Europe was embarked on yet another of its depressingly regular paroxysms of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, when Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for espionage.
A French Captain of Jewish-Alsatian background, the “evidence” against him was almost non-existent, limited to an on-the-spot handwriting analysis of a tissue paper missive written to the German Embassy. “Expert” testimony came from Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the modern ‘mug shot’ and an enthusiastic proponent of anthropometry in law enforcement, the collection of body measurements and proportions for purposes of identification, later phased out by the use of fingerprints. Though no handwriting expert, Bertillon opined that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the sample, explaining the differences with a cockamamie theory he called “autoforgery”.
Chief Inspector Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam, himself no handwriting expert, agreed with Bertillon. With no file and only the flimsiest of evidence, de Clam summoned Dreyfus for interrogation on October 13, 1894. Dreyfus maintained his innocence during the interrogation, with his inquisitor going so far as to slide a revolver across the table, silently suggesting that Dreyfus kill himself. Du Paty arrested Dreyfus two days later, informing the captain that he would be brought before a Court Martial.
Despite the paucity of evidence, the young artillery officer was convicted of handing over State Secrets in November 1894. The insignia was torn from his uniform and his sword broken, and then he was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” Dreyfus was sentenced to life, and sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent almost five years.
A simple miscarriage of justice elevated to a national scandal two years later, when evidence came to light identifying French Army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. Esterhazy was brought to trial in 1896, but high ranking military officials suppressed evidence, and he was acquitted on the second day of trial. The military dug in, accusing Dreyfus of additional crimes based on false documents. Indignation at the obvious frame-up began to spread.
Most of the political and military establishment lined up against Dreyfus, but the public outcry became furious after writer Émile Zola published his vehement open letter “J’accuse” (I accuse) in the Paris press in January 1898.
Zola himself was tried and convicted for libel, and fled to England.
Liberal and academic activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case. On June 5 1899, Alfred Dreyfus learned of the Supreme Court decision to revisit the judgment of 1894, and to return him to France for a new trial.
What followed nearly tore the country apart. “Dreyfusards” such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were pitted against anti-Dreyfusards such as Edouard Drumont, publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. To his supporters, the “Dreyfus affair” was a grotesque miscarriage of justice. A clear and obvious frame-up. To his detractors, Dreyfus came to symbolize the supposed disloyalty of French Jews, the attempt to reopen the case an attack on the nation and an attempt to weaken the army in order to place it under parliamentary control.
The new trial was a circus. The political and military establishments stonewalled. One of Dreyfus’ two attorneys was shot in the back on the way to court. The judge dismissed Esterhazy’s testimony, even though the man had confessed to the crime by that time. The new trial resulted in another conviction, this time with a ten-year sentence. Dreyfus would probably not have survived another 10 years in the Guiana penal colony. This time, he was pardoned and set free.
Alfred Dreyfus was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, and reinstated as a Major in the French Army, where he served with honor for the duration of World War I, honorably ending his service at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
The Dreyfus affair has been called “a modern and universal symbol of injustice”. The divisions and animosities left in the world of French politics, would remain for years. The French army would not publicly declare the man’s innocence, until 1995.