Dreyfus: An Affair to Remember


How is it possible that an espionage trial in France in the mid-1890s set into motion events that (tangentially) led to the rebirth of the State of Israel after 2,000 years? Noam Weissman demystifies the oft-repeated but often misunderstood story of the Dreyfus Affair. He also explains why this extraordinary — but also ordinary — example of antisemitism cuts to the heart of questions surrounding Jewish identity that are still being asked today.

Subscribe to this podcast

Episode Transcript

Israel is an incredibly young country with enough history to make you dizzy. Everyone has their own opinions — but do you really know the stories — and the facts behind them? We’re going to go into the center of the storm and place ourselves into some of the most complicated moments in Israeli history, looking at them from different angles and perspectives — all of that, in just about 20 minutes! In these short episodes, we will unlock information and really take on some tough questions. We can’t wait to get started.

Growing up, there were many events in Jewish and Israeli history that I heard about over and over again. Some were moments that were defining for the Jewish people, like the destruction of the Temples or the Spanish Inquisition. And, in modern times, I think every single Hebrew teacher I ever had sang Channah Senesh’s “Eli, Eli,” and every single camp counselor reminded us of the heroism of Yoni Netanyahu during the raid of Entebbe. These were moments and stories that I grew up on. But, there was one story that I heard over and over again that if I am honest with myself I never actually understood. I always pretended like I got it. It was the “Dreyfus Affair.”

Apparently, this event marked the start of Zionism. But, how? Why in the world was The Dreyfus Affair so important?

The question we’re thinking about today is:

How is it possible that an espionage trial in France in the mid-1890’s put events in motion that led to the rebirth of the Jewish State after 2000 years?

In September 1894, a maid at the German Embassy in Paris was looking through the trash when she discovered a note addressed to the German Military Attaché’. It referred to several top-secret documents about new French artillery. An ordinary maid likely wouldn’t have cared. But this was no ordinary maid, this maid was a spy for France’s Military Intelligence. And this was no ordinary note.

This note, which came to be known as “the Bordereau,” French for “the memo” was then sent on to The French Minister of War; General Mercier.

Without giving it much thought, the General decided the culprit must be an artillery officer. When the list of artillery officers hit his desk, General Mercier had his man. Most officers in the French army at the time were Catholic aristocracy. But one name on the list was not Catholic — It was: Alfred Dreyfus — a Jewish officer.

Dreyfus had risen up through the republic’s military and social standing, somehow, even though he was a Jew. The officer roles at that time were expected to be filled by young aristocrats, not Jewish commoners. To Mercier, Dreyfus was obviously the officer who wrote the treacherous memo! The only question to answer was, how was he guilty.

To try and prove Dreyfus’ guilt, Mercier had a criminologist examine the memo, who determined that the handwriting was not Dreyfus’. It had been forged. But after some encouragement by the authorities, he concluded that the reason it didn’t exactly match Dreyfus handwriting, was that Dreyfus forged his own handwriting To make it seem as if someone was framing him. So the fact that the handwriting didn’t look like Dreyfus’ proved that it was Dreyfus’. And that was it! That was the case that they built. This, and some vilifying letters, that his accusers wrote themselves!

On October 15, 1894, with this “evidence” Dreyfus was secretly arrested. He was interrogated for two weeks. During those two weeks, Dreyfus adamantly maintained his innocence.

A Parisian paper found out about the secret arrest and broke the story. But instead of decrying the event as an abuse of power, they celebrated his incarceration and pronounced Dreyfus’s obvious guilt on account of his being an “Officer while Jewish!” — This is where the story moves from just another story of antisemitism to one that shaped history.

Herzl in Paris

Born in 1860 in Hungary, Theodor Herzl was an assimilated Jewish playwright and journalist. He spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish and had no Jewish education.

As a young playwright, and because playwrights need to eat, he was working in Paris as a foreign correspondent for a Viennese newspaper. He was a secular, non-observant Jew, who had been struggling with what the Europeans were calling “The Jewish Question.” Meaning: What is to be done with the Jews of Europe? They didn’t fit in, they were not welcome, how could they be changed in some way to become acceptable?

This is odd because in 1867, the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire gained full legal equality and in 1871, Germany followed suit. While in France, the Jews already had full equality for nearly a century.

Ironically, Jew hatred, which received its official and political name, “antisemitism’, in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr became ubiquitous. So much so that in 1895 the mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, was elected basically on a fully antisemitic platform.

During this time, Herzl was in France covering the Dreyfus trial and Herzl was shocked at what he saw and heard. For the two months leading up to the Dreyfus trial, Herzl witnessed the French right-wing press working overtime. It was a constant drum beat of antisemitic and obscene news coverage, insulting, vilifying, and straight out fabricating stories about Alfred Dreyfus.

