Dreyfus, Alfred


Dreyfus, Alfred
(1859–1935)
   The French officer in the Dreyfus Affair. Born into a middle-class assimilated family in Alsace, Dreyfus took up a military career, and was commissioned as an artillery officer. After completing a staff course, he was posted to the General Staff with the rank of captain. Earnest, hardworking and unfriendly, of medium height and wearing pince-nez, he was a wholly unremarkable man. Dreyfus was suddenly propelled into the centre of a judicial drama that was to obsess and rend France for several years, and make him the focus of continuing world attention.
   In 1894, the French counter-intelligence retrieved from the wastepaper basket of the German military attaché in Paris a handwritten bordereau, or schedule, listing secret French military documents that had been or were to be passed to Germany. The inference was that someone on the General Staff was a traitor. Suspicion fell on Dreyfus although there was no real evidence against him other than a similarity in the handwriting, and the fact that as the only Jew on the staff his loyalty was suspect. In spite of that, General Mercier, the minister of war, ordered his arrest, probably in the hope that this would force a confession. That did not happen, and Dreyfus was tried before a court martial of five judges. It was held in secret, and when the judges raised awkward questions about the lack of proof, they were shown a secret file, the existence of which was not disclosed to the accused or his counsel. On the basis of this grossly irregular procedure, Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment - the death penalty having been abolished a few years earlier. At a ceremonial public parade, he was stripped of his rank and degraded. He was then shipped off to Devil’s Island, a rock two miles long and half a mile wide, one of a group of islands off the coast of French Guiana in South America, used as a penal colony for special prisoners. The sole inhabitants of this tiny bleak islet were Dreyfus, kept in chains in a stone hut, and his guards. To all intents and purposes, the case was closed, and the prisoner was left to rot away the rest of his life.
   However, in Paris his brother Mathieu and a few other individuals continued to maintain that there had been a miscarriage of justice. They learnt that at the secret trial illegal evidence had been used, and that the published reports of Dreyfus’ confession after the trial were false. A Jewish editor and man of letters, Bernard Lazare, distributed a pamphlet, ‘The Truth about the Dreyfus Affair’. But these efforts gained little attention. In 1896, nearly two years after the trial, the doubts were reinforced from an unexpected source. There came into the hands of Colonel Picquart, the new head of the counter-espionage bureau, the torn fragments of an unsent note from the German military attaché to a French staff officer, Major Esterhazy, indicating that the latter was in the pay of the Germans. Esterhazy was a dissipated and debtridden man-about-town of aristocratic Polish descent, and married to the daughter of a French marquis. On a hunch, Picquart re-examined the Dreyfus file, particularly the secret dossier that had been compiled in his department by a Major Henry and shown at the time to the military tribunal. Picquart found that the crucial bordereau seemed to be in Esterhazy’s handwriting and became convinced that Esterhazy had committed the original act of espionage for the Germans, for which Dreyfus had wrongly been convicted. Picquart reported this to the chief of staff and his deputy, but they tried to persuade him to drop the matter. When he was unwilling to do so, he was transferred to a remote post in Tunisia. Major Henry, who had forged documents in the secret file, then bolstered the army’s case with fresh forgeries. The main one purported to be an intercepted communication to the German military attaché from his Italian colleague in Paris, implicating Dreyfus as a spy.
   Driven by his conscience, Picquart had managed to divulge his findings to a lawyer friend. When his superiors discovered this leakage, Picquart was court- martialed for contravening regulations and imprisoned. But the breach had been made and an important political figure, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, the vice- president of the Senate, took up the cause of ‘Revision’ - the reopening of the case. The Dreyfusards grew in number and gained more eminent converts, such as the Socialist leader Jean-Léon Jaurès, the formidable debater Clemenceau, and the famous writers Anatole France and émile Zola. They were able to force the government to put Esterhazy on trial, but the full influence of the army and public opinion was brought to bear to secure his acquittal. This could have been a fatal blow to Revision but for émile Zola. He went home after the verdict and closed himself in his room for twenty-four hours. The following day, 13 January 1898, he published in Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore an open letter addressed to the president of the Republic.
   It was a thunderous four-thousand-word indictment of the political and military establishment, under the banner headline J’Accuse…! In it Zola named the men whom he charged with deliberately committing and covering up an act of injustice, and challenged them to sue him for libel. His action was an international sensation. In France it provoked such a wave of consternation and fury that a reluctant government was forced to take action against France’s most towering literary figure. A case was brought against him by the minister of war and conducted in an atmosphere violently hostile to the defendant, and under threat that the total general staff would resign if its honour was not upheld. The jury found against Zola by a majority of seven to five, and he received the maximum penalty, a year’s imprisonment and a fine of five thousand francs. In danger of his life from the mob, he escaped to England. But the trial he had invited had given l’Affaire Dreyfus a world dimension, and swept the whole of French political, social and intellectual life into a storm that would not die down until the end of the century.
   Looking back a century later it seems inexplicable that the fate of one obscure army officer should for years have dominated France, and plunged it into such fierce controversy that families were split apart and old friends cut each other dead. Obviously the Dreyfus case was a catalyst that brought to a head all the major tensions, conflicts and prejudices in the French body politic of the period. Not long before, in 1870, France had been defeated and humiliated by the Prussia of Bismarck and the kaiser. It still remained in the military shadow of Germany. The French army was the focus of patriotism and national sentiment, and carried both memories of past glory as well as hopes for future victory. The generals fought against the reopening of a trial where it would be alleged that the military establishment had stooped to illegality and forgery in order to frame an innocent man and protect a traitor. For the general public it was intolerable that the admired and cherished army should be weakened and discredited by such an exercise that could only serve the German enemy. In the murky atmosphere of charges and counter-charges, people, as usual, believed what they wanted to believe. And because the prestige and honour of the French army had become committed to the proposition that Dreyfus was guilty, the public resisted Revision.
