The French army officer Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was unjustly convicted of treason. The effort, eventually successful, to clear his name divided French society and had important political repercussions.
Alfred Dreyfus was born at Mulhouse on Oct. 9, 1859, into a Jewish textile-manufacturing family. After the Franco-Prussian War his family left Alsace in order to remain French citizens. Choosing a military career, Dreyfus entered the École Polytechnique in 1878. After further study, during which he attained the rank of captain in 1889, he was assigned as a trainee to the general staff. Dreyfus was a competent and hardworking, though not brilliant or popular, young officer. His ordeal was to prove that he was a man of great courage but limited vision: his whole life was devoted to the army, and he never lost confidence that it would recognize and remedy the wrong done him.
Arrest and Conviction
The Dreyfus case began in September 1894, when French Army Intelligence found among some papers taken from the office of the German military attaché in Paris, a list (bordereau) of secret documents given to the Germans by someone in the French army. A hasty and inadequate investigation convinced the anti-Semitic Intelligence chief, Col. Sandherr, that Dreyfus was the traitor. Apart from a certain resemblance between his handwriting and that of the bordereau, no very convincing evidence against Dreyfus could be discovered. He was arrested, however, on October 15.
Dreyfus's court-martial was held behind closed doors during December 19-21. A unanimous court found him guilty and imposed the highest legal penalty: perpetual imprisonment, loss of rank, and degradation. He was sent to the infamous Devil's Island, where he was to spend almost 5 years under the most inhumane conditions. Still protesting his innocence, Dreyfus was unaware that he had been convicted with the aid of a secret dossier prepared by Army Intelligence. Communication of the dossier to the judges without the knowledge of the defense violated due process and was the first of many actions that would bring discredit on the army and ruin the careers of the officers involved.
Convinced of his innocence, the Dreyfus family, led by his brother Mathieu, sought new evidence which would persuade the army to reopen its investigation. Aside from a few individuals such as the brilliant young writer Bernard Lazare and the respected Alsatian life-senator Scheurer-Kestner, they found few supporters, and their efforts stirred the anti-Semitic press to raise the bogey of a "Jewish syndicate" trying to corrupt the army.
Fortune came to Dreyfus's aid for the first time in July 1895, when the new Intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Marie Georges Picquart, became convinced of Dreyfus's innocence and discovered a Maj. Walsin-Esterhazy to be the real author of the bordereau. Although Picquart was unable to convince his superiors to reexamine the verdict, he remained determined to help free Dreyfus.
Still unable to persuade the government to act, the supporters of Dreyfus—the Dreyfusards—now took their case to the public, charging Esterhazy with the crime for which Dreyfus was being punished. The anti-Semitic press counterattacked, and the Dreyfus case began to turn into the Dreyfus Affair, as public passions were raised against the few who dared to challenge the verdict of the court-martial. Supported by friends within the command, Esterhazy demanded a court-martial to prove his innocence; he received a triumphant acquittal in January 1898. The evidence against Esterhazy was little better than that which had convicted Dreyfus, but his acquittal dashed the hopes of the Dreyfusards, who had expected his conviction to prove Dreyfus innocent.
Retrial and Exoneration
The controversial novelist Émile Zola, however, found a way to reopen the case: he charged in an open letter to the President of the Republic entitled J'accuse that the military court had acquitted Esterhazy although they knew him to be guilty. Zola hoped to bring the facts of Dreyfus's case before a civil court, where it would be more difficult for the army to conceal what had happened; he was only partially successful, but increased public concern and violence in the streets forced the authorities to take further action.
The minister of war, Godefroy Cavaignac, aiming to quiet criticism, publicly revealed much of the evidence against Dreyfus. But the Dreyfusards, headed by socialist leader Jean Jaurès, charged that forgery was obvious. Cavaignac's further investigation led to the confession and suicide (Aug. 31, 1898) of an Intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Joseph Henry, who had been manufacturing evidence to strengthen the case against Dreyfus. This was the turning point of the Affair. The government brought the case before the highest appeals court, which declared (June 3, 1899) Dreyfus entitled to a new trial.
Dreyfus was brought back to France to face a new court-martial at Rennes in September 1899. It returned, by a vote of 5 to 2, the incredible verdict of guilty with extenuating circumstances and sentenced him to 10 years' imprisonment. The honor of the army had been made such an issue by the anti-Dreyfusards that no military court could ever find him innocent. No one believed in the honor of the army more than Dreyfus, and only with difficulty could he be persuaded to accept the pardon offered by President Émile Loubet.
Dreyfus continued to seek exoneration, and his record was finally cleared by the civil courts in July 1906. He was returned to service, promoted, and decorated, but he soon retired. Returning to active duty during World War I, he then spent his retirement in complete obscurity, and his death on July 11, 1935, passed almost unnoticed.
Dreyfus understood little of the battle that raged in his name. The question of his innocence became a secondary matter beside the public issue of individual human rights versus the demands of state policy. Political issues also played a part in the Affair: to many conservatives the army and the Church seemed the last bulwarks of social stability; both would be undermined by the victory of the Dreyfusards. On the left many welcomed the opportunity to strike at the monarchist and clerical forces, which they saw as enemies of the Republic. Last but not least was the question of anti-Semitism. The Affair saw the first outpouring of modern political anti-Semitism, which proved a harbinger of the Nazi terror.
The immediate political consequence of the Affair was to bring the Radicals to power; they made the Church the scapegoat for the sins of the anti-Dreyfusards, taking a number of anticlerical measures culminating in the separation of Church and state in 1905. The passions exposed by the Affair were submerged in World War I but reappeared in the defeat of 1940 and under the Vichy regime.
Further Reading on Alfred Dreyfus
There are hundreds of books dealing with the Dreyfus Affair. A well-balanced introduction is Douglas Johnson, France and the Dreyfus Affair (1966). The detailed study by Guy Chapman, The Dreyfus Case: A Reassessment (1955), upsets much of the standard Dreyfusard version but underestimates the importance of anti-Semitism. The role of crowd psychology is explored by Nicholas Halasz, Captain Dreyfus: The Story of a Mass Hysteria (1955). For something of the man see Dreyfus's prison memoirs, Five Years of My Life, 1894-1899 (trans. 1901).
Additional Biography Sources
Lewis, David L., Prisoners of honor: the Dreyfus affair, New York: H. Holt, 1994.