He soon realized that the rampant antisemitism of the time was not only about religion. Antisemitism was about Jews as a people. He was strongly impacted by statements he heard from “professional” antisemites, like German philosopher Karl Duhring and Hungarian politician Gyozo Istoczy. Duhring wrote that “the Jewish problem” was “a problem of race, morals, and culture.” whereas Gyozo Istoczy, whose political party was actually called the “National Antisemitic Party,” believed that there was only one solution: They wanted the Jews out, and they even beat Herzl to his own idea with the antisemitic slogan “Jew, go to Palestine!” Kinda ironic now…

But for Herzl, the straw that broke the camel’s back, was this.

The trial and degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

In the winter of 1894, behind closed doors, the military espionage trial began. The General Staff presented its convoluted theory that Dreyfus faked his own handwriting. They really had no case — at all.

Yet, three days later, the seven military judges unanimously convicted Alfred Dreyfus of passing secrets to a foreign power.

The sentence was life in exile on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony off the coast of French Guiana, revocation of his army rank and title, and public degradation.

On Jan 5th 1895, as Herzl watched in the press corps, Dreyfus was marched out onto the parade grounds of Paris’ military school and a public disgrace was made of him.

A military guard took Dreyfus’s sword and broke it, he tore the badges off Dreyfus’ uniform, tore off his stripes, his cuffs, his sleeves, his buttons, and threw them in the dirt. Dreyfus was then marched around the grounds in front of 5000 soldiers, and was brought before the press (where Herzl was standing) and there he declared his innocence. As Herzl later reported, the crowd then started chanting “Death to the Jews!” or “Death to the Jew.”

The media coverage, the verdict of the trial, the public degradation, and the general antisemitic outbursts, were a tipping point for Herzl. Apparently, it gave Herzl a chilling realization.

Witnessing the crowd outside the trial shouting “Death to the Jews” or “Death to the Jew,” convinced him once and for all that if a Jew like Dreyfus could climb the social ladder so well and go so far in society as Dreyfus, and still be a victim of such antisemitism, then assimilation would never solve “the Jewish problem.”

From this moment, Herzl became convinced that the Jews needed to get out of Europe and find their own home. They needed agency. They needed to control their own destiny. That idea, that vision would eventually be called Zionism.

Herzl creates political Zionism

To understand Herzl’s thinking, we need to talk for a moment about the promise of the French Revolution. Before the revolution, the Jews of Europe lived as second class citizens, if you could even call it that. They lived at the whim of monarchs who sometimes protected the Jews and who at other times empowered their population’s worst antisemitic impulses. Again and again, entire Jewish communities were eradicated, either though expulsion, or by mass murder. The Jews of Europe lived with little-to-no legal protections. As France formed a new civilization, its young, unstable government wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Among these rights: That Jews — for the first time in Europe’s History — would be equal citizens under the law!

It was a massive change in European politics and thinking! Over the next hundred years, all of Western Europe, as well as the Ottoman Empire, emancipated its Jewish populations, and declared them citizens in equal standing, with full legal protections. It was a revolutionary idea and a welcome one to the Jewish community…at least, in theory.

Given what Herzl had just witnessed in the months before Dreyfus’ trial, he realized something was wrong. Emancipation sounded good, but if emancipation, enlightenment, liberalism and education could lead to this, then, well, for the Jewish people, emancipation was a failed project in France.

In fact, Herzl observed, emancipation in Europe was actually having a reverse effect. Herzl realised that if emancipation failed to protect an assimilated and loyal Jewish officer in France, it was going to fail throughout Europe. The Jews needed to get out, as soon as possible.

The Dreyfus Affair

Meanwhile, while Dreyfus languished across the ocean on Devil’s Island, the head of intelligence retired, and a new head of intelligence took his place. In March of 1896 this new head of intelligence decided to take a look at the Dreyfus file. He saw the infamous “Bordereau,” or memo. He saw the character assassination as well as an ignored telegram between the German Military Attaché’ and a French officer named Ferdinand Esterhazy. No one had bothered to follow up on this lead. That, or the evidence had been suppressed. The new head of intelligence compared Esterhazy’s handwriting to the handwriting on the infamous memo. He brought this information to General Mercier’s staff; and was told that the case was closed, and over, and to drop it! And then… he was transferred to Tunisia.

From Tunisia, information about Esterhazy mysteriously made its way to the press, including a copy of The Memo which was published for all to see. Esterhazy’s handwriting was then recognized by a banker to whom Esterhazy owed a substantial debt. Esterhazy’s ex-mistress then published letters he had written in which he declared his hatred of France, and of its military. So, some pretty damning evidence. The military was forced to take Esterhazy to court, but somehow, managed to find him innocent.

