The Dreyfus case underscored and intensified bitter divisions within French politics and society. The fact that it followed other scandals — the Boulanger affair, the Wilson case, and the bribery of government officials and journalists that was associated with the financing of the Panama Canal — suggested that the young French Republic was in danger of collapse. The controversy involved critical institutions and issues, including monarchists and republicans, the political parties, the Catholic Church, the army, and strong anti-Semitic sentiment.
Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure captain in the French army, came from a Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that province in 1871. In 1894 papers discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attaché made it appear that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus came under suspicion, probably because he was a Jew and also because he had access to the type of information that had been supplied to the German agent. The army authorities declared that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that on the papers. Despite his protestations of innocence he was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial, during which he was denied the right to examine the evidence against him. The army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped him off to [life imprisonment on] Devil’s Island, a penal colony located off the coast of South America. The political right, whose strength was steadily increasing, cited Dreyfus’ alleged espionage as further evidence of the failures of the Republic. Édouard Drumont’s right-wing newspaper La Libre Parole intensified its attacks on the Jews, portraying this incident as further evidence of Jewish treachery.
Dreyfus seemed destined to die in disgrace. He had few defenders, and anti-Semitism was rampant in the French army. An unlikely defender came to his rescue, motivated not by sympathy for Dreyfus but by the evidence that he had been “railroaded” and that the officer who had actually committed espionage remained in position to do further damage. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, an unapologetic anti-Semite, was appointed chief of army intelligence two years after Dreyfus was convicted. Picquart, after examining the evidence and investigating the affair in greater detail, concluded that the guilty officer was a Major named Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart soon discovered, however, that the army was more concerned about preserving its image than rectifying its error, and when he persisted in attempting to reopen the case the army transferred him to Tunisia. A military court then acquitted Esterhazy, ignoring the convincing evidence of his guilt.
“The Affair” might have ended then but for the determined intervention of the novelist Émile Zola, who published his denunciation (“J’accuse!”) of the army cover-up in a daily newspaper. [Note: Zola was found guilty of libeling the army and was sentenced to imprisonment. He fled to England, where he remained until being granted amnesty.] At this point public passion became more aroused than ever, as the political right and the leadership of the Catholic Church — both of which were openly hostile to the Republic — declared the Dreyfus case to be a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons designed to damage the prestige of the army and thereby destroy France.
Sometime later another military officer discovered that additional documents had been added to the Dreyfus file. He determined that a lieutenant colonel (Hubert Henry) had forged the documents — which seemed to strengthen the case against Dreyfus — in anticipation that Dreyfus would be given a new trial. Immediately after an interrogation the lieutenant colonel committed suicide. In 1899, the army did in fact conduct a new court-martial which again found Dreyfus guilty and condenmed him to 10 years detention, although it observed that there were “extenuating circumstances.”
In September 1899, the president of France pardoned Dreyfus, thereby making it possible for him to return to Paris, but he had to wait until 1906 — twelve years after the case had begun — to be exonerated of the charges, after which he was restored to his former military rank.
“The Affair” had inspired moderate republicans, Radicals, and socialists to work together, and the ultimate exoneration of Dreyfus strengthened the Republic, in no small part because of the conduct of its enemies, most notably the army and the Catholic hierarchy. In 1905 the Radical party, emphasizing the role of the Catholic leadership in the Dreyfus case, succeeded in passing legislation separating church and state.
Sources: The Affair - The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. Homepage of Michael Sinclair