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What was the Dreyfus affair?

What was the Dreyfus affair?

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A scandal that rocked France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. In 1894, after a French spy at the German Embassy in Paris discovered a ripped-up letter in a waste basket with handwriting said to resemble that of Dreyfus, he was court-martialed, found guilty of treason and sentenced to life behind bars on Devil’s Island off of French Guiana. In a public ceremony in Paris following his conviction, Dreyfus had the insignia torn from his uniform and his sword broken and was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”

In 1896, the new head of the army’s intelligence unit, Georges Picquart, uncovered evidence pointing to another French military officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as the real traitor. However, when Picquart told his bosses what he’d discovered he was discouraged from continuing his investigation, transferred to North Africa and later imprisoned. Nevertheless, word about Esterhazy’s possible guilt began to circulate. In 1898, he was court-martialed but quickly found not guilty; he later fled the country. After Esterhazy’s acquittal, a French newspaper published an open letter titled “J’Accuse…!” by well-known author Emile Zola in which he defended Dreyfus and accused the military of a major cover-up in the case. As a result, Zola was convicted of libel, although he escaped to England and later managed to return to France.

The Dreyfus affair deeply divided France, not just over the fate of the man at its center but also over a range of issues, including politics, religion and national identity. In 1899, Dreyfus was court-martialed for a second time and found guilty. Although he was pardoned days later by the French president, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus officially was exonerated and reinstated in the army.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus ( / ˈ d r eɪ f ə s / DRAY -fəs, also US: / ˈ d r aɪ -/ DRY -, French: [alfʁɛd dʁɛfys] 9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935) was a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most controversial and polarizing political dramas in modern French history. The incident has gone down in history as the Dreyfus Affair, the reverberations from which were felt throughout Europe. It ultimately ended with Dreyfus's complete exoneration.

The Dreyfus Affair

Volume one of a comprehensive series on the Dreyfus Affair, this account chronicles for the first time in English and day by day, the drama that destabilized French society (1894-1906) and reverberated across the world. A deliberate miscarriage of justice, the public degradation of an innocent Jewish officer and his incarceration on Devil's Island, espionage, intrigue, media pressure, vehement antisemitism and political skulduggery - topics so relevant to our times - are set within a broad historical context. Meticulous research, new translations of key documents, a wealth of primary sources and illustrations and a select bibliography make this an indispensable reference work.

GEORGE R. WHYTE is chairman of the Dreyfus Society for Human Rights and the author of The Accused: The Dreyfus Trilogy (1996).

'In this impressive work, George Whyte has assembled in unprecedented detail the evidence surrounding one of the most bitterly contested moments in modern European history. It will become a standard reference work for those interested in this fascinating case.' - Chief Rabbi Prof. Sir Jonathan Sacks

'George Whyte's telling of the famous story is as gripping as a novel. Whyte has enrolled Dreyfus into the elite of cultural icons whose lives are documented day by day and hour by hour. This volume lives and breathes in its footnotes and appendices hey are he most moving and involving part of the book, fleshing out the bare timeline and reproducing many key documents, a number for the first time in English.' - Ben Barkow, Director, Wiener Library, Jewish Chronicle

'A riveting account of the Deyfus Affair. George R. Whyte meticulously retraces the complex events which allow the reader to follow the unbroken and far-reaching line of the narrative. He records these events within a chronological context which reaches back to the French Revolution and forward to the present day. However, this vaster perspective leads to the inevitable conclusion that even in France, the country of human rights and the first to bestow civil liberties to the Jews, antisemitism, lurking beneath the surface and casting a stain on the name of Dreyfus, remains a constant threat which can erupt again at any time.' - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

'In his day by day account the author shows that real life events can be more breathtaking than fiction. His innovative style of biographical writing concentrates primarily on relating the facts, thereby inviting readers to arrive at their own conclusions. This work of erudition will serve as an authoritative reference book for any serious student of l'Affair Dreyfus.' - Dr Frederik Wolfgang Rosner, The Renaissance Quarterly

'This book is not only an outstanding work of reference and, as such, makes a valuable contribution to the English language bibliography on the subject, but also a new tool for all French historians studying the Affair.' - His Excellency M. Gérard Errera, French Ambassador to the Court of St. James

'The sad history of the Dreyfus Affair is as relevant in today's battle against racism as it was in the days so uniquely and remarkably set out in George Whyte's new book. It is important both for its meticulous historical accuracy and for the mirror that it holds up to the past, reflecting the grim and growing dangers both of the present and of the future.' - Lord Janner of Braunstone, QC Chairman, Holocaust Educational Trust

'A comprehensive painstaking and thorough documentation of the infamous Dreyfus Affair. The publication of this masterful book comes at a time of increased antisemitism in France in particular and elsewhere in Europe. A much needed reminder of the malaise that almost destroyed Dreyfus and that threatens once again to blight our world.' - Rabbi Barry Marcus, Central Synagogue, London

The culmination (1897–1899)

The army put Esterhazy on trial in December 1897, but he was acquitted. Émile Zola, France's most famous living writer, wrote an open letter to the president of the republic, accusing the army of deliberately concealing the truth. Georges Clemenceau, a leading republican politician, gave it the title by which it is known—"J'accuse" (I accuse)—and published it in his newspaper on 13 January 1898. It sold a record three hundred thousand copies.

