Alfred Dreyfus (9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935) was a French artillery officer of Jewish background whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most tense political dramas in modern French and European history. It is still known today as the Dreyfus Affair.
Born in Mulhouse (Mülhausen) in Alsace, Dreyfus was the youngest of seven children in the family of a prosperous Jewish textile manufacturer who moved to Paris from Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War, after which Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by the German Empire in 1871. The family had long been established in the area that traditionally had been German-speaking.
Dreyfus graduated from the elite École Polytechnique military school in Paris, where he received military training and thorough scientific studies in 1880 as a sub-lieutenant. His entry into the military was influenced by the experience of seeing Prussian troops enter his hometown in 1871 when he was eleven years old. From 1880 to 1882 he attended the artillery school at Fontainebleau to receive more specialized training as an artillery officer. On graduation he was attached to the first division of the 32nd Cavalry Regiment and promoted to lieutenant in 1885. In 1889 he was made adjutant to the director of the Établissement de Bourges, a government arsenal, and promoted to captain.
On 18 April 1891, Dreyfus married Lucie Hadamard (1870-1945). They had two children, Pierre and Jeanne. Three days after the wedding, Dreyfus received notice that he had been admitted to the École Supérieure de Guerre or War College. Two years later, in 1893, he graduated ninth in his class with honorable mention and was immediately designated as a trainee in the French Army's General Staff headquarters, where he would be the only Jewish officer. His father Raphaël died on 13 December 1893.
At the War College examination in 1892, his friends had expected him to do well. However, one of the members of the panel, General Bonnefond, felt that "Jews were not desired" on the staff, and gave Dreyfus poor marks, lowering his overall grade; he did the same thing for another Jewish candidate, Lieutenant Picard. Learning of this injustice, the two officers lodged a protest with the director of the school, Gen. Lebelin de Dionne, who expressed his regret for what had occurred, but said he was powerless to take any steps in the matter. The protest would later count against Dreyfus.
In 1894, the French Army's counter-intelligence section, led by Lt. Col. Sandherr, became aware that some new artillery information was being passed to the Germans by a highly-placed spy most likely to be in the General Staff. With anti-Semitism still widespread in many parts of French society, particularly in the conservative military, suspicion quickly fell upon Dreyfus, who was arrested for treason on 15 October 1894. The events that follow until his eventual exoneration on 12 July 1906 are chronicled in the article on the Dreyfus Affair. On 5 January 1895, Dreyfus was summarily convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island in French Guiana.
In August 1896 the new chief of French military intelligence, Lt Colonel Picquart, reported to his superiors that he had found evidence to the effect that the real traitor was a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Lt Col Picquart was silenced by being transferred, in November 1896, to the southern desert of Tunisia. When reports of an army cover-up and Dreyfus's possible innocence were leaked to the press, a heated debate ensued about anti-Semitism and France's identity as a Catholic nation and a republic founded on equal rights for all citizens. On 19 September 1899, following a passionate campaign by his supporters, including leading artists and intellectuals like Émile Zola, Dreyfus was pardoned by President Émile Loubet and left the prison. During that time he lived with one of his sisters at Carpentras, and later at Cologny.
Dreyfus was present at the ceremony removing Émile Zola's ashes to the Panthéon in 1908, when he was wounded in the arm by a gunshot from Louis Gregori, a disgruntled journalist, in an assassination attempt.
On 12 July 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated by a military commission. The day after his exoneration, he was readmitted into the army with the rank of Major ("Chef d'Escadron"). A week later, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour, and subsequently assigned to command an artillery unit at Vincennes. On 15 October 1906, he was placed in command of another artillery unit at Saint-Denis.
Dreyfus' time in prison, notably at Devil's Island, had been difficult on his health, and he was granted early retirement in October 1907. He volunteered, however, to serve again as a lieutenant-colonel during World War I and thus held several commands including in the Paris region. He eventually served in front-line duty as well, during 1917, although he had by that time reached normal retirement age. Finally, Lt Colonel Dreyfus was raised to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor in November 1918. Dreyfus' son, Pierre, served in numerous battles as an artillery captain and managed to survive the entire war. Pierre was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his services.
Dreyfus died in Paris aged 75, on 12 July 1935, 29 years to the day after his official exoneration. Two days later, his funeral cortège passed the Place de la Concorde through the ranks of troops assembled for the Bastille Day National Holiday (14 July 1935). He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. The inscription on his tombstone is in Hebrew and French. It reads (translated to English):
Today, a statue of Dreyfus holding his broken sword stands at the entrance to the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.