Little Bits of History

October 15

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 15, 2017

1894: Alfred Dreyfus is arrested. He was born in 1859 in Mulhouse, Alsace and was the youngest of nine children born to a prosperous Jewish textile manufacturer. The Franco-Prussian War broke out when Alfred was ten and forced the family to move to Paris. This pivotal act led the young boy to pursue a life in the military. He entered military schools and rose through the ranks. He graduated ninth in his class at École Supérieure de Guerre or War College. He was expected to do well in the final examinations but General Bonnefond felt “Jews were not desired” on the staff and gave Dreyfus poor marks for a category we might call “likeability”. This would later prove damning since the stated belief of the French military was that Jews were not discriminated against.

In 1894, it was found that information regarding new artillery parts was being passed to the Germans by a highly placed spy, mostly likely on the General Staff. Dreyfus was suspected and arrested on this day. On January 5, 1895 he was convicted in a secret court martial and publicly stripped of his rank with humiliating public ceremony before being sent to Devil’s Island to serve out a sentence of life imprisonment. In August 1896, the new head of French military intelligence, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, reported he found no evidence of Dreyfus’s guilt and believed Major Ferdinand Esterhazy to be the real traitor. Picquart was silenced and sent to Tunisia within months.

News of the miscarriage of justice against Dreyfus found its way into the press along with military tolerance of anti-Semitism even at the highest levels. This was appalling to citizens who believed in equal rights for all citizens. Esterhazy was found not guilty in another secret court martial but immediately fled to England. A cadre of supporters began to campaign for Dreyfus’s release and exoneration. Emilie Zola was one of the most vocal of the these and Dreyfus was given a second trial in 1899 and once again found guilty despite evidence in favor of his innocence.

President Emilie Loubert offered Dreyfus a pardon in 1899 as a way to save face for the military miscarriage of justice. If Dreyfus did not accept the pardon, he would have had to return to Devil’s Island which he couldn’t face. So he accepted the pardon, but was still officially a traitor. He lived in a state of house arrest with one of his sisters after his release. On July 12, 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated by a military commission and readmitted into the army with a promotion in rank. He served in the army during World War I, as did his son with both of them receiving honors. Dreyfus died in Paris in 1935 at the age of 75. The Dreyfus affair remains one of the most egregious political dramas in French history.

The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor. – Alfred Dreyfus, speaking of his pardon

As you know, I am a novelist, and I really want to write novels. But I knew enough about the Dreyfus case to understand immediately why what happened to Dreyfus was not merely a cause celebre from the end of the 19th century, but an event that could be shown to teach us lessons of the greatest importance for our own time. – Louis Begley

Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart. – Billy Graham

Anti-Semitism has no historical, political and certainly no philosophical origins. Anti-Semitism is a disease. – Daniel Barenboim



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