The Dreyfus Affair


Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer was falsely convicted of treason in 1894, after a handwritten bordereau (list) was found in German hands. There was evidence that his conviction was largely a symptom of anti-Semitic attitudes within the French army. Despite the fact that evidence emerged proving his innocence and incriminating another officer, a military cover-up took place and Dreyfus was still not freed. The novelist, Emile Zola wrote an impassioned letter to the newspaper, accusing the judges in the case of bending to military pressure.  This brought national attention to the case and nearly caused a civil war, as passionate feelings on the subject were expressed throughout the political and social spectrum. The lasting impact was the separation of church and state in France.

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935)

Despite a life sentence on Devil’s Island, the public outcry in the case led to a second trial in 1899. The verdict was guilty, again, but the sentence was reduced to ten years. Dreyfus was eventually pardoned by the president, but requested a fresh investigation when the leftist government came to power. Dreyfus was finally pronounced completely innocent, his rank was reinstated, and he went on to serve during World War I.

Joseph Henry (1846-1898)

Lt. Col. Joseph Henry confessed to forging the documents that implicated Dreyfus. He was arrested and committed suicide in his cell.

Georges Picquart (1854-1914)

Picquart was the head of French military intelligence, when he found evidence indicating that Esterhazy was actually the writer of the bordereau. As part of the military cover-up, he was silenced and dismissed from service. When the affair was finally resolved, Picquart was reinstated, promoted to general, and served for a brief time as minister of war.

Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy (1847-1923)

Esterhazy was a French military officer, who worked for many years as a spy for Germany. Dreyfus was sent to prison for Esterhazy’s crime of treason. Though, Colonel Piquart proved that Esterhazy was the real author of the bordereau that incriminated Dreyfus, the general staff continued protect him. A trial in 1898 ended quickly in an acquittal. Esterhazy traveled to England, where he wrote newpaper articles and lived under the name, Count Jean de Voilemont. In one of his articles he finally confessed to writing the bordereau.

Emile Zola (1840-1902)

In 1898, the novelist Emile Zola wrote an impassioned letter under the heading J’accuse (“I accuse”). Zola denounced the military and civil authorities, accusing them of lying in the Dreyfus Affair. He was tried and convicted of libel, which resulted in a sentence of a fine and a year in prison. Zola escaped to England and watched as his letter and his ideas caused a firestorm throughout France.

While the Dreyfus Affair highlighted military corruption and a culture of anti-Semitism, the passions of Emile Zola and an outraged French public got justice for an innocent man. The social and political climate in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair was forever changed.