In response, the Catholic daily La croix (The cross) and other Catholic organs went into orgies of anti-Semitism and hatred of the republic, ensuring that republicans continued to view the church as their major opponent. And the army prosecuted Zola for libel in February 1898. Zola's fame made the affair an international issue. Faced with appeals to faith in the army, Zola was convicted. Also in February, leading pro-Dreyfusard intellectuals founded the Ligue des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (League of the rights of man and of the citizens), better known as the Ligue des droits de l'homme, still the guardian of French republican liberties. Convicted on appeal in July, Zola fled to England to prevent the verdict's being officially served on him and to keep the case open, adding more drama to the affair.

A new war minister, Eugène Godefroy Cavaignac, made a major speech on 7 July 1898. Aiming to restore faith in the army, he detailed all the proofs against Dreyfus. Jaurès responded with a series of articles called "The Proofs" (10–24 August 1898), demonstrating by textual analysis that the "proofs" must be forgeries. Cavaignac interrogated Major Henry, who confessed. The next day, using a razor provided by fellow officers, he committed suicide in his prison cell. Anti-Dreyfusards made him a hero: he had created "le faux patriotique" (the patriotic forgery) "for the public good" (Bredin, p. 337). La libre parole collected 131,000 francs for this "martyr for patriotism" many donors added vicious anti-Semitic comments (Weber, pp. 32–33). The royalist Charles Maurras also defended Henry. Maurras hated "Hebraic thought and all the dreams of justice, of happiness and of equality it drags in its wake." Major Henry had, Maurras wrote, defended France against the Jew "for the good and the honor of all" (Weber, p. 8). Maurras joined other anti-Dreyfusards in founding the Comitéd'Action Française (Committee of French Action) he soon emerged as its leader.

Following Henry's suicide, Cavaignac resigned and Major Esterhazy fled to Belgium (thento England), but the president of the republic, Félix Faure, still resisted reopening the case. Faure died in February 1899 and was succeeded by Émile Loubet. A retrial was granted on 3 June 1899. The next day, at the Longchamps races, a furious young aristocrat smashed Loubet's top hat with his cane. The socialist parties called a massive counterdemonstration for 11 June 1899, and other republicans joined in, beginning a tradition of

rallying for the republic when it was threatened. The next day, the socialist deputy Édouard Vaillant moved no confidence, and the ministry fell.

Loubet called on René Waldeck-Rousseau to form a government committed to ending the affair. Dreyfus was brought back for a second trial the judges found him "guilty but with extenuating circumstances," hoping to make possible a light sentence and defuse the affair. Waldeck-Rousseau immediately arranged for Dreyfus to be pardoned on 19 September 1899.


Dreyfus affair Edit

Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer from a prosperous Jewish family. [4] In 1894, while an artillery captain for the General Staff of France, Dreyfus was suspected of providing secret military information to the German government. [4]

A cleaning woman and French spy by the name of Madame Marie Bastian working at the German Embassy was at the source of the investigation. She routinely searched wastebaskets and mailboxes at the German Embassy for suspicious documents. [5] She found a suspicious bordereau (detailed listing of documents) at the German Embassy in 1894, and delivered it to Commandant Hubert-Joseph Henry, who worked for French military counterintelligence in the General Staff. [5]

The bordereau had been torn into six pieces, and had been found by Madame Bastian in the wastepaper basket of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché. [5] When the document was investigated, Dreyfus was convicted largely on the basis of testimony by professional handwriting experts: [6] the graphologists asserted that "the lack of resemblance between Dreyfus' writing and that of the bordereau was proof of a 'self-forgery,' and prepared a fantastically detailed diagram to demonstrate that this was so." [7] There were also assertions from military officers who provided confidential evidence. [6]

Dreyfus was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial, during which he was denied the right to examine the evidence against him. The Army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped him off to Devil's Island, a penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana in South America. [5]

At this time, France was experiencing a period of anti-Semitism, and there were very few outside his family who defended Dreyfus. Nevertheless, the initial conviction was annulled by the Supreme Court after a thorough investigation. In 1899, Dreyfus returned to France for a retrial, but although found guilty again, he was pardoned. [5] In 1906, Dreyfus appealed his case again, and obtained the annulment of his guilty verdict. In 1906, he was also awarded the Cross of the Légion d'honneur, which was for “a soldier who has endured an unparallelled martyrdom". [6]

