Alfred Dreyfus (9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935) was a French artillery officer of Jewish background whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most tense political dramas in modern French history. Known today as the Dreyfus Affair, the incident eventually ended with Dreyfus’ complete exoneration. Because of the Drefus affair the journalist Theodore Herzl wrote “Die Judenstaat” in 1896, the basis for the First Zionist Congress in 1897. [Wikipedia entry]
In 1894, the French Army’s counter-intelligence section, led by Lt. Colonel Jean Sandherr, became aware that information regarding new artillery parts was being passed to the Germans by a highly placed spy, most likely to be on the General Staff. Suspicion quickly fell upon Dreyfus who was arrested for treason on 15 October 1894. On 5 January 1895, Dreyfus was summarily convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Following French military custom of the time Dreyfus was formally degraded by having the rank insignia, buttons and braid cut from his uniform and his sword broken, in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire before silent ranks of soldiers while a large crowd of onlookers shouted abuse from behind railings. Dreyfus cried out: “I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!”
In August 1896, the new chief of French military intelligence, Lt. Colonel Georges Picquart, reported to his superiors that he had found evidence to the effect that the real traitor was a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart was silenced by being transferred to the southern desert of Tunisia in November 1896. When reports of an army cover-up and Dreyfus’ possible innocence were leaked to the press, a heated debate ensued about anti-Semitism, and France’s identity as a Catholic nation or a republic founded on equal rights for all citizens. Esterhazy was found not guilty by a secret court martial, before fleeing to England.
Following a passionate campaign by Dreyfus’ supporters, including leading artists and intellectuals like Émile Zola, he was given a second trial in 1896 and again declared guilty of treason despite the evidence in favor of his innocence. However, due to public opinion, Dreyfus was offered & accepted a pardon by President Émile Loubet in 1899 and released from prison; this was a compromise that saved face for the military’s mistake. Had Dreyfus refused the pardon, he would return to Devil’s Island, a fate he could no longer emotionally cope with; so officially Dreyfus remained a traitor to France, and pointedly remarked upon his release:
The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.
For 2 years, until July 1906, he lived in a state of house-arrest with one of his sisters at Carpentras, and later at Cologny.
On 12 July 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated by a military commission. The day after his exoneration, he was readmitted into the army with a promotion to the rank of major (“Chef d’Escadron”). A week later, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour, and subsequently assigned to command an artillery unit at Vincennes. On 15 October 1906, he was placed in command of another artillery unit at Saint-Denis.
In 1937 his son Pierre had published his father’s memoirs based on his correspondence between 1899 and 1906. The memoirs were published Souvenirs Et Correspondance and translated into English by Dr Betty Morgan.
Dreyfus was present at the ceremony removing Zola’s ashes to the Panthéon in 1908, when he was wounded in the arm by a gunshot from Louis Gregori, a disgruntled journalist, in an assassination attempt.
World War I
Dreyfus’s prison sentence in Devil’s Island had taken its toll on his health. He was granted retirement from the army in October 1907 at the age of 48. As a reserve officer, he re-entered the army as a major of artillery, at the outbreak of World War I. Serving throughout the war, Dreyfus rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
By then in his mid-50s, Dreyfus served mostly behind the lines of the Western Front, in part as commander of an artillery supply column. However, he also performed front-line duties in 1917, notably at Verdun and on the Chemin des Dames. He was promoted to the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in November 1918.
Dreyfus’s son Pierre also served throughout the entire war as an artillery officer, receiving the Croix de Guerre.
Dreyfus died in Paris aged 75, on 12 July 1935, exactly 29 years after his exoneration. Two days later, his funeral cortège passed the Place de la Concorde through the ranks of troops assembled for the Bastille Day national holiday (14 July 1935). He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. The inscription on his tombstone is in Hebrew and French. It reads (translated to English):
Here Lies Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Dreyfus
Officer of the Legion of Honour 9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935
A statue of Dreyfus holding his broken sword is located at Boulevard Raspail, n°116–118, at the exit of the Notre-Dame-des-Champs metro station. A duplicate statue stands at the entrance to the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for the courageous character of Alfred Dreyfus, and his long struggle to clear his name. Thank you also for the impact of his plight on the future of the Zionist movement. Lord, forgive the prejudice, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that led to the circumstances of his arrest, trial and imprisonment. Help us to love one another with your love and show one another your justice and righteousness. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Due in large part to the support of “leading artists and intellectuals,” Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison on 19 September 1899, and officially exonerated on 12 July 1906. (see Alfred Dreyfus)