The case arose when a French spy in the German embassy discovered a handwritten bordereau [schedule], received by Major Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris, which offered to sell French military secrets. The French army, which, although considerably democratized in the late 19th cent., remained a stronghold of monarchists and Catholics and permeated by anti-Semitism, attempted to ferret out the traitor. Suspicion fell on Dreyfus, a wealthy Alsatian Jew, while the press raised accusations of Jewish treason. He was tried in camera by a French court-martial, convicted, and sentenced to degradation and deportation for life. He was sent to Devils Island, off the coast of French Guiana, for solitary confinement. Dreyfus protested his innocence and swore his loyalty to France, but public opinion generally applauded the conviction, and interest in the case lapsed.
The matter flared up again in 1896 and soon divided Frenchmen into two irreconcilable factions. In 1896 Col. Georges Picquart, chief of the intelligence section, discovered evidence indicating Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who was deep in debt, as the real author of the bordereau. Picquart was silenced by army authorities, but in 1897 Dreyfus's brother, Mathieu, made the same discovery and increased pressure to reopen the case. Esterhazy was tried (Jan., 1898) by a court-martial and acquitted in a matter of minutes.
Émile Zola, a leading supporter of Dreyfus, promptly published an open letter (J'accuse) to the president of the French republic, Félix Faure, accusing the judges of having obeyed orders from the war office in their acquittal of Esterhazy. Zola was tried for libel and sentenced to jail, but he escaped to England. By this time the case had become a major political issue and was fully exploited by royalist, militarist, and nationalist elements on the one hand and by republican, socialist, and anticlerical elements on the other.
The violent partisanship dominated French life for a decade. Among the anti-Dreyfusards were the anti-Semite Édouard Drumont; Paul Déroulède, who founded a patriotic league; and Maurice Barrès. The pro-Dreyfus faction, which steadily gained strength, came to include Georges Clemenceau, in whose paper Zola's letter appeared, Jean Jaurès, René Waldeck-Rousseau, Anatole France, Charles Péguy, and Joseph Reinach. They were, in part, less personally concerned with Dreyfus, who remained in solitary confinement on Devils Island, than with discrediting the rightist government.
Later in 1898 it was discovered that much of the evidence against Dreyfus had been forged by Colonel Henry of army intelligence. Henry committed suicide (Aug., 1898), and Esterhazy fled to England. At this point revision of Dreyfus's sentence had become imperative. The case was referred to an appeals court in September and after Waldeck-Rousseau became premier in 1899, the court of appeals ordered a new court-martial. There was worldwide indignation when the military court, unable to admit error, found Dreyfus guilty with extenuating circumstances and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Nonetheless, a pardon was issued by President Émile Loubet, and in 1906 the supreme court of appeals exonerated Dreyfus, who was reinstated as a major and decorated with the Legion of Honor. Subsequently promoted, Dreyfus served in World War I as a colonel in the artillery. In 1930 his innocence was reaffirmed by the publication of Schwartzkoppen's papers. The immediate result of the Dreyfus Affair was to unite and bring to power the French political left wing. Widespread antimilitarism and anticlericalism also ensued; army influence declined, and in 1905 church and state were separated in France and legal equality among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews was established. At his death in 1935, Dreyfus was hailed as a French hero and a martyr for freedom.
See J. Reinach, Histoire de l'affaire Dreyfus (7 vol., 1901-11); A. Dreyfus and P. Dreyfus, The Dreyfus Case (tr. 1937); G. R. Whyte, The Dreyfus Affair: A Chronological History (2008); studies by G. Chapman (1955 and 1972), D. W. Johnson (1966), L. L. Snyder (1972), D. L. Lewis (1973), J.-D. Bredin (tr. 1986), N. L. Kleeblatt (1987), M. Burns (1991), and L. Begley (2009).
Two years later, in 1896, the real culprit was brought to light and identified: a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. However, French high-level military officials dismissed or ignored this new evidence which exonerated Alfred Dreyfus. Thus, in January 1898, military judges unanimously acquitted Esterhazy on the second day of his trial. Worse, French military counter-intelligence officers fabricated false documents designed to secure Dreyfus' conviction as a spy for Germany. They were all eventually exposed, in large part due to a resounding public intervention by writer Emile Zola in January 1898. The case had to be re-opened, and Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards) and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards).
Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Antisemitism in France during the latter part of the 19th century was openly displayed in print and in public speeches by politicians and journalists belonging to the far right of the political spectrum. After the formal inception of the French Third Republic in 1871, in the 1880s nationalist politicians such as Georges Boulanger, Edouard Drumont (founder of the Antisemitic League of France) and Paul Déroulède (founder of Ligue des Patriotes) sought to capitalize on the new fervor for a unified Catholic France. Since 1892, the anti-Semitic publication "La Libre Parole" had published highly defamatory contributions called "Les Juifs dans l'Armée" or "Jews in the Army". Consequently and in response, Jewish officers in the French Army such as Andre Cremieu-Foa and Armand Mayer had reacted by challenging to a duel the authors of these defamations. Captain Mayer lost his life in a duel against Marquis de Mores in June 1892, thus creating a major scandal anticipating that of the Dreyfus Affair. War Minister Freycinet had intervened in the Chambre des Députés (the French lower house) in these terms: "Gentlemen, in the Army, we do not recognize Jews, Protestants or Catholics, we only recognize French officers." However French Jews, in general, were later described by the historian George L. Mosse as being often perceived as a "nation within a nation".
Nonetheless the situation of the Jewish community in France, in the 1890s, was better than that of Jews in certain other countries of continental Europe, such as Germany and worst of all in Czarist Russia. All French Jews had been fully integrated into the nation by law since the French Revolution of 1789 and Napoleon's First Empire. As a result they generally held higher positions in the government and the military than in most other European countries. Later on in France, the political changes resulting from the Dreyfus Affair brought about the 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State. It put an end to the favored status of the Catholic Church dating from Emperor Napoleon I's Concordat with the Vatican. This placed French Protestants and French Jews on the same level as Roman Catholics, with regards to the Law and to public financing (or lack thereof) of places of worship.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a graduate of both École polytechnique and the École Supérieure de Guerre, was a promising young artillery officer. His high exit rankings from these elite institutions had led to a training position on the French Army's General Staff in January 1893. Alfred Dreyfus' family background was solidly upper middle class and rested on a successful family-owned textile manufacture in Mulhouse, a city in Alsace that is close to the German and Swiss borders. After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871 and the annexation of Alsace by the German Empire, part of the Dreyfus family had chosen to retain its French nationality and moved permanently to Paris. Its younger members, including 12-year-old Alfred Dreyfus jr. and his brother Mathieu Dreyfus, grew up there.
It has long been demonstrated, in fact since 1896 by Lt Col Georges Picquart, that the torn up bordereau used to incriminate Alfred Dreyfus had in reality been handwritten and delivered to the German Embassy by someone else: a French infantry officer of Hungarian descent, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. At the top of the list on the bordereau was a promise to deliver to the German Military Attaché technical information concerning the oleo-pneumatic recoil mechanism of a new French howitzer (the 120 mm Baquet). Esterhazy had either hoped to extract money from the German Attaché or had, as proposed by Jean Doise (1984), deliberately planted a deception into German hands to throw them off the Canon de 75 modèle 1897 field gun project. As if by coincidence, the new French 75 prototype and its highly advanced oleo-pneumatic recoil mechanism were in secret progress at that very same time. Conversely, the 120mm Baquet had already been earmarked for early termination . The official "Manuel d'Artillerie Lourde" published in 1923 by Colonel Alvin and Major Andre states the following about the 120mm Baquet : "The functioning of the recoil mechanism is not satisfactory. It lacks regularity, the seals are not leak proof and the recoil can vary with the nature of the ground." (Alvin and Andre, 1923, page 338). Hence the Mle 1890 120mm Baquet, which was used to falsely incriminate Dreyfus in the "bordereau" , must have been well known as a "lemon" at the level of the Director of French Artillery : general Deloye. Altogether, Jean Doise's proposed explanations involving artillery development do fit with the facts. For instance, Esterhazy, although unmistakably identified by Lt Col Picquart as the author of the "bordereau", was surprisingly acquitted by French military Justice in January 1898 and let go to retire in England with a pension. Moreover, lieutenant Walsin-Esterhazy had served in 1881 and 1882 as a German translator on the staff of the "Section de Statistique", at the same time and in the same office than Major Joseph Hubert Henry, that same officer later to be caught forging evidence against Dreyfus. These career overlaps are well documented and took place during the early part of Esterhazy's career, long before the Dreyfus Affair. The point is that the two officers had been working in the same French military counter espionage group twelve years before the Dreyfus Affair and thus knew each other quite well.
