Dreyfus Affair

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Dreyfus Affair

(drā`fəs, drī–), the controversy that occurred with the treason conviction (1894) of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), a French artillery officer and graduate of the French military academy.

The Case

The case arose when a French spy in the German embassy discovered a handwritten bordereau [schedule], received by Major Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris, which offered to sell French military secrets. The French army, which, although considerably democratized in the late 19th cent., remained a stronghold of monarchists and Catholics and permeated by anti-Semitism, attempted to ferret out the traitor. Suspicion fell on Dreyfus, a wealthy Alsatian Jew, while the press raised accusations of Jewish treason. He was tried in camera by a French court-martial, convicted, and sentenced to degradation and deportation for life. He was sent to Devils IslandDevils Island,
Fr. Île du Diable, the smallest and southernmost of the Îles du Salut, in the Caribbean Sea off French Guiana. A penal colony founded in 1852, it was used largely for political prisoners, the most celebrated of whom was Alfred Dreyfus.
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, off the coast of French Guiana, for solitary confinement. Dreyfus protested his innocence and swore his loyalty to France, but public opinion generally applauded the conviction, and interest in the case lapsed.

The Controversy

The matter flared up again in 1896 and soon divided Frenchmen into two irreconcilable factions. In 1896 Col. Georges PicquartPicquart, Georges
, 1854–1914, French general. As chief of the army intelligence section in 1896, he discovered that the memorandum that had been used to convict Captain Dreyfus (see Dreyfus Affair) had probably been the work of Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.
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, chief of the intelligence section, discovered evidence indicating Major Ferdinand Walsin EsterhazyEsterhazy, Ferdinand Walsin
, 1847–1923, French army officer, member of a French family possibly related to the Hungarian family of Esterhazy. A veteran of the papal army and the French Foreign Legion, he entered the regular French army and rose to be a major.
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, who was deep in debt, as the real author of the bordereau. Picquart was silenced by army authorities, but in 1897 Dreyfus's brother, Mathieu, made the same discovery and increased pressure to reopen the case. Esterhazy was tried (Jan., 1898) by a court-martial and acquitted in a matter of minutes.

Émile ZolaZola, Émile
, 1840–1902, French novelist, b. Paris. He was a professional writer, earning his living through journalism and his novels. About 1870 he became the apologist for and most significant exponent of French naturalism, a literary school that maintained that
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, a leading supporter of Dreyfus, promptly published an open letter (J'accuse) to the president of the French republic, Félix FaureFaure, Félix
, 1841–99, president of the French republic (1895–99). A leather merchant, he served in the Franco-Prussian War and became an undersecretary for commerce and colonies in the cabinet of Léon Gambetta (1881–82).
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, accusing the judges of having obeyed orders from the war office in their acquittal of Esterhazy. Zola was tried for libel and sentenced to jail, but he escaped to England. By this time the case had become a major political issue and was fully exploited by royalist, militarist, and nationalist elements on the one hand and by republican, socialist, and anticlerical elements on the other.

The violent partisanship dominated French life for a decade, dividing the country into two warring camps. Among the anti-Dreyfusards were the anti-Semite Édouard DrumontDrumont, Edouard
, 1844–1917, French journalist and anti-Semitic leader. His book, La France juive [Jewish France] (1886) and his periodical, La Libre Parole, were equally brilliant and virulent. Drumont reached his apex of influence in the Dreyfus Affair.
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; Paul Déroulède, who founded a patriotic league; and Maurice BarrèsBarrès, Maurice
, 1862–1923, French novelist and nationalist politician. As an advocate of the supremacy of the individual self, he wrote the trilogy of novels Le Culte du moi (1888–91).
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. The pro-Dreyfus faction, which steadily gained strength, came to include Georges ClemenceauClemenceau, Georges
, 1841–1929, French political figure, twice premier (1906–9, 1917–20), called "the Tiger." He was trained as a doctor, but his republicanism brought him into conflict with the government of Napoleon III, and he went to the United States,
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, in whose paper Zola's letter appeared; Jean JaurèsJaurès, Jean
, 1859–1914, French Socialist leader and historian. A brilliant student and teacher, he entered the chamber of deputies in 1885 and subsequently became a Socialist.
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; René Waldeck-RousseauWaldeck-Rousseau, René
, 1846–1904, French statesman. Belonging to the republican left, he was twice minister of the interior (1881, 1883–85), and in 1884 he was responsible for the passage of the Waldeck-Rousseau law, legalizing the creation of trade unions.
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; Anatole FranceFrance, Anatole
, pseud. of Jacques Anatole Thibault
, 1844–1924, French writer. He was probably the most prominent French man of letters of his time. Among his best-remembered works is L'Île des pingouins (1908, tr.
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; Charles PéguyPéguy, Charles
, 1873–1914, French poet and writer. Of a poor, working family, he won scholarships and made a brilliant record as a student. He left the École normale supérieure to devote himself to the cause of socialism.
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; and Joseph ReinachReinach, Joseph
, 1856–1921, French publicist and lawyer. An associate of Léon Gambetta, he waged (1889) a campaign against General Boulanger in the journal République française.
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. They were, in part, less concerned with Dreyfus, who remained in solitary confinement on Devils Island, than with discrediting the rightist government. The larger questions posed by the case involved the future of France itself, whether it would remain traditional or become modern, be Catholic or secular, function as a monarchy or a republic, and have a nationalist or a cosmopolitan character.

Pardon and Aftermath

Later in 1898 it was discovered that much of the evidence against Dreyfus had been forged by Colonel Henry of army intelligence. Henry committed suicide (Aug., 1898), and Esterhazy fled to England. At this point revision of Dreyfus's sentence had become imperative. The case was referred to an appeals court in September and after Waldeck-Rousseau became premier in 1899, the court of appeals 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.

Nonetheless, a pardon was issued by President Émile LoubetLoubet, Émile François
, 1838–1929, president of the French republic (1899–1906). As a member of the chamber of deputies, he advocated secular education. After serving (1887–88) as minister of public works he became premier in 1892.
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, and in 1906 the supreme court of appeals exonerated Dreyfus, who was reinstated as a major and decorated with the Legion of Honor. Subsequently promoted, Dreyfus served in World War I as a colonel in the artillery. In 1930 his innocence was reaffirmed by the publication of Schwartzkoppen's papers. The immediate result of the Dreyfus Affair was to unite and bring to power the French political left wing. Widespread antimilitarism and anticlericalism also ensued; army influence declined, and in 1905 church and state were separated in France and legal equality among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews was established. At his death in 1935, Dreyfus was hailed as a French hero and a martyr for freedom.


See J. Reinach, Histoire de l'affaire Dreyfus (7 vol., 1901–11); A. Dreyfus and P. Dreyfus, The Dreyfus Case (tr. 1937); G. R. Whyte, The Dreyfus Affair: A Chronological History (2008); studies by G. Chapman (1955 and 1972), D. W. Johnson (1966), L. L. Snyder (1972), D. L. Lewis (1973), J.-D. Bredin (tr. 1986), N. L. Kleeblatt (1987), M. Burns (1991), L. Begley (2009), F. Brown (2010), and R. Harris (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. www.cc.columbia.edu/cu/cup/

Dreyfus Affair

a cause célèbre in late-19th-and early-20th-century French politics, in terms of which most French intellectuals tended to take sides. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish officer who was convicted by a military tribunal on the basis of forged documents but with a strong indication of ANTI-SEMITISM. Subsequently Dreyfus was rehabilitated. Generally the Dreyfusards, as the supporters of Dreyfus were called, were radicals, while those opposed to him were conservative or authoritarian.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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