For over a decade the Dreyfus Affair dominated French political and cultural life. It began with the rigged court martial for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. The only Jewish officer on the French General Staff, Dreyfus was purposely picked as the scapegoat for a major spying scandal. Evidence against him was either spurious or forged. He was publicly stripped of his insignia and sentenced to life imprisonment on the pestilential hellhole of Devil’s Island.
The blatantly corrupt conviction magnified the existing anti-Semitism that stained France’s deepest sentiments. It opened a fault line of implacable hostility between the far right and left-leaning liberals: strident bigotry faced a growing coalition of those from every stratum of French society who were unwilling to allow the most fundamental principles of truth, justice and humanity to be trampled into dust.
Protest became fury in 1896 when the real culprit, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, was exonerated at a court martial. The evidence against him was suppressed, and new forgeries used to reconvict Dreyfus. It was too much. The intermittent salvos of virulent propaganda exploded into a war for the moral soul of France. The affair was already consuming careers, reputations and whole governments when the “Dreyfusards” found their champion in France’s greatest writer, Emile Zola.
Zola’s inimitable denunciation “J’accuse!”, an open letter to the president of the Republic, managed simultaneously to summarize Dreyfus’s innocent plight, savage the military and political racist skullduggery, and demand of all Frenchmen what kind of country they wanted to live in. Zola was convicted of libel, but he had shifted the weight of public opinion. After five more years, two more trials, and a public rehabilitation including the Legion d’Honneur, Dreyfus was freed – blameless but broken. France tore itself apart in his name; and the repercussions were still discernible in the line that separated Vichy from Free France during World War II.
When was the Dreyfus Affair: 1894-1906
Where was the Dreyfus Affair: France
What was the Dreyfus Affair toll: The Dreyfus Affair permanently altered political consciousness in France, where left and right remain polarized at extremes. It directly motivated the 1905 legislation separating Church and State and established the political philosophies of both radical republicanism and right-wing nationalism that were subsequently transplanted to Spain, where they clashed in unholy civil war.
You should know: Both the Tour de France cycle race and L’Auto (L’Equipe) daily sports newspaper owe their existence directly to the Dreyfus affair. Anti-Dreyfusards started L’Auto in 1900 to challenge the Dreyfusards’ paper Le Velo; then when L’Auto’s readership fell, created the Tour de France in 1903 to boost circulation.