What Was at Stake in the Dreyfus Affair? Who Were the Winners and Losers?

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  • Topic: Dreyfus affair, Alfred Dreyfus, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy
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  • Published : December 18, 2008
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What was at stake in the Dreyfus affair? Who were the winners and losers?

In order to fully address these questions one must differentiate between the Dreyfus case; the arrest, prosecution and sentence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and the subsequent Affair which grew out of the case. In answering the questions posed, one will discuss the effects of both the case and the resulting affair on Dreyfus and those immediately involved with the case. One will also discuss the effects of the Dreyfus case and the Affair on French society at the time which split into two opposing factions, the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards. The case was simple: in December 1894 Dreyfus, a Jewish officer serving in the French artillery, was found guilty of spying for the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony in French Guiana. The Affair came about when, over the next few years, discovery of new evidence led a number of the French people to realise that a serious miscarriage of justice had taken place.

Dreyfus’ family were originally from Alsace where they owned a thriving textile manufacture. The Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 gave residents in the German-annexed territories of Alsace and Lorraine the option to keep their French nationality, if they decided and left the region before 30 September 1872. The Franco-Prussian War and the annexation of his native province thus determined Alfred's choice of career-he swore that he would devote all of his strength and intelligence to serving his country against the nation that had wounded the Alsatians to the quick . French Jews had been integrated into the nation by law since the French revolution of 1789 and Napoleon’s first empire. As a result it was possible for French Jews to hold high offices in the army and government, unlike their other European counterparts. This may help to account for the decision of some members of the Dreyfus family to remain in France and leave their family home behind.

For Dreyfus his honour and liberty were at stake. He had been arrested and charged with supplying the German army with French military secrets. In his book ‘Cinq Années de Ma Vie’ Dreyfus details his interrogation, his trial and his Degradation. In his account one is presented with a picture of a hardworking French family man who desperately desires exoneration, ‘I was anxious to destroy the wretched arguments of an infamous accusation, to defend my honour’ . We see in Dreyfus’ first hand account the measures taken by Commandant du Paty de Clam to entrap Dreyfus and secure a sample of his handwriting for comparison to that writing in the ‘bordereau’ . In ‘J’accuse’, Zola describes the then Lt Colonel du Paty de Clam as ‘the shadiest and most complex of figures, spinning outlandish intrigues, indulging in the sort of thing one sees in cheap thriller novels’ . Despite the lack of a motive and of any real evidence, Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

At this junction it would seem that the army were the winners and that Dreyfus and his family were the losers. Dreyfus was dishonoured and his freedom was taken from him. He describes his degradation in Cinq Années de Ma Vie, ‘An adjutant of the Garde Républicain approached me. Rapidly, he tore off my buttons, the bands on my pants, the insignias on my kepi and sleeves, and then he broke my saber. I saw fall to my feet all these scraps of honour. And then, despite the horrible jarring of my entire being, my body upright, my head held high, I called out again to the assembled soldiers and people: ‘I am innocent’’ . This however was not the end of Dreyfus’ ‘affair’ as after two years incarceration, in 1896, the real culprit was named. Lt Colonel George Picquart, Colonel Sandherr’s replacement, the new chief of the army intelligence section realised that the bordereau used to prosecute Dreyfus had in fact been written by Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

‘Lt Colonel Picquart...
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