What Was the Dreyfus Affair?

The Dreyfus Affair is a 19th-century French political scandal. The wrongful conviction of captain Alfred Dreyfus exposed anti-Semitism and systemic injustice in the French Republic.

Mar 30, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
what was dreyfus affair


In 1894, Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of espionage following the discovery of a secret document revealing French military secrets to German intelligence. The court sentenced Dreyfus to life in prison. New evidence in 1896 revealed Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was responsible for the espionage. The case divided French society. Pro-republicans and anticlerical societies considered the case an example of anti-Semitism, while mostly Catholic groups maintained that Dreyfus was a traitor. The Dreyfus Affair demonstrated the impact of popular opinion, state-church relations, and deep-rooted anti-Semitism on criminal justice.


France Before the Dreyfus Affair

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The Traitor by V. Lenepveu, 1900. Source: Tablet


France was characterized by the intense struggle between clerical and anti-clerical groups during the second half of the 19th century. The primary source of controversy was the extent of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in French society and politics. The French defeat against Prussia in 1870 and Prussia’s annexation of Alsace-Moselle in eastern France further widened the gap.


For clerical groups that supported the Church and the monarchy, the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War was caused by France’s drift from the Church as a result of the French Revolution. While the anti-clerical group, mainly Republicans, viewed the influence of the Church on state institutions as the main factor in military defeat. The unstable political climate of the Third Republic, power struggles for dominance, and frequent changes of governments radicalized the political climate and contributed to the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was particularly perceived as a foreign threat to French politics.


Before the second half of the 19th century, France was regarded as the least anti-Semitic country on the European continent. As estimated, France was the leading country providing political asylum to the Jewish people during the 1880s, following Tsarist Russia’s brutal policies against the Jews. However, the seed of anti-Semitism in French society had been planted in 1886 in an article by Edouard Drumont. The article described the growing immigration of Jews in France as a Jewish invasion.


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Their New Jerusalem, an anti-Semitic cartoon by Grant E. Hamilton, 1892. Source: Cornell University Library

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The rise in anti-Semitism is directly related to the socio-economic reforms and policies implemented by the government in the latter part of the 1800s. After the 1893 elections, a centrist government was established as a result of the opposition between radical and socialist groups. The policies of the new government were focused on economic protectionism and aspirated to further French colonial interests. In this context, social issues were left behind, triggering public anxiety and uncertainty among the French population.


Félix Faure, the president of France, appointed Jules Méline as a Prime Minister in 1896. He faced significant opposition. In an effort to retain political support, Jules Méline’s more conservative policies sought to reduce religious and socio-economic tensions, though they favored industrial advancements over improving the quality of life. This marked the period when anti-Semite sentiments re-surged in France. The growing number of Jews in France was attributed to being a key factor in the worsening standard of living. The Dreyfus case was the impetus for bringing hidden anti-Semitism to the surface.


Alfred Dreyfus Before the Trial

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Histoire d’un Innocent — The Story of an Innocent, 1898. Source: The National Library of Israel


Alfred Dreyfus, born on October 9, 1859, was from Alsace-Lorraine. His father, Raphaël Dreyfus, was a prosperous Jewish textile manufacturer. The family left Alsace-Lorraine after Prussia occupied the territory in 1870 following the Franco-Prussian War. The painful experience of the war inspired Dreyfus to pursue a military career. In October 1877, he entered the elite École Polytechnique military school in Paris.


Dreyfus was educated in science in addition to his military training. He soon was promoted to Captain of the General Staff in 1889.


Dreyfus enrolled in the War College, also known as the École Supérieure de Guerre, in April 1891. After two years, he resumed his military career as a trainee at the General Staff headquarters of the French Army, as the only officer of Jewish descent. Dreyfus’s Jewish origins influenced General Bonnefond, a member of the grading panel, to give him lower marks during the War College examination, stating that “Jews were not desired” on the staff. Dreyfus protested but without any success.


The Dreyfus Trial

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The Bordereau, 1894. Source: Famous Trials


In 1894, as the only Jewish captain in the French army’s high command, Dreyfus became an easy target to be held responsible for leaking strategic information to the German Embassy in France.


