History of Modern France

The Third French Republic 1870-1940. Part 3

7 & 8 April 2021

“L’affaire!”: The Dreyfus Affair and the Division of France 1894-1906

 with Mariam Habibi

In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of espionage by a military tribunal and was sent to serve a life sentence on Devil’s Island, off the coast of Guiana. The story could have ended there. The nation, with very few exceptions, unanimously accused the 35-year-old captain of collusion with the enemy, Germany. However, it took a little over a year for Georges Picquart, the new chief of the French intelligence service, to come across (without looking) evidence that Dreyfus was not the traitor. The real spy was a man called Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

 

From that point onwards, what was originally a ‘simple’ judicial error became a deliberate miscarriage of justice and over the next five years dragged France into a bloodless civil war. Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards vented their anger at one another and sought ‘justice’ for their cause. Attempt after attempt by supporters of Dreyfus to reopen the trial failed; the more irrefutable the proofs, the more uncompromising became the reaction of the authorities.

 

The Dreyfus Affair ended eventually with the annulment of all the accusations and the reintegration of Alfred Dreyfus into the army. In the words of Emile Zola ‘Truth was on the march and nothing could stop it’. Behind this ‘Affair’ however lay many questions: should France defend its honour by covering up a miscarriage of justice or should truth and justice prevail at any cost? For the French Jews, a more existential question was raised: should the community further assimilate in the hope of becoming part of the French nation or should they opt for other solutions?