Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus

In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was accused of giving military secrets to the Germans. Although he steadfastly maintained his innocence, Dreyfus was tried and found guilty in a trial that was heavily influenced by widespread anti-Semitism within the upper echelons of French society and the military. The case became a cause célèbre that split French society between the pro-Dreyfusards (liberals) and the anti-Dreyfusards (conservatives).

Dreyfus was sentenced to Devil’s Island prison off the South American coast, but his supporters continued to investigate the case and found that he had been used as a scapegoat to cover up for the real culprits, who were highly placed in French society.

The French writer Emile Zola took up the case and published his famous article, “J’Accuse,” detailing the abuses in the case. Dreyfus was bought back for another trial and, although new evidence was presented, he was again found guilty.

Dreyfus was finally freed on a pardon granted by the French president in 1899; however, his military rank was not restored until 1906. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism (Jewish nationalism), covered the Dreyfus case as a journalist.

The prevalence of anti-Semitism in liberal France contributed to Herzl’s conclusion that Jews needed to have a state of their own where they would control the political, economic, and military institutions.