   Behind the army were ranged the powerful forces of the Right, eager to undermine the republic that had come to birth in the debacle of 1870, and the forces of change identified with the republic. The Church was embattled against the growing secularism and anti-clericalism, and the intellectual licence that was eroding away the traditional authority of religion. The upper classes too were fighting to defend their citadels of privilege. The overwhelming bulk of the press was on the side of the Establishment, and stridently patriotic. The Dreyfusards suffered a daily deluge of invective and innuendo. Curiously enough, it was not really a confrontation between Right and Left. The burgeoning Socialist Party in France was, in its own class-war terms, opposed to both the bourgeoisie and the military, and Dreyfus belonged to both. They did not regard l’Affaire as their affair, and it was only towards the end that Jaurès persuaded his colleagues that it was in the interests of the party to rally to the republic against its rightwing foes and to appear as the defenders of justice.
   The ugliest and most frightening aspect of the Dreyfus affair was the anti- Semitism it brought to the surface in France. It was led by Edouard Drumont, his National Anti-Semitic League and his newspaper, La Libre Parole. The anti- Revision camp became infected with the belief that behind the Jew Dreyfus was a mysterious and powerful syndicate organized by international Jewish finance to destroy France. It was in league with the Germans, the communists, the atheists and every other enemy of the established order. Every Dreyfusard, however distinguished, was a paid tool of the syndicate; all evidence of Esterhazy’s guilt or the complicity of senior army officers was forged by the syndicate. These fantasies dredged up from the Dark Ages were personified in the popular press by the stereotype of a fat, hooked-nose Jewish money-lender. After a century of emancipation, anti-Semitism was once more politically and socially potent in France as it was in Germany and Russia. Most of the assimilated French Jews viewed this with dismay. Few of them chose to identify themselves with Dreyfus. In 1898, there was a fresh dénouement. A new government had been elected and its minister of war, Cavaignac, was determined to wind up the affair once and for all. He studied the file, and in the Chamber of Deputies delivered a detailed statement against reopening the trial. It was hailed by most of the country with jubilation and relief - until Jaurès rose and incisively attacked and demolished the statement point by point. The shaken minister tried to salvage the situation by having an independent senior officer examine the file once again. He was able to prove that the famous letter from the Italian military attaché had been cleverly forged. Major (now Colonel) Henry was arrested and promptly committed suicide in his cell. The demand for Revision gained new impetus. The Court of Cassation (a civilian review tribunal) ordered a retrial and a new military court was set up for the purpose at Rennes in Brittany. After this sensational breakthrough the Rennes trial had world coverage. Once again it generated intense public excitement.
   It was a shock to the crowded court-room when Dreyfus appeared. Nearly five years of Devil’s Island, of chains, solitude, privation and tropical fever, had taken its toll. Forty years old, he seemed aged and shrunken, with prematurely white hair and hardly conscious of what was taking place. The most poignant irony was that he had been totally cut off from the world, and of all those present, he alone knew nothing of the Dreyfus affair since he had been deported - nothing even of the Zola trial or the Esterhazy trial. Once more, the judges were presented with the stark view that a verdict for Dreyfus was a verdict against the French army. It was bluntly put by General Mercier, the former minister of war: ‘Either Dreyfus is guilty or I am.’ The military court was unable to stand up to such pressure. It reaffirmed Dreyfus’s guilt but owing to ‘extenuating circumstances’ it reduced his life sentence to ten years, including the period he had already served. Soon after, he was granted a pardon by the president and released. A broken man, he declined to accept the urging of his friends and supporters that he should appeal against the Rennes verdict in order to clear himself finally. That had to wait until 1906 when the Court of Cassation set aside the original conviction after a leftist government had come into power. Dreyfus was reinstated in the army and promoted to the rank of major and awarded the Order of the Legion of Honour. After all the frenzy had passed, the verdict of history may be a kindly one. There were on both sides honourable men who fought for ideas that were dear to them - those who were prepared to sacrifice their careers for the ideal of justice; and those for whom the national interest, as they saw it, outweighed a possible wrong to an individual.
   In 1894, the first Dreyfus trial was covered by a Viennese Jewish correspondent, Dr Theodor HERZL, for his paper the Neue Freie Presse. Later, he witnessed the military ceremony in which Dreyfus was degraded, and heard the crowds screaming ‘Death to the Jews’. He wrote: ‘Where? In France. In Republican, modern, civilized France, a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man.’ The experience crystallized the distress he had felt for a long time over the Jewish question, and his disillusionment with the answer of assimilation. Feverishly he wrote down a programme for a national and territorial solution, and published it under the title The Jewish State. Eighteen months later, the First Congress met in Basle. Against the backcloth of the Dreyfus affair, the modern Zionist movement had emerged.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • DREYFUS, ALFRED — (1859–1935), officer in the French army, involved in a treason trial. His court martial, conviction, and final acquittal developed into a political event which had repercussions throughout France and the Jewish world. Born in Mulhouse, Alsace,… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Dreyfus, Alfred — born Oct. 19, 1859, Mulhouse, France died July 12, 1935, Paris French army officer, subject of the Dreyfus Affair (l Affaire). Son of a Jewish textile manufacturer, he studied at the École Polytechnique, then entered the army and rose to the rank …   Universalium

