This Week in History: The Dreyfus Affair begins

The trial and false conviction of a Jewish French military officer became an influence on Zionism and French secularism.

Alfred Dreyfus 311 (photo credit: AP)
Alfred Dreyfus 311
(photo credit: AP)
On December 19, 1894, a French military officer of Jewish descent was put on trial for treason at a military prison in Paris. The trial, conviction and eventual exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus would become one of the most influential events in modern Jewish history, Zionism and French secularism.
The affair began like a classic tale of counter-espionage. A cleaner at the German embassy in Paris, on the payroll of the French counter-intelligence agency, discovered a torn-up letter containing French military secrets in the embassy’s trash. Following a hasty and extremely flawed investigation, Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain stationed at the French military’s General Staff headquarters was accused of betraying his country.
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Eager to implicate an “outsider” (a wealthy Jew), the French public and military brought very little scrutiny to the case. Most of the evidence presented against Dreyfus was eventually proven to be forged and flawed, including a handwriting analysis that fingered the artillery captain. Following the four-day trial, which concluded on December 22, 1894, Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his rank to chants of “Death to the Jews.” Even as his officers’ stripes were being ripped off his uniform and his sword broken, however, Dreyfus continued to proclaim his innocence and shouted, “Long live France! Long live the army!” He was sentenced to serve a life sentence of solitary confinement on a far-off and desolate penal colony.
At the time, most of the French public was eager to believe that Dreyfus was guilty. The only meaningful campaign to overturn the false conviction was launched by Dreyfus’ own family, his brother Mathieu taking the lead. Anti-Semitic forces were also instrumental in the public condemnation of Dreyfus. The French newspaper, La Libre Parole, was particularly damning of the Jewish captain and is said to have had great influence on the trial itself.
It would eventually take 12 years for Dreyfus to be exonerated. Along the way, a new army investigator was threatened and fired for attempting to bring light to the truth, the actual culprit (French Army Major Walsin-Esterhazy) was tried and wrongly acquitted, and famous French writer Emile Zola was convicted of libel for writing an editorial entitled, "J'Accuse" (I accuse you), accusing the French leadership of anti-Semitism in the affair, all before the affair came to an end. The historical consequences for the French Republic and the Jewish people, however, had far greater a reach.
Due to the influence of French Catholics and anti-Republicans in the Dreyfus affair, it became a driving force in the separation between church and state in modern France that has come to be a defining characteristic of the state.
Another consequence of the trial was the influence it had on a young journalist sent to cover the affair by the Vienna newspaper, Neue Rreie Presse. As the affair progressed, the journalist, Theodore Herzl, became convinced of Dreyfus’ innocence. For the future founder of Zionism, the affair became symbolic of what he would later describe as “the Jewish problem.”
As a result of seeing the lack of respect, anti-Semitism and persecution faced by Jews first hand, even in countries they were loyal to and greatly assimilated in, Herzl began to dream up a solution to the plight of the Jews. He would later write, “The Dreyfus case embodies more than just a judicial error; it embodies the desire of a vast majority of the French to condemn a Jew and to condemn all Jews in this one Jew… In republican, modern, civilized France.” The solution he devised for “the Jewish problem” was Zionism, his vision of a liberated Jewish people living in their own land, which was realized with the creation of the State of Israel.
Twelve years after his conviction and exile, in July 1906, Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated and his military rank restored. When World War I broke out in 1914, the then-55-year-old Dreyfus volunteered to serve his country once again along with two of his nephews. In recent times, Dreyfus and his resolute patriotism has been honored by the modern state of France. A statue commissioned in 1985 still stands in Paris and in 2006, then-French President Jacques Chirac ceremoniously honored Dreyfus’ exoneration.
The Dreyfus affair continues to live on as an example of the plight of the Jews and as a justification for the Jewish people’s need of their own homeland. Furthermore, it is often referenced to this day when Jews and other minorities find themselves in comparable situations. From the influence the affair had on Herzl’s dream of Zionism, to its role in the secularization of France, the Dreyfus Affair remains a highly influential and historically relevant moment in French and Jewish history.