Dreyfus Case

Dreyfus Case

 

a legal case against an officer of the French General Staff, the Jew Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), who was unjustly accused of spying for Germany, a charge fabricated in 1894 by reactionary French militarists. The Dreyfus case became the object of severe political conflict in France in the 1890’s between the monarchist aristocratic military and clerical elite, who were tolerated by the ruling group of moderate republicans, and the bourgeois democrats.

Charges were brought against Dreyfus by the Ministry of War, and despite the total absence of evidence, a military court sentenced him in December 1894 to penal servitude for life. New materials proving his innocence were soon found, but the ruling circles in France opposed the rehabilitation of Dreyfus in every way possible. The real traitor, Esterhazy, an officer who had in fact delivered secret French documents to German intelligence, was acquitted after a trial on Jan. 11, 1898. On Sept. 9, 1899, a military court reviewed the case and again found Dreyfus guilty, in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. The forces of reaction used the Dreyfus case to incite anti-Semitism and chauvinism and to attack the republican regime and democratic liberties. Progressive workers, many socialists, and progressive intellectuals took an active stand in defense of the republic and for the vindication of Dreyfus. A major role in mobilizing the democratic forces was played by E. Zola’s letter to F. Faure (J’Accuse, Jan. 13, 1898), in which the writer accused the authorities of deliberately condemning the innocent Dreyfus.

Under the conditions created by an extreme sharpening of class contradictions in France at the turn of the century, the struggle over the Dreyfus case led to a serious political crisis and brought the country to the verge of civil war. Having created an atmosphere of chauvinist hysteria in the country, reactionary forces led by the Ligue de la Patrie Française (League of the French Fatherland) attempted a coup d’etat in February 1899, intending to overthrow the republic and abolish democratic liberties. Action in defense of the republic by leftist forces and above all by the working class thwarted the attempted coup.

Fear of workers’ demonstrations brought the two bourgeois camps together: the Dreyfusards (those who favored a review of the case) and the anti-Dreyfusards (those who opposed a review). The government of P. M. Waldeck-Rousseau, which took office in June 1899, sought to “pacify” the country by bringing the Dreyfus case to an end. At the urging of the government, the president of the republic pardoned Dreyfus on Sept. 19, 1899, and in July 1906 Dreyfus was fully exonerated.

REFERENCES

Reinach, J. Histoire de l’affaire Dreyfus [vols.] 1-6. Paris, 1901-08.
Halasz, N. Captain Dreyfus: The Story of a Mass Hysteria. New York, 1955.
Thalheimer, S. Macht und Gerechtigkeit: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Falles Dreyfus. Munich, 1958.
Giscard d’Estaing, H. D’Esterhazy a Dreyfus. Paris, 1960.

B. L. VUL’FSON

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