  • Dreyfus, Alfred — (1859 1935)    military officer    Alfred Dreyfus is best known for being the center of the major controversy known as the Dreyfus affair. Born in Mulhouse to a Jewish Alsatian family, Dreyfus pursued a military career and, in 1893, as an… …   France. A reference guide from Renaissance to the Present

  • Dreyfus, Alfred — (1859 1935)    A French Jew and artillery captain attached to the general staff of the French army. In 1894, he was accused of selling military secrets to Germany and placed on trial for espionage and treason. He was tried by a military court and …   Historical Dictionary of Israel

  • Dreyfus, Alfred — (1859 1935)    French soldier. He was born in Alsace. He became a captain on the general staff of the French army in 1892. In 1894 he was accused of treason, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He protested his innocence and was… …   Dictionary of Jewish Biography

  • Dreyfus, Alfred — ► (1859 1935) Militar francés. En 1894 fue acusado de alta traición y condenado a deportación. Su proceso dio lugar al célebre affaire Dreyfus. * * * (19 oct. 1859, Mulhouse, Francia–12 jul. 1935, París). Oficial del ejército francés que… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Dreyfus,Alfred — Drey·fus (drīʹfəs, drā ), Alfred. 1859 1935. French army officer of Jewish descent who was convicted of treason (1894), sentenced to life imprisonment, and ultimately acquitted when the evidence against him was shown to have been forged by anti… …   Universalium

  • Dreyfus, Alfred —  (1859–1935) French officer whose wrongful imprisonment on Devil’s Island became a celebrated controversy …   Bryson’s dictionary for writers and editors

  • Dreyfus — Dreyfus, Alfred …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Alfred Dreyfus — [alˈfʀɛd dʀɛˈfys] (* 9. Oktober 1859 in Mülhausen; † 12. Juli 1935 in Paris) war ein französischer Offizier. Seine ungerechtfertigte Verurteilung wegen Landesverrats löste 1898 die Dreyfus Affäre …   Deutsch Wikipedia


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