The Dreyfus Affair

While anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe was open and well-defined, far less appreciated and understood was the anti-Semitism in Western Europe. At first its special blend of cultural, economic and social anti-Semitism was hard to identify.

Nevertheless, it proved to be every bit as, if not more dangerous and insidious – so much that it would eventually bring Hitler and the Holocaust.

The New Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in Europe was long part of Christian culture. However, throughout the Middle Ages it was religious anti-Semitism. As bad as that was, the Jews had adapted and held no illusions about it. They even gathered strength from the fact that they were a minority religion in a culture that had no tolerance for minority religions.

Religious anti-Semitism was part and parcel of Jewish life in Europe from its inception. Jews were not happy with it, but they were able to adjust and deal with it because it was a given in life.

The new, post-Emancipation anti-Semitism – anti-Semitism based on race, not religion — signaled a radical change. Even though Emancipation had given Jews rights guaranteed by the government it was window dressing. In the arena of everyday life Western European culture was unable to deal with the phenomenon of the socially-rising assimilated Jew – the one who spoke his language perfectly, dressed like him, moved into his neighborhood, went to university with him and competed in business.

Ironically, the more assimilated the Jew became the more this type of anti-Semitism reared its head. To a great degree, the dominant culture was willing to tolerate Jews with long beards, fur hats, a strange language (Yiddish) and who were easily identifiable as Jews. But they were not willing to accept Jews who were clean-shaven, wore no special garb and spoke perfect German or French.

Lord Rothschild, from the House of Lords in England, was never able to take his seat in the British Parliament because he had to take a Christian oath, which he refused to take. He made a very telling comment summing up the matter: “It is not my particular religion they object to, but my particular nose.”

That was the new type of anti-Semitism. It was divorced from religion – even though religion was the root and antecedent of it.

Alfred Dreyfus

In 1870, France suffered an overwhelming defeat to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. It was over a mere six months after it began. Two entire French armies surrendered en masse. Napoleon III was dethroned. It was the greatest debacle experienced by the French army.

In the decade following the shocking defeat, a disbelieving French public began asking how they could have lost. In their view they naturally had the best army and soldiers. Someone must have sabotaged our efforts. There must have been a spy who gave plans about the deployment of the French army to Germany.

In reality, the Germans did have such plans. That is how they were able to surround the French army in Sedan, and then encircle Paris. They had inside information. They had gotten the information from two spies on the General Staff of the French military. One was Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry. The other was a French Army major named Ferdinand Esterhazy. He was actually a Hungarian-born professional mercenary hired by the French, but secretly paid by the Germans. It was he who was most responsible for getting to the Germans all the key war plans of the French.

As the French reviewed and analyzed their loss, it became clear to a number of investigative journalists that somehow the Germans were informed in advance. Henry and Esterhazy realized they had to create a diversionary scapegoat to save themselves.

They looked over the names of people on the French General Staff for a man they could pin it on. Finally, they identified a 36-year old nondescript military professional in the French Army; a cold, officious officer with no friends. It was no coincidence that this very inconsequential person was also the only Jew on that staff. His name was Alfred Dreyfus.

Henry and Esterhazy leaked the information to certain papers, especially the far right-wing and anti-Semitic ones. This put the reporters on the trail of Dreyfus. Whatever evidence the reporters could not find, Henry and Esterhazy forged, including alleged secret memos to Dreyfus from the German General Staff.

Finally, in 1894, the matter came to the attention of General Auguste Mercier, who was the Minister of War. He originally felt that all the evidence was concocted. He knew Dreyfus could not have masterminded such a deception. However, he was under a lot of pressure from the press and the army, which now stood to redeem the honor it lost in the miserable defeat by convicting the spy responsible for it.

Before the trial began, Mercier changed direction and declared that the evidence against Dreyfus was beyond doubt; his guilt was absolutely certain. A wave of anti-Semitism swept France. It became a question of us versus them; of the army and French honor vs. the outsiders, anarchists, traitors and Jews. Pamphlets and articles were published saying things like, “Down with traitors!” and “Death to the Jews.”

This was before the trial began. In such a climate, Dreyfus had no chance.

The day before Mercier was to decide if the evidence against Dreyfus warranted a trial, he re-examined the evidence and once more had his doubts. However, the next day there appeared in one of the leading papers in Paris that Mercier was in the pay of the Jews and therefore would not order the trial. In order exonerate himself from that accusation he ordered the trial. And not only did he order it, but he said he had proofs that cried aloud the treason of Dreyfus.

Trial of the Century

It was the trial of the century. Foreign correspondents came from all over the world.

The evidence against Dreyfus was extremely weak. There really was no evidence, and Dreyfus maintained his innocence throughout.

