Portrait: Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer

Wednesday, 23 August 2023 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait
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Alfred Dreyfus © bildindex.de

Alfred Dreyfus © bildindex.de

Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry from Alsace whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most 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’ complete exoneration. The case remains interesting to this day because it is based on allegations, assumptions and circumstantial evidence without any real probative value, making it a political issue, including in the Jewish community of France itself, which has an impact into modern times. No matter from which direction you look at the affair, there is always a residual doubt and thus an indissolubility. The material for exciting, entertaining and complex cinema films with the possibility of shooting numerous sequels, but for Alfred Dreyfus himself and his family, of course, pure disaster.

A torn-up handwritten note, referred to throughout the affair as the bordereau, was found by a French housekeeper, a woman named Marie Bastian, in a wastebasket at the German Embassy. Bastian, whose job was to burn the waste of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, instead sent it to Hubert-Joseph Henry for potential interest to French intelligence. The bordereau described a minor French military secret, and had obviously been written by a spy in the French military. In 1894, this made the French Army’s counter-intelligence section, led by Lieutenant Colonel Jean Sandherr, aware that information regarding new artillery parts was being passed to Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attache in Paris, by a highly placed spy most likely on the General Staff. Suspicion quickly fell upon Dreyfus, who was arrested for treason on 15 October 1894. On 5 January 1895, Dreyfus was summarily convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Following French military custom of the time, Dreyfus was formally degraded (cashiered) by having the rank insignia, buttons and braid cut from his uniform and his sword broken, all in the courtyard of the École Militaire before silent ranks of soldiers, while a large crowd of onlookers shouted abuse from behind railings. Dreyfus cried out: “I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!”

In France there was a passionate campaign by Dreyfus’ supporters, including leading artists and intellectuals such as Émile Zola, following which he was given a second trial in 1899, but again declared guilty of treason despite the evidence of his innocence. However, due to public opinion, Dreyfus was offered and accepted a pardon by President Émile Loubet in 1899 and released from prison; this was a compromise that saved face for the military’s mistake. Had Dreyfus refused the pardon, he would have been returned to Devil’s Island, a fate he could no longer emotionally cope with; so officially Dreyfus remained a traitor to France, and pointedly remarked upon his release:

The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honour.

For two years, until July 1906, he lived in a state of house arrest with one of his sisters at Carpentras, and later at Cologny. On 12 July 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated by a military commission. The day after his exoneration, he was readmitted into the army with a promotion to the rank of major (Chef d’Escadron). A week later, he was made Knight of the Legion of Honour, and subsequently assigned to command an artillery unit at Vincennes. On 15 October 1906, he was placed in command of another artillery unit at Saint-Denis.

The Dreyfus family in 1905 © George Grantham Bain Collection Alfred Dreyfus, ca. 1930 © www.mahj.org Alfred Dreyfus © bildindex.de
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The Dreyfus family in 1905 © George Grantham Bain Collection
Dreyfus’ prison sentence on Devil’s Island had taken its toll on his health. He was granted retirement from the army in October 1907 at the age of 48. As a reserve officer, he re-entered the army as a major of artillery at the outbreak of World War I. Serving throughout the war, Dreyfus was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. By then in his mid-50s, Dreyfus served mostly behind the lines of the Western Front, in part as commander of an artillery supply column. However, he also performed front-line duties in 1917, notably at Verdun and on the Chemin des Dames. He was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honour in November 1918. Dreyfus’ son Pierre also served throughout the entire war as an artillery officer, receiving the Croix de guerre.

Dreyfus’ grandchildren donated over three thousand documents to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History), including personal letters, photographs of the trial, legal documents, writings by Dreyfus during his time in prison, personal family photographs, and his officer stripes that were ripped out as a symbol of treason. The museum created an online platform in 2006 dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair.

In October 2021 French president Emmanuel Macron opened a museum dedicated to the Dreyfus affair in Médan in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. He said that nothing could repair the humiliations and injustices Dreyfus had suffered, and “let us not aggravate it by forgetting, deepening, or repeating them”. The reference to not repeating them follows attempts by the French far-right to question Dreyfus’ innocence. An army colonel was cashiered in 1994 for publishing an article suggesting that Dreyfus was guilty; far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen‘s lawyer responded that Dreyfus’ exoneration was “contrary to all known jurisprudence”. Éric Zemmour, a far-right political opponent of Macron, said repeatedly in 2021 that the truth about Dreyfus was not clear; his innocence was “not obvious”.

Read more on Wikipedia Dreyfus affair and Wikipedia Alfred Dreyfus (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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