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The
Dreyfus Affair was an anti-Semitism fueled political scandal that impacted
French politics forever, showing the polarization of French society after the
Franco-Prussian War. Alfred Dreyfus is falsely accused and convicted on charges
he did not commit essentially due to the fact that he was Jewish. Although
Dreyfus protested the accusations, most people were reluctant to take them
seriously because of his social status. The military needed someone to pin a
crime on and knew that the public would not question the accusation if the
person was a Jew. Although Dreyfus ultimately gets acquitted, the Dreyfus
Affair shook the world and permanently changed the course of French politics.

 

            Alfred Dreyfus was born in Mulhouse,
Alsace in 1859 to Raphaël, a Jewish textile manufacturer, and Jeannette Dreyfus.1
After experiencing the effects of the Franco-Prussian firsthand by being
displaced from his home in Alsace during his youth, Dreyfus decides to pursue a
career in the military.2
He graduates from military school in Paris and attends an artillery school to
receive specialized training as an artillery officer. In 1889, he is made administrative
assistant to the director of the Établissement de Bourges and is shortly after
promoted to captain.3

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            Following the Franco-Prussian War,
the French are very bitter about their ultimate defeat and the military places
a high importance on keeping an eye on Germans living in France. In particular,
the French government uses a maid named Marie Bastian who is employed at the
German embassy in Paris to pass on information to she finds.4
One of Bastian’s many duties at the embassy is to empty wastepaper baskets, and
she would secretly take discarded papers and deliver them to French officials.5
One day, Bastian finds a torn up memo regarding sensitive information about the
Army’s new, cutting edge weapon that they had just produced.6
The memo was signed “Jacques Dubois” and the French military knew that there
had to be a spy in a high ranking position, particularly an artillery officer,
due to the small amount of people who knew about the weapon.7
When the director of the investigation begins looking for possible suspects, he
discovers that only one artillery officer has a last name beginning with the
letter “D” – Alfred Dreyfus.

           

            When beginning the investigation,
the investigator compares the handwriting of the note found in the German
embassy to military correspondence from Dreyfus; he finds that the two are not
a perfect match, but close enough to launch a full blown investigation into
Dreyfus.8
Although Dreyfus doesn’t match the image of a typical spy – having a happy
family, dedicating his life to the military after graduating from a military
academy, and fleeing from German-occupied Alsace during the Franco-Prussian war.

Regardless of this, the fact that he was Jewish provided enough skepticism to
rank him as the number one suspect. At the time, French citizens felt threatened
by the rise of Jewish people in the French community.9
Anti-Semitism was prevalent in every inch of French society and this blatant discrimination
later fuels the fire surrounding Dreyfus’s conviction.

 

A few days following the discovery of the memo,
Dreyfus is asked to report to the Office of the Army Chief of Staff in civilian
clothes. Once he arrives, Dreyfus is asked to write many of the words used in
the memo on a piece of paper in order to match the writing.10
Immediately after he finishes, Dreyfus is taken under arrest for the crime of
high treason without any explanation. As he is dragged to prison, Dreyfus
screams of his innocence and protests to his full ability. For two weeks
Dreyfus is held in prison with no information on the crime he supposedly
committed as the military builds their case condemning him.

 

When news of Dreyfus’s conviction reaches the
press, headlines of a Jewish traitor are plastered in every newspaper.11
The military is forced to act quickly with pressure from the public with their
anti-Semitic mindset. At Dreyfus’s trial, three writing experts testify saying
that Dreyfus’s handwriting resembled the handwriting of the note found at the
German embassy.12 With the immense pressure
from the public, Dreyfus is found guilty due to illegal documents forged by the
military in order to make him chargeable.13
Looking back, it is indisputable that it was not the illegal evidence that condemned
Dreyfus; it was the combination of a crime, a Jewish suspect, and an
anti-Semitic society.

 

Two weeks following his conviction, Dreyfus is
brought to the courtyard of the military academy he graduated from to be humiliated
in front his fellow members of the Army.14
While being stripped of his military accolades with people in the crowd shouting
things like “death to the traitor” and “death to the Jew”, Dreyfus shocks
everyone by responding to the hackling with cries of his innocence.15
The crowd is shocked by his obvious insubordination as most convicts accepted
their crimes in silence; the fact that a Jewish man convicted of treason denied
the facts set out by people in high power was shocking to the public. “Soldiers,
they are degrading an innocent man! Long live France! Long live the army,” he yells
to the mob as his sword is broken in half.16

 

Almost immediately after the scene at the military
academy, Dreyfus is taken to a port to wait for a ship to take him to the
prison he would carry out his sentence. He was sent to the famous prison on Devil’s
Island, an island in French Guiana in South America that was notorious for
being use for internal exile of French political prisoners in the 19th
and 20th century.17
Devil’s Island was no paradise with drastic weather year round, shark-infested
waters, deadly currents, and wildlife such as scorpions and massive spiders to
boast. In fact, before Devil’s Island was a famous place for French prisoners
to carry out their sentences, the island was a leper colony. However, conditions
on the island were so poor that the lepers had to relocate to somewhere more livable.18
Dreyfus’s travels to Devil’s Island were anything but pleasant; the cell where
he was held on the ship for the duration of the transit was open air where he
was subject to all elements.19

