One of the tensest political dramas in modern European history, the Dreyfus Affair was a scandal that divided France since its inception in 1894 until its resolution in 1906. Here is the Dreyfus Affair Summary for you.
In 1894, the French Army’s counter-intelligence section came to know that new artillery information was being passed to the Germans by a spy placed in the division. The suspicion fell on an artillery officer of Jewish background named Alfred Dreyfus. On 15 October 1894, Dreyfus was arrested for treason and on 5 January, 1895 he was convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. At that time, the opinion of the French political class was unanimously unfavorable towards Alfred Dreyfus.
In March 1896, Lt Colonel Picquart, new chief of French military intelligence, found evidence that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart was however silenced by being transferred to the southern desert of Tunisia in North Africa.
Meanwhile Alfred’s family, especially his brother Mathieu, drew attention to the fragility of evidence against Alfred to journalists and to the President of the Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. Auguste, after three months, was convinced of the innocence of Dreyfus. Soon reports of an army cover-up and Dreyfus’s possible innocence were issued by the press resulting in a heated debate on anti-Semitism and the Dreyfus Affair took centre-stage in France. In 1898, Esterházy was acquitted, to the cheers of conservatives and nationalists. Simultaneously Emile Zola issued his dreyfusard declaration leading to the rallying of many intellectuals.
In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society into two camps: the conservative, pro-Army “anti-Dreyfusards” and the anticlerical, pro-republican “Dreyfusards”. Against all the odds, Dreyfus was convicted again. However on 19 September 1899, following a passionate campaign by Dreyfusards, Alfred was pardoned by President Émile Loubet and released from prison.
Dreyfus, however, officially remained a traitor in a French court of law and pointedly remarked upon his release: “The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honour.“
It was only in 1906 that his innocence was officially recognized through a decision without recourse by the Supreme Court. The day after his exoneration, he was readmitted into the army with a promotion to the rank of Major. A week later, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour and subsequently assigned to command an artillery unit at Vincennes. He participated in the First World War and died in 1935.
The Dreyfus Affair had far reaching political and social consequences. All sections of French society were affected, some were devastated.