However, the theory that Esterhazy was not exactly what he appears to be—a man who sold military secrets to the Germans to cover his many debts and as revenge against France for denying him the promotion and appointments he wanted—has several problems. If Esterhazy was actually a double-agent working for Sandherr at the time that the bordereau was written, Sandherr's reaction to the discovery of the bordereau makes no sense. This, indeed, would be true if the bordereau handed over by Esterhazy to the German attaché had not been a decoy designed to divert his attention onto a howitzer that had already been eliminated from large scale production: the Model 1890 120mm Baquet. As a matter of public record, only 84 of the 120mm Baquet howitzers had been manufactured (Doise, 1994) after which their production had been halted in 1893 because of basic flaws in their oleo-pneumatic recoil systems. Another telling fact is that, in 1914-18, the few 120mm Baquet howitzers that were still in existence had been dropped out of the active French artillery inventory and handed over to the Serbian Army. An important point to be examined as well is that, beginning with the Section de Statistique, up through the Ministry of War and to the French President himself, nobody suggested at any time prior to the Dreyfus trial that the bordereau might be the work of a double agent. However, how could the Army's High Command destroy Esterhazy's credibility with the German attaché if the disinformation planted in the bordereau had been designed to divert German attention away from the French 75? The completed French 75mm field gun was eventually adopted three years later in 1897 and mass produced prior to WW1 (4,500 guns). Nevertheless, a more conventional explanation is reasonable if one prefers to exclude Doise's thesis involving the French 75. In that case Esterhazy's obvious sheltering from being convicted in January 1898 must be understood not so much as the protection of a double agent rather than the need to justify the original sentencing pronounced against Dreyfus in December 1894.
These recent exposures by professional French Army historians further confirm what had already been brought to light since 1896 by Lt Col Georges Picquart : the criminal character of the machinations devised by Lt Col Sandherr and his small group (notably Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, Captain Lauth and archivist Gribelin) at the "Section de Statistique". Because these counter-intelligence officers operated within a loosely supervised bureaucracy distinct from the regular military intelligence section (the 2ème bureau ) at the French War Ministry, they drifted into forging evidence against Dreyfus (the "faux Henry") and perverting the course of justice (Bredin, 1986 and general Andre Bach, 2004). This happened because Lt Col Sandherr had been encouraged over the years to report directly and secretly to the office of the politically appointed War Minister himself (General Auguste Mercier who occupied this key position until 1896). It is now further shown (Bach, 2004) that General Auguste Mercier was the responsible party in initiating this chain of events, and later in pressing for the cover-up of the Dreyfus miscarriage of justice. That he had been inspired at the very beginning by general Deloye, who directed French Artillery and supervised the French 75's secret development, is a plausible but unprovable speculation.
Alfred Dreyfus was tried in 1894 on charges of espionage and found guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island in French Guiana where he had to endure debilitating solitary confinement in a small hut for nearly five years. Before his deportation to Guiana he had to undergo a formal degradation ceremony in the École Militaire in Paris where he was publicly cashiered: his rank marks and buttons were ripped off his uniform and his sabre was broken. Then, in June 1899, the case was reopened following the uncovering of exonerating evidence which is reviewed earlier in this note and due to the fact that Dreyfus had been denied due process during the initial court-martial. France's Court of Cassation quashed his conviction and ordered a new court-martial. Despite the new evidence presented at his second military trial, Dreyfus was re-convicted in September and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was subsequently pardoned by President Émile Loubet and freed, but would not be formally exonerated until July 12, 1906, when the Court of Cassation annulled his second conviction.
He was thereafter formally reinstated as a major in the army in July 1906 and made a Knight of the Légion d'Honneur. However, he decided, of his own accord, to retire in July 1907. Seven years passed until Dreyfus was recalled to active duty in August 1914, at the age of 55. He served mostly behind the lines of the Western Front as a Lieutenant-Colonel of Artillery, but also performed front line duties in 1917, notably at Verdun and on the Chemin des Dames. Finally, Alfred Dreyfus was raised to the rank of Officer of the Légion d'Honneur in July 1919. This elevation constituted official recognition that he had served his country in time of war with distinction and well beyond the normal retirement age. However, his personal life and that of his family, not to speak of his military career, had been deeply damaged by the baseless accusations made against him since 1894.
The Dreyfus affair became one of the gravest crises to rock the French Third Republic. "The Affair" deeply divided the country into Dreyfusards (supporters of Dreyfus) and anti-Dreyfusards. Generally speaking, royalists and conservatives (the "right wing") were anti-Dreyfusards, while Dreyfusards were socialists, republicans and anticlericalists.
