Dreyfus Affair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the so-called Dreyfus affair, a Jewish French officer was wrongfully convicted of treason by the army, which then refused to exonerate him. The controversy over the affair undermined the conservative leadership of the French army, triggered a democratic reform of the officer corps, and led to laws mandating the separation of church and state in France.

Summary of Event

In October of 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer serving on the general staff of the French army, was arrested and charged with selling French military secrets to the Germans. The charge by the Statistical Section, the counterespionage agency of the French army, was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. A letter enumerating a list, or bordereau, of certain military memoranda which the writer later hoped to send to the German military attaché, Colonel von Schwarzkoppen, was purloined from the latter’s mail by a French spy and submitted to the French counterespionage unit. It exaggerated the significance of the document and wrongly inferred its author to be an artilleryman. The bordereau was handwritten, but Major Hubert Henry, the chief of intelligence, and his associate, Colonel Mercier du Paty de Clam, ignored the caution of professional graphologists and concluded that Dreyfus had written the list. Dreyfus, Alfred Jews;in France[France] Jews;Dreyfus affair Henry, Hubert Picquart, Georges Jews;in France[France] Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];in France[France] France;anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] [kw]Dreyfus Affair (October, 1894-July, 1906) [kw]Affair, Dreyfus (October, 1894-July, 1906) Dreyfus, Alfred Jews;in France[France] Jews;Dreyfus affair Henry, Hubert Picquart, Georges Jews;in France[France] Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];in France[France] France;anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] [g]France;Oct., 1894-July, 1906: Dreyfus Affair[5960] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct., 1894-July, 1906: Dreyfus Affair[5960] [c]Military history;Oct., 1894-July, 1906: Dreyfus Affair[5960] [c]Government and politics;Oct., 1894-July, 1906: Dreyfus Affair[5960] [c]Religion and theology;Oct., 1894-July, 1906: Dreyfus Affair[5960] Zola, Émile [p]Zola, Émile;and Dreyfus affair[Dreyfus affair] Drumont, Édouard Esterhazy, Ferdinand Walsin Mercier, Auguste

Aware of the possible diplomatic consequences of a public trial, the French government urged the minister of war, General Auguste Mercier Mercier, Auguste , to move slowly and secretly. News leaked out, however, to the right-wing, anti-Semitic press, which clamored for vigorous prosecution of Dreyfus’s treason. Succumbing to this pressure, Mercier ordered a court-martial. In a secret trial, Dreyfus was pronounced guilty on December 22, but only after seriously irregular procedures, such as keeping knowledge of crucial evidence from the defense. In addition, Major Henry was so certain of Dreyfus’s guilt, despite flimsy evidence, that he lied before the court. Nevertheless, Dreyfus was sentenced to public degradation and to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island Devil’s Island[Devils Island] in French Guiana French Guiana .

The majority of French citizens who followed the trial were satisfied. Because Dreyfus was a Jew, the outcome was welcomed by anti-Semites such as Édouard Drumont Drumont, Édouard , editor of La Libre Parole. However, the number of those who did not accept the verdict increased as the years passed. In addition to Dreyfus’s family, these included Joseph Reinach Reinach, Joseph , a Jewish politician and member of the Chamber of Deputies; Auguste Schuerer-Kestner Schuerer-Kestner, Auguste , vice president of the Senate; and Major Georges Picquart, who had succeeded Henry as chief of the counterespionage Statistical Section.

In March of 1896, Picquart discovered fragments of an express letter that Schwarzkoppen had torn up unsent but which had been found by a French agent. This letter, known as the petit bleu (little blue), was addressed to Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, Esterhazy, Ferdinand Walsin a scoundrel badly in need of money who was known to visit the German embassy. The letter proved that Esterhazy was in Schwarzkoppen’s pay. Picquart became convinced that the original bordereau had been in the handwriting of Esterhazy, not Dreyfus. He laid the information before the French general staff, but to avoid reopening the Dreyfus case the War Office hushed up the matter and had Picquart transferred to another post. After Picquart had left the Statistical Section, Major Henry, to protect himself, his superiors, and the honor of the French army, forged and falsified evidence in order to strengthen the case against Dreyfus.

Alfred Dreyfus on trial.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

Angry at the treatment he had received, Picquart disobeyed orders and related the evidence he had gathered to a lawyer, who in turn contacted others known to be sympathetic to Dreyfus. Growing doubt that Dreyfus had been given a fair trial led to his case’s being taken up by Georges Clemenceau Clemenceau, Georges , the Radical Republican and newspaper editor, and eventually to the publication of Émile Zola’s Zola, Émile [p]Zola, Émile;and Dreyfus affair[Dreyfus affair] famous article, “J’Accuse,” January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore. The famous novelist denounced the War Office for protecting Esterhazy Esterhazy, Ferdinand Walsin while condemning an innocent man. Zola was brought to trial and convicted of libel for writing the article, but the sensationalism surrounding his trial renewed general interest in the Dreyfus case. Picquart was also arrested on trumped-up charges of divulging secret military documents.