Émile Zola Edit

Émile Zola was born on 2 April 1840 in Paris. [8] Zola's main literary work was Les Rougon-Macquart, a monumental cycle of twenty novels about Parisian society during the French Second Empire under Napoleon III and after the Franco-Prussian War. [8] He was also the founder of the Naturalist movement in 19th-century literature. [8] Zola was among the strongest proponents of the Third Republic and was elected to the Légion d'honneur. [8]

Zola risked his career in January 1898 when he decided to stand up for Alfred Dreyfus. Zola wrote an open letter to the President of France, Félix Faure, accusing the French government of falsely convicting Alfred Dreyfus and of anti-Semitism. [8] His intention was to draw the accusation so broadly that he would essentially force men in the government to sue him for libel. Once the suit was filed, the Dreyfusards (supporters of Dreyfus) would have the opportunity to acquire and publicize the shaky evidence on which Dreyfus had been convicted. Zola titled his letter "J’Accuse" (French for "I Accuse"), which was published on the front page of Georges Clemenceau's liberal Paris daily L'Aurore. [8]

Contents of J'Accuse. Edit

Émile Zola argued that "the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus was based on false accusations of espionage and was a misrepresentation of justice." [8] He first points out that the real man behind all of this is Major du Paty de Clam. Zola states: "He was the one who came up with the scheme of dictating the text of the bordereau to Dreyfus he was the one who had the idea of observing him in a mirror-lined room. And he was the one whom Major Forzinetti caught carrying a shuttered lantern that he planned to throw open on the accused man while he slept, hoping that, jolted awake by the sudden flash of light, Dreyfus would blurt out his guilt." [9]

Next, Zola points out that if the investigation of the traitor was to be done properly, the evidence would clearly show that the bordereau came from an infantry officer, not an artillery officer such as Dreyfus. [9]

Zola argues Dreyfus's innocence can be readily inferred from the circumstances when he states: "These, Sir, are the facts that explain how this miscarriage of justice came about The evidence of Dreyfus's character, his affluence, the lack of motive and his continued affirmation of innocence combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the 'dirty Jew' obsession that is the scourge of our time." [9]

After more investigation, Zola points out that a man by the name of Major Esterhazy was the man who should have been convicted of this crime, and there was proof provided, but he could not be known as guilty unless the entire General Staff was guilty, so the War Office covered up for Esterhazy.

At the end of his letter, Zola accuses General Billot of having held in his hands absolute proof of Dreyfus's innocence and covering it up. [9] He accuses both General de Boisdeffre and General Gonse of religious prejudice against Alfred Dreyfus. [9] He accuses the three handwriting experts, Messrs. Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of submitting false reports that were deceitful, unless a medical examination finds them to be suffering from a condition that impairs their eyesight and judgment. [9]

Zola's final accusations were to the first court martial for violating the law by convicting Alfred Dreyfus on the basis of a document that was kept secret, and to the second court martial for committing the judicial crime of knowingly acquitting Major Esterhazy. [9]

Zola was brought to trial for libel for publishing his letter to the President, and was convicted two weeks later. He was sentenced to jail and was removed from the Légion d'honneur. [8] To avoid jail time, Zola fled to England, and stayed there until the French Government collapsed he continued to defend Dreyfus. [8]

Four years after the letter was published, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked chimney. On 4 June 1908, Zola's remains were laid to rest in the Panthéon in Paris. [8] In 1953, the newspaper Liberation published a death-bed confession by a Parisian roofer that he had murdered Zola by blocking the chimney of his house. [10]


On 12 July 1906, the French Army, at last, exonerated Dreyfus from all charges and declared him innocent. The army re initiated Dreyfus, but he refused to join. At the advent of World War I, Dreyfus joined as an Artillery field commander in the French Army and fought in the Battle of Somme. Dreyfus died in 1935 as a true French patriot.

The treatment received by Dreyfus because he was a Jew caused political resentment among French people. The ordeal kindled the belief that a separate state that can save Jews in Europe.

The antisemitic riots spread to French colonies of Algiers. The French government policy of racial discrimination gave rise to far-right parties, which became a role model for Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. Dreyfus stood on his ground to prove his innocence throughout the ordeal he went through.

At the Crossroad of French and Jewish History: The Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Captain in the French army, was convicted of spying in December 1894, then cleared of any guilt in July 1906. Between these two moments lies a period of extraordinary judicial and political drama, a drama that went beyond the fate of a simple Captain, as it marked a major turning point in the socio-political and cultural history of France, of the Jewish people, and, in a sense, of Western society in general. The seminar will trace the events of the Dreyfus Affair proper, situate them in their historical context, and discuss their philosophical implications and political consequences. In particular, we will examine the major role the Affair had in generating some of the conflicting views that were to dominate the 20 th century, around questions of social identity – what does it mean to be "French", or "Jewish" – and the answers provided to these questions by fascism, on the one hand, and by humanistic ideologies on the other. More profoundly, the seminar will attempt to understand the way the Dreyfus Affair reframed the debate over concepts such as "justice," "truth," "race," "nation" and "intellectuals." Readings will include chapters of Jean-Denis Bredin's masterful overview, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, polemical texts by Emile Zola and others, and various newspaper articles, photographs, and cartoons. Students will also be required to watch several films, including William Dieterle's "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937), Jose Ferrer's "I Accuse!"(1958), and Ken Russell's "Prisoner of Honor" (1991).During the semester, students will be encouraged to give a short oral exposé on a specific topic of interest to them and related to the questions discussed in class. All students will be required to provide a final research paper on a topic of their choice, in consultation with the teacher. A writing workshop will take place three weeks prior to the end of the semester, to give students some guidance with respect to the final paper. Class grades will be based on class participation (40%) and the final paper (60%).

