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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Dreyfus Affair

IN SPITE OF LEGAL EQUALITY and progressing integration into Western societies at the end of the 19th century, anti-Semitism remains a threat to Jews. But anti-Semitic attacks are now opposed by people who take up the continued discrimination of Jews as an issue of human rights. The greater integration, but also the greater exposure to anti-Semitic discrimination, is reflected in the Dreyfus Affair, an anti-Semitic incident that engaged French society and the political forces for many years.

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer on the French general staff, is accused of spying for Germany, France's opponent in the last war. The only evidence is a scrap of paper, retrieved from the wastebasket by a cleaning woman, with handwriting that does not much resemble that of Dreyfus. But Dreyfus is Jewish, the only Jew on the general staff. And Jews are considered people without a fatherland, insufficiently loyal to the country they live in.

Dreyfus is convicted, partly on evidence forged by anti-Semitic officers, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island off the coast of South America. At his public demotion, a crowd - incited by the anti-Semitic press - shouts anti-Jewish slogans. A journalist publicizes Dreyfus's cause, but the real culprit, Major Esterhazy, whose guilt is now known to the government, continues to be protected.

The Dreyfus affair splits France in two. On one side stand the government, the conservative parties, the church and the army, who believe that the honor of the nation may not be sacrificed for the sake of one Jew, guilty or innocent. To the other side rally the progressive forces critical of the regime and its political direction - led by the writer Emile Zola and the politician Jean Jaur├Ęs. For them, the affair symbolizes the disregard of justice and human rights in the French republic. More trials follow, but it takes more than a decade - and the fall of the government - until Dreyfus is finally declared completely innocent of the charges.

The affair is followed all over the world. Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist from Vienna who covers the trial, concludes that assimilation is no protection against anti-Semitism and that even a person as well integrated as an officer on the French general staff is not safe from the hatred. He comes to believe that Jews will remain strangers in their countries of residence and need a country of their own. His book The Jewish State: A Modern Solution to the Jewish Question is published in 1896 and leads to the founding of the Zionist Organization one year later.

Police photograph of Albert Dreyfus after his conviction. The epaulets and buttons have been removed from his uniform.

The Dreyfus Affair produced an enormous amount of postcards. This card uses the well-known anti-Semitic image of the treacherous Jew (Dreyfus) in the form of a snake. From the postcard series "Museum of Horror," no. 6 : "The Traitor."

An anti-Dreyfus poster: Jews are being driven out of France. The caption reads: "Long live France! Long live the Army! Down with the Jews! Death to the traitors!" The poster also calls for a boycott of Jewish shops.

Dreyfus's degradation after his conviction: he is stripped of his braid and buttons, and his sword is broken. Le Petit Journal, January 13, 1895.

The retrial of Albert Dreyfus in which he claimed his innocence. He was found guilty again, but with extenuating circumstances. It meant that he was not sent back to Devil's Island.
The Illustrated London News, August 19, 1899.

The campaign to rehabilitate Dreyfus was derided by the anti-Semitic press as a Jewish conspiracy. "Judas Defended by his Brothers" shows Dreyfus receiving money from a German, while Jews distribute the pamphlet "A Judicial Error." La Libre Parole, 1898.

Alfred Dreyfus, aged 75, in the year of his death in 1934.

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