The Dreyfus Affair was a fin de siecle political scandal that embroiled France for over ten years with major repercussions. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was the highest-ranking Jewish artillery officer in the French army in the 1890s. He was arrested in 1894 for passing military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. He was convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Although evidence was scanty, the military authorities fast-tracked the prosecution and trial of Dreyfus for fear of stoking up the anti-Semitic French press. Four years later, the famous writer Emil Zola exposed the affair with his open letter entitled ‘J’accuse!’ This was the touchstone for a campaign to release him. He was pardoned a year later and fully exonerated in 1906.
The affair has had longstanding and profound effect on French politics. The start of the affair can be dated back to the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Prussia had emerged from the patchwork quilt of German states to become the leading power under the guiding hand of Otto Von Bismarck. France viewed this development with apprehension and Bismarck encouraged the rift in order to gain the support of the southern German states. The Germans found a pretext over a Prussian claim to the Spanish throne. This goaded the French into declaring war which caused the southern German states to fight on the Prussian side. The Germans were led by General Moltke, a military genius. The Germans made quick progress and marched on Paris. They soundly defeated the French at Sedan. The French emperor Napoleon III was captured along with 100,000 of his men. Paris was besieged for almost a year before succumbing in near-famine. The French sued for peace at enormous cost, a $1 billion indemnity and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine.
The war’s effects included the establishment of the Third French Republic and the German Empire. Desire for revenge guided French policy for the following half-century. One of the military organisations established afterwards was the Intelligence Department whose principal occupation was to keep close eye on the German embassy. Although the German ambassador had sworn his attachés would abstain from bribing the French officers or officials, the French were aware that the new attaché in the 1890s Colonel Schwarzkoppen continued to pay spies and liaise with the German War office. The French Intelligence Office used an embassy charlady Madame Bastian to collect every scrap of paper from the waste-paper baskets and fireplace of Schwarzkoppen's office. In 1894, it was emerging that there was a traitor in the French ranks. Madame Bastian found a note with which had details of a fortress in Nice given by an informant known as “that scoundrel D”.
In the summer of that year, a more serious document arrived at the Intelligence Office. It became known as the ‘bordereau,’ the French word for memo. It torn in two from top to bottom but otherwise intact. At the time, it was believed that Mme Bastian had found this evidence. The bordereau contained a number of points related to French military activity including the working of field artillery pieces, a troop plan and the proposed conquest of Madagascar. Intelligence staff assumed it must be the work of someone who had worked in several branches of the military. They compiled a list of such officers and Colonel Alfred Dreyfus’s handwriting seemed to match that of the bordereau.
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 1880 he attended the Fontainebleau artillery academy. He expected to do well in his college examination and win an appointment with the general staff. However, one of his markers, General Bonnefond, lowered his score under the pretext that "Jews were not desired" on the staff. Dreyfus and fellow Jewish officer Lieutenant Picard complained of their treatment to the director of the school. The director expressed his regret but did not change the outcome. The protest counted against Dreyfus and seemed to add to evidence of the bordereau that he was unpatriotic.
The case against Dreyfus was brought to the attention of deputy chief-of-staff General Mercier, a known anti-Semite. Mercier sought the advice of Prime Minister Dupuy and his cabinet who advised him to proceed to enquiry. He sought the help of an expert graphologist who advised the anonymous letter might be from a person other than the one suspected. Unhappy with this answer, he sought a second more compliant answer from a lesser Police source, who gave him the answer he was looking for. Dreyfus was ordered to appear before the minister of war. They forced him to write out the contents of the bordereau before charging him with treason.
They kept the arrest secret while they searched in vain for more evidence. The case remained based on handwriting samples on which experts disagreed. The case was finally leaked to the press. The newspaper Libre Parole announced that a Jewish officer was arrested and declared they had, "absolute proof that he had sold our secrets to Germany" and he had "made a full confession." Mercier couldn’t drop the case now. Dreyfus was already condemned in the court of public opinion. They condemned the minister of war for keeping the arrest a secret in the hope of being able to hush up the affair. The gutter press said he was in league with "the Jews". The trial took place in December 1894 and lasted four days. The handwriting was analysed and the “scoundrel D” message brought as evidence. He was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life in Devil’s Island the infamous penal colony in French Guiana, which was protected by the piranhas of the Moroni River.
Before he was imprisoned, he underwent a bizarre and humiliating ceremony where he was publicly stripped of his military honours. He cried out, "You are degrading an innocent man! Long live France! Long live the army!" as the adjutant on duty was tearing off his stripes and breaking his sword. He repeated the shouted while passing before the crowd, which was calling for his death. The assembled media called him a ‘Judas’. Germany, meanwhile, denied all knowledge of Dreyfus.
Dreyfus was taken to Devil’s Island in March 1895. While he rotted away in his tropical prison, Major Georges Picquart questioned his guilt back in France. Picquart was appointed head of Intelligence. He found that the leakage of information from the German embassy was still continuing. Suspicion fell on a Major Esterhazy who initially was thought to be a new traitor. When they found samples of Esterhazy’s handwriting, they were startled to find strong resemblances with that of the 1894 bordereau. Picquart was prevented by his embarrassed superiors from exploring the link. Picquart was then removed from his post under a pretext.
But others took up the cause. Dreyfus’s fellow Alsatian, Senator Scheurer-Kestner and his brother Matthew Dreyfus worked on the Esterhazy link. Dreyfus publicly denounced Esterhazy who was acquitted from a farce of a court-martial in which the bordereau was not examined.
The press hammered the case causing Premier Méline, to declare “there was no Dreyfus affair," and the Chamber of Deputies to denounce "the ringleaders of the odious campaign which troubled the public conscience." This did not stop the press. Esterhazy publicly declared his links to the German Schwarzkoppen but described them as purely social in character.
Finally novelist Emil Zola took up the gauntlet. He published in "L'Aurore," under the title "J'Accuse," an open letter to the president of the republic, an eloquent philippic against the enemies "of truth and justice." It created a tremendous stir. Zola was brought to trial for his defamatory phrases. The trial was sensational, Picquart turned up to aid the defence, the infamous bordereau was requested but not produced. Zola was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. But he fled to England instead.
But the reputation of several of the conspirators against Dreyfus was fatally damaged. His proof of guilty was adjudged a forgery. The forgerer Colonel Henry committed suicide. The anti-Dreyfusards fought bitterly to the end opposing re-trial attempts in the courts, the newspapers and parliament. The case was referred to an appeals court in September 1899 which ordered a new court-martial. There was worldwide indignation when the military court, unable to admit error, found Dreyfus guilty with extenuating circumstances and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. For several days the ministry hesitated as to what course to pursue. Finally he was pardoned by presidential decree.
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 Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion."
A Jewish-Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl wrote on the trial and many believe his experiences here led him to conclude anti-Semitism was a stable and immutable factor in human society, which assimilation did not solve. He thus started the ball rolling with Zionism and called for introduction of the Jewish state of Israel.
Dreyfus himself returned quietly back to France. He was mobilised for the defence of Paris in WW1 and served on the frontline with distinction in 1917. When he died in 1935 aged 75 his funeral cortege passed the Place de la Concorde through the ranks of troops assembled for the Bastille Day National Holiday.