About Professor Eisenzweig

URI EISENZWEIG is a distinguished Professor of French and Comparative Literature. His research centers on the role of literary imagination in the formation of political discourse in post-revolutionary France and Europe. This interest guided him to write Territoires occupés de l'imaginaire juif (Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1980), Fictions de l'anarchisme , and Naissance littéraire du fascisme (Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2013). A more specific focus on the weakening belief in the narrative nature of truth at the end of the nineteenth century has led him to explore the peculiar late 19th century imagination of acts of violence that cannot be easily told: the mysterious crime in detective fiction, studied in Autopsies du roman policier (10-18, Paris, 1983) and Le Récit impossible (Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1986) the rise of so-called “terrorism,” on which he wrote several articles, as well as some chapters of his Fictions de l'anarchisme.


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J’accuse, (French: “I accuse”) celebrated open letter by Émile Zola to the president of the French Republic in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who had been accused of treason by the French army. It was published in the newspaper L’Aurore on Jan. 13, 1898. The letter, which began with the denunciatory phrase “J’accuse,” blamed the army for covering up its mistaken conviction of Dreyfus. It was instrumental in generating public response to what became known as the Dreyfus affair. Zola was brought to trial on Feb. 7, 1898, and was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 francs after being found guilty of libel. As a result of the new attention focused on the affair, Dreyfus underwent a new court-martial. Although still found guilty, he was pardoned by the president of the republic. Not until 1906 was Dreyfus cleared of all wrongdoing.


The eleven installments of the series follow the events of the Dreyfus affair from 1894 through September 1899, [4] the month of the series' release. [1] The following is a summary of the series's overarching storyline. For information on the individual installments, see the Installments section below.

In 1894, Armand du Paty de Clam suspects the French military captain Alfred Dreyfus of being a spy for Germany. Paty de Clam demands a sample of Dreyfus's handwriting, to see if it matches the writing on the Bordereau (an anonymous letter to the German Embassy that has been discovered by French counterintelligence). Finding that Dreyfus seems nervous, Paty de Clam accuses him outright of having written the Bordereau, and offers a gun so that Dreyfus can commit suicide on the spot. Dreyfus protests that he is innocent, and is arrested. At the École Militaire, Dreyfus is stripped of his rank and honors, and he is sent to be clapped in irons in prison on Devil's Island.

Four years later, Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry, who had accused Dreyfus publicly, is arrested (he has admitted to having forged the Faux Henry, a false document designed to act as evidence against Dreyfus). Henry commits suicide in Cherche-Midi prison. The next year, in 1899, Dreyfus is transferred from Devil's Island via Quiberon to Rennes, where he will be tried by court-martial now that further evidence has surfaced. His defense attorneys Fernand Labori and Edgar Demange visit him, as does his wife Lucie. Later, when walking with Georges Picquart, Labori is struck down by a bullet. Labori survives, but the shooter escapes.

The case splits popular opinion into two sides: the Dreyfusards (who believe Dreyfus is innocent) and the anti-Dreyfusards (who believe he is guilty). The court martial is heavily attended by journalists on both sides, and a fight breaks out as controversy rages between the Dreyfusard reporter Caroline Rémy de Guebhard and the anti-Dreyfusard reporter Arthur Meyer. The turmoil is hardly more contained in the trial itself, when Dreyfus and General Auguste Mercier (called as a witness) are cross-examined. Dreyfus, convicted of treason, is led back to prison.