A cleaning woman came across a secret document known as a bordereau (detailed memorandum) addressed to the German military attaché at the German Embassy in Paris. It provided Germany with strategic information on French military equipment, such as the locations and deployments of artillery and troops. The counterintelligence agency was alerted right away, which suspected Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish minority stationed at the artillery unit.


On October 15, 1894, Dreyfus was taken into custody and charged with treason. A secret court convened on January 5, 1895, found Dreyfus guilty and sentenced him to life in prison on Devil’s Island, French Guiana.


As dictated by the French military custom, Dreyfus’s military uniform was stripped of its buttons and braid, and his sword was publicly taken away in the courtyard of École Militaire, with the crowd shouting “death to Jews.”


The anti-Semitic press, particularly the Catholic publication La Croix, drove public attention to the incident after calling for “the expulsion of Jews from France.”


The Dreyfus Affair

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Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart by Henri Manuel. Source: Bibliothèques Patrimoniales


In March 1896, the newly appointed head of the intelligence department, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, uncovered new evidence that revealed that Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was the one responsible for the crime. While performing his ordinary duties, the small fragment of a pneumatic tube message from the German Embassy came into Picquart’s hands. He found out that the handwriting of Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy matched the handwriting of the bordereau and that Dreyfus’s claim of his innocence might actually be correct.


The French military under Major Huber-Joseph Henry, who was close friends with Esterhazy, however, denied the new evidence and relocated Lieutenant Picquart to Tunisia in November 1896. Additionally, Major Huber-Joseph Henry forged new documents, denying Dreyfus the possibility to prove his innocence.


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The Game of the Dreyfus Affair and Truth by Imprimerie Charaire, 1898. Source: Jewish Museum, New York


These developments did not remain unnoticed by the wider public. Lieutenant Picquart’s lawyer shared the information with Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, and the senator ensured that the case was heard publicly. The scandal sparked interest, especially from the press and opposition representatives. Issues of anti-Semitism, judicial unfairness, and the right to equal rights for all French residents came to light.


The case interested intellectuals, particularly Émile Zola, a prominent French journalist and novelist, as well as Georges Clemenceau, an experienced member of the French National Assembly and the future World War I prime minister, who worked as a publisher of the socialist newspaper L’Aurore at that time.


On January 1, 1893, Émile Zola’s 4,000-word open letter, entitled “J’accuse!” (I accuse!), was published on L’Aurore’s front page. The letter was directed to the president of France, Félix Faure. Zola condemned the French army’s cover-up of the Dreyfus case and denounced it for failing to execute justice for Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, specifically naming the personnel involved in the case, including the Minister of War and the General Staff.


In his famous letter, Zola remarked, “By appealing to the odious anti-Semitism, [the accusation] will destroy [a] freedom-loving France.”


Major Count Esterhazy, Captain Dreyfus, Lieut. Colonel Henry by El Paso Daily Herald, 1898. Source: Library of Congress


Émile Zola’s remarkable political effort created a wave of public support for Dreyfus and increased pressure on the government to take action. But almost immediately, on February 23, 1898, the French government, on charges of “criminal libel,” sentenced Émile Zola to one year in prison. Zola avoided the sentence by fleeing to England.


Émile Zola’s attempt did not go in vain, however. The bomb Zola dropped finally exploded, forcing French society to split into two opposing camps: the Dreyfusards and the antiDreyfusards. Demonstrations broke out in Paris and around the world.


The group supporting Dreyfus represented an alliance of mainly republicans, radicals, and socialists, who stipulated that the Dreyfus case served as a test of the French Republic and its values to see whether it could guarantee equal rights and justice for all. They condemned extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, and the role of the Church in political decision-making.


Anti-Dreyfusards, supported by right-wing politicians, expressed anti-Semitism and concerns that the reversal of the government would further damage the French military’s morale and prestige.


