Dreyfus Case

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

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.


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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
Well, I never understood that Dreyfus case. I can always grasp moral evidence easier than the other sorts.
A full-page spread grabs the reader's attention with a bold headline that reads: "THE WOMEN IN THE DREYFUS CASE FOR AND AGAINST HIM." Below are seven overlapping, framed portraits of some of the main female players in the affair.
Although the Dreyfus case has already been closed, Picquart questions both the outcome and the way it was conducted by his co-workers and superiors.
Depending upon one's point of view, French setbacks, from the ignominy of Sedan and the humiliation of the army, to the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, to the Commune, and onto the farce that was to become the Third Republic, French masculinite was at issue, and with the Dreyfus case, so too was the very survival of the nation.
Theodore Herzl was moved to try to establish a Jewish homeland by the trial, while author Emil Zola penned the famous J'Accuse criticizing the Dreyfus Case travesty that shook Europe.
The role of the establishment, the generals, the lies and cover-ups even after the truth is known is related in fine detail, as is the atmosphere of anti-Semitism prevalent in France which colored much of the Dreyfus case, since he, of course, was a Jew.
More than a century after the Dreyfus case, Polanski considers it as relevant as ever.
The Dreyfus case must be the most celebrated case in legal history of a miscarriage of justice.
The Prague Cemetery is best when developing this [anti-Semitic] thread, culminating in a masterful account of the Dreyfus case, in which forged documents were used to convict an innocent French Army officer of espionage because he was Jewish." MIKE FISCHER
Historians have noted that the culmination of the Dreyfus case into a full-blown affair was very much made possible due to the rise of the mass media.
In typical French fashion, however, the manifesto was almost immediately followed by a counter-manifesto signed by a large number of other French intellectual and literary figures taking the opposite tack, and characterizing the first group, not entirely inaccurately, as "Fascists." Basically, the two manifestos thus reflected the division of French scholarly and intellectual life into the "left" and the "right" that had already proved to be so prominent in the Dreyfus case in the 1890s--with which the author begins his analysis--and which, in French life, extended all the way back to the French Revolution in 1789.