Post-Nazism, post-Holocaust, it’s easy to forget that it was not Berlin, but Paris – the cultural capital of Europe – that played shameful host to the first outpouring of modern political anti-Semitism. For it was one hundred and eighteen years ago today that the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus – the brilliant high-ranking French officer of Jewish descent – plunged France into a political scandal that would would rage for a generation and expose a multitude of complex troubles for the fragile Third Republic: the collapsing traditions of a country still recoiling from Revolution; the uncertain role of the Church; the rising cult of the Army; the emergence of patriotic nationalism; and, above all, a hateful and endemic anti-Semitism to rival that of pre-WW2 Germany. The so-called Dreyfus Affair divided France as “Dreyfusards” were pitted against Jew-hating “anti-Dreyfusards”; even the most respected artists – Degas, Renoir, Cezanne – were revealed as anti-Semites. So how did the fate of one man manage to cause such national hysteria?
At the end of the 19th century, France was beset by political hang-ups, rife with paranoia and obsessed with espionage following its resounding defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. So when Captain Dreyfus was was found guilty of treason for selling secrets to the Prussians following a four-day court-martial of perjured testimony and trumped-up evidence, his guilt was turned into a public spectacle. In front of a large and baying Parisian crowd shouting “Death to Jews!”, Dreyfus was ignominiously stripped of his badges, his sword ceremonially broken. The disgraced captain was then shipped off 2,500 miles away, condemned to spend the rest of his life in a hellhole called Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guinea where he was forced to endure unspeakably inhumane conditions. Incarcerated alone with even his guards forbidden to speak to him, Dreyfus soon lost the ability to speak. A special security partition was built obstructing all views except the sky above. At night, he was manacled to his bed. Forced to survive on a paltry diet of rotting pork, Dreyfus suffered malnourishment and the loss of all his teeth.
Two years later, however, evidence in France began to emerge that the banished captain was in fact innocent.
Dreyfus, the only Jew in the army high command, had always maintained his innocence. But as the Parisian intelligentsia got wind of the rumours that another officer, Major Walsin Esterhazy, was in fact the traitor, support for the imprisoned captain gained momentum. Amidst increasingly outlandish cover-up attempts, independent investigators forced the case to be reopened, but the anti-Semitic Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry ensured Esterhazy’s acquittal by forging several documents cementing Dreyfus’ guilt.
The author Emile Zola responded to these farcical events by publishing an open letter to President Felix Faure under the legendary headline ”J’Accuse!” Zola declared the case “a crime against humanity,” named each conspirator in the military’s massive cover-up, and called upon the French government to restore justice. The letter caused such an outcry that Dreyfus was allowed to return to France to present his case to the Supreme Court. A new court-martial was ordered, whereupon Dreyfus was yet again found guilty. But such was the tumult amongst his supporters that he was pardoned a few days later. Public opinion remained divided, however, and when Dreyfus attended Zola’s funeral in 1902, he was wounded in an attempted assassination. It was not until 1906 that the cover-ups were fully exposed that Dreyfus was at last fully exonerated.
And so, after twelve long years, the Affair that had so divided France – even prompting the separation of Church and State in 1905 – finally came to an end. The anti-Semitic fervour subsided, but only temporarily. For the Dreyfus Affair was a harbinger of German anti-Semitism. And lest we forget that, during the German occupation of France in World War 2, the Vichy government actively collaborated in the extermination of French Jews – deporting 76,000 of its own citizens, including Dreyfus’s granddaughter, to Nazi death camps.