French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason

The anti-Semitism, intrigue, and injustice revealed by Alfred Dreyfus’s wrongful conviction and subsequent exoneration for espionage placed this French political scandal in the world’s spotlight. The affair led to rioting and other violence, exposed deep divisions within French society, and profoundly affected French politics for decades.

Summary of Event

On July 12, 1906, the French Supreme Court of Appeal annulled Alfred Dreyfus’s conviction for treason. In an ordeal that began twelve years earlier, Dreyfus had been convicted by a secret military tribunal. He was publicly humiliated by being stripped of his military ribbons while having his sword broken in half before a hostile and anti-Semitic crowd and then spent more than three years in solitary confinement on the infamous Devil’s Island in the penal colony in French Guyana. He was completely innocent of the crime with which he had been charged. [kw]Dreyfus Innocent of Treason, French Court Declares Alfred (July 12, 1906)
[kw]Treason, French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of (July 12, 1906)
Dreyfus, Alfred
Treason;Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus]
Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus]
Zola, Émile
Dreyfus, Alfred
Treason;Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus]
Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus]
Zola, Émile
[g]Europe;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[g]France;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[c]Law and the courts;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[c]Espionage;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[c]Military;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
[c]Violence;July 12, 1906: French Court Declares Alfred Dreyfus Innocent of Treason[00070]
Picquart, Georges

In the last half of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism in Western Europe had been exacerbated by the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe. At the same time, racial bigotry was legitimized by the early advocates of the so-called race sciences: Eugenics eugenics, modern anthropology, and Darwinian biology. It was with this backdrop that the aloof and upper-class Dreyfus began his military career.

Dreyfus was the son of a wealthy Alsatian family that had made its fortune in textiles. He and part of his family had retained their French nationality by leaving Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that region during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Growing up in Paris, Dreyfus attended the military school at the école Polytechnique and later received specialized artillery training at Fontainebleau. His scholastic performance gained him admission to the prestigious école Superieure de Guerre. Despite having his overall grades lowered by bad marks from one of the members of the panel who stated that Jews were not wanted on the staff, he had graduated ninth in his class and was assigned to the French army’s general staff headquarters, becoming the only Jewish officer there.

Shortly after he began his assignment, however, a cleaning woman discovered a handwritten note in the wastebasket of Major Schwartzkoppen, Max von Max von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris. The note, or bordereau (a detailed memorandum), contained French military secrets being passed to Schwartzkoppen. The cleaning woman, Marie-Caudron Bastian, was an agent of French military counterintelligence under the command of Colonel Jean Sandherr.

Because of the technical contents of the note, the French Defense Ministry concluded that its author must have had an artillery background. Suspicion immediately fell on Dreyfus because he visited his father in German-held Alsace at least once a year and also because he was a onetime artillery officer. To add to their case, army authorities declared that the handwriting on the bordereau was similar to that of Dreyfus.

Given the anti-Semitic sentiment in the French military at the time, there is little doubt that Dreyfus’s Jewishness also was suspect. He was arrested and charged with treason on October 15, 1894, and for reasons unclear for decades, the military proceeded with a swift and determined prosecution of the hapless young officer.

In less than three months, on January 5, 1895, Dreyfus had been convicted of treason by a secret military tribunal and was exiled for life to Devil’s Island in French Guyana. The case seemed closed, and might have remained so, had not Colonel Sandherr retired because of ill health. His replacement turned out to be an unlikely but effective advocate of Dreyfus’s cause.

At the age of forty-two, Georges Picquart was the youngest lieutenant colonel in the French army. Although, like many of his colleagues, he was unashamedly anti-Semitic, he also was hardworking and intelligent. It quickly became apparent to him that Dreyfus was not the author of the bordereau. When he recovered a discarded note from Schwartzkoppen that was intended for French major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, he began a quiet investigation of Esterhazy. His investigation convinced him that Esterhazy wrote the bordereau and that Dreyfus had been wrongfully accused and convicted.

