Who was Alfred Dreyfus?
Alfred Dreyfus was born in 1859 to a Jewish family in Mulhouse, Alsace, a region of eastern France which had been a centre of conflict between France and Germany for many years. When Dreyfus was 10 years old, the Franco-Prussian war broke out and Alsace was annexed by the Germans. The Dreyfus family, choosing their French identity, left Alsace and moved to Paris.
As a result of his childhood experience of being uprooted from his home, Dreyfus decided to join the French army. He climbed the military hierarchy and was promoted to the rank of captain in the artillery corps in 1889.
In 1891 Alfred Dreyfus married Lucie, and they had two children, Pierre and Jeanne.
Immediately after his wedding, Alfred was admitted to the École Supérieure de Guerre (War College) and graduated with honours two years later. Following this success, he was enrolled as a trainee in the headquarters of the French Army’s General Staff, the only Jewish officer to be accepted to this position. His religious affiliation was not, however, in his favour, and, apparently, one of the generals at War College declared that “Jews were not desired” on staff.
In 1894, the French Army’s counter intelligence section became aware of classified information being passed on to the German army. Suspicion quickly fell on Dreyfus, and he was arrested in October 1894 and convicted of treason in a secret court martial. Dreyfus was stripped of his rank and military decorations before a large crowd of cheering onlookers in a “degradation ceremony” and shipped off to solitary life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America. Throughout his trial Dreyfus claimed his innocence and in the degradation ceremony cried out:
I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the army. Long live France! Long live the army!
During the years of Dreyfus’ trial and imprisonment, people fought to prove his innocence. The new chief of French military intelligence, Lt. Colonel Georges Picquart, investigated the affair and found evidence that Dreyfus had been wrongly accused and that the spy was, in fact, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. However, the information was covered up, and Picquart was transferred to Tunisia.
The French public was split on the Dreyfus affair. The activists and intellectuals supported Dreyfus and were known as Dreyfusards. The famous French writer Émile Zola published an open-letter titled “J’accuse” in a Paris newspaper, accusing the president and government of France of anti-Semitism and of the wrongful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus. The anti-Dreyfusards, on the other hand, saw the affair as an example of the anti-patriotic views held by the Jews. They saw Dreyfus’ roots in Alsace (a territory still being disputed by France and Germany) as proof of his affiliation to Germany.
The protests finally succeeded, and in 1896 Alfred Dreyfus was returned to France and given a second trial. Despite the evidence brought before the court, Dreyfus was again found guilty of treason. Public opinion, however, forced President Émile Loubet to grant a pardon, and in 1899 Dreyfus was released from prison. He, nonetheless, remained officially a traitor:
The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honour.
Dreyfus lived for two years under house arrest, until he was officially exonerated in 1906. He was readmitted to the French army and promoted to the rank of major. Some still believed that he was guilty, and in 1908, during a ceremony transferring Émile Zola’s ashes to the Panthéon, Dreyfus was wounded in an assassination attempt.
Despite retiring from the army in 1907 due to poor health caused by his prison sentence, Dreyfus served as reserve officer in the artillery during World War I and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His son, Pierre, also served in the war and received a Croix de Guerre medal.
Dreyfus died in Paris on July 12, 1935 at the age of 75.
The Dreyfus Affair had a profound impact on the Zionist movement. Theodor Herzl, the founding father of the Zionist movement, covered the Dreyfus affair as a journalist and was deeply affected. In his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in 1896, Herzl wrote:
If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant 'Kill the Jews!' Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated…
The Dreyfus trial can be seen as a turning point in Jewish history and the beginning of the modern Zionist movement.