On this day in 1894, the Dreyfus affair began in France, a scandal that reverberated deep into French society.
Alfred Dreyfus, a high-ranking Jewish officer in the French Army, was convicted for treason in 1894, accused of communicating military secrets to the Germans. He was convicted and sent to “Devil’s Island”, a French penal colony on the coast of South America for five years. At Devil’s Island, Dreyfus suffered horrible treatment as a prisoner of the state, became malnourished and fed rotting pork, cordoned off from the rest of the prisoners and kept in isolation.
Two years later, new evidence appeared to suggest that Dreyfus was not the traitor, but rather, a French major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. In an attempt to cover up for their earlier mistake in convicting Dreyfus, the army covered up the new evidence and acquitted Esterhazy on only the second day of his trial. Additional charges were placed on Dreyfus, but by this time, the story of Dreyfus became well known to the French public.
Famously, in 1898, the notable author Emilie Zola published an open letter in a newspaper to the French President, entitled J’accuse (en anglais “I accuse”). In J’accuse, Zola accused the government of France and Army of anti-Semitism and the unlawful imprisonment of Dreyfus, pointing to the many errors in the court proceedings and the lack of any credible evidence. For J’accuse, Zola was prosecuted and convicted for libel, but to avoid going to jail, fled to England.
In 1899, Dreyfus was brought back to France to face trial yet again, and despite the immense public debate over his imprisonment, convicted for another 10 year sentence. Giving into public demand and the desire to move on from the Dreyfus affair, the French government shortly pardoned Dreyfus after this trial Dreyfus was set free.
In the end, Dreyfus was found to be completely innocent in the entire affair. Much of the evidence produced against Dreyfus was found to be forged and put forth based on prejudiced attacks on Dreyfus’ character. As a citizen from the Alsace region, Dreyfus’ first language was German, or an Alsatian dialect of German. Dreyfus’ Alsatian ancestry raised concerns amongst the French elite, who had only recently humiliatingly defeated by the German Army in 1871. As well, Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage raised issues in the anti-Semitic French Army hierarchy, who felt that upper positions of the Army should belong rightfully to Catholic aristocracy, who had recently loss power in the downfall of Napoleon III. Religion figured prominently in this affair, as the Dreyfus was commonly denounced as a “Judas”, and violent threats to Jews were common throughout France during the entire affair. In 1905, the Radical Party succeeded in passing legislation mandating the separation of church and state in France, after emphasizing the role that the Catholic leadership of France had in instigating the case against Dreyfus.
Ironically, Dreyfus had left Alsace for Paris after the Germans took the territory in 1871 in order to prepare his French Army for a war of revenge (revanche) against Germany for the lost territory. After his pardon, Dreyfus continued to serve in the French military and fought in the First World War, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Dreyfus continued to fight for the very Army that had so severely wronged him in the past. Only in 1995 did the French Army publicly state that Dreyfus was innocent.