Trial of the Century

The Dreyfus Affair divided France and sparked a war over the political inheritance of the French Revolution. Yale’s Maurice Samuels spoke with us about the roots of the Affair and the conflict it caused.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of one of Europe’s most infamous controversies: the Dreyfus Affair. The French military’s attempt to scapegoat one of its few Jewish officers for an act of treason birthed a scandal that split the country — one that continues to resonate today. Yale professor Maurice Samuels, one of the pre-eminent experts on Dreyfus, spoke with us about the context of the Affair.

He began by stressing something that will feel frighteningly familiar to many American Jews. “It's important to note,” he told us, “that France was the country in Europe most favorable towards the Jews. It was the first country to give Jews full civil rights. In the 19th Century, French Jews had more freedom than in any other country, including the United States, and were better integrated than in any other country. Jews had reached the highest levels of not only banking and business but also academia, the arts, and even the Army.”

These high levels of social integration did not, however, serve as insulation against surges of anti-Semitism during moments of socioeconomic or cultural unease. “There was a big increase in anti-Semitism in France in the last decades of the 19th Century,” said Samuels. “There are lots of reasons for this. One of them is the economic depression. There were also some highly publicized scandals involving Jews, including the Panama Canal Scandal. There was also in 1882 the famous crash of the Union General Bank, which was blamed on Jewish financiers. In 1886 the journalist Édouard Drumont published a hugely best-selling book called La France Juive, a thousand-page screed denouncing Jews for having taken over France. It was such a success that Drumont started publishing a daily anti-Semitic newspaper in the 1890's called La Libre Parole, which means 'Free Speech.' One of his main targets was Jews in the army. When it came out that a high-ranking officer in the French army had sold secrets to Germany, suspicion fell on Dreyfus partially because Drumont had prepared the way for that.”

Dreyfus was the only Jew on the general staff of the Army at the time. And he was subjected to a rushed military trial complete with suspect forensics and a sealed evidentiary record. It included as well a truly Kafkaesque episode. Dreyfus produced, at the Army's demand, handwriting samples for comparison to the handwriting on notes found with the stolen documents. The handwriting did not match. This, the Army decided, was simply further proof of Dreyfus's guilt: he had changed his handwriting to avoid detection. Small surprise that Dreyfus was found guilty. His punishment, as described by Samuels, was dramatic. “He's degraded publicly in the courtyard of the École Militaire in Paris. Thousands of people show up to see him get his insignia ripped off of his uniform and his sword broken.”

Prior to this, Dreyfus was “totally unknown,” in Samuels’ words. “One of the touching things about him is that he was a really dedicated soldier. He was the last person, if they had bothered to do his psychological profile, who would be guilty of this. First of all, he was from a wealthy family, so he had no financial need to sell secrets to the Germans. He was an Alsatian Jew whose family had fled Alsace when Germany took over after the War of 1870. Alsatian Jews were among the most ardent French patriots and haters of Germany. So it really made absolutely no sense that someone like him would do this. But they didn't care. They had found their Jew, they had found their guilty person, and they went with it. There was very little evidence against him — although nobody really knew that. Most people just assumed he was guilty, including most Jews in France at the time. No one really came to his defense because nobody questioned the Army at that point. Dreyfus was subsequently shipped off to Devil's Island, off the coast of South America, where he was the only prisoner.”

There was a dark irony in the decision to pin the crime on Dreyfus. Samuels noted that “the joke about Dreyfus is that if he hadn't been Dreyfus, he would not have been a Dreyfusard. He was, as I said, devoted to the Army, incredibly patriotic. He probably would not have denounced the Army. Most Jews didn't until much later in the Affair. Dreyfus in a lot of ways was an emblem of Jewish assimilation in France. His family were in the textile business in Alsace. They still identified as Jews though they were very assimilated to French culture. That is pretty typical of a certain strain of French Jewish culture. There's this idea in the 19th Century that French Jews become 'Israelites:' a distinguished term for someone who's completely assimilated to French culture but still retains a distinct group identity. That group, most of whose ancestors had been in France since before the Revolution, look askance at the tens of thousands of new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who started to arrive in France in the late 1880's and 1890's. These new immigrants were poor, Yiddish-speaking, and very orthodox. There's a class tension between them and the 'Israelite' Jews, the upper-class Jews. Dreyfus's family was very typical of that upper-class milieu.”

The initial core of people who came to Dreyfus’s defense was, Samuels told us, restricted. “First of all was his family,” Samuels said. “His brother, Mathieu, was very devoted to him, convinced of his innocence, and started the campaign to prove him innocent.” But shortly after the trial, a turn of events that seems taken directly from a John le Carré novel helped to build enthusiasm among the pro-Dreyfus movement.

In 1896, France’s military counter-espionage office had a change of leadership; the new head was Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart. “Picquart,” said Samuels, “is an anti-Semite, but he's an honest guy, and he comes across evidence that someone else had actually sold the secrets to Germany: a major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Esterhazy, unlike Dreyfus, had all the motivations to commit treason for money. He was a gambler. He was heavily in debt. Picquart brings this to light, but at this point, the cover-up starts. The Army basically realizes they had made a mistake, but instead of admitting it, they double down. They go to work to protect Esterhazy and further incriminate Dreyfus. Another officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, forges a document incriminating Dreyfus. They ship Picquart off on a dangerous mission to North Africa to get rid of him. But Dreyfus's defenders, including his brother, start to convince more and more people in France that he was really innocent.”