The great French novelist, Émile Zola, was so disgusted by the verdict, he wrote a tell-all that took up the entire front page of a Paris newspaper. He titled it “J’ Accuse…!” or “I Accuse…!” In it he named names, described the sordid details and, also, firmly began the tradition of journalism-speaking-truth-to-power. The article went off like a bomb. It humiliated France internationally and tore the country into two camps. On one end were the Dreyfusards who loudly presented their facts and documentation; and on the other were the anti-Dreyfusards who used antisemitic conspiracy theories to justify their belief that Dreyfus was a German spy. The case from then on would simply be known as “The Dreyfus Affair.” Riots broke out in the streets. People shot each other in duels. Esterhazy escaped to England for his safety. And then Emile Zola was sued by the military for libel, found guilty, sentenced to prison, and then, also, escaped to England for safety.

As collusion between the government and the military became more apparent, ministers stepped down. Members of Parliament were shouting about civil war. In February of 1899 there was a failed coup attempt.

With too much evidence to keep the case at bay, Dreyfus was brought back to France in June of 1899, to be retried. He had lost his teeth, and he had also lost his capacity for speech. He had been the sole prisoner on Devil’s Island and hadn’t had a conversation in four years.

The new espionage trial was conducted again by a secret military court, and again, they found him guilty. But in light of what the world now knew, the President of France offered Dreyfus a full pardon. Dreyfus accepted, even though it meant he would be conceding to his supposed guilt.

In 1906, the French Supreme Court cleared Dreyfus and at last the nightmare was truly over. Dreyfus was fully reinstated to the army, promoted to Artillery Major, and was awarded The Legion of Honor. Throughout, he remained a loyal Frenchman and at the outbreak of WWI in 1914, he proudly served — promoted again to Lieutenant Colonel. He passed away on July 12th, 1935 and was buried two days later on Bastille Day.

Why does it matter?

Herzl did not live to see Dreyfus reinstated. He passed away in 1904, eight years after the publication of his book. Those few years of tireless work initiated the meetings of the Zionist Congress, led to the Second Aliyah, the second mass migration to Israel that lasted from 1904 till the start of WWI, led to the Balfour Declaration, the Partition Plan and finally, 50 years after Herzl predicted it in his diary, the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

OK but why does this story still matter now?

Here’s how I think about it. It’s clear that the formation of the State of Israel is not the result of the Dreyfus Affair. That argument would be akin to saying World War I began as a direct result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his pregnant wife Sophie. Clearly, things are more complicated than that. World War I began for multiple reasons including growing militarism, imperialism, nationalism and strategic alliances at the time in Europe and lots of other things I should know about because I am a history major, but forgot since.

For 2,000 years there was a religious and national desire for a Jewish return to the Land of Israel and at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, there had already been movements of young Jews returning to what was Ottoman-controlled Palestine, to work the land in hopes of a future state. However, Herzl absolutely deserves a huge amount of credit as his initiative to found political Zionism and get the ball rolling in a real, tangible way helped lead to the founding of the State. And the Dreyfus Affair was a part of Herzl’s story

The Dreyfus Affair cuts to the heart of questions surrounding Jewish identity even today.

Today around the world, antisemites accuse Jews of dual-loyalty, of not being faithful citizens in the various countries in which they live, much like how at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, even in enlightened France, Jews were treated as outsiders and scapegoats. It is a stark reminder to fight the virus of antisemitism at its very core in every country in which it rears its ugly head. But it’s also a reminder of what a different world we live in today, a world with a Jewish national home that has its doors open to all Jews around the world.

If you’re like me and you never really got it when it came to the Dreyfus Affair — hopefully now you do.

Five Fast Facts

  1. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French military officer, was wrongfully accused and convicted of being a German spy — with no proof.
  2. Dreyfus spent five years as a prisoner on Devil’s Island, a remote island off the coast of South America — where he didn’t have a conversation for four years.
  3. When Herzl heard crowds chant “Death to the Jew” or “Death to the Jews” after Dreyfus was found guilty, it pushed him to work for a Jewish state to solve the problem of antisemitism
  4. After finally being exonerated in 1906, Dreyfus returned to the French military where he even served during World War I.
  5. The Dreyfus Affair shook France/Europe to its core as it happened 100 years after the French Revolution in which all citizens, regardless of background were to be given liberty, equality and fraternity.

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it: If you paid attention to this story, you’ll notice that Alfred Dreyfus is not really a subject in the story. He was more like an object. He plays no active role and although it is a story about him… it is not really about him, and that’s exactly the point. The Dreyfus Affair is a wild, intense and historically fascinating event…And it also really wasn’t. On the one hand, we remember this story because it stands out as a unique moment in modern western history. On the other hand, we remember this story precisely because it is the story of the Jewish people before the State of Israel came into existence. For too many centuries, Jewish people were “Dreyfuses” living as objects without agency. With the advent of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish people returned to the stage as subjects, who would control their own destiny.

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.