Postcards From the Dreyfus Affair

Opinions about Alfred Dreyfus--and modern anti-Semitism--were expressed through the new print media of the day.

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Anti-Semitic postcards showed Dreyfus wearing the pointed helmet of the German army and speaking with a thick German accent. Others emphasized Jewish greed, with Dreyfus counting his money or looking for other paid espionage opportunities. Other illustrations borrowed from the century-old myth of the Wandering Jew and dressed Dreyfus in rags, his meager belongings stacked on his back.

The postcard above represents a (fake) monument to the glory of Dreyfus, as if erected by Germany as a sign of "eternal gratefulness" (so says the inscription on the pedestal). We see Dreyfus with a crooked nose, in a German uniform (with the eagle), next to his broken sword (a sign of treachery), sitting on stacks of money while reading the "bordereau," the paper that caused the scandal.

Pro-Dreyfus Postcards

But there were also favorable postcards of Dreyfus, and none of them mentioned that he was Jewish. On the contrary, they emphasized his loyalty and innocence, and depicted him in all his "Frenchness"--an honest man with values and responsibilities, serving his country with dignity. In favorable cards, Dreyfus was always in French military uniform. He was often surrounded with French Republican symbols (the motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", Republican hat and French flag) and was often in the company of a female personification of justice holding a sword or a scale (see below).

Public Opinion

Selecting a Dreyfus postcard and sending it to an individual was already a political statement. In many cases, the sender would add a few words commenting on the image of the postcard: an expression of hope or encouragement for Dreyfus, or an anti-Semitic slogan, for example. Often, however, the handwritten text had no relation to the image, and sometimes even clashed. Cards show Dreyfus in shackles, being tortured on Devil's Island, with notes about the weather conditions at a beach resort or excitement about an upcoming tea party.

As much as the sender made a statement in selecting a Dreyfus postcard, the recipient was forced to take a position as well. Whether in agreement or disagreement nobody could remain indifferent to such a political drama. Even when the Affair didn't make front-page news, it remained background noise that occupied public discourse.

In this sense, postcards turned out to be an ideal tool for mobilizing supporters across social, religious, and national lines. The idea of being part of history in the making encouraged people in both camps to take a position, contribute to public debate, if only by buying and sending picture postcards. The pro-Dreyfus movement was particularly active and, among other strategies, produced pre-printed and pre-addressed postcards that could be simply signed, stamped and sent to Alfred Dreyfus' wife, Lucie, or to his lawyer, Henri Labori, as a sign of support.

Other visually-rich new media, such as serialized novels and illustrated newspapers, followed suit. Those against the Captain carried on anti-Semitic stereotypes. In contrast, illustrations defending Dreyfus insisted on his French identity and his devotion to serve his country. A popular serialized novel of the time, The Calvary of an Innocent Man, underplays the Jewish politics of the Affair to such an extent, that it turns it into a romance featuring broken hearts and a revenge.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is an expert on post-Holocaust memory, most notably memorials and monuments, commemorative practices, restitution and compensation. Her expertise also includes the history of Anti-Semitism. She is the former director of the Committee against Anti-Semitism (CICAD) in Geneva, Switzerland.