Dreyfus Affair

Dreyfus Affair
   A pivotal political crisis of turn-of-the century France that broadly pitted the forces of left and right against each other. The episode involved the fate of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer who was wrongly court-martialed for treason, degraded, and sentenced to the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guyana in 1894. George Picquart, a colonel of intelligence, and Dreyfus’s brother subsequently revealed evidence showing that the real guilty party was a Catholic, Major Walsin Esterhazy. Dreyfus had been the victim not only of incompetence but also of the anti-German xenophobia rampant in French society, as well as of widespread anti-Semitism inside the army. When Esterhazy was tried and acquitted, the French Radical and Socialist Parties were aroused to fight for Dreyfus with the argument that the army general staff was a club of royalist and clericalist anti-Semites guilty of prejudiced error, a reactionary threat to the Third Republic, and an institution ripe for purge.
   The novelist Emile Zola leveled the same charge at the army in his famous letter J’accuse, and prominent politicians such as Georges Clemençeau and Jean Jaurès also took up Dreyfus’s case. It was revealed that the evidence against Dreyfus had been forged. He was pardoned, but the Dreyfusards demanded nothing less than acquittal and secured it with quashing of the verdict in 1906. At its height “The Affair” utterly dominated French political life; it occasioned impassioned debate and occasionally violence. The test of strength between intellectuals, Radicals, and Socialists on the one hand and the Church and army on the other reawakened hatreds dating back to 1789 and polarized French politics for the remainder of the Third Republic. The Dreyfus Affair exposed ugly sentiments below the surface of the otherwise opulent optimism of the belle époque.
   See also <>.
    Derfler, Leslie. The Dreyfus Affair. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002;
    Kayser, Jacques. The Dreyfus Affair. New York: Civici-Friede, 1931.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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