Back to top

11. From the Dreyfus Affair to the First World War

Late in 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a young army officer at the Ministry of War, was arrested and sentenced for life for high treason for having allegedly communicated military secrets to the Germans. 

De l’affaire Dreyfus à la Première Guerre mondiale


Alfred Dreyfus.jpg

Alfred Dreyfus (1859 - 1935), photographie d'Aron Gerschel, vers 1890

Stripped of his rank, he was deported to Devil's Island, the penal colony in French Guiana. Dreyfus was tried behind closed doors and sentenced instead of the true culprit, whom the high command had made no attempt to identify. Saving the honour of the army and the foundering career of the Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier (1833-1921), and deep-rooted anti-Semitism, amplified by a virulent press relentlessly exploiting the affair, made Dreyfus the perfect culprit.

In 1896, following a failed attempt to reopen the case by Dreyfus’s family and a young journalist, Bernard Lazare (1865-1903), the affair made history at the end of the following year. Convinced of his innocence and shocked by a procedure and trial in which the law had been blatantly disregarded, Captain Dreyfus's few supporters were joined daily by new converts to his cause: several young writers, the senators Arthur Ranc (1831-1908) and Ludovic Trarieux (1840-1904), the member of parliament Joseph Reinach (1856-1921), the new head of counter-espionage, Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart (1854-1914), who discovered the name of the real traitor, the vice-president of the Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner (1833-1899), the writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) to name but a few. Scheurer-Kestner’s conviction that Dreyfus’s was innocent, the denunciation of the true culprit, Marie Charles Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy (1847-1923), by Alfred Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu Dreyfus (1857-1930), the first articles by Zola, including his famous open letter to President of the Republic Félix Faure, « J’accuse ! » published by Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) on 13 January 1898 in the daily newspaper L’Aurore, launched a movement that profoundly divided the French nation, split between two opposing and irreconcilable conceptions of France.

This « two-year war » ended in the triumph of the Republic over its opponents, nationalists and anti-Semites, at the price of appeasement: Dreyfus’s second trial and conviction at Rennes, his pardon and rehabilitation. At the end of 1899 there was only one subject in the press, the Dreyfus Affair, and it was alone, or almost, that Dreyfus had to fight for his second sentence to be quashed and his innocence at last recognised. In July 1906, the Supreme Court proclaimed his absolute innocence and he was reinstated in the army with the rank of major and named Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

This affair that profoundly divided the French, enflamed the press, brought crowds into the streets and mobilised every political faction from the royalists to the anarchists, was experienced and regarded in different ways by French Jews. Although it spurred a handful of men led by Theodor Herzl and the Zionist Actions Committee to look to Basle and further afield, towards Zion, for the immense majority of French Jews it was an opportunity to assert or confirm their legal status, republicanism and wish for cultural and political integration. For Zadoc Kahn  (1839-1905), Narcisse Leven (1833-1915), Isaïe Levaillant, Henri Aron (*), Salomon Reinach (1858-1932) and Bernard Lazare, members of the Committee of Defense against Anti-Semitism, it was a constant combat against the contemporary upsurge of hate and exclusion throughout France.