Installments Edit

The table below gives each installment's chronological order (#), numbering in Star Film catalogs (SFC), English release titles for the US and UK, original French title, and length in meters (m), as well as the individual scene summaries from the catalog released on 1 November 1899 by the Warwick Trading Company, the only known British firm to sell all eleven installments of the series. [5]

Episodes of The Dreyfus Affair
# SFC English title(s) French title m
1206Dreyfus Court Martial—Arrest of Dreyfus (US)
Arrest of Dreyfus, 1894 (UK)
Dictée du bordereau (arrestation de Dreyfus)20
"Du Paty de Clam requests Captain Dreyfus to write as he dictates for the purpose of ascertaining whether his handwriting conforms to that of the Bordereau. He notices the nervousness of Dreyfus, and accuses him of being the author of the Bordereau. Paty de Clam offers Dreyfus a revolver, with advice to commit suicide. The revolver is scornfully rejected, Dreyfus stating that he had no need for such cowardly methods, proclaiming his innocence. His arrest is immediately ordered by M. Cochefort."
2216The Degradation of Dreyfus (US)
The Degradation of Dreyfus in 1894 (UK) [a]
La Dégradation20
"Shows the troops ranging in a quadrant inside the yard of the Military School in Paris. The Adjutant, who conducts the degradation, reads the sentence and proceeds to tear off in succession all of the buttons, laces, and ornaments from the uniform of Captain Dreyfus, who is compelled to pass in disgrace before the troops. A most visual representation of this first act of injustice to Dreyfus."
3207Devil's Island—Within the palisade (US)
Dreyfus at Devil's Island—Within the palisade (UK)
La Case de Dreyfus à l'île du Diable20
"The scene opens within the Palisades, showing Dreyfus seated on a block meditating. The guard enters bearing a letter from his wife, which he hands to Captain Dreyfus. The latter reads it and endeavours to talk to the Guard, who, however, refuses to reply, according to strict orders from his Government, causing Dreyfus to become very despondent."
4208Dreyfus Put in Irons (US)
Dreyfus Put in Irons—Inside Cell at Devil's Island (UK)
Dreyfus mis aux fers (la double boucle)20
"Showing the interior view of the hut in which Dreyfus is confined. The scene takes place at night, showing the moon through the window of the cell. Two guards stealthily approach the cot upon which Dreyfus is sleeping. They awake him and read to him the order from the French minister–M. Lebon–to put him into irons, which they proceed at once to accomplish. Dreyfus vigorously protests against this treatment, which protests, however, fall on deaf ears. The chief sergeant and guards before leaving the hut, inspect the four corners of same by means of a lantern."
5209Suicide of Colonel Henry (US, UK)Suicide du colonel Henry20
"Shows the interior of the cell of the Prison Militaire du Cherche-Midi, Paris, where Colonel Henry is confined. He is seated at a table writing a letter, on completion of which he rises and takes a razor out he had concealed in his porte-manteau, with which he cuts his throat. The suicide is discovered by the sergeant of the guard and officers."
6210Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon (US)
Landing of Dreyfus from Devil's Island (UK)
Débarquement de Dreyfus à Quiberon20
"A section of the port Haliquen (Quiberon) Bretagne, at night where Dreyfus was landed by French marines, and officers after his transport from Devil's Island. He is received by the French authorities, officers, and gendarmes, and conducted to the station for his departure to Rennes. This little scene was enacted on a dark rainy night, which is clearly shown in the film. The effects are further heightened by vivid flashes of lightning which are certainly new in cinematography."
7211Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes (US)
Dreyfus in Prison of Rennes (UK)
Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme (prison de Rennes)20
"Showing room at the military prison at Rennes in which Dreyfus the accused is confined. He is visited by his counsel, Maître Labori and Demange, with whom he is seen in animated conversation. A visit from his wife is announced, who enters. The meeting of the husband and wife is most pathetic and emotional."
8212The Attempt Against the Life of Maitre Labori (US)
The Attempt Against Maitre Labori (UK)
Attentat contre M e Labori20
"Maître Labori is seen approaching the bridge of Rennes in company with Colonel Picquart and M. Gast, Mayor of Rennes. They notice that they are followed by another man to whom Colonel Picquart calls Labori's attention. They, however, consider his proximity of no importance, and continue to speak together. As soon as their backs are turned, the man draws a revolver and fires twice at Maître Labori, who is seen to fall to the ground. The culprit makes his escape, pursued by Colonel Picquart and M. Gast."
9213The Fight of Reporters at the Lycée (US)
The Fight of Journalists at the Lycee (UK)
Suspension d'audience (bagarre entre journalistes)20
"During an interval in the proceedings of the court martial, the journalists enter into an animated discussion, resulting in a dispute between Arthur Meyer of the 'Gaulois', and Mme. Severine of the 'Fronde', resulting in a fight between Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards, in which canes and chairs are brought down upon the heads of many. The room is finally cleared by the gendarmes."
10214–215The Court Martial at Rennes (US, UK)Le Conseil de guerre en séance à Rennes40
"A scene in the Lycee at Rennes, showing the military court-martial of Captain Dreyfus. The only occupants of the room at this time are Maître Demange and secretary. Other advocates and the stenographers now begin to arrive and the sergeant is seen announcing the arrival of Colonel Jouaust and other officers comprising the seven judges of the court-martial. The five duty judges are also seen in the background. On the left of the picture are seen Commander Cordier and Adjutant Coupois, with their stenographers and gendarmes. On the right are seen Maître Demange, Labori, and their secretaries. Colonel Jouaust orders the Sergeant of the Police to bring in Dreyfus. Dreyfus enters, saluting the Court, followed by the Captain of Gendarmerie, who is constantly with him. They take their appointed seats in front of the judges. Colonel Jouaust puts several questions to Dreyfus, to which he replies in a standing position. He then asks Adjutant Coupois to call the first witness, and General Mercier arrives. He states that his deposition is a lengthy one, and requests a chair, which is passed to him by a gendarme. In a sitting position he proceeds with his deposition. Animated discussion and cross-questioning is exchanged between Colonel Jouaust, General Mercier, and Maître Demange. Captain Dreyfus much excited gets up and vigorously protests against these proceedings. This scene, which is a most faithful portrayal of this proceeding, shows the absolute portraits of over thirty of the principal personages in this famous trial."
11217Dreyfus Leaving the Lycée for Jail (US)
Officers and Dreyfus Leaving the Lycee (UK) [b]
Dreyfus allant du lycée de Rennes à la prison20
"The exterior of the Lycee de Rennes, where the famous Dreyfus Court-Martial was conducted, showing the French staff leaving the building after the sitting, and crossing the yard between the French soldiers forming a double line. Maîtres Demange and Labori also make their appearance, walking towards the foreground of the picture, and at length Captain Dreyfus is seen approaching, being accompanied by the Captain of Gendarmes, who is conducting him back to prison."

