

Later in 1899 the president of France pardoned Dreyfus, thereby making it possible for him to return to Paris, but he had to wait until 1906 — twelve years after the case had begun — to be exonerated of the charges, after which he was restored to his former military rank.

“The Affair” had inspired moderate republicans, Radicals, and socialists to work together, and the ultimate exoneration of Dreyfus strengthened the Republic, in no small part because of the conduct of its enemies, most notably the army and the Catholic hierarchy. In 1905 the Radical party, emphasizing the role of the Catholic leadership in the Dreyfus case, succeeded in passing legislation separating church and state.

The following article appeared in Time magazine on September 25, 1995





In sometimes surprising ways, the long reach of France's history still intrudes on the nation's conscience. How else to explain the scene on Sept. 7 when 1,700 people, invited by France’s Central Consistory of Jews, turned out to hear General Jean-Louis Mourrut, head of the army’s historical service. The subject was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who 101 years ago was sentenced by a military court to life imprisonment on notorious Devil’s Island on trumped-up charges that he was a spy for the Germans. Mourrut’s mission on this occasion was to acknowledge more than a century later, and for the first time publicly, that the French army had been wrong.

Perhaps only in France would such a belated admission by such a deeply conservative institution as the army still ring with meaning. For Jean Kahn, president of the Central Consistory of Jews, Mourrut’s words were considered a significant event: “The general said things before us that never had been said by a military man,” said Kahn. “That is, indisputably, progress.” Less impressed, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé sarcastically wrote, “The army got it! Incredible! Dreyfus was innocent!”

It was not quite an apology, but much more than a historical note. The Dreyfus case unleashed a political storm at the time. It sundered the French between such “Dreyfusards” as the crusading writer Emile Zola who saw the young Captain as the innocent victim of an anti-Semitic officer corps and traditionalists who regarded any attack on the army as unpatriotic. In fact, for some anti-Semitic groups, Dreyfus symbolized the supposed disloyalty of French Jews.

Nearly 12 years passed before Dreyfus’ conviction was reversed. Despite what he had endured, the stoic captain never lost faith and returned to the army: he was promoted to the rank of major and given the Legion of Honor.

Still, like other great divisions among the French, the Dreyfus case lives on because it remains viscerally political. Among the anti-Dreyfusards were conservatives still opposed to the outcome of the French Revolution. Dreyfusards saw in the case a major issue, individual rights, trampled in the name of national security. Until Mourrut spoke, the army had appeared to assume Dreyfus was not innocent.

Mourrut’s appearance, in fact, was prompted by an article in the army historical journal last year that questioned Dreyfus’ innocence, suggesting it was merely “the thesis generally accepted by historians.” Such was the outcry in the French Jewish community that Mourrut’s predecessor in charge of the history division was fired. Under Defense Minister Charles Millon, Mourrut quietly made amends, telling his audience that far from feeling nostalgia for the past, “the army is fighting for the values of our times—the values of truth, liberty and justice.” The French never lack for new quarrels, but they never quite forget the old ones.

Additional Note:

On the 100th anniversary of Emile Zola's article ‘J’accuse,’ France's Roman Catholic daily paper, La Croix, apologized for its anti-Semitic editorials during the Dreyfus affair.” – Time, January 26, 1998, p. 20.