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  • James Houser

January 13, 1898 - The Dreyfus Affair is Exposed

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

This is actually an incredibly important story. You know what I'm gonna say, and yes: I should have written more about it.

January 13, 1898, Paris. Journalist Emile Zola publishes a broadside that exposes the greatest scandal in the history of the French Army: the Dreyfus Affair.

I'll keep this brief, because it's difficult. In 1894, French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason for selling secrets to the Germans and condemned to imprisonment on Devil's Island, an Alcatraz-like fortress in the middle of the Caribbean. Dreyfus, unlike most French Army officers, happened to be Jewish. His confinement was illegal, his trial conducted behind closed doors, his lawyers denied access to "evidence," and his name slandered throughout the press.

"Alfred Dreyfus," 1894, by Aaron Gerschel

If the affair had ended there, it would have been another sad story of injustice in an unjust world. But it did not. The French Army's new chief of intelligence, Georges Picquart, became convinced of Dreyfus's innocence through research into secret documents, and was shocked to discover how flimsy the evidence was. The French high command shut down Picquart's investigations and attempted to discredit him.

However, Picquart had identified the real culprit: Major Walsin Esterhazy, who had corresponded with German agents and helped to frame Dreyfus.

The French Army put Esterhazy through a two-day, closed-door trial and acquitted him, attempting to bury the affair - and essentially attempted to convict Picquart instead. "By error an innocent person was convicted, but on order a guilty party was acquitted." With Picquart imprisoned on trumped-up charges for daring to challenge the Dreyfus conviction, he passed all the information to journalist Emile Zola.

Zola's publication of "J'Accuse!" on January 13, 1898 blew the lid off the whole scandal. The French government promptly arrested Zola as well, charged him with "slander of a public official," and convicted both him and Picquart in trials that were corrupt through and through, denying the right to present evidence and question witnesses. Zola, who had spoken nothing but the truth, was thrown in prison for speaking against the French authorities.

J'Accuse...!, 1898

See, this is what happens without freedom of speech.

But things were too far gone for the French authorities to halt. More journalists passed on more evidence. Even Oscar Wilde, the famous author and playwright, was smuggling information from sources to journalists. Figures in the French government took their own actions to expose the truth.

All the while the conservative factions in France - those that supported the Army, the Church, and the Authority - rallied around the "undeniable" guilt of Dreyfus and claimed it was treason to question the Army. Belief in Dreyfus' guilt became belief in order and in France, doubt in his guilt meant that you were not patriotic, a filthy liberal. Anti-Semitic riots broke out, stoked by the pro-guilt factions. France was aflurry with riot, protest, shouting matches in cafes and restaurants. Military coups were discussed and even attempted.

In 1899 Dreyfus was brought back to France for a retrial. The Army rigged this one as they had the previous one, one of Dreyfus's defense lawyers was even assassinated, and he was reconvicted! Chaos erupted once again...

And just like that, it was all over.

President of France Loubet quietly pardoned Dreyfus, allowing him to live in peace. Though the scandal would flare up again, the crisis was past. Emile Zola died in an accident in 1902, causing a new flurry of interest in the Affair, which finally came to its close when the French Supreme Court threw out the case in 1906. Alfred Dreyfus would serve loyally as a French artillery officer throughout, and survive, World War I.

Forgotten today, at the time the Dreyfus Affair shook France - and the world - to its core. The Army's reputation was permanently damaged, and its spirit sapped, forcing a radical shakeup in the years before World War I.

It seems so distant now. Anti-Semitism, the defense of tradition, the miscarriage of justice, the worship of the military, the slander of those who seek the truth as "traitors" and "unpatriotic liberals," the persecution of minorities and journalists, the great crushing weight of bureaucracy and the concealment of tyranny...

Glad that's all behind us.

A good popular account of the Dreyfus Affair is in Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 (New York: Macmillan, 1966) although as I've said before take Tuchman with a grain of salt. She was a great writer but not always a super careful historian. The Proud Tower is worth reading in general, because it covers a whole span of events, including the anarchist/socialist movements, the United States' rise to empire, Germany's dramatic music scene, and political developments in Britain. For the Dreyfus Affair in particular, there are just a TON of works. The best for American readers might be David L. Lewis's Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair (New York: William Morrow, 1974).

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