Even if Dreyfus’s antagonists believed that he was guilty when they convicted him, the evidence Picquart’s investigation had uncovered would have convinced them as early as 1896 that they had exiled an innocent person to Devil’s Island. Nonetheless, the cover-up continued. When the deputy chief of staff, General Charles-Arthur Gonse, told Picquart that no one would ever know about the wrongful conviction if he kept quiet, Picquart told him that he would not keep quiet forever. As a result, Picquart was reassigned.

Esterhazy, meanwhile, faced a military tribunal. In spite of the considerable evidence against him, he was acquitted on January 11, 1898, and retired to England, where he received a pension from an unknown source until his death in 1923. Two days after Esterhazy’s acquittal, on January 13, an open letter to the president of France appeared in the Paris literary newspaper L’Aurore. The now-famous article, J’accuse!, was written by French novelist and reformer émile Zola. In the piece Zola declared that Esterhazy was the real culprit and that his acquittal had been a farce. The article detailed how Dreyfus had been railroaded, and it named the officers who were participating in the cover-up. Indeed, Zola hoped to be charged with Libel cases;and émile Zola[Zola] libel so that the facts of Dreyfus’s case could be made a matter of record during his own trial.

Zola’s article started a shift in public opinion in favor of Dreyfus, and because of Zola’s international reputation, the world’s attention was on the case. On January 17, anti-Semitic riots raged throughout France. In February, Zola was tried for criminal libel. Evidence showed clearly that Esterhazy was the guilty party in the case and that Dreyfus was innocent. Nonetheless, Zola was convicted, sentenced, and given the maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine. Zola fled to England to avoid his sentence but returned after an appellate court ordered that Dreyfus be retried. The charges against Zola were eventually dismissed.

An appellate court reversed Dreyfus’s conviction and ordered a retrial in 1899. Even without evidence of wrongdoing, the court retrying the case convicted Dreyfus nonetheless and sentenced him to ten years in prison. However, on September 19, 1899, he was pardoned by French president émile Loubet and then released.

Almost seven years later, on July 12, 1906, the French Supreme Court of Appeal finally annulled Dreyfus’s conviction and formally adjudged him innocent. A day later he was readmitted into the army with the rank of major and soon was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor. After his early retirement he volunteered to return to duty during World World War I[World War 01];and Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus] War I and held several commands, including front-line duty in 1917. He was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honor in November, 1918. Dreyfus died on July 12, 1935.

In later years a compelling case was made by French military historian Jean Doise that the entire affair had been engineered by French military counterintelligence as an exercise in disinformation. Doise argued in his 1994 book (in French) that the affair had been designed to keep the Germans from learning of the newly developed French 75 mm field gun, the famous French 75.


In France, the affair exposed deep divisions within French society, and for decades had a profound affect on French politics. Many of France’s political divisions, even into the twenty-first century, can trace their origins to the ties that were formed during this crisis. Furthermore, the reputation of the French army was devastated by the participation of so many of its officers in this complex conspiracy.

To suggest that the Dreyfus affair affected anti-Semitism in Western Europe would be to ignore the rise of Nazi Germany and Vichy France in the years that followed. The affair’s impact on human consciousness cannot be denied, however. For example, Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist credited with founding modern Zionism, had covered the Dreyfus affair for an Austro-Hungarian newspaper and was greatly influenced by what he saw. He stated in his Diaries;Alfredy Dreyfus[Dreyfus] diary that witnessing the anti-Semitic crowds in Paris and hearing their cries of “death to the Jews” convinced him that it was useless to try and combat anti-Semitism in Europe and that a Jewish homeland was needed. It is possible that without the energetic efforts of this influential writer and activist, there would be no Israel state of Israel. Dreyfus, Alfred
Treason;Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus]
Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Alfred Dreyfus[Dreyfus]
Zola, Émile

Further Reading

  • Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. New York: George Braziller, 1983. Presents thorough and sensitive coverage of the Dreyfus affair.
  • Brustein, William. Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Study of the evolution of modern anti-Semitism, specifically before the time of the Holocaust.
  • Johnson, Martin Phillip. The Dreyfus Affair: Honour and Politics in the Belle Epoque. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A succinct and well-structured account of this complex affair.
  • Whyte, George R. The Dreyfus Affair: A Chronological History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. A history of more than five hundred pages, covering the Dreyfus case and its political and social implications.

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