It was exactly 119 years ago today that the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of treason against the state. This conviction set in motion a chain of events that would have huge consequences both for Jews everywhere and for France. It sparked off both internal debate in France and Herzl’s personal crusade for a Jewish State.
Captain Dreyfus was a heavily assimilated Jew who proudly served in the French army as an artillery officer when he was framed for treason against the state. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island on French Guiana. He swore his innocence at the time before crowds of Frenchmen shouting “Death to the Jews.”
A mere two years later a different head of military intelligence, Lt Colonel Picquart, uncovered intelligence vindicating Dreyfus and proving he had not betrayed France. He was promptly reassigned to the Tunisian Desert.
The young journalist Theodore Herzl, himself every bit as assimilated a Jew as Dreyfus was present among the crowds shouting “Death to the Jews”. For him that was a critical moment. Hearing those crowds led Herzl to believe that the only way Jews were ever going to be free of the madness around him was through having their own state. The Dreyfus affair set him inexorably on the path towards the first Zionist congress.
The Jew Dreyfus had his epaulets cut from his shoulders and his sword broken before the public. He shouted out to that same crowd, while they were baying for his blood,
“I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!”
The Dreyfus affair, as it became known, caused a great deal of soul searching in France. As it became clearer that Dreyfus was the victim of anti-Semitism rather than a traitor the campaign to have him freed went public. The journalist Emile Zola wrote an open letter to the government, which has gone down in history as the epitome of a journalist holding his government to account. The letter entitled “J’accuse” can be read in full here. At the end Zola accuses the establishment of a coverup:
I accuse Lt. Col. du Paty de Clam of being the diabolical creator of this miscarriage of justice – unwittingly, I would like to believe – and of defending this sorry deed, over the last three years, by all manner of ludricrous and evil machinations.
I accuse General Mercier of complicity, at least by mental weakness, in one of the greatest inequities of the century.
I accuse General Billot of having held in his hands absolute proof of Dreyfus’s innocence and covering it up, and making himself guilty of this crime against mankind and justice, as a political expedient and a way for the compromised General Staff to save face.
I accuse Gen. de Boisdeffre and Gen. Gonse of complicity in the same crime, the former, no doubt, out of religious prejudice, the latter perhaps out of that esprit de corps that has transformed the War Office into an unassailable holy ark.
I accuse Gen. de Pellieux and Major Ravary of conducting a villainous enquiry, by which I mean a monstrously biased one, as attested by the latter in a report that is an imperishable monument to naïve impudence.
I accuse the three handwriting experts, Messrs. Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of submitting reports that were deceitful and fraudulent, unless a medical examination finds them to be suffering from a condition that impairs their eyesight and judgement.
I accuse the War Office of using the press, particularly L’Eclair and L’Echo de Paris, to conduct an abominable campaign to mislead the general public and cover up their own wrongdoing.
Finally, I accuse the first court martial of violating the law by convicting the accused on the basis of a document that was kept secret, and I accuse the second court martial of covering up this illegality, on orders, thus committing the judicial crime of knowingly acquitting a guilty man.
In making these accusations I am aware that I am making myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29/7/1881 regarding the press, which make libel a punishable offence. I expose myself to that risk voluntarily.
As for the people I am accusing, I do not know them, I have never seen them, and I bear them neither ill will nor hatred. To me they are mere entities, agents of harm to society. The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.
I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the enquiry take place in broad daylight!
I am waiting.
With my deepest respect, Sir.