The case was gradually transformed into the Dreyfus affair, the greatest public controversy to rock the Third Republic. The investigation was reopened, and Henry committed suicide when his forgeries were brought to light. The matter of Dreyfus’s fate was almost lost in a nationwide furor that came close to resembling a civil war. On one side were Drumont Drumont, Édouard and other anti-Semites, ultranationalists, certain Roman Catholic organizations, such as the Assumptionist religious order, and the newspaper La Croix, gathered under the anti-Dreyfusard banner to defend an authoritarian, integrally Catholic vision of France, symbolized by the honor of the army, against its secularistic, Jewish, and socialist enemies.

On the opposing side were Clemenceau Clemenceau, Georges and the Dreyfusards, dedicated to the ideals of a secular, democratic republic, threatened at its foundations by the injustice done to Dreyfus and by the army’s criminal attempts at a cover-up. At the peak of this conflict the government agreed to Lucie Dreyfus’s request for a new trial for her husband. The case was handled eventually by a united Appeals Court. Its judges saw clearly that, on the basis of the evidence presented, Dreyfus had been wrongfully convicted. While this court could have simply reversed the original verdict, it ordered a second court-martial, to permit Dreyfus to be cleared by his peers.

The judges at the Rennes court-martial in September, 1899, were faced with a dilemma: If Dreyfus were found innocent, they would destroy the prestige of the former war minister, Mercier Mercier, Auguste , who continued to believe that Dreyfus had been guilty. Such a decision would also endanger their own chances for promotion and their social standing. For these reasons, and because the defense handled the case poorly, the verdict once again went against Dreyfus, but this time his sentence was reduced. Ten days following the court-martial, President Émile Loubet, at the request of Prime Minister Pierre Marie René Waldeck-Rousseau, pardoned Dreyfus. The government and the army hoped that the Dreyfus affair had come to an end.

The controversy, however, was not over. Alfred Dreyfus and his family pressed for full restoration of his rank and honor. Radicals, socialist-radicals, and socialists continued to use the Dreyfus affair to attack the Assumptionists and other anti-Dreyfusard organizations, claiming that by lining up with those who opposed justice for Dreyfus, these institutions exposed their basic antirepublican nature. It took almost seven more years of legal work for justice to be served to its chief victims. On July 12, 1906, the Court of Appeals finally reversed his conviction. The legislature immediately restored Dreyfus and Picquart to the ranks they would have earned—major for the former and brigadier-general for the latter. On July 22, Dreyfus was awarded the Legion of Honor.


The Dreyfus affair contributed to bitter criticism of and demoralization within the French army, to the dissolution of the religious congregations, and finally to the passage of a bill separating church and state in France in 1905. The Dreyfus affair had caused a serious breach in French society, which continued at least until the outbreak of World War I, and it helped to impel the French insistence upon a state-church separation that remains among the most stringent in the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: George Braziller, 1986. A thorough, well-balanced work, especially useful for the legal process. The author also evokes the national passions that swirled around Dreyfus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. Massive, meticulously researched account of Zola’s life, with analyses of all of his novels, set within the context of Second Empire and Third Republic France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapman, Guy. The Dreyfus Case: A Reassessment. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1955. A serious attempt to correct misconceptions fostered by partisans of Dreyfus. Chapman argues Dreyfus was the victim, not of anti-Semitism but of misplaced loyalties among the military.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forth, Christoper E. The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. A gendered study of the Dreyfus Affair, relating contemporary French ideologies of masculinity to Dreyfus’s Jewishness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halasz, Nicholas. Captain Dreyfus: The Story of a Mass Hysteria. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955. A traditional interpretation, this work highlights the heroic aspects of the case: justice versus reason of state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Robert Louis. More than a Trial: The Struggle over Captain Dreyfus. New York: Free Press, 1980. Focused on the controversy surrounding Dreyfus, a virtual civil war. Draws mainly on polemical tracts and other common artifacts of the struggle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kleeblatt, Norman L., ed. The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. This exhibition catalog includes eight diverse articles and several hundred photographs, caricatures, and other visual items.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindemann, Albert S. The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Affairs (Dreyfus, Beilis, Frank), 1894-1915. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Places the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair in comparative perspective and historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Stephen. Ideology and Experience: Antisemitism in France at the Time of the Dreyfus Affair. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. A well-documented study, explaining the social function of anti-Semitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus affair with special attention to Édouard Drumont.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Émile Zola. Dreyfus, Alfred Jews;in France[France] Jews;Dreyfus affair Henry, Hubert Picquart, Georges Jews;in France[France] Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];in France[France] France;anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism]

Categories: History