 

In 1895, Dreyfus arrives on the island. His living
quarters consist of a small rectangular one room building with a large fence
surrounding it.20 All that he has to pass
the time are a few books and sheets of writing paper with which he writes
letter to his wife and family. Many of his letters consist of informing his
wife about his daily routine. In his book “Five Years of My Life”, he
chronicles a typical day on Devil’s Island in the following quotation:

I rise at daybreak and light my fire
and make coffee or tea. Then I put the dried vegetables on the fire, and
afterward make my bed, clean up my chamber, and perform a summary toilet. At
eight o’clock they bring me the day’s rations. I finish cooking the dried
vegetables, and on meat days place these rations on the fire. At ten o’clock I
lunch. Next I read, work, dream, and, most of all, suffer. At six o’clock I eat
the cold remains of my luncheon. Then I am locked up. Nothing is left for me
but to lie down, and then my brain begins to work; all my thoughts turn to the
frightful drama of which I am the victim, and all my memories centre about my
wife and children and those who are dear to me. How all of them must suffer with
me! (124-125)

 

As Dreyfus is suffering on Devil’s
Island, his family tries desperately to clear his name in France. Alfred’s brother
Matthew Dreyfus abandons his business to spend the majority of his time trying
to find the truth in the unjustified arrest and sentencing of his brother.21
After Matthew encourages law enforcement to continue investigating the case,
Lt. General Georges Picquart comes across a letter in the German embassy
written to an officer in the French army named Ferdinand Esterhazy asking him
to further explain the situation he had explained earlier.22
After discovering that Esterhazy frequented the German embassy and his
handwriting matched the memo that convicted Dreyfus, Picquart goes to his
superior to report that he believes that the wrong man had been convicted and
that Esterhazy had fabricated evidence to make Dreyfus look guilty.23

 

As Dreyfus had been in the press
constantly since his trial, two groups formed in French society – the Dreyfusards
who believed that he was innocent and the anti-Dreyfusards who believed he was
not. In order to continue the conversation about Alfred Dreyfus, Matthew
Dreyfus decides to go public with information he has discovered about how the
handwriting on the memo from the German embassy matches the handwriting of a
different military officer, publicly accusing Esterhazy of treason.24
Due to public pressure, the military court was forced to take Matthew’s
accusations seriously and have a trial for Esterhazy. The trial lasts for only
two days before the court unanimously acquits Esterhazy.

 

After Esterhazy is acquitted, Dreyfus’s
fate seems locked to Devil’s Island. However, novelist Émile Zola takes notice
of the situation and publishes an expose titled “J’accuse” in a Paris newspaper
accusing military officials of covering up the affair.25
Dreyfusards use the letter as ammunition for their cause and demand justice for
Dreyfus. At this time, the military offices were becoming more and more worried
about the truth being uncovered and forge more documents implicating Dreyfus.26
In fact, a high-ranking official even goes in front of parliament claiming that
he reviewed all of the evidence and believes without a doubt that Dreyfus is
guilty.27
Days later, the same official discovers that all of the evidence is fake and
has the person who forged it all arrested.

 

With information that most of the
evidence had been fake, the French court annuls the ruling that Dreyfus was
guilty and brings him back to France to stand trial again over four years
later.28
Because Dreyfus had not been given any information about the goings on in
France, he is shocked when he arrives to find the country in chaos over his
case. Astonishingly, Dreyfus is found guilty a second time; however, because
the court is not absolutely certain of his guilt, his sentence is shortened to
ten years in prison.29
The Dreyfusards are enraged by the decision, especially Émile Zola. Sensing the
animosity in French society, the president pardons Dreyfus of all wrongdoings
only ten days after his sentence.30

 

Dreyfus reluctantly accepts his pardon
and for the rest of his lift vows to clear his name. Eventually, the French
court annuls the ruling once again but does not ask for a retrial. Dreyfus is
reinstated as a major in the French Army and is shortly after inducted into the
French Legion of Honor in a ceremony at the military academy where over ten
years earlier he was stripped of all of his military accolades.31
Dreyfus goes on to serve in the military throughout World War I until his
ultimate death.

 

The political significance of the
Dreyfus Affair in France can still be felt to this day. Although Dreyfus was
pardoned, the affair showed that there was an extreme polarization between left
and right in French society following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The
affair also shocked the world by showing that a well-integrated country like
France was still susceptible to anti-Semitic tendencies. Even though Dreyfus
had dedicated his life to France, it was shocking to Jewish people around the
world that he could not receive a fair trial. Even though it seemed like affair
only demonstrated a divide regarding Dreyfus himself, it also showed how deeply
divided France was about politics, religion and their national identity

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