The Dreyfus Affair: The anti-Semitism scandal that shook the Third Republic to its core

By Darshan Singh Brar


IN the tumultuous history of the French Third Republic, among the Panama Canal
Scandal, anarchism and corruption scandals, one stands among them.

The Dreyfus Affair.

It began in 1894 when army Captain Dreyfus was wrongfully accused of spying for the German Empire, by planning to leak to them technical documents such as information French artillery and France’s revolutionary 75 Caliber Field gun, the first modern artillery piece.

This affair comes at a time of ongoing tensions with the German Empire, which had conquered the Alsace-Lorraine region following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, but also at a time of political tensions in the French Third Republic.

Indeed, relations between the politicians and the army is touchy at best. The Republic was just recently rattled by the Boulangism movement five years ago where a French Army general threatened the Republic.

Furthermore, the Affair intervened at a time where militant secularism irked the often-fervent Catholic officers, leading later to the Fiche Scandal.

Background information will be secretly gathered regarding the officer corps, leading to
promotions based on political affiliation rather than on merit.

It is in this context that Captain Dreyfus is wrongfully accused and charged
as to perhaps put the blame on his Jewish background rather than security issues within the Army.

For the real culprit, Commander Esterhazy, was turned due to his gambling addiction and the resulting massive debts.

This was uncovered in 1896 by Intelligence officer Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart, leading to the trial of Esterhazy who is cleared of charges in 1898. In the meantime, Dreyfus lives in exile one French Guyana’s Devil Island since his public degradation and deportation in 1895 (exile for life).

This event shocked Theodor Herzl, then newspaper correspondent who was present at the ceremony, prompting his founding of the Zionist movement as narrated by Zweig in his book “The World of Yesterday” (1941).

It is thanks to the mobilisation of many public figures, chief among them acclaimed
writer Emile Zola in his now legendary ‘J’accuse’ tribune and the eternal support of Dreyfus’ family (his wife Lucie and his brother Mathieu), that Alfred Dreyfus eventually obtains a re-trial where he is acquitted in 1898, after it is found that pieces of evidence were fabricated against him.

His sentence was commuted to 10 years before being lifted by a presidential
pardon the same year in 1899.

The Captain would be rehabilitated in 1906 and rejoined the army.

What makes the affair different from others is the public reactions it caused as anti-Semitic and republican newspapers duelled each other, resulting in heated debates in the public space with families dividing over it.

Anti-Semitism in France was historically rooted in the hyper Catholic segments of the population, dating back all the way to the aftermath of the Western Roman Empire’s fall.

The community from then, saw periods of both tolerance and direct persecution, such as pogroms during the first crusades and expulsions in the 14th century.

These rumours, with the classic ‘Jewish conspiracy’ was likely one of the
motivations for the generals against Dreyfus.

The Affair serves perfectly as a tale of prejudice and justice we are to remember when the press can be too quick to condemn the accused regardless if due process has determined them as guilty or not.


Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

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