On the Tragic Life of Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus biography
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Alfred Dreyfus. Henri Roger-Viollet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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I am quite sure not many outside of France have heard of the name Alfred Dreyfus. In France, however, Dreyfus is often regarded as the most famous victim of injustice, antisemitism, and military and government corruption in the history of modern France.

Now, I am no doubt taking some liberty in describing his life as tragic, for I cannot say so for sure, and neither can anyone else except Dreyfus himself. Maybe, for all we know, Dreyfus never considered his life to be tragic.

However, for most of us out there who have only heard or read of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, his life, or at least part of it, could very well be described as tragic.

In this essay, we shall take a brief look into the life of Alfred Dreyfus and the infamous Dreyfus Affair that has, unfortunately, gone on to define his life for eternity.

Let us begin.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer, who was born on 9th October 1859 in the city of Mulhouse, Alsace in the French Empire. Dreyfus was born into a Jewish family and was the youngest of nine children of Jeannette and Raphael Dreyfus.

Dreyfus’ father was a wealthy textile manufacturer and the family lived a comfortable life in Alsace. However, in 1870, when Dreyfus was 10 years old, things took a turn for the worst with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, which led to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany.

The annexation of his birthplace forced his family to move to Basel in Switzerland, where he began attending high school. This experience became a turning point in his young life, prompting him to pursue a military career.

Once Dreyfus turned 18 years old, he enrolled at the prestigious École Polytechnique military school in Paris. There he was educated in engineering and science and received military training.

Three years later, in 1880, he graduated from the school and was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the army.

Thus began Dreyfus’ military career. Little did he know that this very military career he so desired would one day get him involved in one of the most dramatic and polarizing events in the history of modern France, all against his own will.

After graduating, Alfred Dreyfus spent the next two years receiving specialized training as an artillery officer at the artillery school in the commune of Fontainebleau. After graduating from there in 1882, Dreyfus, aged 23, was assigned to the 31st Artillery Regiment in Le Mans.

Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Paris to serve in the mounted artillery battery of the First Cavalry Division.

Dreyfus slowly began climbing up the military ladder, being promoted to lieutenant in 1885, then serving as adjutant to the director of the Bourges Establishment, which was a government arsenal, and then eventually promoted to captain.

In April 1891, Dreyfus, aged 31, married Lucie Eugenie Hadamard, aged 20. The couple would go on to have two children together. Lucie would become Dreyfus’ greatest supporter and defender during and after the Dreyfus Affair. She would defend his honor until the end of her life.

In 1893, Alfred Dreyfus graduated from the War College, which was the senior most military education institute and staff college of the French army. Dreyfus stood ninth in class and graduated with an honorable mention.

He was then commissioned as a trainee in the army’s General Staff headquarters, where he was the only Jewish officer. His Jewish ancestry was now proving to be a hindrance in his military career, often working against him.

The first incident occurred during his time at the War College, where he and another Jewish student, Picard, were intentionally given poor marks for likability, with the excuse that Jews were not desired on the staff.

Dreyfus and Picard both filed a complaint with the director of the college. The director expressed his regret over the incident but said that he was unable to help them in the matter.

To make matters worse, filing the complaint would go on to work against Dreyfus in the future. The panel member who gave him poor marks for being Jewish, General Bonnefond, managed to influence several of Dreyfus’ superiors against him. Although Dreyfus was considered an intelligent trainee, he gained a reputation for having a bad personality.

This reputation of his and the prejudice already existing against him would serve as the base and fodder for what was to come next. From then on, everything went downhill for Alfred Dreyfus.

This was the background leading up to the Dreyfus Affair. Now let us look into the controversial affair itself.

It all began in 1894 when a harmless and unsuspecting French housekeeper working in the German Embassy in France found a torn-up handwritten note in a wastebasket. In the note was written a French military secret, written by a spy in the French army.

Further investigation by the French army’s counter-intelligence revealed that some information regarding new artillery parts was being communicated to the German military attache in Paris, Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, by a high-ranking officer in the French army. It was suspected that the spy was most likely someone from the General Staff.

Due to Dreyfus’ existing reputation, and also probably the fact that he was Jewish, he became the primary suspect for this act of treason and was arrested on 15th October 1894 without any evidence. A secret court-martial was held in which he was convicted and then publicly stripped of his army rank.

All the formalities of cashiering were publicly carried out to the hilt by the French army. He was made to stand in the courtyard of the École Militaire in front of ranks of soldiers, while his rank insignia, braid, and buttons were cut off from his uniform and his sword broken. From behind the railings of the courtyard, an angry mob shouted abuses and insults at him.

After being publicly shamed and humiliated in this manner, Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony of Cayenne, infamously known as Devil’s Island, located in the Salvation Islands of French Guiana. Needless to say, Dreyfus had become public enemy number one in France, condemned by the authorities and the common people as well.

Mind you, all this was without any concrete or reliable evidence against him, which no doubt makes one suspect that he was just a scapegoat.

However, over a year after he was imprisoned on Devil’s Island, his case took an interesting turn.

In August 1896, the new chief of French Military intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, discovered concrete evidence that proved the real culprit of the treason was a Major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and not Alfred Dreyfus.

Considering this information to be of great importance, Picquart reported his discovery to his superiors in the French army. However, instead of seriously considering the evidence, his superiors transferred him to the city of Sousse in Tunisia in November 1896 in an attempt to silence him.

Moreover, instead of clearing Dreyfus from the false charges based on which he was convicted, Major Huber-Joseph Henry went as far as to forge documents in order to prove Dreyfus was guilty.

The matter would have died down if it were not for Picquart’s lawyer, who communicated Picquart’s discovery to Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, who took up Dreyfus’ case and spoke of it publicly.

