xxxxxThe Dreyfus Affair, a bitter controversy that deeply divided French society, began in 1894 with the conviction of a young Jewish army officer, Albert Dreyfus (1859-1935), on a charge of treason. He was deported to the French colony of Guiana, and his arrest unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish propaganda, fanned by powerful anti-Semitic feeling within the army and the Catholic Church. Two years later, however, fresh evidence suggested that he was innocent, and that a fellow officer, Major Marie Charles Esterhazy, had been the German spy. The French high command, however, was not prepared to reopen the case, and this caused a wave of protest from liberal, republican elements, plunging the country into the worst political and social flare-up in the history of the Third Republic. Eventually Esterhazy was brought to trial, but when he was acquitted in January 1898 further demonstrations broke out. It was then that the French novelist Émil Zola wrote his open letter (J’accuse) to the French President. Published in L’Aurore, it accused the army leaders and the War Office of anti-Semitism, and of covering-up a clear case of injustice. He was charged with libel and was forced to take refuge in England, but his letter proved the turning point. Dreyfus was given a retrial and when, despite everything, he was still found guilty, the government intervened, quashed the verdict and pardoned him in 1899. He was fully reinstated in 1906. The Dreyfus Affair had serious consequences. Both the army and the Catholic Church were discredited and lost much of their political influence, and republicanism triumphed over monarchism. And the controversy left deep scars on French political, social and intellectual life, and the anti-Semitism it displayed took long to live down in a nation dedicated to liberty, equality and fraternity.

THE DREYFUS AFFAIR  1894 - 1906  (Vc, E7)


Dreyfus: c1890, photographer unknown – The Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, Paris. Degradation: detail of engraving by the French artist Henri Meyer (1844-1899), front cover of a supplement to the daily Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal, January 1895 – Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania, USA. Esterhazy: detail of a caricature by the French illustrator Jean Baptiste Guth (active 1883-1921), published in the British weekly magazine Vanity Fair (1868-1914) in May 1898. France: by the French portrait photographer Wilhelm Benque (1843-1903) – Tucker Collection, Archives, New York Public Library.

xxxxxThe Dreyfus Affair, a bitter controversy centred around the conviction of a Jewish French army officer on a charge of treason, deeply divided French society, and plunged the country into the worst political and social flare-up in the history of the Third Republic. Its consequences were significant and long lasting. It thrust the republican wing of political life into a dominant position, undermined the standing of the army, and eventually led to the separation of Church and State.

xxxxxItxwas in 1893 that a young artillery captain of Jewish faith named Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), on the staff at the War Ministry, was accused of having written a document betraying secret information to the German military attaché in Paris. In November 1894, despite the lack of conclusive evidence and his strong denial of the charge, he was found guilty by a court martial, ceremoniously reduced in rank (illustrated), and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a penal settlement off the coast of French Guiana. The matter might well have ended there, but two years later the new chief of military intelligence, a Lieutenant Colonel George Picquart, uncovered evidence to suggest that, in fact, the document had not been written by Dreyfus, but by a French infantry officer named Major Marie Charles Esterhazy. The French high command, however, not wishing to reopen the matter and have questions raised as to their competence and racial bias, ignored Picquart’s suggestion, posted him to Tunisia, and had forged documents made to strengthen the original verdict.

xxxxxAt the same time, however, evidence implicating Esterhazy had come to the knowledge of the Dreyfus family and a number of his friends. As a result, Dreyfus' brother Mathieu succeeded in having Esterhazy brought to trial in 1897. But Despite the new evidence available, the court martial acquitted Esterhazy of alleged forgery early in 1898. By that time, through rumour and evidence passed to the Press, much of the detail surrounding the case had leaked out, and the Dreyfus Affair, as it came to be known, had become a highly divisive issue in French society.