The Reopening of the Case 

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Pro-Dreyfus Postcard. Source: The National Library of Israel


Major Henry, suspected of forging the documents, confessed to his crime in August 1898 and committed suicide. Esterhazy, the real traitor, left Paris for Belgium and then London. The Dreyfusards were eager to prove the innocence of the Jewish captain and managed to gather the signatories of some 3,000 supporters. The petition called for the revision of Dreyfus’s trial.


In June 1899, René Waldeck-Rousseau became the new Prime Minister of France. Concerned with public discontent and rising pressure, he made up his mind to end the case and allowed the retrial in August 1899. Dreyfus, completely uninformed about the recent developments, was suddenly brought back from Devil’s Island to Rennes, and the court martial took place from August 7 to September 9, 1899.


The court-martial once again found Dreyfus guilty. However, under “extenuating circumstances,” the court reduced his sentence to ten years’ imprisonment. Just before the end of the second trial, President Faure died, and the new French President, Émile Loubet, granted Dreyfus a pardon on September 19, 1899, hoping to save the French Army from public anger. The offer was justified as a humanitarian gesture caused by Dreyfus’s poor health. Dreyfus accepted the offer and kept the right to prove his innocence under the new circumstances.


With this move, Dreyfus offended his supporters. A French poet, Charles Peguy, noted: “We were prepared to die for Dreyfus, but Dreyfus was not.” Dreyfus believed that if he were brought back to Devil’s Island, it would be a question of life or death.


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Photograph of Alfred Dreyfus’ Second Trial, 1899. Source: The National Library of Israel


In 2006, biographer Vincent Duclert provided additional insight into Dreyfus’s decision to accept the offer. He noted that Dreyfus could be viewed as “the model patriot, never doubting the capacity of his country to move toward justice and truth.”


Dreyfus was released on September 21, 1899, and remained under house arrest with one of his sisters at Carpentras, with the status of a convicted criminal. Upon returning to France, Dreyfus said, “The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.”


In the following years, France saw the republicans gain strength and influence. Additionally, new evidence appeared, proving the French military cover-up, including the confession of Max von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris, that he indeed served as a secret spy.


The case was concluded on July 12, 1906, when the French Supreme Court overturned the judgment and declared Dreyfus innocent. The army reinstated Dreyfus, but his age (47) and health did not allow Dreyfus to serve, and he resigned in 1907. Dreyfus was given the opportunity to rejoin the military in a non-combatant role during the later stage of World War I. Picquart also served as brigadier general and later became the Minister of War.


Results & Legacy of the Dreyfus Affair

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Alfred Dreyfus’ Rehabilitation Ceremony, 1906. Source: The National Library of Israel


Émile Zola’s fascination with the Dreyfus Affair is best illustrated in his description of the event: “It is gripping… it is exciting! It is horrible! But how is it great at the same time?


The unlawful imprisonment of an innocent person based on his heritage had greatly influenced the social and political establishment of the Third French Republic. It illustrated how latent anti-Semitism can be brought to life during power struggles and how public discontent and the press can disturb the socio-political environment, leading to fundamental socio-political changes in societies.


The key driving force of the Dreyfus Affair was anti-Semitism. An open act of stigmatizing the Jewish captain deeply touched young Theodore Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist and political activist who would become the father of Zionism. Theodore Herzl worked as a journalist at Dreyfus’s trial, and the case instilled a commitment to fighting for the rights of the Jews, concluding that the Jewish society needed its own state to function as a nation. If the enlightened and emancipated France could not safeguard equal rights for all, particularly Jews, the rest of the world would not be able to guarantee the safe and smooth assimilation of Jewish people in their societies. Nearly 50 years later, in 1948, the State of Israel was established.


The Dreyfus Affair increased public support for the pro-Dreyfus coalition cabinet led by René Waldeck-Rousseau, and the new administration recognized the necessity of stricter army control and anti-clerical legislation. It clearly illustrated the malfunctions of these institutions and the hostility to fundamental rights—the rights the French Revolution established. The French government disbanded the majority of religious orders almost simultaneously with Dreyfus’s exoneration, leading to the separation of church and state in 1905.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.