On a clear and cold morning in Paris on January 5, 1895, a man in his mid-thirties marched toward a military square, surrounded by armed guards. Along the way, crowds shouted at the man, cursing and yelling “traitor” and “death to the Jew.” With little emotion, the prisoner, Alfred Dreyfus, stood still as he listened to condemnation from a military officer,
“Dreyfus, you are unworthy to carry arms. In the name of the people of France, we degrade you.”
The officer then took Dreyfus’ sword, broke it in pieces, and removed the buttons and insignia from his uniform. For a moment Dreyfus hesitated. Then he shouted,
“Vive la France! You have degraded an innocent man! I swear that I am innocent!”
Dreyfus was marched away to be taken to prison. Among the spectators that day was Theodor Herzl, a secular Jewish Hungarian author and journalist. Herzl was struck by this event, convinced that Jews around the world needed a safe and secure homeland of their own. A land where they would not be at the mercy of the majority population and their leaders. Jews were already vulnerable in Eastern Europe and much of the Arab world. But it was shocking for Herzl to see an assimilated citizen be singled out as a Jew in Western Europe.
The Dreyfus Affair became a critical moment in time. It would shake the French state to its core. France in the late nineteenth century was considered one of the most enlightened and progressive countries in Europe. It was the birthplace of emancipation. Equal rights for Jews had been legislated into law during the French Revolution, over one hundred years earlier. Many Jews had adapted to the majority French Catholic culture and considered themselves an integrated part of society, as much French as they were Jewish.
Alfred Dreyfus was one such acculturated citizen. Born in 1859, Dreyfus had a successful career as a French army captain. However, in 1894, Dreyfus was accused of spying for and selling French military secrets to arch-enemy Germany. The evidence against him was traced to a slip of paper that Dreyfus had allegedly written on. A French intelligence officer, Colonel Henry, testified that he had further evidence against Dreyfus, but that it was top secret and couldn’t be disclosed. Later, it would be revealed that Henry had helped forge the incriminating documents that framed Dreyfus.
Dreyfus’ background hindered his case. He was one of very few Jewish officers in the French military. As well, his family came from the eastern border area with Germany, in a hotly contested region called Alsace that was ceded to Germany after the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. That led to suspicions of dual loyalties. At his trial, Dreyfus was found guilty by the military court and sentenced to exile with life imprisonment at the infamous Devil’s Island prison.
In 1896 another piece of paper was discovered, promising more military secrets to the Germans. The handwriting was identical to Dreyfus, but he was already in prison. Experts traced the handwriting to another officer, Walter Esterhazy. Despite the new evidence, the army acquitted Esterhazy.
The acquittal of Esterhazy led to growing demands for a retrial of Dreyfus. Eventually, Dreyfus was brought back to Paris and new court proceedings began. The trial was a much publicized event. It deeply divided French society. On the one side were supporters of Dreyfus. Known as Dreyfusards, they were generally liberal, secular, and republican. Among them, was the well known writer, Emile Zola. The anti-Dreyfusards tended to be more conservative, royalist, and Catholic. Much of the political establishment and army sided with the latter group. Some conservative newspapers published increasingly anti-Semitic statements. One newspaper even threatened that support for Dreyfus might result in the Jews of France facing mass extermination.
Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to his innocence, Dreyfus was still found guilty of espionage in the second trial. In an effort to show some lenience, the army reduced Dreyfus’ sentence from life to ten years imprisonment. This was followed by increased outrage from the political left, accusing the army and government of a cover-up. With pressure mounting, Dreyfus was eventually pardoned, but bitter feelings remained on both sides for decades, up to the Second World War.
Jews were shocked that the Dreyfus Affair could have happened in modern France. A secular, assimilated, and patriotic French Jew had been falsely accused of being disloyal to the state. Most assimilated Jews felt they had successfully blended into the dominant culture. The Dreyfus Affair seemingly proved them wrong. Jews could still be considered suspect in their own country, even the most secular and loyal among them. The long held assumption that assimilation would end European anti-Semitism was shown to be false. A new Jewish nationalism, Zionism, espoused by figures such as Theodor Herzl, would appeal to many.
As a side note, Alfred Dreyfus reenlisted and fought as a reservist for the French army in World War One. So did his son, Pierre. Alfred’s wife, Lucie, and daughter, Jeanne, also worked as nurses during the Great War. A granddaughter, Madeline Levy, was later killed in Auschwitz during the Second World War.