Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair is a story of intrigue and espionage, false accusations and hidden biases. It was also a demonstration that the so-called “enlightened” world of the late 19th century was not yet ready to accept a Jew as an equal.

In 1894, evidence that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government was discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attaché.

The real spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy, a member of the French General Staff, took advantage of rising anti-Semitism by forging some letters and accusing Captain Alfred Dreyfus (the only Jew on the General Staff) of spying for Germany.

Dreyfus was put on trial and convicted, based on fabricated evidence. Stripped of his rank, he was sent to Devil’s Island, where he remained from 1895 until 1899.

Only a few years after the Dreyfus trial, evidence came to light pointing the finger at Esterhazy, but, due to additional forged documents, an incredibly short trial, and the desire of the French army not to tarnish its reputation, Esterhazy was acquitted.

The lack of propriety in the proceedings was so obvious that Emile Zola, the noted French journalist, essayist and novelist, was inspired to write his famous essay J’Accuse, “I Accuse,” accusing the French government of injustice.

In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to the mainland for a second court-martial. And even though the court recognized that some of the documents were forgeries, they condemned Dreyfus to continued detention in prison. Unquestionably, they were influenced by the crowds running through the streets of Paris yelling, “Death to the Jews!”

Shortly thereafter, however, the President of the Republic of France, Émile Loubet, pardoned Dreyfus. It was not until 1906, however, that a civilian court of appeals actually exonerated Dreyfus of all charges.

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