The French public paid intense attention to the Dreyfus affair, with high interest in films relating to the case. One story goes that Francis Doublier, a filmmaker working for the Lumière brothers, went so far in 1898 as to string together unconnected film clips, presenting the melange with a running spoken commentary claiming that he was showing Dreyfus, the courthouse where he was sentenced to Devil's Island, and the ship carrying him there. The hoax was revealed when one audience member pointed out that the events supposedly on view had happened in 1894 and early 1895, before motion-picture film was in use. [7] The French branch of the Biograph Company captured short clips of newsreel footage of the trial at Rennes, while its English counterpart released two fictional films inspired by the affair. [8] Méliès's version of The Dreyfus Affair may have been commissioned by the Warwick Trading Company, which distributed Méliès's films to British projectionists. [9] At about the same time as Méliès's production, the studio Pathé Frères also produced a reenactment of the Dreyfus affair, in six episodes, [10] with the actor Jean Liézer as Dreyfus. [11] This version may have been directed by Ferdinand Zecca. [10]

Production of Méliès's The Dreyfus Affair began while the real-life Alfred Dreyfus's trial was proceeding in Rennes. The series was made entirely in Méliès's Star Films studio in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, though with a strong emphasis on cinematic realism markedly different from the energetic theatrical style used in Méliès's better-known fantasy films. [12] The series is an elaborate example of Méliès's actualitiés reconstituées ("reconstructed actualities"), films in which current events were recreated in an evocative docudrama-like format. [13]

An ironworker with a strong resemblance to Dreyfus was hired for the role in order to increase the series's realism. [14] Méliès himself appears in the series as Dreyfus's attorney Fernand Labori and makes a brief reappearance as a journalist after Labori's attempted assassination. [15] At least one scene, Dreyfus's exit from the courthouse, appears to have been modelled on a news photograph printed in the journal L'Illustration. [16] Méliès drew on both cinematic and theatrical special effects for the series: the lightning in Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon was added to the scene using multiple exposure, while the rain and rocking motion of the boat were created with stage machinery. [17] The gun smoke in The Attempt Against the Life of Maitre Labori is a puff of poudre de riz, a cosmetic powder. [18]

Taken as a whole, The Dreyfus Affair can be considered Méliès's longest film up to that date, and it has sometimes been described as such. [19] However, the eleven installments were designed to be sold individually, so it is more accurate to refer to The Dreyfus Affair as a series. [19] [20] (Méliès himself, in recollections late in life, was inconsistent on the point: he once referred to The Dreyfus Affair as a film, [20] but also once said his first long-format film was Cinderella, made later the same year.) [19]

The Dreyfus Affair portrays Dreyfus sympathetically, and the lead actor's performance is staged to imply strongly that Dreyfus is innocent. [21] Méliès's casting of himself as Labori has also been taken as an implied support of Dreyfus's cause. [22] [23] In recollections written late in life, Méliès claimed that he had intended to create an objective, nonpartisan illustration of the events of the case. [22] However, the English-language description of the series, which may have been written by Méliès, describes the degradation ceremony as the "first act of injustice to Dreyfus", and a surviving English advertisement for the Devil's Island installment announces that the film shows Dreyfus as a martyr. [9]

Images of characters reading and writing are pervasive throughout the series, serving as a constant reminder of the importance of various documents to the Dreyfus affair. [24] In her book-length study of Méliès, the film scholar Elizabeth Ezra suggests that the writerly imagery also points to "film's potential to be a new form of document", a self-reflexive comment on the filming process itself. [25] Ezra also highlights uses of thematic imagery such as the courtroom's prominent crucifix, a "stigma evoking at once Dreyfus's similarity to the Christian icon through a shared martyrdom, and his alienation from Christianity, through his Jewish heritage." [21]