Now the scandal was made public and was no longer dealt with in secrecy by the French army. Reports of Dreyfus’ innocence and a cover-up by the army were leaked to the press, leading to public outrage and dividing public opinion.

Intellectuals, artists, and writers expressed their outrage over the actions of the army, which sparked debates on antisemitism as many were convinced that Dreyfus was made a scapegoat because he was Jewish.

Under pressure from the press and the public, the army held a closed court-martial in which Esterhazy was tried and acquitted. Following the verdict, Esterhazy fled to England to lay low while the controversy raged on in France. In England, Esterhazy admitted to The Observer‘s editor, Rachel Beer, that he was the one who had written the note and was guilty of treason.

Beer published the interview in September 1898, in which she reported Esterhazy’s confession. She also wrote a column in which she accused the French military of antisemitism and called for a retrial for Dreyfus.

Esterhazy would remain in hiding in England for the rest of his life, continuing to write in antisemitic papers.

In the meanwhile, Picquart was detained by the French army on grounds of violating professional secrecy for communicating his discovery through his lawyer.

Two days after Esterhazy was acquitted in the secret court-martial, writer Emile Zola risked his career by publishing an open letter titled, J’Accuse…!, to President Felix Faure, on the front page of the Paris daily L’Aurore.

Zola was a leading public figure in France by then and was voicing the outrage of French artists, writers, and intellectuals who believed that Alfred Dreyfus was innocent and a victim of antisemitism and corruption.

Zola’s intention for publishing the letter was to be tried for libel, which would give him an opportunity to bring forth to the general public all the new evidence that proved Dreyfus was innocent. His plan worked and he was put on trial twice and convicted both times, the first time being annulled on technical grounds.

Zola’s actions were not in vain and proved to be a major turning point in the case. Zola managed to flee to England before the verdict of his second conviction was out. He lived there in exile until matters calmed down in France.

In the meanwhile, Major Henry, who had forged documents against Dreyfus, was arrested for forgery and thrown in jail, where he died shortly thereafter.

Due to the ever-increasing pressure on the army and the government from all sides, the Supreme Court annulled the original verdict against Dreyfus and ordered a new court-martial. However, the anti-Dreyfus faction lobbied hard to make sure that Dreyfus was convicted again on 9th September 1899, despite the evidence of his innocence.

Alfred Dreyfus applied for a re-trial. The government agreed to offer him a pardon if he admitted to being guilty, but made it clear that they could not exonerate him completely. This was intended to be a compromise in order to cover up the army’s mistake.

Fed up with his persecution, and unwilling to go back to Devil’s Island if he refused the pardon, Dreyfus accepted the pardon even though he was innocent. By doing this, he officially remained a traitor but was released from prison.

For the next few years, Dreyfus lived in a state of house arrest in the commune of Carpentras with one of his sisters.

It was only on 12th July 1906 that Alfred Dreyfus, aged 46, was officially exonerated by a military commission, making him a free citizen.

This, in short, was the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a monumental event in the history of modern France.

The day following his complete exoneration, Alfred Dreyfus was not only readmitted into the army but was also promoted to the rank of major. And just a week later, he was made Knight of the Legion of Honour, after which he was commissioned to command an artillery unit at Vincennes, and then later on at Saint-Denis.

Although his life seemed to be getting back to normal, Dreyfus was not completely safe from the anti-Dreyfus faction yet. The situation got so tense that some of them decided to take matters into their own hands to get rid of Dreyfus.

On 4th June 1908, when Dreyfus was attending the ceremony relocating Zola’s ashes to the Panthéon, he was shot and wounded in the arm by a right-wing journalist named Louis Gregori. Gregori wanted to assassinate Dreyfus but failed to get a clean shot at him. Dreyfus was fortunate to get away with just a wounded arm.

Surprisingly, Gregori was acquitted by the court after defending himself by saying that he only wished to graze Dreyfus and had no intention of killing him.

Dreyfus’ time on Devil’s Island had taken a severe toll on his health. In 1907, he had been granted retirement from the army at the age of 48. However, at the onset of the First World War in 1914, Dreyfus rejoined the army as a major of artillery.

By the end of the war, he was a lieutenant colonel. And in November 1918, he was promoted to officer of the Legion of Honour.

Following his second retirement from the army, Dreyfus lived a quiet life away from the public eye.

On 12th July 1935, precisely 29 years to the date of his exoneration, Alfred Dreyfus died in Paris at the age of 75. Two days later, on Bastille Day, his funeral procession passed the major public square, Place de la Concorde, through the ranks of troops. He was interred at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Since his death, Dreyfus has been honored and remembered in several ways, keeping his name and the infamous event associated with it in the memory of every French citizen and reminding them not to repeat the injustices Dreyfus had to suffer.

Statues of him have been erected in the courtyard of the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris as well as at the exit of the Notre-Dame-des-Champs metro station.

In October 2021, a museum dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair was inaugurated in Médan by President Emmanuel Macron.

To most of us, Dreyfus’ life, especially the years of the Dreyfus Affair and its immediate aftermath, might seem tragic and disturbing. None of us can imagine living a life where we have been accused of a crime we haven’t committed and then punished for it without any evidence.

One can hardly imagine how Dreyfus and his family must have felt during those dreadful, nightmarish years of injustice, how hopeless and helpless they must have felt, and how they must have coped with it all.

But as I mentioned earlier, even though the title of this essay describes his life as tragic, I do not know for certain if Dreyfus felt the same. Maybe he had a whole different perspective of everything that happened to him and his family, one that possibly helped him cope with it better.