Dreyfus affair

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Alfred Dreyfus in an army uniform, wearing a mustache.

The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal which divided France for many years during the late 19th century.

It centered on the 1894 treason conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army. Dreyfus was, in fact, innocent: the conviction rested on false documents, and when high-ranking officers realised this they attempted to cover up the mistakes. The writer Émile Zola exposed the affair to the general public in the literary newspaper L'Aurore (The Dawn) in a famous open letter to the Président de la République Félix Faure, titled J'accuse! (I Accuse!) on January 13, 1898. In the words of historian Barbara W. Tuchman, it was "one of the great commotions of history".

The Dreyfus Affair split France between the dreyfusards (those supporting Alfred Dreyfus) and the antidreyfusards (those against him). The quarrel was especially violent since it involved many issues then highly controversial in a heated political climate. To some extent, these divisions followed those between a right wing often supporting a return to monarchy and clericalism—the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in public policy—and a left wing supporting the republic, often with violent anti-clerical feelings.

The virulence of the passions aroused by the case was due to anti-Semitism in France. This may have been due partly to the failure of the Union Générale—a Roman Catholic banking establishment which aimed at superseding Jewish finance—in 1885; it also may have been partly due to the publication of Edouard Drumont's book La France Juive in 1886.

However, the affair could not have had that much importance if France had been solidly or even mostly antisemitic. Indeed, Alfred Dreyfus had been admitted to France's highest schools, had been made an army officer, and had been given access to military secrets. It is doubtful that any of the above would have been possible in a solidly antisemitic country such as Czarist Russia. The controversy that ensued was made possible by a large share of the population not being antisemites and willing to fight for an innocent.

The Dreyfus Affair bitterly divided the whole French society. Here, caricaturist  depicts a fictional family dinner. At the top, somebody remarks "...Above all! let's not speak of the Dreyfus Affair!". At the bottom, the family is fighting and the caption reads "...They spoke of it..."
The Dreyfus Affair bitterly divided the whole French society. Here, caricaturist Caran d'Ache depicts a fictional family dinner. At the top, somebody remarks "...Above all! let's not speak of the Dreyfus Affair!". At the bottom, the family is fighting and the caption reads "...They spoke of it..."

The case itself was more immediately the outcome of the continuous attack upon the presence of the Jews as officers in the French army, spearheaded by Drumont and others in the journal "La Libre Parole" (founded with the help of Jesuits in 1892). The articles of the "Libre Parole," which denounced French Jewish officers as being future traitors, led a Jewish captain of dragoons, Crémieu-Foa, to declare that he resented as a personal insult the slanderous assault made upon the body of Jewish officers. He fought a duel, first with Drumont, then with Lamase, under whose name the articles had appeared. It had been agreed that the report of the proceedings should not be made public. The brother of Crémieu-Foa, following the advice of Captain Esterhazy, one of the Jewish captain's seconds, communicated the information to the journal "Matin."

The Marquis de Morès, who had been chief second of Lamase and was a well-known anti-Semite and famous duellist, held Captain Mayer, chief second of Crémieu-Foa, responsible for the breach of confidentiality. Though innocent of the matter, Mayer accepted a challenge from the marquis. The duel was fought on June 23, the Jewish captain being mortally wounded at the first attack; he died a few days after the duel. Owing to the sensation that was caused by this event, the "Libre Parole" thought it wise to stop the campaign against the Jewish officers until further orders.

The Aftermath

Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899, readmitted into the army, and made a knight in the Legion of Honour. The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterwards. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also pushed regulations such as the 1905 separation of Church and state. The coalitions of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups like Maurras' Action Française that were created during the affair continued for decades. The right-wing Vichy regime was composed mostly of old anti-Dreyfusards or their descendants. It is now universally agreed that Dreyfus was innocent, but his statues and monuments continue to be vandalised...

An Austrian Jewish journalist named Theodor Herzl was assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. The injustice of the trial and the anti-Semitic passions it aroused in France and elsewhere turned him into a determined Zionist, ultimately turning the movement into an international one. Herzl's opinion on the Dreyfus Affair is not without some controversy, however. Herzl supported Dreyfus not because he genuinely believed that he was a fellow human being who had been wrongly accused of a crime that he did not commit, but because, as a Jew, he could not possibly have committed any crime in the first place. Indeed, Herzl wrote "A Jew who, as an honorable officer of the general staff, has before him an honorable career, cannot commit such a crime.....The Jews, who have so long been condemned to a state of civic dishonor, have, as a result, developed an almost pathalogical hunger for honor, and a Jewish officer is in this respect specifically Jewish".


"L'Affaire Dreyfus", Georges Méliès, Stumm, France, 1899 "Trial of Captain Dreyfus", Stumm, USA, 1899 "Dreyfus", Richard Oswald, Deutschland, 1930 "The Dreyfus Case", F.W. Kraemer, Milton Rosmer, USA, 1931 "I Accuse!", José Ferrer, England, 1958 "Die Affäre Dreyfus" un film de Yves Boisset (1995) and the book "L'affaire" byJean-Denis Bredin

An American film of 1937, The Life of Emile Zola, focuses on the events involved in the case.

An American television film of 1991, "Prisoner of Honor", focuses on the efforts of a Colonel Piquart to justify the sentence of Alfred Dreyfus. (Colonel Piquart was played by American actor Richard Dreyfuss, who claims to be a descendent of Alfred Dreyfus.)

External links

Further reading

  • Jean-Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus (1986)
  • Eric Cahm, The Dreyfus Affair in French Society and Politics (1996, ISBN 0582276799)
  • Guy Chapman, The Dreyfus Trials (1972)
  • Nicholas Halasz, Captain Dreyfus: The Story of a Mass Hysteria (1955)
  • Burns Michael, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (1999)de:Dreyfus-Affäre

fr:Affaire Dreyfus id:Peristiwa Dreyfus it:Affare Dreyfus he:פרשת דרייפוס nl:Dreyfus-affaire ja:ドレフュス事件 pl:Afera Dreyfusa pt:Caso Dreyfus simple:Dreyfus Affair sv:Dreyfusaffären


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