The series was sold by Méliès's Star Film Company and numbered 206–217 in its catalogs. [27] The eleven installments were sold at US$9.75 each, and were sometimes shown in sequence, making The Dreyfus Affair the first known film serial. [12] Both Méliès's and Pathé's versions reached England in September 1899, where they quickly became the most extensively advertised films of that year (the record was broken the following month with the release of films of the Transvaal War). [28] According to the film historian Jay Leyda, Méliès's emphasis on realism was so convincing that European audiences believed they were watching actual documentary film of the events. [14]

In a 1930 article for the Paris magazine L'Œuvre, Lucien Wahl recollected that The Dreyfus Affair had caused riotous reactions in France, with Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards arguing noisily during screenings. [29] In a published response, Méliès himself agreed that the scenes had caused riots, and added that the violent responses had led to the French government banning the series. [30] Though these details were quickly taken up by film historians and reprinted, there is no evidence that the series was banned immediately on a national level Méliès continued to sell it in his catalogues until 1906, seven years later. Similarly, no known French newspapers of the time reported on riots occurring when the series was screened. [22] However, it is possible that some local French officials and exhibitors held a moratorium on Dreyfus-related films due to their controversial nature, as some British cinema owners are known to have done. In addition, the French government did legislate in 1915 to forbid all films relating to Dreyfus, including foreign imports, and did not lift this ban until 1950. [31]

Nine of the eleven installments (all except scenes 2 and 11, catalog numbers 216 and 217) survive as a 35mm positive print at the BFI National Archive. [32] All eleven installments of the series are listed as surviving at the Centre national de la cinématographie in Bois d'Arcy. [33]

The Dreyfus Affair remains the most famous of Méliès's reconstructed actualities, surpassing even his highly successful 1902 work in the genre, The Coronation of Edward VII. [13] The film historian Georges Sadoul believed The Dreyfus Affair to be the first "politically engaged film" in the history of cinema. [21] In a study of the Dreyfus affair, the cultural historian Venita Datta comments appreciatively on the dramatic power of Méliès's series, with the combat between Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard journalists "brilliantly played up". [34] The series is prominently featured in Susan Daitch's 2001 novel Paper Conspiracies, which includes fictionalized accounts of its making, preservation, and survival. [35]

Dreyfus Affair

The case arose when a French spy in the German embassy discovered a handwritten bordereau [schedule], received by Major Maximilien von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris, which offered to sell French military secrets. The French army, which, although considerably democratized in the late 19th cent., remained a stronghold of monarchists and Catholics and permeated by anti-Semitism, attempted to ferret out the traitor. Suspicion fell on Dreyfus, a wealthy Alsatian Jew, while the press raised accusations of Jewish treason. He was tried in camera by a French court-martial, convicted, and sentenced to degradation and deportation for life. He was sent to Devils Island Devils Island,
Fr. Île du Diable, the smallest and southernmost of the Îles du Salut, in the Caribbean Sea off French Guiana. A penal colony founded in 1852, it was used largely for political prisoners, the most celebrated of whom was Alfred Dreyfus.
. Click the link for more information. , off the coast of French Guiana, for solitary confinement. Dreyfus protested his innocence and swore his loyalty to France, but public opinion generally applauded the conviction, and interest in the case lapsed.

The Controversy

The matter flared up again in 1896 and soon divided Frenchmen into two irreconcilable factions. In 1896 Col. Georges Picquart Picquart, Georges
, 1854�, French general. As chief of the army intelligence section in 1896, he discovered that the memorandum that had been used to convict Captain Dreyfus (see Dreyfus Affair) had probably been the work of Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.
. Click the link for more information. , chief of the intelligence section, discovered evidence indicating Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy Esterhazy, Ferdinand Walsin
, 1847�, French army officer, member of a French family possibly related to the Hungarian family of Esterhazy. A veteran of the papal army and the French Foreign Legion, he entered the regular French army and rose to be a major.
. Click the link for more information. , who was deep in debt, as the real author of the bordereau. Picquart was silenced by army authorities, but in 1897 Dreyfus's brother, Mathieu, made the same discovery and increased pressure to reopen the case. Esterhazy was tried (Jan., 1898) by a court-martial and acquitted in a matter of minutes.

Émile Zola Zola, Émile
, 1840�, French novelist, b. Paris. He was a professional writer, earning his living through journalism and his novels. About 1870 he became the apologist for and most significant exponent of French naturalism, a literary school that maintained that
. Click the link for more information. , a leading supporter of Dreyfus, promptly published an open letter (J'accuse) to the president of the French republic, Félix Faure Faure, Félix
, 1841󈟏, president of the French republic (1895󈟏). A leather merchant, he served in the Franco-Prussian War and became an undersecretary for commerce and colonies in the cabinet of Léon Gambetta (1881󈞾).
. Click the link for more information. , accusing the judges of having obeyed orders from the war office in their acquittal of Esterhazy. Zola was tried for libel and sentenced to jail, but he escaped to England. By this time the case had become a major political issue and was fully exploited by royalist, militarist, and nationalist elements on the one hand and by republican, socialist, and anticlerical elements on the other.