xxxxxWhen Dreyfus was originally found guilty the news unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish propaganda. Fanned by powerful anti-Semitic feeling - ever present in both the French army and the Catholic Church - it surprised many by its strength and its extent. There were rallies decrying the Jews in Paris and throughout the provinces, and many, like Édouard Drumont, the editor of the newspaper La Libre Parole, saw Dreyfus as typifying the disloyalty of French Jews as a whole. At first, given Dreyfus’ apparent guilt - decided in camera, be it noted - liberal factions were obliged to remain silent, but with the discovery of the evidence against Esterhazy, followed by the summary dismissal of his accuser and the acquittal of Esterhazy, the mood changed rapidly. There now came a volume of protest across the country against what was seen as a clear case of injustice, accompanied by a vociferous demand for a retrial of Dreyfus to right the wrong. Very soon France was bitterly divided between those who upheld the sentence imposed on the young Jewish officer - the right-wing conservative elements, the army and the Roman Catholic Church - and those who were convinced that he was innocent, a victim of racial prejudice - the liberal politicians, the radical republicans and the intellectual élite.

xxxxxThexjournalist and left-wing politician George Clemenceau (1841-1929) was one of the first to come to the support of Dreyfus. He began an eight-year campaign to see justice done, waged via the columns of his two newspapers La Justice and L’Aurore. His political connections and his close friendship with the best-known writers and artists of the day gained him widespread backing for the cause. But it was one of his literary friends, the novelist Émil Zola, who more than any other person galvanised support. On the 13th January 1898, just a few days after Esterhazy had been acquitted, he published an open letter to the French president (Félix Faure) on the front page of the daily L’Aurore. Now known the world over as “J’accuse” (the opening words) it was a fierce denunciation of the French general staff. In it, he charged a number of high-ranking officers and the War Office itself of anti-Semitism, and of deliberately attempting to cover up a miscarriage of justice. It was a courageous, impassioned attack and, by evening, 200,000 copies of the newspaper had been sold. The letter proved a turning point in the affair, made the more so by the punishment metered out to Zola as a consequence. He was found guilty of libel, fined 3,000 francs, and sentenced to a year in prison. However, when his appeal against the verdict looked likely to fail, he fled to England, and only returned to France in June 1899 after receiving the promise of an amnesty. Whilst in London his account of the Dreyfus affair ensured that the matter received even greater worldwide coverage.  

xxxxxMeanwhile, in August 1898 a new revelation added fuel to the burning issue. Picquart’s successor as head of intelligence, a Lieutenant Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry, admitted that he had forged documents in order to implicate Dreyfus. He was arrested, but committed suicide whilst in custody. On the strength of this confession Esterhazy was dismissed from the army. He beat a hasty retreat to England, leaving France in turmoil. Unruly demonstrations and counter-demonstrations took place across the country, and the funeral of president Faure in February 1899 - a man who had always opposed a retrial - was the scene of an ugly disturbance between the pro and anti Dreyfus groups. Eventually in June the liberal politician René Waldeck-Rousseau was asked to form a coalition government. Resolved to bring the affair to an end before a complete breakdown of law and order, he sanctioned a retrial. A second court martial was held at Rennes in September 1899, but, despite the new evidence, Dreyfus was again found guilty of treason, his term of imprisonment being reduced to ten years because of “extenuating circumstances”. The verdict caused widespread anger among the pro-Dreyfusards and threatened further trouble, but ten days later the government intervened. The verdict of the court was quashed and Dreyfus was given a presidential pardon.

xxxxxIt was not, however, until July 1906 that the Court of Appeal exonerated Dreyfus and reversed all previous convictions against him. He was readmitted to the army with the rank of major, awarded the Legion of Honour, and went on to serve in the First World War. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, retired after the war, and died in 1935. He was buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

xxxxxThe Dreyfus Affair went far deeper than simply the matter of the guilt or the innocence of a young army officer of Jewish descent. First and perhaps foremost, it revealed the powerful strain of anti-Semitism running throughout French society - surprisingly strong in a nation dedicated to liberty, equality and fraternity. Secondly, it polarized the country’s political make-up in the wake of the humiliation of the Franco-PrussIan War and the overthrow of the Emperor. For the pro-Dreyfusards - the republicans and the socialists - the issue at stake was the freedom of the individual and the survival of the Republic. For the anti-Dreyfusards - the conservative, military and Catholic forces (monarchists at heart) - the need was to defend the authority of the army and state against socialism and the dangers, as they saw it, posed by international Jewry.

