Poster of a pro-Dreyfus parlor game, France, ca. 1898

Alfred Dreyfus and the "Dreyfus Affair"

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a French Jewish military officer who was wrongfully tried and convicted of treason against France in 1894. The trial and ensuing events are referred to as the “Dreyfus Affair.”

Key Facts

  • 1

    The Dreyfus Affair became one of the significant political events in French history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • 2

    Although Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906, the trial and the ensuing public outcry had repercussions that influenced the nature of politics in France for decades to come.

  • 3

    The trial and imprisonment of Dreyfus, as well as the public demonstrations of antisemitism in France, spurred Theodor Herzl to write The Jewish State in 1896 and convene the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.

Before the Trial

Alfred Dreyfus was born in Mulhouse, Alsace, on October 9, 1859. He was the youngest of nine children of Raphael and Jeannette Dreyfus. Raphael Dreyfus was a prosperous textile manufacturer who moved his family to Paris in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war when Alsace was annexed to the German Empire.

Alfred Dreyfus graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique military school in Paris in 1880. After receiving specialized artillery training, he was promoted to Lieutenant in the French military in 1885. He was promoted to Captain in 1889, later becoming the only Jew serving in the French Army's General Staff headquarters in 1893.

Arrest and Trial

In the fall of 1894, French intelligence services discovered that a secret military document (known as the bordereau) had been sent by a French officer to the military attaché of the German embassy in Paris. This was an act of treason. At the time, there was some evidence that made it unlikely Dreyfus was the author of the traitorous memorandum. Nonetheless, on the basis of handwriting analysis and out of anti-Jewish prejudice against Dreyfus, he was arrested on October 15, 1894, and court-martialed.

Dreyfus had no hope of a fair trial. The ministry of war placed a file of secret and in some cases forged documents before the tribunal that Dreyfus' attorney was not allowed to see. Further, unverified and false testimonies against Dreyfus were presented at the secret trial. The court quickly found Dreyfus guilty of treason. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

At a public ceremony on January 5, 1895, Dreyfus was dishonorably discharged and demoted. As (according with tradition) his stripes were torn and his sword was broken, Dreyfus maintained his innocence, crying out: "Soldiers, they are degrading an innocent man! Long live France! Long live the army!" A mob that had gathered at the ceremony, incited by the antisemitic press and the writings of Edouard Drumont in La Libre Parole, accompanied the public degradation with calls against Dreyfus and Jews.

Dreyfus was exiled to a penal colony on Devil's Island, part of an archipelago off the coast of French Guiana in South America.

Proof of Innocence

With Dreyfus languishing in captivity, his family continued to challenge the verdict and claim that he was innocent. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, who had become the new head of French Intelligence Services, was never convinced of Dreyfus' guilt. In March 1896, new evidence surfaced implicating a French major, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as the German agent who had written the bordereau. Despite Picquart's efforts to investigate Esterhazy, his superiors resisted efforts to have the case reopened and eventually had Piquart reassigned to Tunisia.

Nonetheless, the proof that Dreyfus was in fact innocent reached the French senate, where Senator Auguste-Scheurer-Kestner declared Dreyfus' innocence and accused Esterhazy of being the traitor. Meanwhile, on January 13, 1898, the Socialist newspaper L'Aurore published an open letter from the novelist Emile Zola to the president of the republic, Felix Faure. Titled “J'accuse!” (“I Accuse”), the letter accused the government of antisemitism, lack of evidence against Dreyfus, judicial errors, and illegal jailing of Dreyfus. Novelist Zola was found guilty of criminal libel in slandering the army and had to flee to England to avoid imprisonment. He remained there until he was granted amnesty in 1899.

The front-page article made a powerful impression in France, dividing the country into two camps. The anti-Dreyfusards, comprised of the Catholic Church, the military, and the right wing, clung to the original verdict and exploited antisemitism. They feared that a reversal would lead to a weakening of the military establishment. They were opposed by the Dreyfusards, an alliance of moderate Republicans, Radicals, and Socialists. The Dreyfusards protested the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. They also felt the case had become a test of France's ability to protect truth, justice, and the basic elements of the Rights of Man against the forces of extreme nationalism, antisemitism, and the excessive involvement of the Church in state affairs.

Case Reopened

In the summer of 1898, the case was reopened and the original forgeries used to convict Dreyfus were discovered. Public opinion began to shift in favor of Dreyfus. The Supreme Court ordered a retrial. At the retrial in August and September 1899, the court-martial still found Dreyfus guilty of treason but reduced his sentence due to “extenuating circumstances.” The President of the Republic, Emile Loubet, granted Dreyfus a pardon.

On September 20, 1899, Dreyfus was set free, remarking, “The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.”

Exoneration

Dreyfus was not officially exonerated until July 12, 1906, by a military commission. He was readmitted into the army with a promotion to the rank of Major. A week later, he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour. Despite the toll which the years of imprisonment on Devil's Island had taken on his health, he returned to serve in the French army in World War I and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel at the end of the war.

Dreyfus died in Paris on July 12, 1935, at the age of 75.

Impact of the Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair had a profound impact on French politics. It revealed the tensions that existed in France following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, divided the country between Left and Right, reflected the continuing power of antisemitism in the homeland of liberty and the Revolution, and challenged the very notion of France's identity as a Catholic nation.

The Dreyfus Affair would eventually contribute to the formal separation of Church and State in France in 1905.

Jews in France and around the world were shocked that a thoroughly acculturated French Jew like Alfred Dreyfus, who had demonstrated his loyalty to the state and served in the military, could not receive a fair trial and instead became the victim of such vehement anti-Jewish hatred. For Theodor Herzl, this seemed to prove that assimilation was no defense against antisemitism, leading him to believe that Zionism and the creation of a Jewish State would be the only solution to the problem of antisemitism.

Further Reading

Birnbaum, Pierre. Anti-semitism in France: a political history from Leon Blum to the present. Blackwell, 1992.

Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: the case of Alfred Dreyfus (translated from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman). New York: G. Braziller, 1986.

Byrnes, Robert F. Antisemitism in Modern France. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, ca. 1950.

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

Hyman, Paula, From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.