Meanwhile, Esterhazy and Henry had prepared what they called a “secret file,” which was a collection of total forgeries. When it looked like Dreyfus might be acquitted they submitted this file to the judges. Most significantly, it was never made available to Dreyfus, his attorneys or the press! It was only leaked in bits and pieces in order to sensationalize it.

On the basis of that “secret file” Dreyfus was convicted.

That set up another problem. Mercier was the one who had approved submission of the secret file. In other words, the army approved it. If there would be a retrial and Dreyfus would be found innocent it meant that the army was guilty and French pride would take an unbearable hit.

Indeed, Dreyfus would be tried a second time; and there would be other trials against Dreyfus supporters even until as last as 1906. In none of these trials was the “secret file” allowed to be seen by the defendants and their attorneys. The authorities claimed that the honor of France was at stake.

In a terribly humiliating ceremony, Dreyfus was found guilty and led through the streets of Paris where the mob shouted for his head amidst a stream of anti-Semitic epithets. His epaulets were torn off of his shoulders and in early January 1895 he was sent to Devil’s Island, which was a notorious penal colony off the coast of French Guiana (South America).

They expected him to die very quickly. Had he died within a year or two, as they expected, the truth may never have come out. However, Dreyfus lived through a bout with yellow fever, terrible malnutrition, heat and humidity, snakes and wild animals, etc.

Emile Zola

As he sat out his sentence, a French journalist named Emile Zola (1840–1902) felt an injustice had been done and began researching the matter. Three years later he published what became a famous article entitled, J’Accuse, meaning “I Accuse.”

Zola’s research uncovered the whole plot. He realized that Esterhazy and Henry were behind it all and that Mercier and the French military were part of the cover-up. It caused a tremendous sensation.

Now, there arose a group of people who came to support Dreyfus for various reasons –Dreyfusards, meaning “On the side of Dreyfus.” In reaction there also arose a group of anti-Dreyfusards.

Zola was accused of libel and brought to trial by Henry. It too was a national sensation. In the end, the jury was split 7-5 against Zola. In the atmosphere of the time it was a miracle that five people would vote for him. Although a hero in the eyes of many, Zola fled to England in fear of his life.

Political cartoons from the time show that his fears were justified. One of them, called “Allegory – the Dreyfus Affair,” depicted a mask of Zola, behind which stands a grinning, satanic caricature of a Jew with a big nose. Another cartoon showed Emile Zola coming up from a toilet, holding in his right arm a doll, which was Dreyfus. The caption said, “Truth rising from its source.”

The Long Road to Vindication

After Zola, attacks against the verdict continued from many sources. The evidence presented in the court of public opinion was becoming so overwhelming that it was obvious the trail led to the two schemers, Henry and Esterhazy. Their terrible plot exposed, Henry committed suicide and Esterhazy felt compelled to flee France.

Even this, however, did not yet acquit Dreyfus.

He was brought back from Devil’s Island to be retried by the French military court. However, he once more proved to be a terribly ineffective witness, and with the secret file of forgeries still not open to legal scrutiny, the second trial found him guilty again! The verdict came after it was publicly exposed that the case against him was a hoax and a sham from the outset. It caused such a furor that even the Queen of England, an ally, was compelled to send a telegram to the President of France asking how he could allow such a miscarriage of justice.

The court decided that it would sentence Dreyfus to the amount of years he had already served, in effect freeing him. They found him guilty, which saved French pride and the honor of the military, but by commuting his sentence to time already served they hoped to relieve the pressure being brought upon them.

However, there was a French politician by the name of Georges Clemenceau (184–1929), who later would rise to prominence as the French premier at the end of the First World War and one of the architects of the Versailles Treaty. He was a bitter, tenacious, feisty personality who took up the cause of Dreyfus. Finally, in 1906 – 12 years after the initial trial, and many years after Henry and Esterhazy had been exposed as the guilty parties – there was a commission of French army officers who exonerated Dreyfus.

They also restored him to the rank he would have had had he not be cashiered from the army, and he became a colonel. They further gave him all his back pay, a medal and reinstated him in the army, where he served without distinction in the First World War. He died in 1922, not understanding what happened to him or his place in history. He is certainly one of the most unlikely heroes. He didn’t see the forces that he unleashed – of which one of them was Zionism.

As for the French, they felt that their national soul had finally been cleansed. But it was illusory – at least from the standpoint of the Jews. The French did not understand the deep roots of the problem of anti-Semitism in their country; indeed, in all Europe. Dreyfus was only the tip of the iceberg. What happened to him would happen again and again – until it happened to all European Jewry. No one could imagine how powerful the whirlwind would be when it would come.

Posted in:
Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
  • Comments Off on The Dreyfus Affair

Comments are closed.