xxxxxFollowing the vindication of Captain Dreyfus - a victory for republican ideals encapsulated in the rights of man - the power and the prestige of the military and of the Catholic Church declined in France. The army - the bastion of monarchism - was discredited beyond total repair and put under civilian control, whilst the introduction of anti-clerical legislation eventually led to the separation of church and state in 1905, and a consequent reduction in the role of religion in political affairs. A political format was eventually reached, but the bitter controversy aroused by the Dreyfus Affair, rumbling on over twelve years, left deep scars on French political, social and intellectual life, and these took more than a generation to heal.

xxxxxIncidentally, Esterhazy (illustrated) later confessed to being a German spy and lived out his life in England, supported by the donations of anti-Semitics. He worked as a translator, using the name Count Jean de Voilement, and died in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, in 1923. Colonel Picquart was reinstated, promoted to general, and served as war minister in the government of prime-minister Georges Clemenceau from 1906 to 1909. As noted earlier, Zola died in 1902, killed by the fumes from a bedroom fire. It was officially seen as an accident, but many believed that the chimney had been blocked up deliberately by anti-Dreyfusards as an act of revenge for his crucial support of the young Jewish officer. ……

xxxxx…… Likexxmany Jews at the time, the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was surprised and alarmed at the amount of anti-Semitism that the Dreyfus Affair revealed at all levels of French society. He witnessed mass rallies in Paris where many chanted “Death to the Jews”. He later explained that it was this aspect of the Dreyfus Affair (together with the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia) that prompted him to found the Zionist Movement in 1897, an organisation in favour of the re-establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. Given the extent of anti-Semitism that existed above and below the surface, he came to realise that assimilation was impossible, and that the only solution for the Jews would be the creation of a Jewish state. ……


xxxxx…… The Dreyfus Affair overshadowed and served to distract public attention from the Fashoda Crisis, a military confrontation between French and British forces in the Sudan in 1898 which, as we shall see, could easily have ended in a full-scale war. The fact that it didn’t may have been influenced to some degree by the government’s preoccupation with matters nearer to home.



Émile Zola and

Anatole France

xxxxxAmong the many intellectuals who supported Dreyfus was the French novelist, poet and critic Anatole France (1844-1924). He wrote a vast number of works, but is mostly remembered today for his novels, including The Crime of Sylvester Bonnard, My Friend’s Book, Thaïs, Penguin Island, The Gods are Athirst, and his Contemporary History, a four volume work in which he exposed the social and political shortcomings highlighted by the Dreyfus Affair. His works were admired for the clarity of their prose and verse, and for the satirical attack they launched upon the failings within the Church and State of his day. In his later years, embittered and more pessimistic, he turned his attention to social affairs, supporting civil liberties and the rights of the working man, and attacking bourgeois values. A well respected man of letters, he was admitted to the Académie Française in 1896 and awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921. He worked as a librarian at the French Senate for fourteen years, and was one time literary critic for the newspaper Le Temps. He was born Jacques-François-Anatole Thibault, and took his pen name from the bookshop, the Librairie de France, that his father owned in Paris.

xxxxxAmong the large number of French intellectuals who came to the defence of Dreyfus - including the poet Charles Péguy and the writer Marcel Proust - was the French novelist, poet, and critic Anatole France (1844-1924). He was the first to sign Zola’s manifesto supporting Dreyfus, and he wrote about the affair in his novel Monsieur Bergeret in Paris, published in 1901. In this work the hero, France himself in fact - a hitherto detached observer of political and social life - throws himself whole heartedly into the struggle to prove the innocence of this young Jewish officer.  

