The Dreyfus Affair

The espionage conviction of a French military officer was a watershed event in the history of European anti-Semitism.

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At the end of the 19th century in France, the birthplace of European Jewish emancipation, an espionage scandal erupted involving an assimilated Jewish army captain and questions about his "loyalty" to the state. The anti-Semitism that characterized the arrest, trial, and retrial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus shocked world Jewry. Alfred Dreyfus

The Crime

In 1894, Dreyfus was arrested and accused of spying. He was convicted by a military court for supposedly selling French military secrets to the Germans. 

The physical evidence consisted of a slip of paper discovered in a German military trashcan on which was written a promise, in French, to deliver a valuable French artillery manual to the Germans. Handwriting experts could not definitively link the note to Dreyfus, but the captain was vulnerable on other accounts.

Dreyfus was rich and Jewish. He was also from Alsace, the border area of France that was ceded to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71. After the area was returned to Germany, the Dreyfus family moved to Paris. The press ran stories questioning his loyalty: Was he, above all, French? German? Or part of an "international Jewish conspiracy"?

While his background made him "suspicious," the military court hesitated to convict Dreyfus without more substantive proof. Colonel Henry, a French military intelligence agent, testified that he had additional information definitively implicating Dreyfus, but that this information involved classified military secrets and thus could not be revealed. Based on Colonel Henry's testimony, Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in exile on Devil's Island.

The Cover-up

In March of 1896, French intelligence discovered another piece of paper--in the same German office--which promised new deliveries of French military secrets. The handwriting was identical to that found on the piece of paper used in the Dreyfus case. Since Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island at the time the second paper was discovered, he could not have authored this or the original treasonous note. This time, handwriting experts traced the writing to another officer, Walter Esterhazy, a notorious gambler.

Upon learning of these new developments Colonel Henry, arguing that the army's credibility was at stake, initiated a cover-up. The new information was leaked, however, to the government. A group of liberal senators charged the army with undermining one of the very foundations of republican government, equality before the law, and demanded a retrial.

When the information was released to the press, the army had no choice but to bring Esterhazy before a court martial; despite the serious evidence against him, the army voted to protect him as one of their own, and Esterhazy was acquitted.

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of MyJewishLearning.com.