The Dreyfus Affair involved the arrest and conviction in 1895 of French Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason. The case and the aftermath caused a division in French military and political circles.
Alfred Dreyfus was born in Alsace, France, the son of a Jewish textile manufacturer. His family eventually moved to Paris where in 1880 he entered École Polytechnique Military School. He would eventually make his way through the military ranks where he rose to the rank of Captain. In 1892 he took the War College examination but was given poor scores from General Boonefond, a member of the panel judging the candidate. Boonefond felt that Jews were not desired on the staff. Dreyfus and another Jewish candidate protested the action, but to no avail.
In 1894, French Army counter-intelligence became aware that military information related to new artillery positions was being passed to the Germans. It was determined that the person passing it must be in a position high up in the General staff. Suspicion fell upon Dreyfus, who was arrested and convicted of treason in a secret court martial, was stripped of his military rank and was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
In 1896, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart presented evidence that showed that Dreyfus was not the party guilty of passing the information, but instead that Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy had done so. The French government sought to silence Picquart by transferring him to southern Tunisia, but the information had been leaked to the French press. Dreyfus case had been championed by Emile Zola, the author of the pamphlet “J’Accuse”, an open letter published on January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore. Zola pointed out judicial errors as well as how flimsy the evidence was against Dreyfus. He also accused the French government and then-President Felix Faure of antisemitism. Because of his stance and the stir that he caused, Zola was found guilty of libel in February 1898 and fled to England. Public outrage over the anti-Semitic overtones of the prosecution as well as the following coverup forced the French President, Emile Loubet to grant a pardon Dreyfus in 1899 and he was released from prison. Although he was no longer in prion, he was officially still termed a traitor. He stated that “The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.”
Finally on July 12, 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated by a military tribunal and was reinstated in the army, now as a Major. After serving in World War I, he eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and received the Croix de Guerre for his service. Dreyfus died on July 12, 1935 in Paris.