Dreyfus Affair

Dreyfus Affair. In 1894 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a French officer, was convicted of treason by a court-martial, sentenced to life imprisonment, and sent to Devil's Island. The case had arisen with the discovery in the German embassy of a handwritten bordereau (schedule) that listed secret French documents and was addressed to Maj. Max von Schwartzkoppen, German military attache in Paris. The French army was at the time permeated by anti-Semitism, and suspicion fell on Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew. Although Dreyfus protested his innocence, interest in the case lapsed until 1896, when evidence was discovered pointing to Maj. Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real author of the bordereau. After the army's attempt to suppress this information failed, Esterhazy was tried (Jan. 1898) by court-martial, but was acquitted within minutes. Emile Zola, a leading supporter of Dreyfus, published an open letter accusing the judges of following orders from the military. Zola was sentenced to jail for libel, but fled to England. Meanwhile, the case had become a major political issue. Royalist, militarist, nationalist, and Roman Catholic elements joined the anti-Dreyfus group, while republican, socialist, and anticlerical forces allied to defend Dreyfus and to discredit the rightist government. In 1898 it was learned that much of the evidence against Dreyfus had been forged by Col. Henry of army intelligence. After Henry's suicide (Aug. 1898) and Esterhazy's flight to England, a revision of Dreyfus's sentence became imperative. A new court-martial was ordered, but the military court, unable to admit error, found Dreyfus guilty and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. However, a pardon was issued by Pres. Emile Loubet, and in 1906 the supreme court of appeals exonerated Dreyfus. In 1930 his innocence was reaffirmed by the publication of Schwartzkoppen's papers. The immediate result of the affair was to unite and bring to power the French left wing. Widespread antimilitarism and rabid anticlericalism ensued, leading in 1905 to the separation of church and state in France. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright 1991 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.