xxxxxFrance was born in Paris, the son of a bookseller, and this accounts for his love of books and the depth of his reading. After receiving a fairly good grounding in the classics at the College Stanislas, a private Catholic school, he decided to devote his life to literature. At first, however, he was obliged to make a living. For the next twenty years - save for a brief period of military service in the Franco-Prussian War - he took on a variety of jobs. He assisted his father in his shop for a while, did some teaching, and then worked in journalism as a publisher’s reader and critic. Then in 1876 he was appointed assistant librarian at the French Senate, a post he held for fourteen years, and in 1888 he started writing a regular weekly column as the literary critic for the prestigious newspaper Le Temps.

xxxxxBut he never let employment get in the way of his writing. His output was vast and included novels, short stories, verse, drama, historical works and critical and philosophical essays and articles. Today, however, he is chiefly remembered as a novelist and story teller. His first work of importance was a critical study of the French poet Alfred de Vigny in 1869, and he followed this up in the 1870s with a volume of poetry, Golden Tales, a verse drama entitled The Bride of Corinth, and his first collection of short stories, Jocasta and the Thin Cat. But it was the publication of his first novel in 1881, The Crime of Sylvester Bonnard, that brought him the beginning of fame and fortune. A nostalgic look-back at what he saw as the golden age of the 18th century, it displayed the graceful, elegant prose, the subtle but sharp irony (reminiscent of Voltaire), and the genuine human sympathy that were to become the hallmarks of his writing. It won him a prize from the Académie Française, and began a production of novels which made him one of the leading figures of French literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In nearly all of these works he took a cynical, pessimistic view of contemporary society, aiming much of his shrewd criticism at what he saw as the failings within Church and State.

xxxxxHis writings of the late 1880s and early 1990s, included his critical essays, La vie littéraire in four volumes, and the novels Balthazar, a fanciful tale centred around one of the Magi; Thaïs, a denunciation of asceticism, set in Egypt in the early Christian era; The Opinions of Mr. Jérôme Coignard, and At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque - both exposing human frailty from a detached view point - and The Red Lily, a tragic love story played out in Florence. And to this period belongs My Friend’s Book, the first of his semi-autobiographical series.

xxxxxBy the mid-1890s, however, there was a noticeable change in emphasis. Following the outbreak of the Dreyfus Affair, beginning in earnest in 1896 (the year France was admitted to the Académie Française), France became progressively disillusioned, and his view of life more embittered. He now turned his attention to social affairs, such as civil liberties and the rights of the working man, and in so doing, launched a more bitter attack upon society as a whole and the Church and the political establishment in particular. And his open hostility towards bourgeois values led him to embrace socialism and, eventually, communism. His Contemporary History, for example, four prose works spanning 1897 to 1901, made much of the social and political shortcomings highlighted by the Dreyfus Affair, as did his three act comedy Crainquebill of 1903, his satirical allegory Penguin Island of 1908, and his realistic fantasy The Revolt of the Angels of 1914. And to this period belongs one of his best known works, Les Dieux en Soif (The Gods are Athirst), a powerful condemnation of fanaticism set in the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The warnings were not heeded in his own time, however, and the horrors of the First World War only served to increase his pessimism. As a means of relief, he turned to completing his childhood reminiscences in Little Pierre and The Bloom of Life, completed two years before his death.


xxxxxFrance was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921 in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements and the classical clarity of his prose and verse. He used wit, satire and irony to expose the failings of contemporary society and to serve his passion for social justice. He had a profound sympathy for the condition of human society, and his scholarship, remarkable in its breadth, marked him out as a well-respected man of letters. He died in Tours, and was buried at Neuilly cemetery in the western suburbs of Paris.

xxxxxIncidentally, France was born Jacques-Francois-Anatole Thibault, and took his pen name from the name of his father’s bookshop, the Librairie de France in Paris. ……

xxxxx…… His marriage to Marie-Valerie Guerin de Sauville in 1877 ended in divorce in 1893. Before then, however, he had formed an intimate friendship with Madame Arman de Caillavet. She had a celebrated literary salon, promoted his works through her many social contacts, and was the inspiration for his novels Thaïs and The Red Lily. ……

xxxxx…… As noted later, his novel Thaïs was made into an opera by the French composer Jules Massenet and was first performed in Paris in 1894.