The violent partisanship dominated French life for a decade, dividing the country into two warring camps. Among the anti-Dreyfusards were the anti-Semite Édouard Drumont Drumont, Edouard
, 1844�, French journalist and anti-Semitic leader. His book, La France juive [Jewish France] (1886) and his periodical, La Libre Parole, were equally brilliant and virulent. Drumont reached his apex of influence in the Dreyfus Affair.
. Click the link for more information. Paul Déroulède, who founded a patriotic league and Maurice Barrès Barrès, Maurice
, 1862�, French novelist and nationalist politician. As an advocate of the supremacy of the individual self, he wrote the trilogy of novels Le Culte du moi (1888󈟇).
. Click the link for more information. . The pro-Dreyfus faction, which steadily gained strength, came to include Georges Clemenceau Clemenceau, Georges
, 1841�, French political figure, twice premier (1906𔃇, 1917󈞀), called "the Tiger." He was trained as a doctor, but his republicanism brought him into conflict with the government of Napoleon III, and he went to the United States,
. Click the link for more information. , in whose paper Zola's letter appeared Jean Jaurès Jaurès, Jean
, 1859�, French Socialist leader and historian. A brilliant student and teacher, he entered the chamber of deputies in 1885 and subsequently became a Socialist.
. Click the link for more information. René Waldeck-Rousseau Waldeck-Rousseau, René
, 1846�, French statesman. Belonging to the republican left, he was twice minister of the interior (1881, 1883󈟁), and in 1884 he was responsible for the passage of the Waldeck-Rousseau law, legalizing the creation of trade unions.
. Click the link for more information. Anatole France France, Anatole
, pseud. of Jacques Anatole Thibault
, 1844�, French writer. He was probably the most prominent French man of letters of his time. Among his best-remembered works is L'Île des pingouins (1908, tr.
. Click the link for more information. Charles Péguy Péguy, Charles
, 1873�, French poet and writer. Of a poor, working family, he won scholarships and made a brilliant record as a student. He left the École normale supérieure to devote himself to the cause of socialism.
. Click the link for more information. and Joseph Reinach Reinach, Joseph
, 1856�, French publicist and lawyer. An associate of Léon Gambetta, he waged (1889) a campaign against General Boulanger in the journal République française.
. Click the link for more information. . They were, in part, less concerned with Dreyfus, who remained in solitary confinement on Devils Island, than with discrediting the rightist government. The larger questions posed by the case involved the future of France itself, whether it would remain traditional or become modern, be Catholic or secular, function as a monarchy or a republic, and have a nationalist or a cosmopolitan character.

Pardon and Aftermath

Later in 1898 it was discovered that much of the evidence against Dreyfus had been forged by Colonel Henry of army intelligence. Henry committed suicide (Aug., 1898), and Esterhazy fled to England. At this point revision of Dreyfus's sentence had become imperative. The case was referred to an appeals court in September and after Waldeck-Rousseau became premier in 1899, the court of appeals ordered a new court-martial. There was worldwide indignation when the military court, unable to admit error, found Dreyfus guilty with extenuating circumstances and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, a pardon was issued by President Émile Loubet Loubet, Émile François
, 1838�, president of the French republic (1899�). As a member of the chamber of deputies, he advocated secular education. After serving (1887󈟄) as minister of public works he became premier in 1892.
. Click the link for more information. , and in 1906 the supreme court of appeals exonerated Dreyfus, who was reinstated as a major and decorated with the Legion of Honor. Subsequently promoted, Dreyfus served in World War I as a colonel in the artillery. In 1930 his innocence was reaffirmed by the publication of Schwartzkoppen's papers. The immediate result of the Dreyfus Affair was to unite and bring to power the French political left wing. Widespread antimilitarism and anticlericalism also ensued army influence declined, and in 1905 church and state were separated in France and legal equality among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews was established. At his death in 1935, Dreyfus was hailed as a French hero and a martyr for freedom.


See J. Reinach, Histoire de l'affaire Dreyfus (7 vol., 1901󈝷) A. Dreyfus and P. Dreyfus, The Dreyfus Case (tr. 1937) G. R. Whyte, The Dreyfus Affair: A Chronological History (2008) studies by G. Chapman (1955 and 1972), D. W. Johnson (1966), L. L. Snyder (1972), D. L. Lewis (1973), J.-D. Bredin (tr. 1986), N. L. Kleeblatt (1987), M. Burns (1991), L. Begley (2009), F. Brown (2010), and R. Harris (2010).

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