The Dreyfus Affair

By Adler, Joseph | Midstream, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Dreyfus Affair

Adler, Joseph, Midstream

In France, during the last decades of the 19th century, antagonisms that had been smoldering for some time below the surface suddenly erupted most violently. A series of events divided the country into warring camps, pitching republicans against monarchists, clericalists against secularists, militarists against pacifists, and radicals against reactionaries.

Monarchists had suffered by the abolition of the throne in 1871 and the creation of the Third Republic; clericalists feared a diminution of power at the hands of the republican government; militarists still smarted from the humiliating defeat of the French army at Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War. Indeed, the obsessive dream of the army for "revanche" against the Prussians helped to generate, with the assistance of the press and of the Church, a fanatical upsurge of nationalism.

Forces arrayed against the republican government sought a pretext for their opposition and found it in the traditional scapegoat of history -- the Jews. An immediate salvo of antisemitic propaganda emerged following the collapse of the Catholic Union General Bank, in which many small investors lost their savings; the director of the bank blamed "Jewish capital" for the bankruptcy.

Antisemitic ideas became more prevalent following the publication in 1886 of Edouard Drumont's massive two-volume book, La France juive ("Jewish France"). The work purported to show an historical clash between Aryan and Semite, depicting the destructive influence of the Jews (numbering at the time less than 75,000) over French politics, finance, and life. Thousands of copies of Drumont's book were sold, and antisemitic activity reached a new high.

Flushed with success, Drumont used his literary profits to help found an antisemitic league and to launch an anti-republican and antisemitic newspaper, La Libre Parole. The Panama Canal scandal, involving certain shady transactions by a number of bankers, cabinet ministers, and leading members of the Chamber of Deputies, provided additional ammunition for his diatribes. The mere fact that some of the bankers implicated were Jews was sufficient for Drumont to raise the hue and cry that the Jewish capitalists were corrupting French statesmen and legislators with their gold. Tensions reached new heights at the end of 1894, with the arrest of a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, on a charge of espionage.

Dreyfus was born in Mulhouse, Alsace, in 1859. His father was a wealthy assimilated Jew who, out of a sense of French patriotism when Alsace came under German rule, had moved his family to Paris. Early on, Alfred decided on a military career and, after studying at the Ecole Polytechnique, was commissioned as an artillery officer in the French army (1882). Upon completion of a staff course at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre (1890), he was posted to the Second Bureau of the French General Staff, with the rank of captain (the staff's only Jewish member). Of medium height and wearing pince-nez glasses, a conservative, hard-working, and earnest Dreyfus seemed a most unlikely candidate to be singled out for the leading role in a judicial drama that would tear France apart for many years and make of him the focus of continuing world attention.

Dreyfus's travail began in September 1894. A French counter-intelligence agent had retrieved from a wastepaper basket in the office of Colonel Schwartzkoppen, the German military attache in Paris, a handwritten "bordereau," or schedule, listing secret French military documents that had been, or were to be, passed to Germany. The counter-intelligence operative delivered the bordereau to his superiors. Chief of French Military Intelligence Colonel Jean-Conrad Sandherr was unable to identify the handwriting authoritatively -- and neither could the handwriting experts he consulted. Eventually, Sandherr was persuaded by his aides, of whom Major Hubert Joseph Henry was the most insistent that the most likely culprit was a staff officer, namely Captain Alfred Dreyfus. …

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