The Dreyfus Affair
Known in France more simply as “the Affair,” this controversy shook France for years starting in January, 1898. By this time, Alfred Dreyfus had already spent three years in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island after his conviction for treason.
For those who believed an innocent man had been railroaded, the issue became the very meaning of Republican justice. For those who were either too anti-Semitic to care about Dreyfus’s fate or who refused to believe that he was innocent, the question was the honor of the French army.
The opening cry was Emile Zola’s famous article “J’Accuse” on 13 January. The famous novelist’s defense of Dreyfus, which filled the entire front page of a special edition of the newspaper Aurore, was a detailed indictment of the Republic’s and the army’s cover ups. Zola was charged with libel, tried, and sentenced to a year in prison. He left for England rather than surrender. By this time France was split into two warring factions: Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. Families were divided, and life-long friendships destroyed.
The Affair had lasting consequences for the French political culture and for European Jews.
Before this time, anti-Semitism was a sentiment found almost as readily on the anti-capitalist Left as on the nationalist Right. Because of the need to rally to the Republic, the Left almost unanimously began to defend Jewish civil rights. Anti-Semitism became an ideology identified with the nationalist Right, which by and large the Church supported. The Dreyfusards triumphed in the elections, and in 1905 they radically separated Church and State. France still has one of the world’s most secular governments. During the Affair, the nationalist Right coined the slogan “France for the French,” which Jean-Marie LePen’s anti-Semitic National Front party continues to use today.
Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist, came to France in 1894 with the expectation of living in a society whose Revolution had called for liberty and equality of all men. After he observed the humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus, he decided that Jews needed their own homeland, and started the modern Zionist movement.