On the other hand, and contrary to common belief, the French Army at the end of the 19th century was not an anti-Semitic institution. Dreyfus's Jewish background was well-known, yet he had been admitted to the most selective military schools in the country and had been assigned to a sensitive position in the General Staff. During that same period, there were over 250 career officers professing the Jewish faith (Birnbaum, 1998) in the French Army, including many colonels and at least one general officer, General Samuel Naquet-Laroque (1843–1921), who occupied a high position in the state armament industries. That same period also saw the rise of Lt Colonel Mardochee-Georges Valabregue (1854–1934), an artilleryman from the École Polytechnique and an observant Jew. He became Commander in Chief of the École Supérieure de Guerre in 1905 and a full general during World War 1. Another high ranking French officer of Jewish descent was General Jules Mordacq (1868-1943). He was a captain at the time of the Dreyfus Affair but his own career continued to progress normally. He became a highly decorated general and divisional commander in the field during WW1. General Mordacq was then chosen by Prime Minister Clemenceau, in early 1918, to become his principal military liaison with the High Command. The General remained in this important cabinet position with Clemenceau until the end of the war, in November 1918. He also assisted Clemenceau during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The writer Émile Zola can be credited with having exposed the affair to the general public in a famously incendiary open letter to President Félix Faure to which the French journalist and politician Georges Clemenceau had affixed the headline "J'accuse!" (I accuse!); it was published January 13, 1898 in the maiden issue of the newspaper L'Aurore (The Dawn). It had the effect of a bomb — in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, "It was one of the great commotions of history." Émile Zola's intent was to force his own prosecution for libel so that the emerging facts of the Dreyfus case could be thoroughly aired. In this he succeeded. He was convicted, appealed, was retried, and, before hearing the result, fled to England on the advice of his counsel and friends, returning to Paris in June 1899 when he heard that Dreyfus's trial was to be reviewed.
Zola's worldwide fame and respected reputation brought international attention to what he considered Dreyfus's unjust treatment. However, most of the work of exposing the errors in Dreyfus's conviction was done by four people: Dreyfus's brother Mathieu, who fought a lonely campaign for several years; Jewish journalist and anarchist Bernard Lazare, who first used the word J'accuse in L’Eclair, on 15 September 1896, a paper which he rewrote under the title The Dreyfus Affair – A Miscarriage of Justice, published in Belgium in November 1896; then Lt.Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart, a senior infantry officer who had replaced Lt. Colonel Sandherr, now deceased, at the helm of French Military Counter-intelligence; and the Alsatian vice-president of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. They all worked resolutely to make the case for a revision of Dreyfus's conviction by the French military justice system. Picquart himself, who had demonstrated that the real author of the "bordereau" was Major Esterhazy, was reassigned to a post in the south of Tunisia in December 1896. This was not necessarily an inappropriate assignment, since Picquart had originally been transferred from a North African Tirailleur regiment to lead military counter intelligence in Paris. The intention now, however, was to get Picquart away from Paris in order to silence him. It was, in fact, a deliberate obstruction of justice by highly placed members of the French military leadership.
The affair saw the emergence of the "intellectuals" — academics and others with high intellectual achievements who took positions on grounds of higher principle — such as Zola, the novelists Octave Mirbeau and Anatole France, the mathematicians Henri Poincaré and Jacques Hadamard, and the librarian of the École Normale Supérieure, Lucien Herr. Constantin Mille, a Romanian Socialist writer and émigré in Paris, identified the anti-Dreyfusard camp with a "militarist dictatorship".
In 1906 the Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly approved measures to rehabilitate and promote Dreyfus and Picquart in the Army. (Picquart became a general before WW1 and even held the position of Minister of War in a later Clemenceau government in 1906.) War Minister Général de Galliffet, also in 1906, formally put an end to the Dreyfus Affair during an intervention in the Chamber of Deputies which ended with the famous phrase: "L'incident est clos " which translates as "The incident is closed ". However, anti-Dreyfusards in the civilian realm never really ceased to denounce the Dreyfus affair to further their own political ends.
The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterwards. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups such as Maurras' Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades. The right-wing Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants. The Vichy Regime would later close its eyes to the arrest of Dreyfus's granddaughter, Madeleine, by the Gestapo and to her deportation and death at Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz, in January 1944.
Lucie Dreyfus, the loyal wife of Alfred, wrote many letters of comfort to him during his exile. She had also written the Vatican for mercy, but her letter was never answered. It was she who appealed to Émile Zola for help. Lucie survived the Holocaust by changing her identity and hiding in Southern France at a Catholic convent under the name of Mme Duteil. She died in Paris at age 76, on December 14, 1945.
In 1985, President François Mitterrand commissioned a statue of Dreyfus by sculptor Louis Mitelberg to be installed at the École Militaire, but the Minister of Defense refused to display it although Alfred Dreyfus had been rehabilitated into the Army and fully exonerated in 1906
The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward, Herzl wrote The Jewish State (1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization, which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, demonstrating to him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. Historically, it is true that the Dreyfus injustice was not the initial motivation for Herzl's actions. However it did go a long way to keep motivating him further into promoting Zionism. His persistent activism during his lifetime eventually led to the creation of a Jewish state long after his death.
In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus, and criticized the persecution of Jews in France.
Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-semitism in France, however. It was also viewed as the opposite. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: "A country that tears itself apart to defend the honor of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.
A British-made television film of 1991, Prisoner of Honor, directed by Ken Russell, focuses on the efforts of Colonel Picquart to have the sentence of Alfred Dreyfus overturned. (Colonel Picquart was played by American actor Richard Dreyfuss, who says he is a descendant of Alfred Dreyfus).